I have a confession to make. I hate crossovers. So, before driving the 2010 Lexus RX 350, I was prepared to berate it as boring and soft-boiled. After driving, I still will, only now, unfairly.
Full disclosure: Lexus wanted us to test drive their new RX so badly, they flew me down to Georgia, put me up for a night in a fancy oceanside hotel, and fed me high class food.
As I said, I hate crossovers. Hate them with the anger of a thousand soaking wet cats trapped in a dog pound. I do not understand the need for such vehicles when perfectly good station wagons, minivans, or truck-framed SUV are as capable or more in most respects — I do however understand their customer's motivations. As much as I revile the crossover as a segment, the crossover-buyer is looking for a littler more form than function. Capitalism demands the supply of a product the consumer demands, and there is nothing wrong with crossover buyers. We just don't see eye-to-eye.
The Lexus RX invented the luxury crossover market and maintains leadership today. Sweeping changes are not the Toyota Way — their success comes from measured, incremental changes, carefully orchestrated with the customer in mind. The new RX starts from all the things its previous customers liked about it, refining them to make a car they'll most assuredly like even more.
Exterior upgrades reflect evolutionary changes with an eye to the L-Finesse design language, with crisply updated nose-end reminiscent of the IS350, standalone LED tail lights, bigger rear glass for better visibility, and a now-standard rear spoiler hiding the top-mounted rear wiper which might be challenging to change out if you're a DIY'er, but such filthy work is beneath a Lexus owner anyway. The profile is updated with smoother door panels and a crisp character line ahead of the rear wheel and chrome trim down low and around the windows. Lexus added quarter windows ahead of the doors to improve forward visibility but they're only useful if you're turning while trying to spot Georgia's numerous raccoons.
The mechanical news with the RX 350 is the addition of a six speed transmission, a new double wishbone rear suspension replacing the McPherson, and a simplified AWD system with an electromagnetically-actuated clutch pack in the differential managing automatic power distribution during wheel slippage. The 3.5-liter V6 gets a five HP bump to 275 HP but the new transmission means much stronger acceleration and better passing power while returning improved fuel economy. It won't be mistaken for a drag racer but repeat buyers will be happy with the improvement.
The RX 450h offers standard all-wheel-drive with the approach of a hybridized front-wheel-drive power pack and an all-electric rear-wheel-drive system. All is largely carryover, but a new power controller has bumped system voltage from 280V to 650V, resulting in better power delivery and a bit more torque out of the electric motors. Total power for the hybrid is around 295 HP with engine torque at 245 lb-ft and the e-motors providing variable torque across the range. The layout allows Lexus to create more streamlined transitions from all-electric starts to gas powered operations, and to be honest, if not for the cacophony of annoying green idiot lights splayed across the gauge cluster, you'd never know it was anything special. Well, that and the tach has been replaced with an economy gauge.
The problem with the RX is that it's as interesting sitting still as it is rolling and that's due mostly to the interior. Some of the most useful upgrades actually come in the cargo area, where the switch from McPherson struts to the lower-profile double wishbone means the wheel wells shrink and greatly improve cargo space. Also great is the addition of handles in the cargo bay which release the spring loaded seat backs and give a flat load floor without the run-around-the-car dance.
The asymmetric design of the dash and center console may cause some consternation, but in practice it's actually pretty nice. A low center pass through allows for purse storage or murse storage, which is not out of the question with this car. Rear seat legroom is generous and back seat passengers are treated as nicely as those in the front, they even get optional twin DVD players. Lexus has also launched the latest salvo in the safety dance wars; sporting a total of ten airbags surrounding front and rear seat occupants.
As of late, the term luxury has been confused with technology, but the new RX amazingly manages to be gee-whiz and user friendly. The RX offers everything buyers in the segment ask for; Bluetooth, navigation, heated and cooled seats, cameras all over the place including side-view mirror mounted units which show how close you're getting to the curb, iPod functionality...you'll want for nothing. The centerpiece though is a completely new control method called "Remote Touch Interface," which we were begged not to liken to BMW's iDrive. In fairness, we won't; RTI makes iDrive feel like it was designed multiple product cycles ago (which it was).
Lexus has moved to a non-touch, eight-inch screen buried high in the dash and controlled with RTI, a hybrid of force feedback joystick and computer mouse. Rolling over the software buttons provides excellent haptic feedback; selections are done with buttons under the right thumb and pinky with menu, map, and display shortcut buttons around the perimeter. Lexus claims the front passenger can use the system as well, but we'd advise against it unless you're quite intimate with the driver. You'll be caressing his or her outer thigh with every twitch of the wrist, which could be considered a pseudo-flaw or a great feature. In case you don't want to make a pass at the driver, most systems have duplicate button controls below the screen.
Driving the RX 350 and the RX 450h, you'd be hard pressed to tell them apart, ignoring the low speed silence, which is part of the hybrid experience. The new six-speed makes a big difference in power delivery off the line and in passing situations while the interior provides the coddling luxury the segment buyers are looking for. Handling is very much like any other large luxury car; it happily soaks up bumps, body roll is kept to a minimum, as is driver involvement. The Georgia State Police were omnipresent in a way which prevented at-limit testing, but honestly, there would have been no point in knowing how balanced the RX is. You won't exactly see them scooting around your next SCCA meet, but this is sort of the point. A car like the RX isn't aimed at grease-stained speed freaks, but the legions of car-as-appliance drivers.
And that's our only problem with the 2010 Lexus RX. It's a hugely competent car for people who don't care about driving. Lexus continues to distill the RX down to the ultimately perfect luxury crossover, great if you're into that kind of thing, but we are not.