Despite its sales figure trailing behind Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW by some margin, Lexus still performed well in 2020. The Japanese premium brand reportedly sold 8846 new cars last year, which is an 8.0 per cent fall versus 2019.
Star performer Mercedes-Benz, with a yearly sales figure three times greater than Lexus, saw its sales volume fall by 7.9 per cent. The wider markets for both passenger and SUVs fell by 29.7 and 5.9 per cent respectively.
Aging product, as well as the type of product offered, are both important when weathering an economic downturn. Lexus offers 11 different model lines in Australia, with seven falling into the hugely impacted passenger segment. Not a good start.
As for aging products, it had some help. The brand's second-best seller – the RX medium SUV – was properly updated for the first time in five years during 2020.
Still, to come out swinging, and falling just 8.0 per cent with only four SUVs in an 11-strong line-up, is a solid effort.
For this review, we're in the most popular version in the RX range – the 2021 Lexus RX350 F Sport. It sits in the middle of a three-large RX350 range, and starts from $95,636 before on-roads. Beneath it lies the RX350 Luxury at $83,136 and above the aptly named RX350 Sports Luxury from $101,836, both before on-roads.
|2021 Lexus RX350 F Sport|
|Engine||3.5-litre V6 naturally aspirated|
|Power and torque||221kW at 6300rpm, 370Nm at 4600–4700rpm|
|Transmission||Eight-speed torque-converter automatic|
|Drive type||All-wheel drive|
|Fuel claim combined (ADR)||9.6L/100km|
|Fuel use on test||10.2L/100km|
|Boot volume (rear seats up/down)||506L/924L|
|ANCAP safety rating||5 stars (tested 2015)|
|Main competitors||Audi Q7, BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz GLE|
|Price as tested (before on-roads)||$97,136|
In terms of the complete RX range, the 350 model again sits in the middle. There's a cheaper RX300 series underneath, and a more expensive RX450h hybrid above. Both the 350 and 450h also come in a seven-seat version, but only in Luxury and Sports Luxury guises. This leaves F Sport variants a five-seat proposition only.
As middle of the road as they come, our RX350 F Sport. However, there's nothing middle of the road about the way it looks.
As part of the F Sport package, a large mesh grille, unique front and rear bumpers, and specific 20-inch wheels are all introduced. Its styling effort was bold enough already, with plenty of sharp angles and dramatic drop-offs. The F Sport pack dials up the theatre even more.
Compared to European alternatives, the Lexus RX350 F Sport is highly stylised, and maybe offensive, depending on your tastes. Its numerous design follies come across authentically Japanese, and ornate, which I find pleasing. Let us know what you think in the comments below.
In terms of dimensions, it measures up at 4.89m long by 1.85m wide. For reference, an Audi Q7 is 5.06m long by 1.97m wide, and a BMW X5 4.92m by 2.0m wide. The Lexus is more compact if you're worried about tight parking arrangements, or if you live close to a CBD where space is a commodity.
Even with smaller dimensions, the RX350 F Sport does feel big to drive, coming close to cumbersome in certain situations. Its steering is overly assisted and feels light, and the mechanism itself is far from speedy, which both contribute to feeling big. Around tighter bends or in compressed parking lots, you may find yourself initially relying more on sensors than your ability to gauge distance.
Also, you sit quite inboard, flanked by thick pillars and a distant glasshouse, which also makes it hard to understand its extremities. Like anything, you become accustomed to it over time, but it's a point to note if your better half is already half-fearful of moving into a 'big car'.
To those who are coming from older European SUVs, you'll notice the more relaxed calibration composition. Whereas BMW, Mercedes-Benz and particularly Audi have set up their SUVs to cast an illusion of agility and deftness, the Lexus does the opposite. It feels big, as if you're in command of something substantial.
The powertrain also further separates it from the German trio. Powering the Lexus RX350 is a 3.5-litre naturally aspirated V6 engine from the Toyota '2GR' family. True story, this variety of engine was found in the now-extinct Toyota Aurion, and equally as dead Lotus Exige and Evora.
It's a fantastic engine in isolation, with an earlier version having featured on the prestigious Wards 10 Best Engines list four times in a row. Despite being revvy, powerful and with a strong mid-range, the best reflection of its character is the fact it's been used in everything from rental cars to hyper-focused sports cars.
However, it's lost some of its shine in this package. The main culprit dulling the experience is weight, as the RX350 F Sport tips the scales at a hefty 2085kg. Its power figure is suitable, 221kW at 6300rpm, but its torque figure of 370Nm, offered in full for just 100rpm between 4600–4700rpm, is lacking.
It doesn't have droves of torque down low, as some same-segment diesel competitors feature. How does this on-paper theory translate to reality? You must string the engine out further in the rev range in order to put on speed to overtake or merge on a motorway.
Doing so is met with loud engine sounds. Luckily, it's a great-sounding motor, but it does juxtapose greatly against the serene and wafty character it more consistently demonstrates. The Lexus mission is to strip your senses of interference, not single one out and offer it in spades.
Thankfully, you're certain to spend more time cruising around than hustling it big-time for speed. In the '90 per cent of the time' scenario, it comes across gracious. Smooth down low under small throttle inputs, effortlessness does come to mind. It's not a peaky engine, nor one that builds under turbo spool, which is a good characteristic to have in a luxury SUV.
In terms of advanced safety-assist systems, the Lexus is brimming with them all. Its Safety System+ is standard, which has autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and daytime cyclist detection, lane-keeping assist with semi-autonomous mode, road sign recognition, rear cross-traffic alert with rear automatic braking function, as just some. It wears a five-star ANCAP badge, having been tested in 2015.
Over the course of the loan it used 10.2L/100km versus an official combined claim of 9.6L/100km. Unusually, not much traffic was experienced during the test, so expect consumption to rise if you frequent traffic gridlocks.
Another pleasing difference to its competitors is the way the Lexus rides. Our F Sport version features AVS, or Adaptive Variable Suspension system, which continuously adjusts its suspension feeling according to both driver input and road-surface conditions. On top of being continuously variable, it has two strategies you can employ – regular and sport. The latter is not required.
When set to comfort, the ride is sublime. It does roll and appear floaty on fast country roads, but around town it's fantastic. Lexus engineers have placed an importance on bump absorption, which is critical to an SUV of this calibre.
Too often, car brands take the 'Sport' in Sport Utility Vehicle too literally, and tune in unnecessary firmness and busyness. Lexus has clearly taken the more logical approach and introduced plushness, even if at the cost of body control.
This car is not a corner carver, and even if you decide to it's perfectly capable – it just leans and rolls more than those firmly tuned Benzes and BMWs. On the freeway, however, the Lexus is better than either brand's offerings. It's just the car you'd take on a big drive, as it aligns more to comfort than dynamism, as the Germans call it.
Only in the wet, and under extreme pressure in its firmest suspension set-up, did it demonstrate understeer. Mind you, the event occurred because of the sporty suspension mode, more than anything else. This is why sports set-ups are redundant in most large, pedestrian SUVs, as they detract from the experience.
Which inside is an excellent one. The cabin experience is wonderfully quiet, in classic Lexus fashion. Finishings throughout are also understated yet of high quality. Things like its illuminated doorhandles, which have been executed with neatly integrated LED strip lighting. No showy, bright lights here, nor any LED projections that shine logos on the floor.
The vibe of subdued lighting continues with contours of the dash and doors smartly backlit. Consider it a more faithful interpretation of ambient lighting, as opposed to a multi-colour disco array that's endlessly customisable.
There's a large 12.3-inch infotainment screen perched on the dashboard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, as well as DAB+ radio. The days of no smartphone integration in a Lexus are gone and long forgotten.
Traditionalists will love the cabin, and not just for its basic interior lighting. There are buttons for everything. The air-conditioning system not only has physical controls for all functions, but it also sports its own dedicated temperature readout. Climate-control details can also be shown through the infotainment screen at eye level, however, which aids in maintaining focus on the road ahead.
There are also dedicated radio and media buttons, and even a CD player. The most modern part of the user interface is the Lexus touchpad. After spending a week with the system, I found it no more difficult to use than what's found in most modern Mercedes-Benzes.
The Lexus touchpad features haptic feedback like the Benz, which gives your finger a physical sensation at each command. It's an important inclusion that helps reduce familiarisation time considerably, and improves ongoing usability when driving.
It's as far as in-cabin technology goes, though. Even the automatic gearshifter features a linkage-driven lever reminiscent of ye olde worlde. At CarAdvice, we often hear of people complaining about electric vehicle shifter controls and their apparent lack of consistency.
Joys to those is a Lexus cabin, then, which sports all of the regularities of cars gone by. As mentioned, if you're traditional, or just prefer things the way they were in your last car, you'll find no such issue with a Lexus RX.
Wireless charging comes as standard, and can be switched off via a button, which is unique. Even though it features a clever key slot above the cupholder, this functionality gives you the option to use the space differently. The last thing you want to do is throw a car's key onto a wireless charging pad...
Also standard is a brilliant 15-speaker Mark Levinson sound system. Take some time to get the equalisation just right and it really cuts through with strong mids and wonderfully placed highs. If you're into good audio, you'll love the drive even more.
As for storage, two large beverage holders are decent enough to house a one-litre water bottle each. First-row door bins are the fold-out extension type, which are handy but slightly clumsy when in use.
In the back, space is excellent. Behind a driving position set for my own 183cm frame, I had over seven centimetres of leg room and endless toe room – as my feet didn't need to slide under the front seat. The only real downfall is head room, as the standard-fit sunroof does impede somewhat.
Using a child seat in both forward- and rearward-facing positions is a breeze, and the high hip point makes snoozy buckle-ups equally as breezy. Given the great proportions of the cabin, a rearward-facing baby seat will not affect a front passenger enough to care.
Another parent point goes toward integrated sun blinds – all SUVs should feature these. Storage is fair. Good parts include a fold-down armrest with cupholders and decently sized cubby. Bad parts are stingy door pockets that won't home a one-litre water bottle. A pair of air vents and two USB ports round out the conveniences.
Out in the boot, traditionalism strikes again. Lexus has a love for featuring boot floors level with the load sill. Its passion for this particular subject is indeed understood, as it makes for the convenient loading of heavy awkward-shaped items.
However, it comes from sacrificing boot space. While a Lexus RX350 F Sport features 506L of boot space, an Audi Q7 has 740L behind the second row and a BMW X5 650L. Instead, Lexus should focus on creating dual-height boot floors to provide the best of both worlds. Underneath the sill-level floor sits a space-saving spare wheel and associated tools.
The Lexus RX350 F Sport is a mighty fine tourer. It's also a peach around town, where its clever suspension and prioritisation of comfort both realise a calming experience.
However, it feels its size as a result. Some may prefer, or have gotten used to, the perky, pointed driving experience often found in European metal. If I'm talking about you, be prepared before you test drive. The cabin experience is another important factor, as to some it may appear daggy.
Something not so easily overcome, though, is space. I'm sure a family of three almost-teenagers will find its boot area limiting. However, with one or even two kids, or as empty-nesters, it can work.
If you're the sort currently partaking in Airbnb-ing around country Australia for fun, you'd really enjoy the RX350 F Sport. Around town it's great, but it really shines as a set of getaway wheels.
That's regardless of whether you're ditching the grandkids or escaping your in-laws.