How 'new and improved' is the latest version of the RX350L when placed alongside last year's model?
Midlife updates are commonplace in the automotive realm, but what are you really getting? Each brand treads their own path, and often sales success and buyer feedback drive the changes.
As part of its mid-cycle refresh, the Lexus RX changes only ever so slightly on the outside, with a minor tweak inside. But under the skin, Lexus has done what Lexus likes to do, and created a series of engineering changes and improvements to create a better experience for its large-SUV customers.
We’ve driven both the Lexus RX350L downdate and update, and held Lexus to its word that the engineering improvements are more than just brochure-filler.
If you currently own an RX, or you’re thinking now’s the time to look at one, are the subtle external changes enough to steer you to roll your release over, or is the answer you’re seeking hidden in the on-road experience?
What you see
Unless they’re side by side, it can be tricky to spot the changes to the Lexus RX at a quick glance, but they’re there.
Thankfully, for ease of identification, Lexus supplied us distinctly different cars. So, for the sake of simplicity, the ‘old’ RX is white and the ‘new and improved’ version is black. It doesn’t get any easier than that.
More significantly, though, the design changes are more detail-driven than comprehensively overhauled. For instance, Lexus hasn’t changed any of the car’s sheet metal, but the easier (and less expensive, from a manufacturing perspective) bolt-on and plastic parts have changed.
Up front, there are new headlights with a sleeker profile than before and no more bump at the inner edge. The internals have been given a sleeker design, too, with cleaner-looking running lights and downsized LED internals.
In between the grille, the most obvious change is a move to a segmented rather than slatted infill panel, and a very minor rework of the overall shape of Lexus’s trademark spindle motif. To the side, the kinked L-shaped intake has been simplified, and the front fog lights are relocated low in the bumper with new housings to suit.
The front end is now underpinned by a faux-metal underplate for a more optical off-road look, though there’s no mistaking the RX range for anything but city-centric in its intent.
Because they’re similarly easy to change and upgrade, the alloy wheel design has been updated as well. Gone are the old swirling split five-spoke wheels for a more technical-looking set of twin-arm 10-spoke wheels. The alloy wheel size, at 20 inches, stays the same, as do the Dunlop SP Sport Maxx 050 tyres wrapped around them.
At the rear, the changes are less pronounced. The bumper carries over, the tailgate is unchanged, but the tail-lights are new.
The red and white sections have been flipped, and there’s a more clearly defined L-shape for the illumination within. If you really want to quash all others when it comes to useless trivia, there are now more segments in the scrolling indicators for a smoother, more progressive flash animation.
On the inside, once again, Lexus hasn’t shredded its previous playbook and started anew, but there are worthwhile changes all the same.
The first, and arguably the most important for buyers of the entry-level Luxury grade, is the move from the previous 8.0-inch screen to a new, larger 12.3-inch infotainment system that’s been brought up to speed with the addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility.
Cast your eye to the centre console and you’ll see the previous ’90s laptop-style jog controller has also been removed, with a small touchpad in its place. There are also touchscreen capabilities for the new display to make smartphone mirroring easier to operate.
Here’s where things get nerdy, and typically Lexus-thorough. As well as growing in size, the screen has been moved 13.5cm closer to the front-seat occupants to make touch inputs easier. After all, it’s one thing to add a feature, but another altogether to add a useful one.
What you don’t see
More tricky than the game of eye-spy for spotting external differences, the RX350L’s hidden changes are likely to contribute a much larger difference.
Some things sound similar but aren’t, like Lexus Safety System+. Previously, autonomous emergency braking was included: stabbing the brakes in situations where the car detected the driver may not stop in time when approaching a stopped vehicle (or similar solid object). Now, the more advanced system can also pick up pedestrians and, in daylight, cyclists, thereby adding an extra layer of protection for the driver and other road users alike.
You’ll also find traffic sign recognition and lane-trace assist on top of the previous lane-departure alert. Features that may not be apparent in the showroom, but provide an extra helping hand out on the road.
Lane-trace assist can not only keep the car between marked lines, but can also work out where the road edge translates to grass or gravel and defines the boundaries as such, or in close traffic it can take its lead from the vehicle ahead.
Cruise control? Well, it was previously adaptive, though it lacked low-speed follow, instead cutting out at a low-speed threshold and handing back over to the driver.
Since newer, cheaper cars had surpassed that tech already, the RX ups its spec sheet with all-speed cruise control. This allows it to come to a complete standstill where conditions allow, and the ability to match to the current speed zone through a single button press, and fed from traffic sign data.
While you may not ‘see’ those changes, they’re quickly and easily accessible. Harder still to get to are the chassis and structural changes Lexus has made.
You can’t see them and you can’t touch them, but if you were to peel away the paint, trim, carpet, sound deadening and more from these two cars and analyse them side by side, you’d find 36 additional spot welds and an extra 4.2m of body adhesive.
The goal here is to increase body rigidity. A more rigid body allows greater freedom of suspension tune, can make the car quieter, and helps stamp out the errant vibrations or oscillations you might otherwise feel.
Making a rigid sports car, with two doors, small windows, and plenty of bracing throughout, is relatively easy. Creating a rigid body for an SUV, which essentially has a large tube for a frame once you take the doors and windows away, is more challenging.
By removing flex or movement throughout the structure, and concentrating on joins in the sides, underbody and rear wheel wells, Lexus is able to make a luxury SUV that’s more luxurious. The changes don’t exist in isolation, however.
To complement the structural change, a “friction control device” has been added to the front and rear shock absorbers. Its job is to handle the kinds of high-frequency bumps and vibrations that elude the control of the hydraulic fluid within each damper.
Other suspension-related changes are new hub bearings that feature greater lateral rigidity. Like the body reinforcements, these create a more stable platform to base ride and handling tuning on.
The electric power-steering system has had a control tweak and the rear stabiliser bar has changed in size and construction. You’d probably never know if Lexus didn’t go to great pains to explain them, and in isolation the changes are so very minor it’d be hard to tell.
Vehicle tuning is a little like the butterfly effect. Making a small change to one area can flow on throughout the vehicle and mean additional changes are required, too, leading to the list of new, improved or modified bits that so often come in a midlife update.
What you feel
As you settle into the driver’s seat of the 2020 RX350L, what you feel is really no different to what you felt before. Same unlocking beep, same door handle effort, same steering wheel and instrument cluster ahead of you as the car that came before it.
Change can be tricky to get used to. It’s somewhat reassuring, then, to know the learning curve between old and new isn’t going to be too steep.
It’s once you hit the road that the changes reveal themselves. I started in the old RX as a baseline, and it’s pretty easy to think of it as a quiet, comfortable and relaxed SUV ideal for open-road cruising, though hardly out of place from point to point around town.
It rides comfortably and it steers well. It doesn’t pretend to be sporty or engaging. There’s nothing in it you or your family would particularly dislike, but it’s also pretty vanilla and unremarkable – and honestly that’s probably how it should be.
It isn’t until you saddle up in the updated car that you realise Lexus really did have room for improvement, and has made it.
In the confines of the city, there’s an immediate, obvious difference to the way the car rides. Obvious changes need not be aggressive ones, though, and that is certainly the case.
Tackle something like a speed hump in the white car and the initial bump compression is soft, but the rebound is – well – bouncy. Pronounced body movements take time to settle, and the car jiggles to settle itself back down.
In the black car, you still get that soft initial compression stroke, then as the car passes over the peak of the bump, the wheels return to their resting height and not much more.
It isn’t completely free of a settling motion as the car and suspension momentum balance themselves, but 2019’s car would rise and fall softly, then again more slightly in doing so. The 2020 version trims those wallowy movements in half with a more settled and controlled feel through the whole cabin as it does so.
Once you’re out of bump-hewn stop-start traffic and onto faster but still urbanised roads, the 2020 Lexus RX350L imposes a more steady feel. Tiny ripples in the road create tiny ripples in the suspension of the older car. Never uncomfortable or abrupt, just present – constantly.
Those ripples have been mitigated from the changes, and the shock absorber changes give enough flex for ripply roads to be quelled more effectively. The body changes mean there’s a more harmonious relationship between what the driver asks for and what the car delivers.
Everything is more settled and more direct, but comfort and quiet haven’t been sacrificed. That car hasn’t been turned into a performance automobile. It’s neither too sharp nor too pointed. It’s more natural, reacting in a way that requires less human balance and bracing thanks to the car’s own improvements.
Wick things up further on open roads as you head away from the city, and there’s more confidence as you turn the steering wheel. The on-centre feel is less vague, the suspension doesn’t quake reactively as the front wheels turn, and there’s less of the cotton-wool feeling that traces back to the driver’s hands.
There’s reduced wobbling and bobbling further back in the cabin, too, with the stiffened structure putting a clamp on errant secondary vibrations that may have upset passengers in the second and third rows.
Everyone gets a better deal, driver and passengers alike. Be that from a better ride, more settled handling or something as simple as a less frustrating infotainment experience.
Although it may not look vastly different from the outside, the updates to this Lexus are enough to make it an appreciably improved car compared to the one it supplants.