The 2020 Lexus RX facelift and revamp is less about bringing new things to the large-SUV range, and more focused on improving upon what it already had. And a little about fixing stuff that was perhaps a bit crook.
This is no bad thing. In fact, it’s quite admirable. And very Lexus. I remember attending the launch of a facelifted IS F and getting bailed up by a Japanese company rep with a clipboard, who’d chased me down to quite specifically inform me that his company had “fixed” the pitchy rear suspension I’d bitched loudly about in my review of the original version.
It really struck me at that point that if Lexus made its mission to placate a journalist's largely trivial opinions, it was going to pay attention to the critique of those who matter more: customers.
For instance, you wanted Apple CarPlay and Android Auto mirroring. Now you’ve got it in the RX.
There is risk in a carmaker focusing on polishing a model’s edges rather than conspicuously meddling with packaging to draw attention. That is, the work invested on improvement mightn’t bring newcomers in showrooms if you have to dig past the familiar and into the experiential nitty-gritty to unearth the positives.
Thankfully, there’s a bit of everything in this MY19 face-lift – Lexus isn’t calling it MY20, unusually for the industry – lobs four years into the RX’s generational life cycle.
Despite much of the effort being invested into lifting ride quality and dynamic abilities, as well as improving that long-running bugbear that is the marque’s infotainment user interface – things that are tough to see – there’s also some subtle restyling front and rear, including new lighting designs and a cleaner grille. While, inside, there’s expanded choice of 15 different variations of seat and trim finish and colourisation.
Lexus had all three powertrain formats in base four-cylinder RX300, mid-range six-powered RX350 and V6-hybrid RX450h at the local launch program, of which we sampled for the first two in five-seat (RX300) and seven-seat (RX350) guises. And our initial foray with the entry-level version left a positive impression indeed.
The RX300 Luxury kicks off at $71,920 list, which is only a couple of grand pricier than where some flagship mainstream large SUVs, such as the Mazda CX-9 Azami LE, top out price-wise. It’s also a huge step down in pricing against the near $100K German premium SUVs Lexus considers the logical RX cross-shop.
But climb in and hit the road, and true to form there’s nothing bare-boned or cut-priced about the most basic Lexus experience. From the sense of build quality to powertrain urgency, and from features through to on-road behavior, it feels fulsome and generously laden.
There aren’t many options available – paint choice, slightly suppler leather, for instance – but nor does even the lowly Luxury spec seem to want for much at all.
The lavish material choice and convoluted, angular interior design are quite familiar, the most noticeable change inside the upgrade to the prominent and impressively clear 12.3-inch infotainment display. It’s now a touchscreen, which is great, so you don’t have to use that gawd-awful haptic touchpad controller on the console, which remains clumsy and frustrating.
Proprietary navigation, DAB+, inductive phone charging, voice control: it’s a feature-rich system with a pleasing look and somewhat improved if still clunky user interface.
The real boon is that the oh-so-Japanese mantra of locking out touchscreen functionality allegedly for “safety reasons” is gone – hooray – so that the front passenger has infotainment access on the move, as it should be.
Buttons, knobs and switchgear are tactile but still look old hat – they won’t give Audi designers cause for concern. Perhaps thanks to existing customer feedback, the USB count has been upped from two to six ports.
The seats are superb, smart in appearance, nicely bolstered and softly padded for excellent long-haul comfort. Most of the range is trimmed in partial leather that’s more sumptuous than the plasticky trim fitted to too many ‘premium’ Germans these days, though the 300 Luxury gets a new synthetic material.
Further, 10-way power adjustment is standard in basic Luxury form. There are no meaningful changes to the cosy ambience, the overly sporty vibe, and generally funky like-it-or-lump-it design that benefits greatly from being a little bold with the optional colour palette choice.
Likewise, row-two seating is excellent offering fore-aft and recline adjustment to tune in comfort, though general roominess is decent if not class leading.
The most notable changes are in the RX L seven-seater, with row-three seating now repositioned 94mm further rearward for proper adult-sized knee room and 16mm lower to add a fraction more head room. This leaves a scant 176L of boot space – you can’t have everything – but stowing row three liberates 591L compared with the 506L of the dedicated five-seater.
There’s not much new in the powertrain department. We sampled both ‘300’ front-drive and ‘350’ all-paw petrols at launch, so the petrol V6 hybrid will have to wait for another day.
The 2.0-litre dual-injected turbo four is quite an impressive unit, outputting 175kW and 350Nm – just 20Nm shy of the 221kW V6’s best – and tied to a smooth shifting and obedient six-speed auto. It’s smooth, lag-free and linear in delivery as the tacho needle sweeps through to a modest 5600rpm redline.
It’s a dignified engine, impressively quiet and eager enough propelling 1.9 tonnes of large SUV. If there’s one bugbear it’s thirst: its 11L/100km consumption during leisurely driving with lots of open road time isn’t even close to its 8.1L combined claim.
The 3.5-litre naturally aspirated six returned a similar consumption figure against its 10.2L claim – more impressive perhaps because the longer seven-seater L is around 200kg heavier. Further, despite the meagre 8Nm benefit, the larger 216kW engine feels lustier and more assertive under the right foot than the turbo four.
Yes, you’re right, those numbers don’t add up to those referenced above: because of packaging requirements in the seven-seater demanding a single-outlet exhaust compared to the 221kW/370Nm five-seater’s dual system, the longer L tops out at 216kW and 362Nm.
Still, Lexus reckons the L, at 8.2sec, is still one second quicker to 100km/h than the four-pot.
The V6’s eight-speed auto, too, is a real gem, zipping cleanly between its closely stacked second-through-eighth forward ratios thanks to the lock-up torque converter effect.
Did we feel any net benefit to the on-demand all-wheel-drive system? Not for leisurely urban and country driving as tested, though the low-speed (sub-40km/h) ‘lock’ function might well pay tractive dividends off the beaten path.
Some “10 engineering changes” centring around construction, chassis and suspension conspire towards a nicer on-road experience for an SUV breed that was pretty damn fine to begin with.
And be it the RX300 Luxury (on 18-inchers) or other higher-grade variants (all on 20s), it’s tough to gauge how much improvement has been achieved without direct comparison with their forebears.
But in isolation, at least, our test cars were seriously impressive when it came to dealing with ride comfort and noise suppression, and more than handy enough in the dynamics department.
Mechanical changes intend to specifically enhance yaw response, steering feedback and cornering stance, while reducing body roll and dive under braking. Electronic tweaks such as active cornering assist (inside rear-wheel braking) are fitted to all variants.
The broad upshot is a surprisingly engaging drive in both tested SUVs, with shades of nimbleness that belie their weighbridge tickets. But the biggest dividend paid really is in long-haul comfort thanks to the compliance of the suspension and general quietness and refinement.
Of our two testers, the larger L, with its 20s and adaptive suspension, is a little more wallowy and floaty than the passively suspended RX300 Luxury seated on 18s, but that’s hair-splitting between close siblings. The overwhelming impression from both is that either’s ride-handling package has been thoroughly developed and they both shine brightly.
Unlike some German rivals, the quality of the driving experience doesn’t seem heavily dependent on tyre size, on spec, or on often-pricey options fitted. Instead, the RX is quality as is, straight out of the box.
You can only realistically get a broad gut feel for an entire range – one focused on polish and fixes – on a scant one-day launch event. But I, for one, am really keen to see how the revised RX performs on the road against those triple-figure German nameplates it wants to swoon buyers away from.
It’ll take a proper comparison with the luxury of seat time to assess that, as well as value-for-money quotient requiring grinding down specification details and costs of ownership.
For instance, even the entry $72K model gets all-speed radar and camera-based AEB. And reversing AEB. And the AEB has pedestrian detection, day or night. They all get active stop-go, lane keeping, speed sign recognition and auto high-beam smarts.
In fact, the base version gets a cornering function for its full-LED lighting, and higher-spec variants boast adaptive headlights with so-called “world-first” cutting-edge ‘blade scan’ technology.
The myriad and, in areas, seemingly innocuous changes do indeed stack up to genuine improvement. But it’s a fair bet that Japan’s time-honoured penchant for brimming spec at sharp pricepoints in the premium space will lure buyers' backsides into Lexus RX seats.