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2023 Lexus RX First Drive Review: Turbo? Hybrid? Why Not Both?

Lexus doesn’t stray too far from the established formula with its best-selling luxury crossover, but makes some bold moves with the new RX that mostly pay off.

2023 Lexus RX 500h F Sport Performance AWD
The O.G. luxury crossover returns for a fifth generation with a new look, new tech and four powertrain options to choose from.
Antuan Goodwin/CNET

With 2.3 million examples sold so far, you have to admit that Lexus was onto something when it created the luxury crossover segment with the debut of the RX back in 1998. Now, the automaker is back for a fifth crack at its best-selling model, and it's bringing the heat with three variants at launch and a fourth plug-in hybrid coming soon. 

Meet the new RX

The new Lexus RX will only be available in a two-row configuration at launch. The future of the three-row RX L is unclear; Lexus said the five-seater outsold the seven-passenger model by a very wide margin and that, for now, it's choosing to focus its attention on the best fit for its customers.

The new RX's dimensions stick pretty closely to the outgoing model. It's exactly the same overall length as before but the 112.2-inch wheelbase is 2.4 inches longer, creating a more planted look and freeing up cabin space. The wide and low appearance isn't just an illusion; the SUV is also an inch wider and 0.4-inch shorter than before.

2023 Lexus RX dimensions compared


2022 Lexus RX 2023 Lexus RX Difference
Length 192.5 in. 192.5 in. 0.0 in.
Wheelbase 109.8 in. 112.2 in. +2.4 in.
Width 74.6 in. 75.6 in. +1.0 in.
Height 67.7 in. 67.3 in. -0.4 in.

The RX's spindle grille has become what Lexus' designers call a "spindle body," losing its chrome surround, blending and fading more seamlessly into the rest of the fascia. The front end is more upright with a pronounced nose between the enlarged headlamps' L-shaped light signatures. The SUV retains its floating roof design, while a more raked windshield and muscular contours over the rear arches add a sporty flair. Bringing up the rear, the horizontal taillights now connect across the hatch to form a continuous light bar. Overall, the new RX is a good-looking SUV. 

High quality interior

The RX's cabin is handsomely appointed and has a simplified design. Much of this redesign comes at the expense of physical controls -- such as climate controls permanently located on the touchscreen -- which is a bit of a user-friendliness bummer, but also comes with certain advantages for patient drivers. 

For example, the steering wheel buttons are almost completely devoid of printed labels. Instead, tooltips appear in the standard 7-inch digital instrument cluster or the optional head-up display when the driver's thumb contacts the capacitive pads. This means there's a bit of a learning curve for memorizing where your thumb needs to go, and there's a bit of lag in responsiveness, but users can now program a second layer of controls to put their most commonly used functions at their literal fingertips. It's a bit annoying at first, but could be a huge benefit to owners who take the time to personalize.

The interior layout is much cleaner than before.

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The tall seating position is nice, and I dig how the steering wheel can be positioned quite low without blocking the gauges. The doors pop open at the push of a button with electronic latches (there are hidden mechanical pulls in case the battery dies) and integrate with a new feature called Safe Exit Assist, which prevents the doors from opening if the RX detects they might collide with a vehicle moving into the blind spot.

Rounding out the new creature comforts is a quicker opening rear hatch with a lower load-in height and a new feature that Lexus calls Walk and Lock. When the RX detects that the driver has walked away from the open hatch, it automatically closes the liftgate after 90 seconds and locks itself. This is very useful when your hands are full with cargo. The RX also continues to offer kick-to-open hands-free access on approach.

Lexus Interface cabin tech

The 2023 RX waves goodbye to Lexus' awkward Remote Touch controller and introduces standard 9.8-inch touchscreen or an optional large 14-inch screen for Premium grades and above. The new hardware is home to the Lexus Interface, a reskin of Toyota's latest-gen software that debuted on the new Tundra. Here again, there's a bit of a learning curve; certain options and toggles can be difficult to find in the reorganized menus, but this is overall a much better dashboard experience than almost anything Lexus has offered before.

There's a bit of a learning curve and many features are tied to subscriptions, but this is a much better dashboard experience than anything Lexus has offered before. 

Lexus

The software works best when you take advantage of searching to find what you're looking for, whether that be using web-connected Google Destination search for points of interest or the "Hey, Lexus" voice-recognition assistant. The system is highly customizable and features integrations with streaming services like Amazon Music, Apple Music and Spotify. There's an onboard Wi-Fi hotspot and phone-based Digital Key functionalities, but many of these connected features are subscription-based, so you'll have to pay to play after the initial trial period.

For users who aren't a fan of Lexus' onboard infotainment, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are also standard with wireless connectivity. Passengers can keep their devices juiced via an available wireless charging pad as well as four USB Type-C ports on the first row alone, plus two more Type-C ports to keep backseat drivers occupied.

Standard Lexus Safety System Plus 3.0

The Lexus Safety System Plus 3.0 driver aid suite is standard equipment for the 2023 RX, rolling in precollision emergency braking -- along with new detection and intervention during turns at intersections -- road sign assist, lane-tracing assist, lane departure prevention, automatic high beams and adaptive cruise control. The new model also introduces a feature called Proactive Driving Assist, which applies a touch of automatic braking and slight steering assist to control speed around bends and manage distance when approaching a slower-moving vehicle. I was pleased to find PDA to be fairly subtle in its operation, but was equally pleased to learn the feature can be easily deactivated in a menu.

Advanced Park Assist is optional for all grades and is able to steer, brake and accelerate under the driver's supervision to guide the RX into and out of perpendicular or parallel spaces. Also new for 2023 is Traffic Jam Assist, which combines adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist, and works on highways at speeds below 25 mph, allowing the driver to relax hands-free in heavy traffic. They can't relax too much, however; the system requires the driver's attention to function and uses infrared cameras on the steering column to ensure their eyes remain open and pointed at the road.

Lexus estimates that around 70% of 2023 RXs will be sold with the 2.4-liter turbo.

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The bread and butter: RX 350

Of the three models available at launch, the lion's share of sales will likely be the RX 350. This spec is powered by Toyota's 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine -- seen previously in the Highlander -- sending 275 horsepower and a peppy 317 pound-feet of torque through an eight-speed automatic transmission. That's a 50-lb.-ft. increase over the outgoing V6, resulting in additional passing power that is immediately noticeable on the road. 

Available with front- or all-wheel drive, the RX 350 gains about 2 mpg across the board relative to the model it replaces, but that still makes it the least-efficient RX in the lineup. Expect 22 mpg city, 29 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined with FWD and 21 mpg city, 28 mpg highway and 24 mpg combined with AWD.

The RX 350 can be optioned with an F Sport Handling package that upgrades to larger 21-inch wheels (versus the standard 19s), adaptive dampers and larger six-piston front brakes with 15.7-inch rotors (replacing the standard two-pot, 13.4-inch stoppers). The cabin features an F Sport steering wheel, red or black sport seats, aluminum trim and F Sport-themed digital gauges, while the exterior can be had in F Sport exclusive Ultra White or Grecian Water blue paint. These changes won't transform the RX into a canyon carver, but a little extra sport in this utility vehicle goes a long way toward a more enjoyable drive and a more athletic look.

The eco choice: RX 350h AWD

The RX 350h is powered by Lexus' familiar naturally aspirated 2.5-liter hybrid system on the front axle and an electric motor powering the rear wheels. Returning an estimated 37 mpg in the city, 34 mpg on the highway and 36 mpg combined, the RX 350h the most efficient RX in the lineup -- for now.

Net output is stated at 246 hp and 233 lb.-ft. of torque, which feels more relaxed and sedate on the road after getting out of the gas-only RX 350. The hybrid seems to get off the line a bit better than the turbo, but quickly loses steam at higher revs. At 7.4 seconds to 60 mph (versus 7.2 for the 350 AWD), there's not much measurable difference in giddyup, but the hybrid is significantly quieter, which makes it feel more premium overall.

Great power must also come with great control, so the RX 500h rides on grippy Michelin Pilot Sport 4 SUV tires.

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The powerhouse: RX 500h F Sport Performance AWD

At the top of the lineup is the RX 500h F Sport, remixing elements of the RX 350 and 350h with a performance-oriented twist. Underhood, the 2.4-liter turbo returns with a 271-hp tune, but the RX 500h switches to a six-speed automatic gearbox with the addition of an integrated electric motor that boosts front-axle torque to 339 lb.-ft. A second 80-kW motor/generator on the rear axle brings its own dedicated power supply unit and inverter, rounding out what Lexus calls the Direct4 all-wheel-drive system. Total system output is estimated at 366 hp and 406 lb.-ft. of torque.

The RX 500h features a nickel-metal-hydride battery tucked under its rear seats, just like the RX 350h, but this one is slightly larger with more cells (240 versus 216) and a slightly higher nominal voltage (288 volts versus 259.) The more robust power system for the Direct4 rear electric motor allows the RX 500h to be more proactive with rear power delivery than the 350h, adding torque liberally to boost acceleration and driving dynamics as opposed to only supplying power during traction loss.

The quickest model in the lineup, the 500h shaves the RX's 0-to-60-mph time to 5.9 seconds. It's also the most nimble, with the F Sport Performance package being standard equipment. This rolls in the adaptive dampers, bigger brakes and wheels and the visual upgrades of the Handling package, but also adds grippier Michelin Pilot Sport 4 SUV tires and Dynamic Rear Steering. DRS boosts maneuverability and stability, adding up to 4 degrees of rear-wheel steering in either the same or the opposite direction as the front wheels depending on speed.

Stickier tires and more power come with a hit to efficiency, but the RX 500h still manages a respectable 27 mpg city, 28 mpg highway and 27 mpg combined.

The future: RX 450h Plus plug-in hybrid

The plug-in hybrid RX 450h Plus will join the lineup at "a later date," according to Lexus representatives. The PHEV will launch in Europe first, powered by the same 2.5-liter hybrid system as the 350h. For PHEV duty, the RX swaps out the nickel-metal battery for a larger, 18.1-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion unit. Lexus didn't provide specs for the RX PHEV, but expect the numbers to end up in the same ballpark as the smaller NX 450h Plus and Toyota RAV4 Prime, which use the same powertrain and battery. That means around 300 hp and about 35-40 miles of range per charge before the gasoline hybrid system kicks in.

The trip computer in my Euro-spec test car read 45 kilometers of range (about 28 miles) and around 80% battery when I settled behind the wheel. After around 10 miles of quiet, mostly electric motoring, I returned with 33 km left on the clock (around 20.5 miles) -- a bit better than expected, but no real surprises there. The RX PHEV was as quiet and capable in its all-electric mode as the RAV4 Prime with wide-open acceleration that seems to split the difference between the RX 350h and 500h. Whenever Lexus gets around to bringing the RX 450h Plus stateside, I think it'll be the spec to get.

The RX 450h Plus plug-in hybrid is coming to America, we just don't know when.

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Arriving this year

By the end of the year, the 2023 Lexus RX 350, 350h and 500h should all be available at dealerships across the US. Depending on the model and engine chosen, buyers will have six grades to choose from -- Standard, Premium, Premium Plus, Luxury, F Sport Handling and F Sport Performance. Pricing has not been announced just yet.

The RX is Lexus' best-selling model by a long shot, often outselling every other model in the company's portfolio combined, so it is a very important vehicle for the brand. That's why the new RX doesn't stray too far from its established formula, but makes a few bold moves that mostly pay off. With varied and interesting powertrain options, smart technology that feels appropriately modern and possibly the most handsome design of any RX before, the 2023 model maintains its position as one of the top picks in the luxury crossover class it created.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of CNET's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.