The Lexus RX is a large luxury SUV that has, at times, set the agenda in its segment.
At the launch of the new fourth-generation Lexus RX in Portland, US, the company's head of international training, Paul Williamsen, claimed the RX "was the first-ever SUV made by a premium or luxury auto maker" when the original model launched way back in late 1997. That was, in fact, after the Mercedes-Benz ML launched in the US. Furthermore, British brand Range Rover may have something to say about that, too...
However, the RX was - irrefutably - the first hybrid luxury car to ever make it to the market, when the RX400h debuted back in 2004.
Indeed, that car represented the first foray into petrol-electric motoring for Lexus, following in the footsteps of its parent company Toyota. That generation model also debuted the world’s first adaptive cruise control system.
So, you get the idea. This is a car that has been setting benchmarks since it came in to existence way back when.
But the fourth-generation, 2016 Lexus RX doesn’t push any boundaries for the luxury SUV segment, apart from, perhaps, its styling.
Let us explain.
The third-generation model – introduced globally in 2008 – saw the hybrid model take top billing in RX450h spec, while a petrol V6 model (RX350) and entry-level four-cylinder front-drive (RX270) filled the gaps below.
There’s still the top-spec Lexus RX450h, which gets a mildly updated hybrid system that allows it marginally better fuel consumption.
Then there’s still the mid-range petrol V6, the Lexus RX350. It’s an engine that is described by the chief engineer, Takayuki Katsuda, as a “traditional” powertrain. Indeed, that powertrain has been used by the Japanese company since about 2004, and Lexus is persisting with the unit despite its chief competitors – Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo – all opting for smaller-capacity turbocharged engines outside of their performance offerings.
On that topic, the old 2.7-litre four-cylinder is gone, with the new Lexus RX200t taking its spot. Lexus has made quite a big deal about that engine being a revelation for the brand, but to anyone who looks at the competitor brands, it’s clear this four-pot is a catch-up engine.
It’s not a bad engine to play that game with, though – in fact, it’s quite a lively little thing, with 175kW of power (from 4800-5600rpm) and 350Nm across a broad range (1650-4000rpm).
It’s fitted with stop-start (the V6 isn’t) and a six-speed automatic gearbox, with Aussie-delivered models only offered in front-wheel drive for this drivetrain, where the mid- and top-spec variants are all-wheel-drive only.
But let’s have a look at those aforementioned rivals:
- Audi Q7: turbo-diesel six-cylinder; turbo-diesel six-cylinder plug-in hybrid coming
- BMW X5: turbo-diesel four-cylinder (x2); turbo-diesel six-cylinder (x3); turbo-petrol six-cylinder; turbo-petrol V8; turbo-petrol four-cylinder plug-in hybrid coming
- Mercedes-Benz GLE: turbo-diesel four-cylinder; turbo-diesel six-cylinder; turbo-petrol six-cylinder; turbo-petrol V8 (x2); turbo six-cylinder petrol plug-in hybrid coming
- Volvo XC90: turbo-diesel four-cylinder; turbo-petrol four-cylinder; turbo-petrol four-cylinder plug-in hybrid
As you can see, Lexus - the brand that pioneered hybrid technology in the luxury automotive space - has been overtaken by its European rivals, and there’s no plug-in hybrid version coming for quite a while either. Of those aforementioned rivals, the Lexus and Merc are the only ones without seven-seat availability in this segment, too.
But what the new Lexus RX does is take a small evolutionary step over its predecessor, rather than anything too revolutionary.
The 200t turbo engine is lively, willing and responsive to sudden throttle inputs and smooth and refined when you give it a bootful. The six-speed automatic of our prototype model was generally well behaved, apart from a few thumps when coming off throttle quickly.
We were a little put off by the 200t’s fuel use on test, which was 13.8 litres per 100 kilometres – well over the claimed 8.1L/100km, and high for the relatively light duty route we were on.
The 350 version we sampled was a front-drive model, which isn’t overly representative of what we’ll get in Australia – all V6s are AWD for us – and we managed to spin the wheels a little to easily (before the traction control grabbed hard).
With 218kW of power (at 6300rpm) and 360Nm of torque (at 4700rpm), it’s clear the engine prefers to rev rather than rely on low-down torque, and with just 10Nm more than the base engine there’s no doubt this is a bit behind the times.
Thankfully it's smooth, refined and offers linear power delivery when pushed hard. Its eight-speed automatic is also hard to fault.
It showed just over 10L/100km on test - close enough to the 9.6L/100km claim.
At the top of the range is the 450h, with a petrol V6 producing 193kW (at 6000rpm) and 335Nm (at 4600rpm) combined with a pair of electric motors, one at the front axle (123kW) and one at the rear (50kW). All told, it can push out a maximum of 230kW.
The claimed 0-100km/h time is 8.2sec, and while it isn’t necessarily punchy given its weight (up to 2210kg) it responds acceptably to firm throttle inputs. The automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) worked impeccably on our test, riding the rev wave without booming into the cabin. In fact, as with the 350, the 450h has a sound generator to pump the noise of the V6 into the cabin.
As you may expect, the hybrid proved relatively fuel efficient. The claim is 5.7L/100km, and we saw 6.4L/100km on the in-car display.
The underpinnings of the new model are updated over the previous version, and they’re also shared in part with the Toyota Kluger.
Lexus claims to have “fortified” the chassis of the car, to “provide better stability and control through turns for sharp, car-like handling”.
For instance, the suspension is softer than many rivals, meaning the body of the car rolls quite a bit when you’re cornering.
It does feel stiffer and more eager to corner than the existing model (which I drove just a week before the new version), with a more direct nature to the nose of the car when you’re pushing it through bends, but it’s not exactly enjoyable to do so.
The steering lacks responsiveness, too, and there’s not a lot of feel to the driver’s hands.
Lexus RX F Sport models get a more engaging chassis derivation, including AVS (Adaptive Variable Suspension) that monitors the driving conditions and adapts the suspension behaviour to “ensure optimal handling and ride”. That system also encompasses an adaptive stabiliser system that is supposed to help the car hold a flatter line through bends.
Indeed, the difference was notable, with the RX450h F Sport we drove offering the best level of ride compliance and comfort despite picking up a lot of small bumps on the road surface, and the best cornering agility without nearly as much of that side-to-side rolling movement.
Still, on first impressions, this isn’t the family SUV you buy if you’re the mum or dad who likes to take the winding road on holidays, even in the new Sport+ mode on the drive-mode selector dial.
We didn't venture off-road in the RX, but the all-wheel drive system essentially remains the same as before (front-drive most of the time, with the ability to split torque 50:50 when required), though there is now a torque-vectoring system that is designed to help pull the car through corners.
If cockpit comfort is what you look for in an SUV, though, the Lexus RX is hard to beat.
There’s plenty of space up front and in the rear, with excellent headroom and legroom in the back seat, as well as brilliantly cushy seats that offer almost enough support to counter the rolling body motion.
Taller drivers will be impressed that the standard electric steering column adjustment has been improved for better extension, and the cockpit design is much improved in terms of the use of the space. The seating position has also been lowered slightly, which aids headroom.
The gear shifter has been repositioned, there’s no clumsy foot-operated parking brake (an electronic park brake is standard), the central controls have been rethought and redesigned, and buyers can expect a lot of the niceties such as heated and cooled seats, dual-zone climate control and digital radio to be standard.
The RX will be available with either an 8.0-inch media screen (in the entry-level RX200t Luxury, RX350 Luxury and RX450h Luxury) that comes with a rotary dial controller – which we unfortunately didn’t get to sample at the launch – while upper-spec models get a 12.3-inch media screen with Lexus’ Remote Touch mousepad thing. No rear-seat entertainment systems will be offered in Australia.
That toggle button-style system remains one of the least intuitive systems in the segment, but as we know based on time in our long-term Lexus NX, you eventually get used to it.
The boot is 519 litres with the rear seats up, which is decent but no larger than any of its rivals, and now there’s an electronic seat folding function that opens up the cargo area to 1592L (with a space-saver spare wheel, which will be standard on all models in Australia). There’s a new hands-free power boot system that is kind of neat – when you’ve got your keys with you (in your handbag or pocket) you simply wave your hand/elbow/forehead over the L badge at the rear and the boot will open.
Safety has taken a big step forward in this generation Lexus RX, but again doesn’t exceed anything we’ve seen before from the brand’s competitors (at least in terms of availability, if not standard fitment).
The RX range will be fitted as standard with Lexus Safety System+, a multifaceted array of devices. The compendium includes a pre-collision warning system with autonomous braking, lane-keeping assistance, adaptive cruise control and auto high-beam headlights, and all models get a reverse-view camera.
There's the option of further safety items including a multi-view camera (standard on F Sport and Sports Luxury models), rear cross-traffic alert and blind-spot monitoring. It’s worth noting the Audi Q7 has pretty much all of that stuff, albeit at a (likely) higher price.
That list is further complemented by 10 airbags, including dual front airbags, dual front knee airbags, front-side airbags, rear-side airbags and full-length curtain airbags. Tyre pressure monitoring is also standard.
In conclusion, the 2016 Lexus RX doesn’t push the boundaries to the extent that its predecessors once did and many of its new-generation rivals now do.
It’s a car that sticks to a familiar formula when the market is seemingly pushing innovation in more than just the metalwork.
Still, we look forward to seeing what the pricing and specification looks like for the Australian market. Stay tuned for that later this year.