Lexus RX 350 XE (2009) Driving Impression

Lexus RX 350 2009

When it comes to the Lexus RX, the Japanese premium brand is faced with a double whammy. For a company as resolutely “scientific” as Lexus, understanding (and cracking) the premium market must at times be a frustrating exercise. Perfection, it would appear, is simply not good enough to persuade would-be BMW/Mercedes/Audi buyers into a Lexus showroom. There are also immeasurable things such as snob appeal, history and emotion that need to factored into consideration, too. And then, in the case of the SUV segment, it gets even more complicated. Buyers don’t typically drive off-road, but they seem to want their vehicles to look like they can. And… it would appear, they also need to know that their vehicles can indeed do the rough stuff, when required – even if that turns out to be “never”. What does all of this have to do with the Lexus RX? Well, the previous version was a mildly successful premium crossover, but research has convinced Lexus that what the market actually wants is something a bit more “butch”. Enter new Lexus RX.

Not a softie anymore?

While the new Lexus RX very much continues with the same slightly futuristic design theme of its predecessor, you’ll be quite surprised by the difference when the two are parked next to one another. The new version has significantly more presence compared with the somewhat dainty, pointy noised predecessor. Its tracks are wider, the wheels bigger and the front-end more aggressive. In general the looks still verge on the inoffensive side, but there’s been a definite step towards offering a more masculine-looking vehicle. This alone should ensure it more buyers. Another upshot is that the new Lexus RX looks expensive – the chrome finishes are beautifully executed and the build quality flawless, as we’ve come to expect from Lexus.

“Flawless” is not a word that one tends to find often in the motoring media, but in this Lexus’s case it also applies to the cabin, at least in terms of fit and finish. It’s a vehicle that “feels” and “looks” very expensive from behind the steering wheel. The trim materials all make a strong quality impression, and the manner in which all the different trim bits and colours elegantly flow together is something that is worth sitting back for, just to take it all in. What Lexus has been particularly successful with, is in combining traditional materials such as leather and wood, with high-tech features. Nothing jars or stands out for the wrong reasons. The beautiful mood lighting only accentuates the soft curves of the facia, and even the controversial mouse-like control system on the centre console (called a “haptic” device) seems camouflaged.

High levels of comfort

Another usual  strength that the new Lexus RX retains is seating comfort. The front chairs are very generously padded, yet also provide good support when the speeds rise and the road gets twisty. Both front seats are electrically adjustable, and the steering wheel offers generous rake/reach movement. Initially the driving position feels somewhat strange, though, because the gearlever sits not on the transmission tunnel, but on the facia itself – it had to move there to make space for the haptic device. It only takes a few drives to get used to, however, and an advantage of the layout is that Lexus has added a generously sized storage space underneath the transmission tunnel – very clever.

Those seated in the rear are also well catered for. There are ventilation outlets for rear passengers, as well as good legroom and even reclining backrests. If there is a packaging concern, it is to be found in the boot. Because of the fitment of a full-size spare wheel, the floor of the boot is elevated, which not only hampers loading and unloading, but also the physical space available for packing. At least the rear seat is split 40/20/20 and can fold to accommodate larger objects when required. But, yes, the Lexus RX 350 can’t match the competition in terms of packing space.

It immediately hits back, however, with a full-house specification list; Climate control, auto lights/wipers, xenon lamps, audio system with a 30 GB hard drive, cruise control, keyless entry, front/rear park assist, satellite navigation and no fewer than eight airbags are all part of the deal.

An athletic SUV

The Lexus RX 350 is powered by one of those creamy smooth V6 engines the brand has become famous for. The 3,5-litre unit develops 204 kW and 346 Nm of torque, at a relatively high 4 700 rpm. But don’t be alarmed, 90 % of that torque figure is already available at 2 300 rpm, and remains so all the way to 6 100! So, it’s certainly flexible, and coupled with a refined six-speed automatic transmission, ensures effortlessly swift performance. The 0-100 km/h dash is completed in a very fast 8 seconds, for example… not bad for a SUV that weighs more than two tonnes!

The significantly different approach to suspension damping fits the responsiveness of the engine, too. Compared with its predecessor, which put the emphasis firmly on ride comfort, the newcomer is firmer all-round, which results in greater cornering stability with less body roll. Thankfully, the old car’s exemplary ride comfort has not been affected too much, because the damping of the new Lexus RX is excellent, and remains so on most surfaces.

And off-road? Well, let’s be honest… the Lexus RX wasn’t developed to do much overlanding. It may feature a full-time all-wheel drive system, but it generally runs in front-wheel drive to save fuel, and will only send power elsewhere when slip is detected. And while there is a way to lock it into four-wheel drive, when required, there is no low-range transfer case. That said, the ground clearance is not bad, and it generally performs well on gravel… if you must.

Lexus RX 350 - Verdict

At first glance the new Lexus RX doesn’t seem to represent a significant step forward from its predecessor, but looks can be deceiving. Improved in every way, from its on-road dynamics to its cabin design and layout and even its performance, the RX shows that Lexus is learning important lessons very quickly. It retains the previous model’s high-tech character and unique design appeal, but genuinely comes across as a more “Germanic” product in the way it feels from behind the steering wheel. And that, as we all know, can only go down well…

We like:

• Great quality • Standard specification • Ride/handling • Comfort

We don’t like:

• Small boot

Fast Facts:

Engine: 3,5-litre, V6, petrol Power: 204 kW @ 6 200 rpm Torque: 346 Nm @ 4 700 rpm Transmission: Six-speed automatic Wheels: 19-inch alloy Top speed: 200 km/h 0-100 km/h: 8,0 seconds Fuel economy: 10,6 litres/100 km

Source: www.um.co.za

Also consider:

BMW X5 xDrive30i Steptronic: Really hard to beat the X5 – it offers a very desirable mix of status, performance, practicality and great on-road dynamics. Lacks the Lexus’s full-house specification and in some respects, its refinement.

Porsche Cayenne V6 Tiptronic: Arguably one of the best buys on the market, but keep in mind that the base price excludes quite a few toys that are standard on other contenders. Still… it is a Porsche. Unbeatable comfort/dynamics balance.

Mercedes-Benz ML350 7G-tronic: Very popular and with good reason. The ML looks the part inside and out, and boasts one of the best cabins in its segment. The powertrain is the slight disappointment. It is certainly powerful enough, but is not as refined as it should be – and that counts for the transmission, too.

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