The Lexus RX pioneered the luxury-crossover segment when it debuted in the late 1990s as the RX300, and the model has been a pillar of the Lexus brand ever since. It remains the bestselling Lexus model today. The company shifted 107,000 units last year, putting the RX well ahead of the runner-up ES sedan, of which it sold 72K. So while Lexus would like the RX to shake its somnambulant image, it is loathe to move it too far off the beam.
The just-unveiled 2016 redesign shows that inherent conflict. Chief engineer Takayuki Katsuda expressed it thusly: “Our ambition has been to make a bold and completely new statement . . . [while] staying true to the pioneering values of previous RX generations.”
The new RX adopts the brand’s aggressive—which is not to say “beautiful”—new design language, with L-shaped lighting elements and a giant, spindle grille. The “floating” roof created by the blacked-out C-pillar is a new twist—unfortunately for Lexus, it’s one that is also seen on the new Nissan Murano. Dimensionally, the vehicle has grown nearly five inches in length, while the wheelbase has been stretched by some two inches; width and height are within a fraction of their previous figures. The extra length results in enhanced rear-seat room, but Lexus has opted not to wedge in a third row of seats.
Under the tortured sheetmetal, Lexus engineers managed to wring additional output from familiar mechanicals. Electing to sit out the trend toward engine downsizing and forced induction, they are again serving up a 3.5-liter V-6, only now with 300-ish horsepower (final figures aren’t in) instead of 270. An eight-speed automatic, formerly exclusive to the F Sport, replaces the six-speed unit in other RX350 models. Again, buyers can choose to have the front wheels or all four wheels do the driving. Naturally, the RX450 hybrid returns, with an Atkinson-cycle version of the 3.5-liter. Working with its electric motors, it, too, claims an output of about 300 horsepower, up from 245. Lexus claims to have improved handling while preserving the vehicle’s cushy ride. To that end, an adaptive suspension is newly available.
The AWD-only F Sport offers no additional output but does include active anti-roll bars, 20-inch wheels, and steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles. Its adaptive suspension adds a stiffer driving mode called Sport S+. Mostly, though, the F Sport’s nature is conveyed by its visuals, which makes it a far cry from the performance SUVs offered by BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and even Audi.
The new safety tech is likely to be of greater resonance to RX customers. Joining the previous precollision warning system and blind-spot warning are lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, and rear cross-traffic alert. A new panoramic-view monitor further aids maneuvering, and adaptive high beams help illuminate twisty roads, while a giant moonroof lets rear-seat passengers gaze at the stars.
We expect the RX will continue to be the star of the Lexus lineup. We’ll see once we drive the 2016 iteration whether the brand made a bold enough move with this redesign, or whether it risks being outshined by the growing field of competitors.