I suppose we can credit Lexus with bringing us the first ever luxury crossover vehicle in 1998. The RX 300 showed that Americans were hungry for smaller SUVs that were chock-full of features. Other manufacturers quickly caught on and now, 18 years later, Audi, BMW and even Porsche give consumers the full-court press of luxury crossovers.
But the original is still in the game with the 2016 Lexus RX 350 F Sport, the fourth-generation of this popular crossover.
The most obvious changes in this latest iteration of Lexus' five-passenger crossover are on the outside. It's gotten a little longer overall and the wheelbase has increased, but what most folks notice is that gaping, bigmouth frog of a grille. The spindle grille dominates the front of the RX 350, so much that it's difficult to notice the handsome triple-beam LED headlights or deeply recessed fog lamps.
Your eyes will next focus on the sculpted profile, which gives Chris Hemsworth's cheekbones a run for their money. Come around the the rear and the deck lid slopes up steeply to a very sharp rear spoiler. It's like the designers took a scalpel to the previous generation and hacked away any gentle curves, leaving us with this very unique and sharply creased crossover. Like it or not, you have to give Lexus props for making such a bold design choice.
With the stretched wheelbase there is plenty of room for rear-seat passengers, but utility has suffered at the hands of design. The steeply raked rear hatch allows for only 18 cubic feet of space with the rear seats up, 56 cubes with them folded down. This is subpar for the class with the Mercedes-Benz GLC offering 20.5 cubic feet behind the second row, while the Audi Q5 measures a whopping 29.1 cubic feet.
The engine got a tiny bit of a makeover as well. It's still the same 3.5-liter V6, but output is up by 25 horsepower and 19 pound-feet of torque. Now boasting 295 horses and 267 pound-feet of torque, the engine is mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel-drive is standard in our F Sport review model, but other trim lines get front-wheel drive standard with an all-wheel-drive option. The all-wheel drive F Sport has an EPA fuel rating of 19 miles per gallon in the city, 26 miles per gallon on the highway and 22 miles per gallon combined. During my week with the RX 350, my lead foot produced a combined rating of 20.1 miles per gallon.
Don't look for corner-carver abilities, even in the F Sport. This model adds adaptive suspension with drive modes, paddle shifters, well-bolstered seats, 20-inch wheels and some special interior trim, but it still manages to be more sedate than scintillating.
I took the RX 350 F Sport on my super-secret driving road in the hills just east of Oakland, California. There I found a fairly willing chassis stymied by anemic acceleration, numb steering and a transmission that is determined to keep you in automatic mode, no matter how much you want to click those paddle shifters yourself.
The RX 350 starts off the line just fine, but acceleration drops in the midrange as torque doesn't come to full twist until 4,700 rpm. This is especially noticeable when trying to pass someone or accelerate out of a corner. Dropping a gear is absolutely necessary, at which point you may find yourself redlining at 6,500 rpm.
As I dug into corners, the traction control interceded to keep the RX 350 stable, but if the light on the dash hadn't lit up I would never have known it. Steering feel, especially in Sport Plus mode, was so devoid of feel I had no idea when my tires were losing grip. It's tuned to be extralight at parking lot speeds and does weight up a bit at speed, but it's so uncommunicative as to be frightening if you really dive into the twisties.
My final problem is with the transmission. While I've slowly accepted the fact that most manu-matics will shift on their own at the redline, I expect the transmission to stay in manual mode once I put it there. My test roads consist of tight turns interspersed with a few sections of cruising sweepers. The RX 350 would default back to automatic every time I got to the easier parts of the road and proceed to shift to the lowest rpm possible.
Lexus is obviously not going for the enthusiast buyer, and that's OK. This is a crossover here, not a sport sedan. But if they are going to offer an F Sport trim line it needs to live up to its name.
Having said that, the RX 350 is still a comfortable ride for all the driving most normal, level-headed people will be doing. Although the F Sport does pipe in some engine noise upon heavy acceleration, the cabin is mostly devoid of wind noise. The chassis soaks up the broken city pavement very well, and it's a very easy place to spend some time.
Things get better on the inside. Lexus is known for delivering well-appointed cabins with quality materials, and the RX 350 is no different. The gigantic 12.3-inch navigation display doesn't get in the way of your sightline. The two-stage cupholders that can accommodate a shorter soda can or a taller coffee thermos are a thoughtful touch, and there is plenty of storage. The bolstered seats hug your rear like a pair of Jordache jeans, but bigger folks might find them a bit too narrow. The heated seats were quick to warm and automatically reignited at the setting where I left them. A 9-speaker stereo with iPod integration, satellite and HD radio makes for a bumpin' commute.
The Lexus Enform system is fast and easy to use. Navigation is quick to input and the voice recognition system even understood my unique and very difficult to spell street name. Navigation graphics are crisp and even include city-specific graphics like the San Francisco Giants' baseball stadium and an architecturally correct Bay Bridge.
There are still a few little quirks. The phone specific cubby is only big enough to hold an iPhone 5 and the buttons for the heated and cooled front seats are awkwardly located behind the shifter. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are currently not available.
For some reason the Lexus RX 350 would not pair to my iPhone 5, although it synced up just fine with a colleague's Android phone. I'm sure it was just a glitch in my specific test model, but I would try pairing an Apple product at the dealer before you buy if that's your preferred phone, just to make sure.
The Remote Touch joystick that operates the infotainment system is distracting and difficult to use. You can vary its resistance to your inputs, but it's still touchy and not very accurate, often blowing past your intended function and requiring the manual dexterity of a 12-year old video game maven. This will be a deal-breaker for many customers and Lexus would be better served by scrapping the Remote Touch and going with a rotary dial or touchpad instead.
The RX 350's adaptive cruise control can make driving in traffic a little less stressful. While other manufacturers require the car to be travelling at a minimum speed, the RX350 will engage the system whenever the driver desires, so you can take advantage of it even when the traffic sneaks up on you. The system stays engaged unless the car comes to a full stop for more than a four count, but even then, it only requires a simple push of the "resume" button to get going again.
However, acceleration and deceleration were a bit jerky, and even on the most aggressive setting the RX 350 left enough room in front for a Smart car or Fiat 500 to sneak in, resulting in a jarring automatic stab on the brakes.
The 2016 Lexus RX 350 F Sport starts at $49,125. Our test model came with a few extras like the navigation system for $2,180; triple-beam LED headlights with washers, auto-leveling and LED cornering lamps for a whopping $1,615; the Lexus Safety System with adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and lane-departure alert and mitigation, pedestrian detection and a precollision system for $635; as well as a few other options, pushing our final price up to $56,995 with destination.
It's tough to recommend the Lexus RX 350. On the one hand it's good at being a comfortable people mover, but it fails to live up to the athleticism promised in this F Sport trim line. There are luxury crossovers that do a better job of pleasing the enthusiast driver, like the Audi Q5 or the BMW X5. Add to that the finicky Remote Touch system and polarizing styling and you're better off searching for your dream nimble hauler elsewhere.