Does a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine work in a large luxury SUV? That was the question on my mind before getting behind the wheel of the 2021 Lexus RX300 Sports Luxury. My mind started really questioning this, especially when I found the kerb weight to be just shy of two tonnes.
After all, 2.0-litre engines are normally the domain of much smaller, lighter and nimbler cars. While Lexus has made some changes to the RX range to improve its dynamic prowess, something it will never be accused of is being small.
While the LandCruiser-based Lexus LX is still the big-daddy SUV of the range, 4890mm of length, 1895mm of width and 1690mm of height is still a fair chunk of metal for this RX.
Sports Luxury grade means this RX300 has an asking price of $92,336 plus on-road costs. The range starts at $71,556 and includes standard gear like smart entry and push-button start, power-adjustable steering column, digital radio, wireless charging, auto headlights, auto high beam and auto wipers.
That $20K of additional spend in Sports Luxury gets you 20-inch wheels, 14-way power-adjustable and memory seats, front-seat ventilation, and heating for first and second (outboard) rows.
There is also a (completely awesome) 15-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, 360-degree camera system, sunroof, semi-aniline leather seat trimming, rear door sunshades, adaptive variable suspension, and a colour head-up display. Phew.
Hang on, I also need to mention the Lane Trace Assist, which is a semi-autonomous adaptive cruise control. There are also 10 airbags scattered through the interior and an autonomous emergency braking system that detects cyclists by day and pedestrians day and night.
Another bit of cool tech in this specification are the LED headlights. They're adaptive and automatic, using something called 'blade scan technology'. It can modify the spread and light pattern to dodge other road users, and keep your high beam on, by reflecting the light off a rotating blade mirror spinning at 12,000rpm.
Lexus says it's 10 per cent brighter than the old adaptive high-beam system, but all I can tell you is that from my seat of pants (or eyeballs), it's very good.
Putting our engine aside briefly, the Lexus RX can also be had with a 3.5-litre petrol V6, either as a straight petrol or petrol/electric hybrid. All options want premium fuel at the bowser, as well.
Our option is the entry-level offering, however. It’s called the 8AR-FTS, and although it sounds low in displacement, peak power of 175kW at 5600rpm is decent. Torque, however, is the strong suit: 350Nm available all the way from 1650–4000rpm.
For comparison’s sake, the non-hybrid V6 makes only a slightly higher amount of torque (370Nm), but needs to be spinning at 4600rpm to access it. It makes more power, though, 221kW, and has an on-demand all-wheel-drive system. Our RX300 is strictly front-wheel drive.
That leaves this smaller engine feeling more than adequate at pushing the big Lexus along with little problem, sitting around the mid-range most of the time, and only exploring the redline when really leaned on.
Also important for a $90K large SUV, the engine also impresses with its smooth and responsive nature, transmitting few noises and vibrations into the cabin.
The engine, originally designed for Lexus car and SUV applications, also scored points for being very quiet, with a torquey willingness that belies its capacity.
Wind down the window, and there is a gentle whooshing of turbo-boosting and even a light blow-off as you lift off the throttle. I reckon with a bit more top-end excitement, this engine would be great in some kind of hot hatch.
While the petrol V6 gets an eight-speed automatic transmission and the hybrid gets a CVT, this smaller engine option sticks with a six-speed torque converter transmission. More ratios are typically a good thing, but the wide, flat band of torque that this engine offers means it’s not yearning for more cogs in the gearbox.
It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have an extra gear or two for low-rev highway cruising, but the Lexus did seem to be reasonably efficient during our testing. Claimed fuel economy is listed at 8.1 litres per 100km on the combined cycle, which we weren’t able to replicate on our highway-heavy driving conditions. We crept up and into the nines, which is still good. Lexus lists 10.1L/100km around town, and we reckon you’d likely outstrip that number as well in heavy town driving.
Fuel economy is helped by the variable valve timing on this engine, with ‘Intelligent Wide’ operation able to shift between an Otto (power) and modified Atkinson (economy) cycle according to rev range and driver inputs.
The ride, even with big 20-inch wheels, is very good. It’s got adaptive dampers in this specification, and you also benefit from a new electric power-steering system.
While Lexus tells us the RX has been dynamically improved with suspension tweaks and a stiffer structure, the big Lexus is still most at home at a more relaxed gait. The steering is responsive and assertive off-centre, and the Lexus certainly holds its own on tight bends and sweepers.
The raison d'être of the Lexus RX, however, is still smooth and relaxed driving, enjoying the sometimes numbing quietness in the cabin, and high levels of comfort on offer. It nails this brief very well.
A new 12.3-inch infotainment system sits proudly atop the dashboard, vividly commanding your attention. It now has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, along with digital radio and navigation. While it looks impressive to wow your friends, it's also more functional with touchscreen ability. However, there is still a little bit of a problem.
Unless you’ve got reach like Tyson Fury, the touchscreen display can be either annoying or dangerous to use while driving. And unfortunately, the touchpad down by the gear selector is still a bit of a flawed experience also. So while it's improved, it's still not as good as others.
The central multifunction display, nestled between analogue speedometer and tachometer, feels a little underdone by modern standards, and gives away the age of the RX in its own life cycle, now five years old. This is especially true now you are seeing fully digital instrument clusters appearing on all manner of makes and models.
While many other premium makes and models are moving to a design of minimal buttons, the Lexus still has quite a few peppered over the dashboard, centre console and steering wheel. It does make for easy operation and control when driving, without having to dive into menus and sub-menus for things like climate and audio control.
Otherwise, the interior is both unique and premium, yielding swathes of soft-touch materials and plenty of interesting small details. It’s comfortable, too. The seats boast 14 different directions of electric adjustment and memory, and the steering column (also electric) offers tilt and rake adjustment. From behind the wheel, it’s a very comfortable experience, and certainly befitting the terms ‘luxury’ and ‘premium’, whatever they mean.
The second row of the Lexus RX is particularly commodious, with a seemingly endless supply of leg room. Adult passengers can really spread out in here, which means there’s also plenty of room for big rearward-facing baby seats. The sunroof extends to the second row to help brighten things up, and you can also darken it with the built-in window shades.
In terms of additional amenities, there are also power outlets, air vents, map pockets and a flip-down armrest and cupholders, along with some additional storage. This specification also gets heated outboard seats in the second row.
The carpeted boot measures in at 506L, and has some handy extra storage down by the (space-saver, unfortunately) spare wheel.
Worth noting here is you can opt for some extra overall length, but not with this driveline. The RX350L (V6) and RX450hL (hybrid) both grow to 5000mm long and 1700mm high to accommodate a third row of seats in the boot.
As always, there is a strong value-for-money argument going in favour of the Lexus RX. While it carries a big stick in terms of standard specifications, there is a noticeable gap in price to other large luxury SUVs. This top-spec model does start to creep up, however. So, astute buyers will be cross-shopping a wide variety of other options. However, you will be spending good money to get something that rides as well as this RX.
Don't forget more mainstream brands are pulling off an impressively premium experience these days. Hyundai's Santa Fe is soon to be updated, and Kia's Sorento is also new. While they might not carry the same clout in terms of materials and finish, they do both offer a diesel drivetrain.
However, if petrol is your jam, and you value safety and comfort with a good dash of value in a premium package, then the 2021 Lexus RX is worth a look.