Lexus injected its brand, which had taken the place of Cadillac among AARP members, with a little excitement when it introduced the LFA and the IS-F. While those models have legitimate sport cred, the F-Sport line of cars, exemplified here by the 2013 Lexus RX 350 F Sport, comes off as much less convincing.
In colloquial terms, F Sport is all hat and no cattle.
On its own, the Lexus RX 350 works as a solid luxury SUV. Seating for five, flexible cargo space, and an easy driving character have made it a strong seller for Lexus, and a success that other automakers attempt to duplicate. Appointments such as power-adjustable leather seats and a powered lift gate add to the RX 350's appeal, not to mention a base price around $40,000.
Lexus fits the RX 350 with a useful cabin electronics suite featuring navigation, hands-free phone, and a quality stereo. A few driver assistance features are also available, but Lexus pushes few boundaries, going with tried-and-true rather than setting a benchmark for the gadget-happy set.
However, Lexus made a significant step forward with its Enform app integration. This system lets drivers access popular apps such as Yelp, Pandora, and Bing local search using the car's interface, including voice command.
F Sport tuning
In F Sport trim, the RX 350's engine remains unchanged. A 3.5-liter V-6, it produces 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. The most significant changes come in the transmission and suspension.
The automatic transmission gets eight gears, instead of the six speed in the standard RX, and includes steering-wheel-mounted paddles for the manual shift mode. Although it does not shift with quite the snappiness I would want in a sport transmission, the extra gears are welcome for the sake of efficiency.
To earn its F Sport badges, Lexus tightens up the suspension, giving it a more rigid character so the RX 350 corners with better stability. In my opinion, this tuning effectively ruins the RX 350. Without F Sport, the RX 350 delivers a comfortable, luxury-oriented ride, suitable to the drivetrain and overall demeanor of the vehicle. Lacking an adaptive suspension to provide comfort and sport modes, the RX 350 F Sport bounced and jounced me on rough roads, while the ride over better pavement felt no better than a typical Toyota's.
Attempting to get into the spirit of F Sport, I piloted the RX 350 along twisty mountain roads, working the throttle hard and hitting the corners with the intention of hearing some tire squeal.
With the eight-speed transmission in D, it was loath to kick down to lower gears, making for a big gap between when I wanted power and when it got it. As there was no automatic Sport mode, I went straight to manual, which worked much better. A wide power band let me maintain third gear most of the time, with jumps down to second for the sharper turns.
Although not overwhelming me with power, the engine afforded steady, predictable acceleration.
The suspension tuning certainly aided cornering, but if you want to drive fast in an SUV, there are much better cars for this purpose. Both the BMW X5 M and Porsche Cayenne compete for king daddy in SUV performance, but even the Acura MDX, with its active suspension and torque-vectoring all-wheel drive, impressed the heck out of me.
The RX 350 F Sport I reviewed came with an all-wheel-drive system; Lexus also makes the model available in front-wheel drive. This all-wheel-drive system does not vector torque across the rear wheels, which would help cornering. However, Lexus does include a differential lock function, which hints what the RX 350 is better-suited for. In snow or other slippery conditions, the differential lock keeps power running to all four wheels, instead of automatically portioning it to the wheels that seem to have the most grip.
When I first got behind the RX 350's wheel, I could tell it used an electric power-steering boost. The feel of the electric motor helping me turn the wheels was unmistakable. Unlike past RX models I have driven, this power steering requires a little more effort to turn the wheel, although still maintaining a luxury feel.
For the F Sport model, Lexus does not change the power-steering tuning, leaving it with a little play in the wheel. This steering system feels nothing like the precise, performance electric power steering of something like the new Porsche 911. However, electric power steering will boost efficiency.
Despite F Sport not really cutting the mustard as a sporting trim, I mostly enjoyed driving the RX 350 around as transportation. The car easily pulled in greater than 20 miles per gallon with a good amount of freeway driving balancing out city miles. It's an uncomplicated car to drive: drop the shifter in D and enjoy the high seating position and luxury amenities of the cabin.
If it weren't for the F Sport suspension tuning, I would even recommend it for a road trip.
This RX 350 came with a blind-spot monitor system, lighting up icons in the side mirrors when other cars were in the next lane over, to help with the driving. Lexus also makes a head-up display available, which shows navigation instructions on the windshield. That option was not on this review car.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|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|
|Price as tested||$52,224|