The 2016 Lexus RX 350 has been completely redesigned, with radical styling that turns the traditionally conservative RX into something that gets noticed. However, it is the transformation inside the cabin as well as a thorough rethinking and subsequent reengineering of this midsize luxury crossover's driving dynamics that truly expands the RX's appeal.
What Is It?
The 2016 Lexus RX 350 is a midsize luxury crossover SUV that seats five people. Unlike many of its competitors, there is no third-row seat option. Front- and all-wheel drive are available, with the latter being standard on the F Sport model that adds a variety of performance-enhancing features as well as unique styling elements. There are no trim levels beyond the F Sport, and options are available either as stand-alone items or within packages.
The RX 350 comes only with a 3.5-liter V6 engine and an eight-speed automatic transmission. There is an RX 450h hybrid model as well. All models go on sale in November, with pricing starting "well under $45,000," according to Lexus.
Is It Bigger Than Before?
The styling changes for 2016 are obvious, with a multitude of aggressive creases and a grille so large one wonders if the next step in Lexus styling is simply to make the entire front of the car out of black plastic mesh.
Yet if the overall effect seems longer and sleeker, your eyes are not deceiving you. This RX is a significant 4.7 inches longer than before, with 2 extra inches of wheelbase. The new dimensions not only create a noticeable change in proportion, but also more backseat and cargo room. Ground clearance has also gone up by nearly an inch, and although overall height hasn't changed much, the sharper windshield and liftgate angles create a far less boxy appearance. Indeed, the RX looks less SUV-like than the previous three generations.
How Has the Interior Changed?
The RX driving position has always been rather upright and almost vanlike. For 2016, the RX's front seating position has been lowered by three-quarters of an inch, while the steering wheel angle has been reduced by 2 degrees. An increase in telescoping distance also allows the wheel to reach closer to the driver, especially taller ones. You piloted the RX before; now you drive it.
A lower dashboard and center stack controls angled toward the driver further illustrate a more driver-focused and carlike philosophy for the RX. Although some may lament that it has lost some of the previous models' more open feel, it is nevertheless more modern in concept and appearance.
It is also exquisitely made, with high-quality materials everywhere you look and touch. Interesting details abound, like the abundance of contrast stitching on the dash, doors and seats, while the switchgear has been upgraded, including machined aluminum audio system dials. Even the available wood trim is thoughtfully used, appearing more integrated into the design than in past Lexus efforts.
What About the Electronics Interface?
The most basic RX 350 comes with a simple rotary knob controller and an 8-inch display dwarfed by the comparatively colossal housing that surrounds it. The housing is a stand-in for the 12.3-inch widescreen display included with the extremely popular Navigation package that you'll likely see on dealer lots. That screen is so large that even when segmented into a navigation map on the left and audio info on the right, both sections are similar to the single screens of many other cars.
The larger screen also comes with a revised Remote Touch electronics interface. Interestingly, Lexus opted to update the joysticklike controller found in the existing RX rather than use the newer touchpad found in the recently introduced NX and RC. RX Chief Engineer Takayuki Katsuda said this was done because existing RX customers are used to the joystick, which seems logical enough, but existing customers were also once used to touchscreens and buttons. Sounds like the pointed criticisms and general dislike of the touchpad might have had something to do with it.
Either way, even if the Remote Touch joystick is better than the touchpad (and we certainly appreciate the newfound ability to press down on it to engage "enter"), it remains one of the more frustrating and distracting electronics interfaces. The touchscreens and knob controllers of competitors simply don't require the degree of dexterity and concentration to accomplish most tasks.
How Much Space Is There for People and Their Stuff?
Although backseat leg- and headroom are similar to the smaller, but surprisingly spacious Lexus NX, the RX's added width makes it feel much bigger. There isn't quite as much headroom as one would find in an Acura MDX or BMW X5, but we wouldn't call it confining, and those in the market for a midsize SUV should find it more than sufficient. We also appreciated the ample amount of rear-seat recline (especially with optional power adjustment) as well as the larger, optional rear entertainment screens that tilt to assure a perfect viewing angle.
In terms of cargo space, the steeply raked liftgate has reduced versatility. There really isn't much space above the cargo cover line, meaning that taller items either won't fit or will have to be placed atop the 40/20/40-split rear seat that doesn't quite fold flat. Therefore, the cargo area is far more trunklike than those of its competitors, but it is very deep and wide, which makes it easy to load cargo. Accessing it is also enhanced for 2016 with an available touch-free opening mechanism activated by holding one's hand (or elbow, forehead, whatever) over the Lexus emblem.
What Is Under the Hood?
The RX 350 is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine redesigned for 2016 to produce an extra 25 horsepower, bringing output up to a more competitive 295 hp and 267 pound-feet of torque. Despite this and a standard eight-speed automatic transmission, however, acceleration remains on the slow side for the segment.
Lexus estimates the RX 350 will go from zero to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds with front-wheel drive and 7.9 seconds with all-wheel drive. If accurate, these numbers would be more than a second slower than the 2016 Acura MDX we recently tested. A BMW X5 xDrive35i is quicker still.
More importantly to most, however, is the fact that fuel economy has improved. Lexus estimates 22 mpg combined (19 city/26 highway) with all-wheel drive and 23 mpg (20/28) with front-wheel drive. These are virtually identical to the MDX.
How Is the RX 350 F Sport Different?
The F Sport model maintains the same powertrain as its regular counterpart (there is also now an RX 450h F Sport available), but there are key differences beyond the more aggressive styling and different interior trim types. The F Sport includes 20-inch wheels, transmission paddle shifters, an engine sound enhancer and extra front seat bolstering that skinnier folks may find cosseting, while larger drivers may find it confining.
More importantly, though, are changes made to the steering and suspension. Although both elements have been upgraded for the 2016 RX, it's in the F Sport where these changes are most noticeable.
How Does the RX Drive?
The new Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) that's standard on the F Sport constantly reads road conditions and adjusts accordingly, creating a flat, controlled ride that we found to be impressively comfortable during our test-drive. This contrasts sharply to the outgoing RX 350 F Sport, a conflicted vehicle that didn't come close to providing the level of driving precision and engagement needed to justify its harsh ride quality.
Given this experience, it was a pleasant surprise to discover the 2016 RX 350 F Sport to be the superior RX to drive. The handling and driving experience aren't indicative of a Porsche Cayenne or some sort of dedicated sport model. Rather, it is comparable to the well-balanced, nicely controlled and confidence-inspiring dynamics displayed by the MDX and X5, with an ample dose of Lexus' supremely quiet refinement.
The F Sport's steering (regardless of the selected Drive Mode of Eco, Normal, Sport S or Sport S+) has a precision and a consistent degree of effort that feels more natural, lacking the more nebulous responses of the regular RX. Selecting the most aggressive Drive Mode settings doesn't dial in a whole bunch of excessive steering weight as other such systems do.
Ultimately, however, it is that adaptive suspension that makes the F Sport seem like the best choice. Never mind its handling improvements, the ride is more controlled without the bounding and mild float experienced in the regular RX over bumps and undulations.
The fact that it remained comfortable and never harsh, even in the sportiest Sport S+ setting, is a testament not only to the improvement of the F Sport model, but to the dynamic capabilities of the RX in the general. For a vehicle that has always resided deep in comfort-first territory, the 2016 F Sport presents a newfound and very welcome balance.
What About the RX 450h Hybrid?
As before, the RX 450h hybrid consists of a 3.5-liter V6 and a pair of electric motors up front powered by a nickel-metal hydride battery pack (most hybrid models today feature a more modern lithium-ion pack). A third electric motor can be added to provide power to the rear wheels, thus resulting in available all-wheel drive.
Overall output of the RX 450h is 308 hp. Lexus estimates the same 0-60 times for the hybrid as the RX 350, with fuel economy estimates of 30 mpg combined (31 city/30 highway) with front-wheel drive and 30 (30/28) with all-wheel drive.
As with the previous RX 450h, our test-drive of the 2016 model revealed it to be one of the better hybrid applications on the market. The transitions among electric, gasoline and combined driving modes are as smooth and seamless as you'll find. It's a hybrid that doesn't draw attention to itself, and that's a good thing. The fact that you can now enjoy the hybrid's fuel economy benefits with the F Sport's superior driving dynamics makes the 450h even more appealing.
What Features Are Available?
With a base price Lexus estimates to be "well under $45,000," the RX 350 comes standard with a generous amount of equipment that includes 18-inch wheels, LED headlamps and running lights, a power liftgate, keyless ignition and entry, the Drive Mode vehicle settings, eight-way power front seats, "NuLuxe" premium vinyl upholstery, a sliding and reclining 40/20/40 rear seat, a power-adjustable steering wheel, a rearview camera, Bluetooth phone and audio and a nine-speaker sound system. Many of these features are optional on competitors.
There are several options packages. If history is an indication, most RXs will be equipped with the Premium package, which includes driver memory settings, leather upholstery, automatic wipers, roof rails and upgraded wood trim. The Navigation package is also popular, as it includes the larger 12.3-inch navigation screen, HD and satellite radios, Lexus Enform smartphone apps and a 12-speaker sound system.
Other desirable options, available in packages or as stand-alone items include heated and ventilated seats, a panoramic sunroof, a color head-up display, the touch-free power liftgate, parking sensors, a dual-screen rear entertainment system, a 15-speaker Mark Levinson sound system and unique 20-inch wheels that come with a choice of silver, white, black or "Autumn Shimmer" color inserts.
What About Safety?
Standard equipment includes front knee airbags, front and rear side airbags, full-length curtain airbags and a special front-passenger under-cushion airbag. Also standard is Lexus Enform Safety Connect, which features automatic collision notification, stolen vehicle location and an emergency assist button.
The Lexus Safety System + package adds adaptive cruise control, a pre-collision warning and automatic braking system (now with pedestrian detection) and lane departure warning with active steering intervention. A blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert are available together as an option.
What Competing Models Should You Also Consider?
The Acura MDX has been the RX's primary competitor since its introduction. It benefits from superior performance and a standard third row of seats, which is admittedly mostly for children. The RX's newfound visual character stands in contrast to the now-comparatively conservative Acura.
The BMW X5 is pricier to be sure, but the RX's improved driving dynamics, interior design and feature content bring it further in line with BMW's upscale midsize SUV. The Lexus can't compete with the BMW's more powerful powertrain options, however.
The Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class may technically be a new model for 2016, but it's really an M-Class with a midlife refresh and a new name. It, too, is pricier than the Lexus, but its interior is bound to feel a bit bigger. It is also available with more powerful engines.
Why Should You Consider This Car?
This RX offers more of the luxury, interior ambiance and creature comforts expected in this segment, along with a more carlike driving experience made even better in the F Sport model.
Why Should You Think Twice About This Car?
Besides its polarizing styling, the Remote Touch electronics interface can be frustrating to use and acceleration is a bit off the pace for the segment. There is also no third-row seat available.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.