It’s not about the styling. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s true: I’m writing an entire negative column about the new 2016 Lexus RX and I’m not going to say a word about its design; a design so bold and muscular that it looks like a midsize luxury SUV thug; the kind of midsize luxury SUV thug that would beat up other midsize luxury SUVs and steal their center caps.
In fact, I kind of like the styling. It’s sharp, it’s modern, it’s daring, and most importantly, I suspect it helps with Lexus’s ultimate goal: to attract younger customers by deliberately scaring the hell out of their elderly ones.
It’s not about the interior design, either, which is dramatically improved compared to the old model. And it has nothing to do with the excellent engine lineup: a silky smooth 3.5-liter gas V6 and a surprisingly frugal hybrid option. In fact, I’m even impressed with the new “Safety System+,” which – and I’m reading straight from the press release here – provides “a wide range of high-tech safety equipment designed to protect against collisions, driver drowsiness, appendicitis, hemorrhoids, people who think alot is a word, etc.”
So the new Lexus RX has a lot of great reasons why it wasn’t the biggest loser in New York. And then, towering above all else, there’s one big reason why it was: this thing still doesn’t have a third-row seat.
Now, I know that you’re probably rolling your eyes at this point, because you come to Jalopnik for fun automotive coverage, in the sense that you want to watch some cool video of a Mazda RX-8 drifting while flames shoot out of its door handles, and to not discuss some SUV that your mom might purchase after reading Consumer Reports.
But you should care about the RX, because by God, this is one of the most popular luxury vehicles on the market today. And regardless of whether or not you like the RX, or whether or not you might consider the RX, or whether or not you plan to buy the RX, you will certainly find yourself behind one in traffic doing 8 miles per hour under the speed limit. So perhaps you should learn a little bit more about it.
And this brings us back to the whole third-row seat situation.
I was very much looking forward to the debut of the new RX, because I happen to kind of like the RX, and I was thinking that this would be its time to shine; its moment to re-take the midsize luxury SUV crown from those bastards over at Acura who appear to be selling MDXs at roughly the same rate as the post office sells stamps. So when the RX finally made its debut, I was all over the press release, reading every line, CTRL+F-ing the entire thing for third row, looking at all the pictures, until I discovered, to my dismay, that it simply wasn’t there. There would be no third row for the new RX.
Make no mistake: a third-row seat is the single most important feature in this entire segment. I sold cars for a while, and buyers would come in with fistfuls of hundred dollar bills in their clutches, asking me if our vehicles have a third-row seat. “I don’t even have children,” some people would say. “But three rows is fifty percent more rows than my current vehicle, and I must have it.”
And if I told people that no, the vehicle they were considering does not have a third row seat, they would look at me with this disappointed, uncertain gaze, as if I just told them that their wife of six years is actually a rather large, human-shaped piece of volcanic pumice. Then they would place the money back in their pockets and walk away crying, like a little girl at a carnival who accidentally let go of her balloon. It got to the point where I started to wonder if I could have a successful side business that involved using zip ties to secure Wal-Mart folding chairs inside the cargo area of two-row SUVs.
For proof of just how important the third-row seat is, consider the RX’s chief rivals. You have the Acura MDX, based on the Honda Pilot, both of which have standard three-row seating. You have the Infiniti QX60, based on the Nissan Pathfinder, both of which have standard three-row seating. And then you have the RX, based on the Toyota Highlander. Now, the Highlander has standard three-row seating. But the RX? It’s still limited to just you and four of your closest friends, headed to a nice game of bridge at Sunrise Acres. (Motto: “Ambulance on call 24/7!”)
This, ladies and gentlemen, is an enormous mistake. Such an enormous mistake that I think Lexus could’ve done the entire “new RX” thing a lot cheaper in New York by simply rolling out last year’s model again, and then bringing a giant chest full of Yen over to the Acura booth. “Here you go, guys,” the Lexus staffers would say. “This is the amount of money we’re conceding to you by not adding a third row. Don’t do anything crazy!” But of course Acura would do something crazy, like further delaying the NSX’s development until the sun burns out.
Now, if you’re a luxury SUV connoisseur, you’re probably thinking: Sure, the RX doesn’t have three-row seating. But Lexus has a different SUV with three rows! And you are indeed correct: Lexus offers a three-row SUV called the GX 460, which looks like the kind of creature that swallows house plants when you aren’t looking.
But here’s the thing: while the MDX and the QX60 are car-based midsize SUVs with V6 power, the GX 460 is a big, honkin’, V8-powered, truck-based SUV that’s so bulky and off-roady that Toyota sells it in other markets as the Land Cruiser. And trust me: when mom and dad go shopping for a vehicle that can bring the kids to soccer practice, they don’t want a truck-based, V8-powered SUV called “Land Cruiser.” They want a car-based, fuel-sipping V6 model with an indecipherable acronym name that includes at least one letter “X.”
And then you might say: hasn’t Lexus said they’re going to build a separate three-row SUV? And I would reply: yes, but a lot of companies say a lot of things. Volkswagen, for example, has been talking about building a midsize crossover since the late Cretaceous period, and what do they have to show for it? At this point, Lexus hasn’t showed us a teaser, a preview image, or even a concept version of this “upcoming three-row” crossover. And even if a three-row crossover was coming sometime in the future, why can’t they also jam three rows in the midsize RX like every single competitor does?
And so, the new Lexus RX: enhanced in every way. Revised where it matters. Dramatically improved over its predecessor. Teeming with new equipment, and high-tech safety gadgets. And yet, still the New York Auto Show’s biggest loser.
Be sure to check its pockets for center caps on the way out.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.