Lexus is hoping the launch of the new Lexus RX270 will help deliver the dramatic sales boost it needs to capture a greater slice of the of the market from its German rivals in the booming SUV segment.
The RX270’s key draw will be that it offers more space and standard equipment at the equivalent price point of $69,900 (before on-road costs).
When you look at Lexus’s year-to-date sales figures to May, it becomes desperately clear why the Japanese carmaker needs this shot in the arm.
Lexus’s sales of 2,592 are well short of Audi (5585), BMW (6877) and Mercedes-Benz (8474). Even Land Rover, which doesn’t sell sedans, has sold significantly more vehicles than Lexus this year.
SUVs continue to contribute strongly to new car purchases - since 2007, luxury SUVs have overtaken luxury sedans as the vehicle of choice due mostly to the additional space and inherent practicality they offer over their four-door counterparts.
Lexus has positioned the new RX270 in the medium SUV class, which has seen almost 50 per cent growth in 2012, with no signs of slowing.
So while the Lexus RX essentially straddles the medium and large SUV segments, with the RX270 Lexus believes they are offering a large SUV at a medium SUV price.
The key points of difference between the RX270 and new-look RX350 and RX450h models is the smaller engine displacement and the fact that the RX270 trades all-wheel-drive for a front-wheel-drive set up.
Instead of the 3.5-litre V6 engine used in the Lexus RX350 and Lexus RX450h, the Lexus RX270 makes do with a smaller 2.7-litre four-cylinder petrol powerplant generating 138kW of power and 252Nm of torque.
While output is well down in comparison with its more powerful RX siblings, the RX270’s on-road performance is considerably better than expected despite its 0-100km/h-sprint time of 11 seconds.
That’s a direct result of the 135kg weight advantage the RX270 enjoys over the 2.085 tonne RX350 through the adoption of a smaller engine set up.
Even though Lexus is billing the RX270 as a city-suited all-purpose vehicle - more likely to spend the bulk of its time travelling to and from shopping malls, schools and sporting venues - our 200 kilometre launch drive this week proved it was far more versatile than that description.
The 2.7-litre engine is one of the smoothest-revving four-cylinders this reviewer has driven to date. And typical of all Lexus vehicles, you’ll have trouble hearing the engine spin at idle – turn the air-conditioning off and you may be able to hear a slight hum.
Equally svelte is the six-speed automatic transmission with sequential shift. It’s not a particularly quick shifting unit, but the exceptionally smooth gearshifts are perhaps even more valued given its luxury status.
Despite being the least heavy variant in the RX line up (1950kg), the RX270 is still a large vehicle by anyone’s standards, so decent progress from a standing start requires moderate to heavy throttle input.
Surprisingly though, there’s none of that annoyingly harsh engine buzz so common with four-cylinder powerplants during full throttle starts.
There’s no sign of torque steer either – another less than desirable characteristic of front-wheel-drive vehicles in this segment.
Highway travel on board the Lexus RX270 is also a breeze. There’s plenty of mid-range punch from the four-cylinder engine once the rev counter nudges 4000rpm, making high-speed overtaking on highways an entirely safe proposition.
Throttle response on the RX270 is very good considering the vehicle’s weight and engine size, with quick and precise responses to throttle inputs.
It’s a similar story in the handling and ride department. Lexus has improved the entire RX-line chassis by some margin over the previous iteration by adding 12 additional spot welds to each side of the RX body for extra rigidity.
That improvement is immediately noticeable from the very first time you turn in. Body roll has virtually been eliminated from the RX models, including the heavier RX450h.
Like its more powerful stable mates, the RX270 feels significantly more composed than previous RX models. There’s a certain planted-ness about the revised line-up that was sorely missing from its predecessors.
The revised chassis has also meant a major improvement in the steering response and feel. The level of communication through the steering wheel is greatly enhanced and is now closer than ever before to the benchmark German marques in this regard.
However, ride quality between the RX models varies significantly. There have been huge improvements to the suspension on the RX350 and RX450h models, particularly with the new RX F Sport variants.
It’s their ability to iron out the harshest road surfaces and potholes while at the same time remaining beautifully composed that impresses this reviewer most.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of the ride quality aboard the new RX270.
While the front-wheel-drive chassis still feels dynamically enhanced, the model’s unique suspension calibration fails to properly absorb impacts from bumps on poorly maintained road surfaces as effectively as its more powerful RX siblings.
Aesthetically, it’s a different story.
The RX270 shares the same new-look Lexus corporate identity complete with spindle grille and the more aggressive front bumper that finally adds a more distinctive personality to the brand.
It’s accentuated on the F-Sport models, but the grille outline is common to all variants.
Naturally, the RX270 loses some luxury kit compared to the pricier RX models, but with latest design Lexus interior from the recently released GS model, you would need a keen eye to notice such differences given the extensive inventory of standard kit on board this vehicle.
Standard features across the entire Lexus RX model range include an 8-inch screen with satellite-navigation with traffic alert; leather interior; eight-way power seats; power rear tailgate; 12-speaker audio system; reversing camera with guide assist (no front or rear sensors); smart entry and smart start; Bluetooth phone and music streaming with voice command; daytime running lamps; steering wheel easy access, digital audio (DAB+); second-generation Lexus remote-touch; metallic paint and 18-inch alloy wheels.
Lexus has always made exceptionally comfortable vehicles and the new RX270 is no exception.
The leather seats with contrasting stitching are nothing less than sumptuous and provide a superbly comfortable cushion with ample side bolstering that should suit a wide range of body shapes.
The newly-designed sports steering wheel is beautifully tactile and covered in that same supple leather as the seats. It’s also slightly padded, adding even more feel during turn in.
The dash, courtesy of the new generation Lexus GS model, is a huge improvement on the previous iteration RX, but it still falls short of its German rivals - but not by much.
Meanwhile, the second-generation Lexus remote touch system moves closer to the intuitive functionality of BMW’s iDrive system, some may even find it easier to use.
Safety is another aspect well catered for on the RX270, and indeed, across the entire Lexus range.
Ten airbags, including side airbags on the rear outer seats, are standard - as are active front seat head restraints.
Additional safety features include Lexus vehicle stability control and traction control; hill-start assist control; anti-lock braking; electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist;
The RX270 has a combined fuel-consumption of 9.7-litres per 100 kilometres. That’s better than the RX350 at 10.8L/100km, but well short of the RX450h’s combined consumption of 6.3L/100km.
The addition of the new Lexus RX270 means the entry price into a new Lexus RX has fallen by $12,000 compared with the previous entry point.
The RX270 is a compelling package, but whether it’s enough to persuade buyers away from the established German brands or the popular Range Rover Evoque, remains to be seen.
CarAdvice will also post a review of the RX350 and RX450h models this week.