Loyal customers have purchased generation after generation of the Lexus RX crossover without thinking twice. But the brand’s ambitions for global growth mean Lexus has to steal sales away from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz so for 2016, Lexus redesigned its perennially bland RX with an extreme new look that takes the bread-and-butter crossover into dangerously polarizing territory.
Lexus is still betting on the RX to be the best-selling model in its lineup, so it was loath to change too much. The basic recipe for the RX stays the same, with V-6 and hybrid powertrain options, two rows of seats, and a plush, cosseting cabin. But will the RX faithful be turned off by the aggressive new look? We spent time with a few versions of the 2016 Lexus RX in Portland, Oregon, to see if Lexus can stay on top in the segment it created with the first RX in 1998.
You can’t call it boring anymore
The 2016 Lexus RX’s front end has the most severe spindle grille yet. It’s not pretty, but it sure gives the RX a lot more visual presence. The Lexus has a few new design touches, including the floating roof effect on the D-pillar and more side surfacing, but the overall shape isn’t all that different from its predecessor. From afar, we had trouble telling the 2016 RX models apart from the numerous previous-generation RXs we saw along our route.
Though the RX has a slightly larger footprint than before, most interior dimensions don’t change much. It’s still a nice size inside, with a good amount of cargo space behind the spacious rear seat that has a few backrest recline angles. (A three-row Lexus crossover is also on the horizon; Lexus product planners have all but confirmed that it will be an extended version of the RX.) Near-luxury crossovers such as the Nissan Murano and Jeep Grand Cherokee were encroaching on the outgoing RX’s plasticky cabin, so the new model made a big step up in interior quality. Beautifully stitched leather and premium soft-touch surfaces abound, and ergonomics are top-notch, thanks to logically arranged buttons on the center stack that fall easily to hand. The Lexus Remote Touch infotainment controller is easier to use now, with improved haptic feedback that makes it relatively simple to navigate the huge, 12.3-inch display screen that sits atop the dash on models equipped with navigation (non-nav cars come with a smaller display screen and a knob controller).
Along with updated styling, a big part of Lexus’ fight against the Germans is increased variety. For a long time, Lexus RX buyers could pick a color but little else. BMW and Mercedes-Benz’s ballooning, diverse crossover lineups have prompted Lexus to broaden the RX range for 2016 by offering more features than ever before. There are more interior colors, there are more wheel options, and there is more availability for the F Sport package, which can now be optioned on the hybrid RX 450h in addition to the V-6 RX 350.
A dynamic step forward
We started off in the F Sport version of the RX 350. This trim level was introduced in 2013 for the outgoing RX, and the 2016 version turns up the wick a bit and takes the “sport” part of its name more seriously. The firm sport seats hug you close, the nicely contoured, perforated leather steering wheel feels great, and the clean-looking digital gauge cluster looks as if it’s lifted straight out of the LFA supercar. Turning the drive-mode dial to the “Sport +” setting, we gave the 295-hp RX the beans, and the smooth V-6 responded with a hearty growl (admittedly enhanced by the so-called “sound creator”). The tachometer glowed red as the engine approached redline, and the eight-speed automatic quickly upshifted before aggressively downshifting as we braked hard for an upcoming corner.
Once in the turn, the tires on the 4,400-pound luxury SUV started to squeal, and the side-to-side weight transfer reminded us that we were in something a lot bigger and taller than a hot hatch. But still, we came away impressed with the nicely weighted steering and the tightly controlled body motions afforded by the F Sport model’s adaptive suspension dampers. Though the RX 350 F Sport isn’t as composed as the BMW X5, it can finally run in the same circles as competitors such as the Acura MDX and Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class (formerly M-Class). Its improved dynamics and aggressive exterior lend some credence to what the F Sport badge promises.
Still the same RX you know and love
We got out of the RX F Sport and hopped into a standard RX 350 equipped with the Luxury Package. The flat, wide seats trimmed in plush leather, the large steering wheel with glossy wood inserts, and the easy-to-read gauge cluster help create a plush, serene atmosphere that millions of Lexus RX customers know and love. But giving up the F Sport package meant giving up all the dynamic improvements of the F Sport so as we headed out on the same route in a Luxury Package-equipped RX 350, we were disappointed to find that the standard RX has the same limp steering, exaggerated body roll, and overly isolated controls as its predecessor. To its credit, the standard suspension is a bit less floaty than on the previous RX, but there must be a better balance between the Germanic tuning of the 2016 RX F Sport and the Buick Park Avenue sloppiness of the conventional 2016 RX. Still, even the standard RX has plenty else to recommend it. The eight-speed automatic shifts quickly and smoothly, and visibility is better than ever, thanks to large front windows, a dashboard that’s lower than before, and optional cameras that provide multiple extra vantage points, including a full 360-degree view around the car.
We sampled the hybrid RX last. The gas-electric RX 450h hybrid uses the same Atkinson-cycle V-6 and dual electric motors as before. It’s a smooth setup that Toyota has perfected over the years, and fuel economy remains right around 30 mpg, which is impressive considering the hybrid model’s hefty curb weight of 4,600-4,700 pounds — about 350 pounds more than the RX 350. The hybrid’s instantaneous torque makes it feel a bit quicker than the standard V-6, meaning the newly available F Sport hybrid is less of a contradiction than you might think. The only real disappointment is the artificial, vague feel of the brake pedal; even after decades of building hybrids, Toyota still struggles to achieve progressive pedal response with regenerative braking systems.
No version of the 2016 Lexus RX can be called exciting, but Lexus has made some progress with the latest iteration of its best-selling vehicle. The RX F Sport now has the improved dynamics to back up its edgy styling and makes a convincing case for itself among its sportier competition. The evolutions of the standard and hybrid versions are less noticeable, but that’s the name of the game when you’re dependent on repeat buyers who are averse to change. If you can get past the sight of that crazy new front end, the fourth-generation Lexus RX upholds its sterling reputation while bringing even more to the table.
2016 Lexus RX Specifications
- On Sale: November 2015
- Price: $43,000 (RX 350); $49,000 (RX 450h) (est)
- Engines: 3.5L DOHC 24-valve V-6/295 hp @ 6,300 rpm, 267 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm (RX 350); 3.5L DOHC V-6/259 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 247 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm, plus AC permanent magnet motors, 308 hp combined (RX 450h)
- Transmissions: 8-speed automatic, continuously variable
- Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD/AWD SUV
- EPA Mileage: 19-20/26-28 mpg city/highway (RX 350); 30-31/28-30 mpg city/highway (RX 450h) (est)
- Suspension F/R: Strut-type, coil springs/control arms, coil springs
- Brakes: Vented discs
- Tires F/R: 235/55R-18 Michelin Premier LTX/235/55R-20 Michelin Premier LTX (optional)
- L x W x H: 192.5 x 74.6 x 67.7 in
- Wheelbase: 109.8 in
- Headroom F/R: 39.4/38.2-39.1 in
- Legroom F/R: 44.1/38.0 in
- Shoulder Room F/R: 57.8/57.6 in
- Cargo Room: 18.0/55.9 cu ft (rear seats up/down)
- Weight: 4,222-4,378 lb (RX 350); 4,608-4,740 lb (RX 450h)
- Weight Dist. F/R: N/A
- 7.7-7.9 sec
- 1/4-Mile: N/A
- Top Speed: 124 mph (RX 350); 112 mph (RX 450h)