The Lexus RX: History, Photos, Generations, Specifications, and More
A brief history of the Lexus RX crossover SUV, along with fun facts, buying tips, and FAQs.
Lexus RX Essential History
Conceived as Lexus'—and by extension, Toyota's—first true luxury crossover, Lexus initially launched the first-generation RX in Japan as the Toyota Harrier for 1997; the SUV arrived in the U.S. shortly thereafter in 1998 for the 1999 model year. Beyond Lexus, this was arguably the first real luxury crossover SUV available at any price, seeing as the RX was at least one segment down in size compared to any other luxury SUVs on the market at the time.
The first-gen RX—labeled as the RX 300—stuck around for the 1999 and 2003 model years, powered in the U.S. by a revvy 3.0-liter, naturally aspirated V-6 cranking out 220 horsepower and a strong 222 lb-ft of torque through a four-speed automatic and a choice of either front-wheel or all-wheel drive. A mid-cycle refresh landed in 2000, incorporating updated colors, headlights, and interior options.
The second-gen RX launched in 2003 for the 2004 model year, bringing with it a larger segment-hopping size and sleek design, along with a larger 3.3-liter V-6 now rated at 230 hp and 238 lb-ft. A five-speed automatic transmission replaced the first-gen's four-speed, and it offered a wide array of optional then-advanced tech including air suspension, adaptive front headlights, adaptive cruise control, and rain-sensing wipers.
The 2005 Lexus RX 400h hybrid debuted for the 2006 model year as the first Lexus with a hybrid powertrain. A variant of the same 3.3-liter V-6 was augmented by a mild-hybrid system, returning a combined 268 hp. Lexus refreshed the second-gen RX for 2007 with a new 3.5-liter V-6 rated at 270 hp and 251 lb-ft, followed by a second update in 2008 with a new front grille, door handles, paint options, and wheel designs.
Lexus launched the third-gen RX 350 for 2009, retaining the 3.5-liter V-6 but pushing its output slightly to 275 hp and 257 lb-ft, and adding a sixth gear to the automatic transmission. The RX 450h hybrid now offered a combined 295 hp and improved fuel economy of 28-mpg city and 26-mpg highway. As was the case in the jump from first- to second-gen, the third-gen RX was larger than before as it sits squarely in the mid-size SUV segment it sought to undercut in the compact first-gen.
In keeping with progress, the Lexus RX continued to gain tech, niceties, and upgrades as it ballooned from its position as a well-appointed compact crossover into a cushy two-row cruiser. A slightly more aggressive F Sport trim hit the streets as part of a 2013 refresh that included new grilles, colors, wheels, interior trim options, headlights, and taillights. Nabbing the F Sport added an angrier front grille, package-specific interior colors and trim, and a new eight-speed automatic transmission.
The fourth- and current-gen Lexus RX launched for the 2016 model year. The same 3.5-liter V-6 remains in the RX 350, now punched-up to 295 hp and 267 lb-ft through an eight-speed automatic transmission routed to either the front or all four wheels. The hybrid RX 450h bumps combined power to 308 hp, and adds a sportier F Sport trim for the new generation. New tech like adaptive suspension and an enhanced package of available driver assistance tech. The F Sport adds an extra Sport Plus driving mode, along with an F Sport steering wheel and paddle shifters, new wheels, and angrier front fascia.
Speaking of front fascia, this is the first RX to receive Lexus' distinctive and occasionally controversial Spindle Grille. It's also the first RX to go three-rows deep with the new RX 350 L trim. Lexus updated the RX lineup with grille refinements and tech updates for both 2019 and 2021.
Lexus RX Highlights
If Lexus is to be believed, it kicked off a whole movement with the 1999 RX 300. Ostensibly, this new compact crossover SUV was the first luxury SUV of its size, beating both the Germans and fellow Japanese automakers to the punch. The SUV boom was still in an upward swing at the launch of the RX, so the new crossover was expected to be popular, but not even Lexus could predict just how voraciously customers took to the new, car-like luxury SUV. The RX 300 was a runaway success, selling almost 400,000 units during the first generation, and quickly becoming the best-selling Lexus model, a distinction it holds even today.
Throughout its 21-year existence, the Lexus RX has never garnered rave reviews from the press on account of its rather soapy and milquetoast appearance, dampened dynamics, and general lobotomized character, but you can't knock the RX for being anything but consistent. Lexus homed in on what made the RX so appealing in the first place, and slowly evolved the initial concept to where it is today as one of the most popular luxury crossovers, bar none.
Since the very beginning, the Lexus RX set the pace with its range of naturally aspirated V-6 engines that were refreshingly never underpowered, with the latest iteration almost cresting 300 hp. Even in F Sport trim, that doesn't mean the RX is remotely exciting to drive—think of this as the perfect car for someone who would rather not think of any car at all.
Lexus RX Buying Tips
The RX is one of those types of cars that is usually either your No. 1 pick or not on your draft board at all. For us, however, it falls somewhere in the middle—we'd rather not drive one on a daily basis, but we'll never turn a set of RX keys down for a cross-city slog or for taking relatives out for dinner.
As such, what you want from your RX is a crucial bit of decision making on your part. Need a dead-nuts reliable used crossover? The RX is your car—Lexus has built well more than 2 million RXs since 1999, and there's one for every budget. If you're going older than five or so years, we highly suggest taking it to either a dealer or Lexus specialist for a full inspection and shakedown. These might be Toyotas at their core, but each generation has its minor problems that usually extend to failing window regulators, leaky engine seals, and weak rear-hatch release mechanisms.
Of course, you could just get a wrapper-fresh Lexus RX example from your local dealer as either a purchase or a lease. Our advice? Pick up the cleanest, off-lease certified pre-owned example that fits your budget and aesthetic parameters.
Lexus RX Stories on Automobile
Lexus RX Quick Facts
- First year of production: 1998
- Base price: $46,095
- Number Produced: More than 2 million and counting
- Longtime Lexus sales champ
- First-gen crossover literally created a segment
- Perfect, cushy cruiser for someone who doesn't care about cars
Lexus RX FAQ
You have questions about the Lexus RX. Automobile has answers. Here are responses to some of the most frequently asked Lexus RX queries.
Is the Lexus RX a good car?
Yes! For someone who just wants something reliable, roomy, and comfortable, the RX makes a very compelling case as a new or used car.
Which Lexus RX model is best?
Depends on what you need it for. Our pick would be a loaded RX 350 F-Sport, but maybe you have more people to haul (RX 350 L) or need to save at the pump (RX 450h).
What does Lexus RX stand for?
The RX stands for "Radiant Crossover." Charming!
Is the Lexus NX better than the Lexus RX?
Apples to oranges here. The NX is the smaller compact sibling to the larger mid-size RX, so it all depends on how much room you need and the budget you have.
2020 Lexus RX350 F Sport Specifications
|ENGINE||3.5L DOHC 24-valve V-6/295 hp @ 6,300 rpm, 267 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD/AWD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||22 mpg (combined, est)|
|L x W x H||192.5 x 74.6 x 67.7 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.7 sec (est)|