It is hard to believe the Lexus RX SUV was first introduced in Australia way back in 2003, as the RX330. There are still plenty of these vehicles on the road, and to the average punter they probably look like the latest model - launched in early 2009.
Lexus's RX designers seem to have taken the Porsche 911 route in terms of only subtly evolving the luxury SUV's look over the years.
Nearly three years on from the latest-generation RX's launch, the model is struggling compared to the end of 2009 when it was the second-best-selling model in Australia's luxury-SUV segment.
RX sales dropped 31 per cent in 2011 to leave Lexus's smallest SUV (it also offers the LandCruiser-based LX570) trailing a number of other luxury SUVs, including the Land Rover Discovery 4, Audi Q5 and every BMW X model except the niche X6.
Lexus's reputation for being far more generous than its German rivals remains evident in the Lexus RX350, however. It comes fully loaded in standard trim, with little or no need for an extensive options list - unlike competitors such as the Audi Q7, BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz ML.
Take the entry-level RX350 Prestige, which retails for $82,814 (before on-road costs) and includes standard features such as full leather trim (and not just any leather, which we’ll get to later), satellite navigation, reverse-view camera, keyless entry and engine start, electrically operated tailgate, 12-speaker audio system, and metallic paint.
The metallic black paintwork of our RX350 Sport Luxury test car immediately provides an impression of quality. Lexus says it's thicker than on most rival vehicles, with seven coats including the clear coat, which is hand wet-rubbed, and supervised by Lexus’s paint ‘Takumi’ or master craftsmen for a noticeably rich gloss finish.
(Lexus goes one step better with the new GS and current LS models, which have a self healing top coat that self repairs scuff marks and the like.)
Step inside and you'll find suitably plush surroundings. The Lexus floor mats alone are a high-grade pile, and the leather seats are the kind that you sink into, with an extra supple hide. However, there’s not quite enough side bolstering to keep driver and front passenger completely secure on twisty roads, but again we'll come back to that later.
Our RX350 test car is the Sports Luxury variant that starts from $97,814, but you get the whole box and dice. There are no options. Interestingly, though, you may delete features, such as the sunroof. (Lexus tells us that their taller buyers occasionally take up this ‘delete’ option.)
There's also a pre-collision safety system - introduced in a minor late-2010 update for the RX - that tightens seatbelts, pre-loads the brakes and emits an audible warning if an integrated wave-based radar detects an imminent crash.
Additional features exclusive in part to the RX350 Sports Luxury include: adaptive headlights, auto-dimming rear vision mirror and door mirrors, side-view camera integrated into rear camera (great for the protection of those 19-inch alloys), rear parking sensors, higher-grade leather upholstery, wood-rimmed steering wheel and wood inserts in centre console and door trim, active cruise control, smart-card entry, Lexus 'Remote touch' menu operating system, head-up display, 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio system (superb sound), and heated and cooled seats.
Naturally, Bluetooth phone connection is standard across the model range, though the RX is yet to offer music steaming. Instead, there is a USB connection, which is fully integrated into the standard audio system, but it’s just not as convenient. Lexus says the Bluetooth streaming available in the all-new GS sedan will start filtering down to new models as they are released.
While the old-world-style wood grain highlights mix well with the RX interior, the cabin presentation - notably the plasticky centre stack - and feel is still not up to the premium standards set by German rivals. That includes Volkswagen, with its impressive latest-generation Touareg.
Quality is, though, and it's especially evident every time youlower or raise the windows. There isn’t any noise; just a whisper of air as the window seals itself. We don’t recall the Rolls-Royce Phantom being any quieter, at least with regard to its electric window operation.
Operating the RX's large menu screen continues to be via the 'Remote touch' system first introduced in 2009. Accessing most of the main functions is via small toggle (pictured above) that is similar to moving a mouse and cursor around on your desktop. While it's a good idea in theory the functionality of moving the on-screen cursor around, and the fact you have to click a button on the side of the console rather than clicking down on the toggle, makes the system less intuitive than you might expect.
The RX350 is physically smaller than its direct rivals such as the X5 and ML, though interior space is still good - though the rear seats lack under-thigh support and headroom could be more generous. There's no third-row option, either, unlike that offered by the Q7 and X5.
Passenger doors that open unusually wide make ingress and egress a breeze, and there’s not much of a climb into the vehicle, either, as with most rival vehicles.
The 60/40 split-fold rear seats fold virtually flat (remotely from the boot space), however, to allow for easy transporting of surfboards and other long cargo. The load deck is also suitably high, and with a wide aperture, allowing for easy loading of grocery bags, etc, but don’t expect to stand taller items like new dishwashers or dryers, as that might prove a struggle due to the lower ceiling height at the rear of the vehicle.
Touch the engine start button with your foot firmly on the brake pedal, and the RX350's silky smooth V6 spins over effortlessly. There are 204kW of power and 346Nm of torque under the RX350’s bonnet and that’s more than enough to get this 2085-kilogram SUV off the line in a hurry. Bury the throttle with a fair old dollop of enthusiasm and the RX350 feels decidedly quicker than it’s official 0-100km/h sprint time of 8.0 seconds.
The RX350 feels strong through the gears thanks to the smooth-shifting six-speed automatic and the 3.5-litre quad-cam V6 that delivers 90 per cent of its peak torque from 2300rpm to 6100rpm.
If you push hard, there's a sportier roar from the engine but it's not exactly inspiring.
It doesn't become intrusive, either. Lexus has aimed to limit cabin noise and vibrations with a specially designed windscreen cowl and mounting system, felt-coated inner wheel guard liners and carefully placed vibration-damping coatings, while the vehicle’s undertray has also been designed to help achieve class-leading aerodynamics.
Wind and tyre noise can still be evident and higher speeds and the latter particularly on coarse surfaces.
From a ride and handling perspective, this second-generation RX (though there was a pre-2003 RX not previously sold in Australia or most other markets) remains short of driving standards set by the likes of the X5, ML and Touareg.
The RX350 is composed enough when cornering, with minimal body roll, but it is far from involving for the driver, while the ride quality lacks the necessary finesse and supple ride quality expected of a luxury SUV.
Freeway travel is smoother sailing in the RX, but once you hit some low-level potholes, or the patchwork roads of suburbia, and the suspension simply doesn’t absorb enough of these imperfections.
There's more success with the steering, which is nicely weighted even if feedback is extremely limited.
The Lexus RX350 continues to be a worthy consideration in the luxury SUV class. Even if the Sports Luxury variant, at nearly $100,000, isn't necessarily more affordable than direct rivals the superbly built Lexus is certainly unrivalled for value because of its vast range of standard features.