The mid-size soft-roader is the most important car in any prestige marque’s line-up, and Lexus has taken a fresh approach to promoting its new, fourth-generation RX. Is it as exciting as the adverts suggest?
WHAT IS IT
A bold-looking, boldly proportioned offering in the fastest growing luxury car market, mid-size high-tops – and the fourth-generation of the Lexus RX since the model’s global launch in 1998. It is also yet another “SUV” that is as likely to explore the bottom of the ocean as it is to engage in serious off-roading. Lexus claims its new RX, which gains a turbocharged 2.0-litre as its entry-level offering, is bigger, more powerful and yet more efficient.
WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
Because it will be a close-run race between this RX and the already popular small-SUV NX to see which becomes the biggest selling Lexus in Australia. The company expects to sell at least 1900 RXs in the next calendar year, with 30 per cent of those sales going to the base model 200t, 50 per cent the RX 350 and 20 per cent the 450h hybrid.
A starting price of $73,000, for a range which can easily exceed $100,000, means you won’t be shopping the NX against the top-selling Mazdas or any other garden-variety city SUVs. Lexus is aiming to chip away at BMW and Audi but admits it will never dominate the Europeans.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
An almost alarmingly short test drive on what was a very important launch for Lexus makes us wonder what the RX has to hide, but first impressions certainly didn’t blow us away. There’s no doubt the new RX is a lot better, bigger and nicer to be inside than the model it replaces, and the styling is certainly brave and bold, but claims of better “steering rigidity” and much improved ride and handling were not immediately evident. It feels competent rather than exciting, and doesn't exactly turn the segment on its head.
PLUS: Cabin space, particularly in the rear; styling; quality; fuel economy; reliability; service.
MINUS: Steering lacks feel and excitement; ride slightly busy; part-time AWD; styling.
THE WHEELS REVIEW
The new Lexus RX is very exciting, and not just to the people who work for the company and know it could well be the biggest seller in their showrooms.
You can tell that it’s exciting just by looking at it – it’s so sharp and edgy you could cut yourself on it – but even more so by looking at the new TV spot for the car. The ad features the world’s least sane BASE jumpers in sugar-glider suits tearing up the sky over Goulburn, NSW, and landing on the back of a semi-trailer full of RXs.
It’s a new approach for Lexus, which even the company’s own executives will tell you is seen as a safe brand. It’s one that never offends, but never excites either. The slightly risky, and optional, spindle grille face – which, fortuitously, makes the RX look like new Star Wars bad guy Kylo Ren – has been a huge success in Australia, apparently. It seems most buyers of the RX’s slightly smaller twin brother, the NX, choose it, in pure spite of what critics have had to say.
The NX is exceeding sales expectations, but this fourth-generation of the RX – a car Lexus claims invented the luxury SUV segment, back in 1998 – lobs in the fastest growing luxury market of all: mid-size SUVs. Its bigger dimensions (a 50mm longer wheelbase provides 20mm more luggage space and 26mm more rear leg room), improved engines, standard 20-inch wheels and plusher interior should make it an instant sales success. But is it exciting?
It’s fair to say the new base model, the RX 200t, which starts at $73,000, is definitely more invigorating than the wheezy RX 270 it replaces. It is all thanks to the turbocharger now attached to its 2.0-litre engine, allowing it to make 175kW and 350Nm of torque, while using 16 per cent less fuel than the old dunger at 8.1 litres per 100km.
The 200t has to make do with a six-speed auto rather than the new eight-speed found in the RX 350’s upgraded V6 (221kW, 370Nm and 9.6L/100km) and the why-do-they-bother RX 450h (V6 hybrid, 230kW and 335Nm combined, 5.7L/100km, which is impressive). It’s also front-wheel drive only. Considering the AWD systems in the more expensive RX options are on-demand only, and that the demand will be occasional at best, the turbo is the model to go for.
Dynamically, its lightness is an advantage, allowing it to achieve the same tardy zero to 100km/h time (9.2 sec) as the RX 350 (which starts at $80,000, quickly rising to $98,000 for the Sports Luxury spec), and to hold a line through corners where the pricier car will push on into understeer.
Lexus raved about how the new stiffer construction had allowed both sportier and more compliant suspension, but we still found it busy, and occasionally wallowing, with the base model the best of the bunch.
The interior does live up to its billing, however, with plenty of space and a more high-quality feel. It’s spoiled only by the company’s insistence on staying with an old-tech mouse controller in a touch-screen world. The wireless phone charger and world-first adjustable-depth cup holder will no doubt win some fans as well.
In the premium SUV market, the Lexus RX is not likely to be the driver’s choice, but its combination of value, customer service and undeniable road presence and style (the laser-blaster-like sequential indicators are a real head-turner) will find it plenty of fans.
It remains, however, a safe choice – and having Toyota engineering under your luxury car probably isn’t a bad idea in the long run – rather than an exciting one, no matter how hard their marketeers work to convince you otherwise.
Model: Lexus RX 200t
Engine: 1998cc, turbo in-line 4
Max power: 175kW @ 4800-6000rpm
Max torque: 350Nm @ 1650rpm-4000rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Kerb weight: 1890kg
Fuel economy: 8.1L/100km
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