Lexus' RX model manages to pick up awards almost yearly, from J.D. Power and Associates' Vehicle Dependability to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Top Safety Pick. So it isn't too surprising that Lexus has made only minor changes to this luxury SUV since the current generation's introduction in 2008.
Continuing this theme, the 2015 Lexus RX 350 merely adds a few features over the previous year, now gaining a head-up display and LED headlights, both designed to keep pace with the competition.
What the RX 350 does most successfully, similar to other Lexus and Toyota models, is provide dependable transportation and a driving experience that requires little engagement.
The RX 350, with its five-passenger SUV design, will accommodate most families. At the same time, 40 cubic feet of cargo space means plenty of room for luggage or the spoils of a shopping expedition. An elegant design and comfortable ride make it perfectly suitable as a commute car. The design lets it serve a variety of purposes, part of its popular appeal.
Less than expected
Getting into this new RX 350, I was surprised how small the LCD in the dashboard looked. The RX 350 comes standard with a 7-inch display, but the navigation option, included in the car I tested, bumps up the LCD size to 8 inches. Given the comfortable leather seats and generally nice interior design, I was expecting the wider LCDs I've seen in BMW and Mercedes-Benz models.
The Lexus Remote Touch interface, a square joystick on the console controlling a cursor on the screen, was more familiar. Lexus launched this interface controller some years ago, and I've always felt it was a good idea poorly executed. The controller movement needs more heft to fit the RX 350's luxury theme, and I often had trouble clicking exactly what I wanted, as the controller tended to slip under my hand.
That said, Lexus did a nice job with the onscreen graphics, especially for the main menu. I found them intuitive to use and liked the look.
Lexus has done little to update the navigation system in the RX 350 over the years. The maps only show in a top-down format, and live traffic coverage is not as comprehensive as in competitor models. However, the system does its job reasonably well, offering solid route guidance to destinations.
The available head-up display (HUD) contributes to guidance by showing turn-by-turn directions projected low on the windshield, next to a digital speed indicator. This HUD shows only graphics in monochrome, unlike the multicolored HUD graphics in BMW models. As with other features in the RX 350, the HUD works well but doesn't push ahead of, or even stay even with, the competition's.
Destination search is one area where Lexus has improved the RX 350's navigation system. Along with address entry and the points-of-interest database, Lexus has added its Enform telematics system. With it, from the car you can call up a concierge for help finding businesses, but more interesting is the Enform app integration. With the Enform app running on my phone, which I then paired to the car's Bluetooth network, I could access Bing search, Yelp, OpenTable, and Facebook Places.
Bing offers a free-form local business search similar to the way other automakers integrate Google local search. On the RX 350's LCD, I could either enter text with the Remote Touch controller, or choose a microphone icon to activate voice entry. I was disappointed to see that Lexus hadn't gone for full integration, and made Bing search accessible through the car's general voice-command system, activated from a button on the steering wheel.
Yelp, OpenTable, and Facebook Places also help in finding destinations for the navigation system, but sadly lack any voice control.
Despite Lexus burying the Enform apps under a couple of menus, I preferred using them to find destinations, as the system worked fast and gave me business addresses that were more up-to-date than what I found in the car's own points-of-interest database. The Yelp listings helped me determine whether a listed restaurant was actually any good.
Lexus includes a couple of music apps, iHeartRadio and Pandora, with Enform. These complement the car's own HD radio, satellite radio, Bluetooth streaming, and USB port. I most often used my iPhone in the RX 350 as an audio source, either plugging it into the USB port or streaming it via Bluetooth. I was impressed that I could use the car's interface to choose music from the iPhone when it was streaming over Bluetooth. The RX 350's voice command also let me request specific artists or albums when the iPhone was cabled to the USB port.
The option load in this RX 350 included the 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio system. For music playback, I preferred to turn off the Surround Sound processing. The result was excellent clarity and a nicely placed soundstage over the dashboard. Music came through with excellent clarity and balance, with an underlying warmth which made the listening experience more comfortable.
When I hit the RX 350's start button, there wasn't a lot of noise from under the hood, partly due to the excessive amount of plastic cladding hiding engine block and related plumbing. The engine in the RX 350, carrying over from past model years, is a 3.5-liter V-6 posting output numbers of 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. Lexus could squeeze more power out of this engine by going to direct injection, but it works as an adequate amount for the car.
What I most felt from behind the wheel was a Goldilocks vibe, where the RX 350 wasn't too powerful, but wasn't too slow, either. That vibe pervaded the car, with ride quality and steering response all feeling just right for a luxury SUV.
The RX 350 doesn't feel designed for the engaged driver. Rather, it's for the person who wants an uncomplicated experience behind the wheel. The steering feel is comfortable, not twitchy but not too loose. The wheel turns easily but offers a little bit of heft, more so than in some previous versions of the RX 350. Parking lot maneuvers took little effort, letting me concentrate on finding an open spot and watching for stray shopping carts. On the freeway, I could hold my lane position with one hand for miles and miles.
Lexus doesn't get so wild as to offer an air suspension in the RX 350, something that would help the ride quality, but the fixed suspension creates quite a bit of comfort. I could feel a little shimmy over rough patches as the dampers reacted, keeping the body steady, but this was about the most comfortable fixed suspension I've ever experienced.
The six-speed automatic transmission seemed designed for stealth, keeping its gear changes below my awareness level unless I pinned the accelerator to the floor. At the same time, the transmission offered me the most opportunity to interfere with the RX 350's smooth driving character. I could switch it to Sport mode, completely unnecessary in this car, to keep the engine speed just a little higher than normal. And I could select gears manually, shifting through the six gears sequentially.
Don't let the Sport mode on the shifter convince you that there is anything sporty about the RX 350's driving character. First of all, the Sport mode is not at all aggressive. Second, the suspension isn't really up to the task of hard cornering. It feels alright at normal speeds, but push it too hard and the RX 350 will wallow. To keep things from getting out of control, Lexus includes its Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system, or VDIM, which combines stability and traction control.
The all-wheel-drive system included on the RX 350 I tested adds rear-wheel power to the car's front-wheel-drive architecture. That system is going to bias torque toward the front wheels, but send it to the rears as needed. All-wheel-drive should enhance handling, but I couldn't feel its effect when I put the RX 350 through its paces. If you get stuck in a mud puddle or snowbank, a switch on the console locks the differential, pushing torque to all four wheels and hopefully getting the RX 350 free.
The all-wheel-drive system doesn't interfere much with fuel economy. Both front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive RX 350's rate 18 mpg in the city, but the former gets a 1 mpg boost over the all-wheel-drive version's 24 mpg highway number. Lexus hasn't exploited any of the newer tricks, such as idle stop, used by the competition to boost fuel economy. Watching the trip computer, I noticed fuel economy taking a huge hit on the streets of San Francisco. I turned in an average for my time with the car of 18.6 mpg, not particularly good.
Punching below its weight
For 2015, the RX 350's most notable feature is its head-up display. The blind-spot monitoring system was also a useful driver-assistance feature, as it lit up an icon in the side mirrors when other cars were in the next lane over. Lexus' rear-view camera doesn't offer any overlays, such as distance or trajectory lines. The biggest surprise is the lack of an adaptive cruise control system, a feature included by just about every competitor.
I came away from my time with the 2015 Lexus RX 350 appreciating its comfort and utility but wanting more. When contemplating any errand or trip, I knew the RX 350 would work as effortless transportation. However, the mediocre fuel economy would mean at least weekly trips to the gas station.
The cabin electronics were passable but fell short of what I would expect from a luxury SUV. The navigation system is a good example, as it did its job but didn't look any different than what I would see in a car half the price of the RX 350. The 8-inch LCD certainly looked small, and I am not a fan of the Remote Touch interface. The Enform app integration works well, but a luxury vehicle should really have a built-in data connection. Enform isn't much different than the Entune system available in Toyota cars.
The lack of adaptive cruise control really suggests Lexus isn't trying to surpass the competition. While that feature may seem a mere convenience, its sensors also enable collision prevention systems in other cars.
|Model||2015 Lexus RX 350|
|Powertrain||3.5-liter V-6 engine, six-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||18 mpg city/24 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||18.6 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional, with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Internet streaming, Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, iOS integration, HD radio, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Mark Levinson 15-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Head-up display, blind-spot monitor, rear-view camera|
|Price as tested||$54,340|