2013 Lexus RX 350 review:

Sporting pretensions ruin this luxury SUV

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Oddly, Lexus does not make an adaptive cruise control system available on the RX 350, a feature that has become common in luxury vehicles. The optional rearview camera, bereft of distance or trajectory lines, looks a little primitive as well.

Best of the tech
The audio system stood out as being the best of the RX 350's cabin electronics. The Mark Levinson system optioned in this RX 350 wasn't going to blow off any doors with its 330-watt amp, but the sound coming through its 15 speakers was nicely tuned. This system tends toward good balance, with no particular emphasis on bass or treble.

Listening to a variety of music, I was impressed by the reproduction across the frequencies, getting good vocal performance as well as very pleasant instrumentals. The separation came though very well, making easy instrument distinct. After some time spent with the equalizer flat, I pumped the bass a few notches, which better suited my preference and the music playing.

2013 Lexus RX 350
The RX 350 shows the available voice commands on screen. Josh Miller/CNET

I was also impressed by the RX 350's voice command system. With either a USB drive or a iOS device plugged into its USB port, I could ask the car to play music by artist or album, and it did a good job recognizing names.

That voice command system also let me place calls by a contact name from my Bluetooth-paired phone. However, destination entry required me to say city, street, and number as separate entries, which could be a little tedious. Both Ford and BMW now let you say a street address as an entire string.

The cabin electronics suite remains mostly the same as in the previous-generation RX. Mounted on the console is a joystick manipulating a cursor on screen. This system is very easy to understand if you have ever used a computer, but it can be fiddly to use. The joystick, a short, square piece easy to move by fingertips, could use more substantial action. It feels like a cheap, plastic computer mouse rather than a control element in a luxury car.

Lexus also lets the cursor roam all over the screen, rather than snap to each available button. I experienced a few screens where I had trouble hitting the selection I wanted. And unlike how this interface works in other Lexus models, there are no back buttons on the controller. This omission is annoying in that I had to move the cursor to a button in the upper right of the screen when I wanted to back out of a series of menus, not a good thing when I'm barreling down the freeway at 65 mph.

I like the concept of this controller, but Lexus really needs to refine it.

2013 Lexus RX 350
This interface controller needs a more substantial feel to suit its luxury car environs. Josh Miller/CNET

I mentioned the USB port for music. The RX 350 complemented that audio source with Bluetooth streaming, which worked very well from my iPhone, and satellite and HD Radio. Connecting a smartphone loaded with the Lexus Enform app to the car makes both iHeartRadio and Pandora available as streaming Internet music sources.

Lexus' navigation system offered most of the features I could want. There were many options for entering destinations, including through Lexus' telematics service and through Bing local search, the latter option powered by the Enform app. When entering a street address, the aforementioned voice command was a little tedious, and the console-mounted controller could make it tough to land on a particular letter from the onscreen keyboard.

However, I was very impressed by how well the navigation system tracked the car with the onscreen map. Even in an underground parking garage, the system used dead reckoning to show the car's maneuvers. The maps themselves, while clear and easy to read, only show in flat view, lacking the perspective view offered by most automakers.

The system showed useful graphics for upcoming turns under route guidance, and read out full street names, as well. It used traffic data to proactively route around congestion and incidents. I was impressed that it was not afraid to put me on surface streets in a city, as some systems I have tested seemed to prefer freeways even when the traffic became stop-and-go.

It would be nice to see Lexus give a little more of a luxury touch to its map graphics, as BMW and Audi have done.

Better choices
Among the different RX models available, this 2013 Lexus RX 350 F Sport is not the one I would prefer. I like the eight-speed transmission, something Lexus should really be offering on the non-F Sport model, but the suspension tuning just ruins the ride quality. As much as Lexus would like us to believe, the RX 350 is not an SUV to use for tearing around the back roads.

The all-wheel-drive system, with its differential lock, gives the RX 350 real utility for slippery conditions, while the luxury ride of the standard model makes it a good all-around family vehicle.

Even better than the RX 350 is the hybrid version, the RX 450h. That model, also available with all-wheel drive, boasts most of the utility and comfort of its gasoline-only sibling, but gets much better mileage, almost 10 mpg more.

In both driver assistance and cabin technologies, Lexus shows its conservative nature, refusing to go head-to-head with European competitors. What is available in the RX 350 comes off as very useful, but most features are available in economy SUVs, which bites into the RX 350's value proposition.

Its most advanced feature, Enform Apps, integrates well with the car's interface and provides many useful and, more importantly, familiar features. I frequently use Yelp and OpenTable on my iPhone, so making them available through the RX 350's interface added considerably to my satisfaction with the electronics. Bing local search also makes destination search what it always should have been in a car.

Tech specs
Model 2013 Lexus RX 350
Trim F Sport AWD
Power train 3.5-liter V-6, eight-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 21.8 mpg
Navigation Hard-drive-based navigation with traffic data
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio
Audio system Mark Levinson 330-watt 15-speaker system
Driver aids Blind-spot monitor, rearview camera
Base price $47,000
Price as tested $52,224

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