A Moving Target

2011 Lexus RX350 2
2011 Lexus RX 350 AWD. All photos by Randy Stern

A Victory & Reseda review of the Lexus RX 350

No one likes to be the target of the competition.

Say that you created a product that began an entire market segment. The product in question was innovative enough to break several rules and spawn all comers to create their interpretation of the original. Then, you revised it and reinvented it a few times to ensure its freshness with consumers. Though consumers still loved the original – even a few generations away from the first – pundits and enthusiasts already found a new player more to their liking.

We get it. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. To create an equal or better product is honoring the originator of the segment it competes in. The challenge is to remain relevant in the eyes of consumers. To do so, one must keep an edge on the competition through innovation, technology and engaging design inside and out.

This is the story of the Lexus RX.

he story began when Toyota created an upscale crossover that would serve as a global product for its luxury brand. The original RX was also sold as a Toyota in select markets as the Harrier, but it is widely known as a Lexus. In March of 1998, the RX arrived as an early 1999 model giving Lexus customers a way to cart the family around in style.

It became a success throughout its three generations so far. Eventually, the RX would also be built in Canada to offset North American demand for the luxury crossover. By 2006, it was the best selling luxury crossover in the USA. The RX was the best selling model in the Lexus lineup towards the end of this decade.

2011 Lexus RX350 3

Because of this leadership, every mid-sized luxury crossover sold anywhere on the globe had their sights on the RX. Even softroading SUVs positioned themselves towards humiliating the RX in its wake. Even after Lexus' sales slump in the wake of recalls and corporate-related lawsuits, the RX remained one of the strongest choices in its segment.

Which brings up an important question – is this Lexus still worthy of its leadership? Or, should we be looking elsewhere to spend our $45,000-plus budget on a premium family hauler?

When you look at the RX, you immediately know it is a Lexus. If you listen to a few pundits and a certain television program from the UK, Lexus design would be best described as "boring." I disagree. The RX is one of those vehicles you can spot a mile away as being a Lexus. There was enough design language and outward elegance that announced its membership in the oval-L club.

From some angles, the RX's third generation design worked. It has a robust presence through height, ground clearance and mere details all around. Big doors welcome you and four others inside of a well-appointed cabin. A huge liftgate takes care of swallowing a week’s vacation or a day's bounty at Crate & Barrel. Eighteen-inch wheels are clean in design and complementary to the RX's overall package.

One of the critiques of this generation of the RX was directed right up front. It is not the prettiest nose in the luxury car business, but it certainly helped in announcing its presence to the world. From a distance, there is no mistaking the RX coming towards you.

2011 Lexus RX350 6

Once you entered into the cabin, expect to be pampered. Both rows of seats are big and comfortable. The driver's seat slide out of the way when you exit, but slide you right into position when you fire up the RX. Both front seats get power adjustments – the driver gets much, much more. Anyone can find a good position behind the wheel – guaranteed. Rear passengers can slide their seats back and forth, as well as recline the seatbacks. In this class, regardless of how many rows of seats the vehicle has, this is where I want to be when driving or being driven.

Instrumentation is supersized with big dials and readouts. The cowl is low for tall drivers, but the right amount of adjustment will balance out your vision with quick readouts. High in the center stack is the video screen housing the navigation, rearview camera and all of the functions for the climate control, audio system and the Lexus Enform telematics suite. The gear selector is mounted upward off of the center console to make room for the handy Remote Touch Controller.

The RX 350 tester did not come with the touted Mark Levinson audio system, but why do you need it? The twelve-speaker upgrade from the standard audio system filled the cabin with a beautiful noise. The package came with dual rear seat monitors connected to the DVD player up front with wireless headphones. Someday, these rear seat entertainment systems will be tested – if I could get the right DVD to pop in. Lexus Enform and Safety Connect infotainment and telematics package were included – already tested on previous Lexuses to high praise. If you do buy a Lexus, make sure you do sign up for all of the subscriptions to Enform and Safety Connect.

2011 Lexus RX350 12

We can argue as to which engine is the best made by Toyota – for all of its brands. My nomination would be for the 3.5litre dual overhead camshaft, four valves-per-cylinder V6 under the RX's hood. Rarely do I get a chance to run this motor. When I do, I have plenty of power available to my right foot – 275 horsepower, to be exact. Do not expect fast acceleration times in an RX, but it is powerful enough to get across town or on the other side of the state with ease.

A 6-speed automatic transmission is connected to this V6 providing smooth and quiet shifts across the band. This RX 350 had all-wheel drive with a button locking in the system when weather becomes a bit unruly. For us, in Minnesota, that means it can get through the snow with all four wheels providing traction down on the white stuff.

The standard-issue RX 350 is all about one thing: The ride. It is butter smooth, but it will inform you of road imperfections, bumps and cracks. On the other hand, it is as quiet as one could get in a luxury crossover. Stopping power is fantastic in both normal and panic situations. Speed sensitive steering exhibits minimal play at center, but it reacts quite well to your wheel action. Sharp turns were done with plenty of assist from a very smart steering system.

2011 Lexus RX350 4

Being a big crossover with plenty of ride height meant have more than enough suspension travel to cause the RX to wallow, dip and bend through the curves. It handled softly, but with plenty of control to reign in the RX.

Unless you have the RX 450h Hybrid, one does not expect exceptional fuel economy from this big luxury crossover. The RX 350 turned an average of 19.9MPG – right about where the competition has been.

How much are you willing to pay for the best selling member of the Lexus lineup? Prices start at around $39,000 for a front-wheel drive model, but the moment you add packages, your wallet will get a bit lonely. The sticker price for the tester was $52,774 – including a $4,900 Luxury Package and the $5,000 Rear Seat Entertainment and Navigation package.

Considering all of this, we have something to discuss. You see, the RX 350 I drove had been on sale for a few years now. Even through the years when sales were tougher to come by, the RX remained the brand’s top seller. Both repeat and new buyers to the brand gravitate to the big crossover – which prompted putting it on its Cambridge, Ontario line, the first Lexus to be built outside of Japan.

2013 Lexus RX

Back in March, a facelifted RX appeared at Geneva – and at the Twin Cities Auto Show a few days later. It resolved some of the critiques stated throughout this review. The nose was grafted with the brand’s new Spindle grille design and front end. The GS's new smaller steering wheel was placed in front of the driver. You can now utilize certain apps from your smart phone as part of an expanded Enform package – including Pandora, Open Table, MovieTickets.com and iHeartRadio. Even the Remote Touch Controller has improved for simpler operation.

There are plenty of other details to point out in the new 2013 RX that would take up more bandwidth that you would like. However, there is one very important piece to this equation that needs to be stated – the F Sport. Grafted with the aggressive grille and packaging from the similarly equipped GS version, the F Sport introduces a new dynamic to this popular luxury crossover – aggression. This promises to tame the soft riding RX towards crafting new levels of handling in the segment. Who needs the power of an AMG or the price tag of an M Sport version to justify life in the canyons or along Lake Minnetonka?

Which brings me to another thought: What if you cannot afford the refreshed 2013 RX? The tester I drove actually was a 2011 RX 350 AWD with lower than average miles for a vehicle – delivered 21 months ago. Most likely, that would mean going to a Lexus dealer and going through its Certified Pre-owned inventory. In a recent search, I did not find one with the exact same equipment anywhere in the Upper Midwest and in the Chicago area. I did find several with a lot of the features – save for the rear seat entertainment system – averaging around $42,000. You could actually save money from your original premium/luxury two-row crossover budget by going this route.

No matter if you buying new or pre-owned, the RX offers a very special experience for the family on the go. Even if you do not have a family (your definition is valid here), the RX serves as a sophisticated, elegant and extroverted conveyance to navigate through life and work. If I had not said this before – Lexus represents my kind of luxury. This RX350 did not disappoint in that department.

You never can deny a leader its place on the pedestal. You can try to find other choices, but you still have to compare it to the Lexus RX. It is not easy being everyone's target, but when you pull a bull's eye – make sure it has an "L" intertwined with an oval first.

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.

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