On a very curvy road heading up a forested hill in the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, the 2016 Lexus RX 350 I'm driving sways back and forth on each turn so much that the car's safety sensor assumes I'm drifting due to sleep deprivation, and helpfully flashes a coffee cup icon on the instrument cluster display.
Later on my drive route, I set the adaptive cruise control, and the RX 350 matches speed with the car ahead as it slows for an opportunistic police officer radaring traffic where the speed limit suddenly drops to 35 mph. Feeling rebellious, I take my hands from the wheel, letting the lane-keeping assistant do the steering until it warns me to get back in control.
These features come bundled in the Lexus Safety System Plus package, optioned into this Luxury trim 2016 RX 350, a new generation of Lexus' popular luxury SUV.
Lexus unveiled its new RX model at the New York auto show earlier this year, and sponsored a press preview drive near Portland, Oregon. During the event, I drove both the RX 350 and its gasoline-electric hybrid sibling, the RX 450h.
The new active safety features are not all that revolutionary, as other automakers have been adopting similar features. Lexus is playing catch-up here. However, the style of the new RX 350 certainly stands out. The car takes on the corporate styling language introduced on models such as the NX 200t over the last few years, with very sharp, aggressive and distinct lines. Although the massive grille is a bit much, I like what I see in the RX 350's roofline, a graceful arch ending in a little free-floating kick at the rear. Lexus calls it a "floating roof", as the rear pillar is blacked out so it looks like there's no connection between top and body.
Under the hood you can still find a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, as in the previous generation, but Lexus applied its unique combination port and direct injection fuel system, upping output to 295 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque. That's a 25 horsepower gain over the previous generation. The RX 350 stays current with the times by adding a couple of gears in the transmission as well, standardizing on an eight speed automatic.
Those drivetrain improvements add 2 mpg to the RX 350's average fuel economy in both front-wheel- and all-wheel-drive versions. That means 20 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway for the front-wheel-drive version, and 19 mpg city and 26 mpg highway for the all-wheel-drive model.
Along with testing the new RX 350's safety systems, I noted how well the engine and transmission worked together. Seamless gear changes generally remained below my level of awareness, contributing to a comfortable and quiet ride. Under acceleration I hear the engine note, but its muted purr doesn't interfere with my enjoyment of music playing over the 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio system.
Unlike past RX models, where the steering was so light I could move the wheel with one finger, Lexus programmed a little more heft into the 2016 model. The wheel has a more engaged feeling without requiring much more effort. Putting it in reverse and seeing the surround-view cameras in the RX 350's new 12.3-inch tablet-style LCD, I note that parking garage maneuvering should be particularly easy, with no excuse for brushing pillars or other cars.
The dashboard LCD shows navigation, stereo and hands-free phone controls, the typical elements of a modern infotainment system. I like how the maps look, especially in full-screen, but I'm not a fan of Lexus' Remote Touch interface, which relies on a flat joystick to control an onscreen cursor. I move it around to select different functions, and invariably miss the menu item I wanted and have to back-track. This interface, and the infotainment software, carries over from the previous generation, and shows the same problems.
What I do like about the dashboard electronics is the Lexus Enform Apps integration. Running the Enform app on a smartphone paired to the RX 350 through Bluetooth powers a set of online services including destination search and Yelp. In my experience, this system works very well. However, considering the upscale nature of the Lexus brand, I think a dedicated data connection in the car would be more competitive.
While I found the RX 350 maintained its reputation for comfort on the road, it wasn't much for the corners, showing understeer and plenty of body roll. For people who want to drive more aggressively, Lexus offers the F-Sport version of the RX 350, bringing in suspension improvements and an extra drive mode.
Where the standard RX 350 let me set it to Eco, Normal or Sport modes with a dial on the console, the RX 350 F-Sport adds a Sport Plus mode, which not only sharpens the throttle response but also activates a firmer setting on the mechanically adaptive suspension. That feature, only on the F-Sport version, minimizes wallow in the turns. It works reasonably well, but the RX 350 remains a fairly heavy SUV, and lacks the more nimble character of similarly sized competitors, such as the BMW X5 .
The 2016 Lexus RX 350 looks pretty stunning, a huge leap from the previous generation, but it takes fewer chances under the skin, making evolutionary improvements in power, efficiency and convenience. I am a fan of its luxury character and easy drivability, and appreciate Lexus' adoption of driver-assist features. Those keep it in the running versus the luxury competition. I find the attempt at high-performance less convincing, however.
Lexus has not announced pricing for the 2016 RX 350 as of this date.
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