Does the entry model into the new RX range make sense?
This 2016 Lexus RX200t is the new Lexus, or so the Japanese company keeps saying. Gone are the conservative lines, replaced by a face akin to a hunting alien predator.
But, while it certainly is new skin, does the driving character remain the same?
Lexus appears to be a somewhat puzzled brand. For a long while there it made very good but conservative cars for people who, perhaps, wanted a German car but not the potential headaches, or for those that wanted conventional luxury with all the bits thrown in for a good price.
A few years ago, when Toyota (parent company) boss Akio Toyoda decided that Lexus needs to be more fun and spirited, it gave up letting committees of old Japanese men finalise the look of its cars - and instead gave it to young Japanese designers with a point to prove.
The result is this. A bold, angular and relatively aggressive design language that is meant to attract new buyers to the brand. But under all that exterior show, the Lexus of old is still there, in all the right ways.
In many, it hasn’t changed at all. The value for money equation is still very good, as is the standard list of equipment, warranty, aftersales service and no doubt reliability also.
The Lexus RX SUV makes up about a third of all Lexus sales in SUV-loving Australia, so with the introduction of a four-cylinder turbo model, the front-wheel drive only RX200t has a lot riding on its shoulders.
With 175kW of power and 350Nm of torque, the little 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine actually does rather well, considering the weight of the RX comes in at a hefty 1995kg.
Lexus claims a 0-100km/h sprint time of 9.2 seconds - 1.2 seconds slower than the RX350 - however the RX200t feels far quicker than the numbers suggest when on the go and short bursts of acceleration for overtaking moves don’t feel cumbersome.
What its front-wheel-drive nature does suffer from, however, and particularly in the wet, is occasional torquesteer – where the front wheels find insufficient grip either coming out of a corner or off the line.
During our week-long test in Brisbane, we encountered numerous rainy days where the RX200t hesitated for grip. Even in certain dry situations, such as turning left or right on a hill or taking off from the lights, the front wheels chirp or spin excessively while trying to find grip.
It’s a simple case of physics, where – with only the front wheels driving the RX200t and the car sitting on an incline – and torque suddenly coming on from the turbo’s boost, the weight on the front wheels is not enough to allow for full traction. It’s something the front-wheel drive Toyota Kluger also suffers from, though the Lexus is not nearly as bad.
In terms of being a sporty drive, the RX200t simply isn't. But it's not meant to be, either, as it plainly prioritises comfort over all else - and it does that job rather well. However, if dynamic ability is important to you, then it's worth noting that the RX leans into corners and feels overwhelmed when pushed ever so slightly.
Once it gets going, though, the RX200t is actually a very accomplished SUV. It has plenty of torque and its ride compliance is staggeringly good. It can absorb the more excessive speed bumps and not pass all that much to the passengers comfortably sitting inside the cabin.
Speaking of which, the interior is the highlight of the new RX range, for us. The fit and finish, the texture of the leather, the way the dash feels when you touch it, all of it feels very premium and in many ways a step above the Mercedes-Benz GLE and BMW X5 (though it can’t match the class-leading interior of the new Audi Q7).
The front seats are heated, cooled, and extremely comfortable, while passengers in the rear are treated with well supported cushioning or easy to access ISOFIX points for child seats. We easily fit our two child seats in the RX and the kids dozed off quickly, such is the road-going compliance of the RX200t’s suspension.
You could get away with three passengers in the back so long as the one in the middle is not all that large. Unlike the Audi Q7 or BMW X5, there’s no third row seating option with the RX, which is unfortunate if you need occasional use of a sixth or seventh seat.
You may expect, then, that the boot would be huge. It’s anything but, however, with a strangely small size of just 466 litres. The boot entry also sits so bloody high that getting a pram into it requires a bit more willpower than a stressed parent may at times possess.
In comparison, the new Audi Q7 has an incredibly large 870L boot while the BMW X5’s measures 650L. Even the significantly smaller BMW X3 has 550L of space.
On the plus side, the gigantic 12.3-inch infotainment screen of our test car is so big that it makes its competitors' offerings look like toys. It’s also nicely placed so that your eyes do not have to wander too far to see vital information.
Our test car was fitted with the optional $7000 enhancement pack 3, which, alongside the bigger screen (up from the standard 8.0-inch unit), also adds a panoramic sliding roof, smart key, colour head up display, and a 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio system. It’s worth every cent.
The biggest problem with the Lexus RX200t is the infotainment system. Despite plenty of negative feedback, Lexus has insisted on sticking with its god-awful “remote touch” joystick in this model, and it feels like an Apple II mouse driven by software inspired by Stanley Milgram's shock experiments of the same era.
It's incredibly infuriating to use - with its super sensitive joystick touch that jumps the cursor around the screen almost unpredictably - but despite the continuous punishment, you keep trying and trying and even when you get it to point to what you want, you realise the menus are highly counterintuitive and you're in the wrong place. Then you start the process all over again.
The touchpad featured in the smaller NX, although better, is hardly great. All Lexus needs to fix this is a rotary dial: its three German competitors and even Mazda have all gone down this route, because it works.
In saying all that, our overall feeling for a week with the Lexus RX200t was very positive. If you don't need the extra boot space or the option for additional seats, then it's an excellent SUV for $73,000 (+$7000 for the necessary options) and you'll spend far closer to $100,000 if you want the same features in a German car.
If you can stretch to the six-cylinder RX350 ($80,000), you'll get the benefit of all-wheel drive - which solves the torque-steer issues - however the little turbo engine is rather sweet. And although our fuel economy was close to 12L/100km (Lexus claims 8.1L/100km), it's worth it for the torque on demand.