The Lexus RX was billed as the first-ever luxury SUV when it debuted for 1998. It also became the first Lexus vehicle built outside of Japan when the first one rolled off the line in 2003 at Toyota’s plant in Cambridge, Ont., where it’s still made.
It’s also still a top seller for the company, and for good reason: it’s a very nice vehicle to drive. For this review, I drove the 2021 Lexus RX 350; it’s also available as the RX 450h hybrid, and both can be ordered in stretched versions with three rows of seats. My tester started at $56,150 and was equipped with a Black Line Edition package for $8,850, bringing it to $65,000 before freight and taxes.
Someone liked that big “spindle grille” nose enough to sign off on it, so maybe it’s just me, but that’s a face only a mother could love – and I don’t have any children.
Snout aside, the RX is handsome and well-proportioned, with a lovely swept profile, blacked-out quarter panel to give the look of a “floating” roof, and nice rear-end styling. The Black Line Edition is built on the Lexus F Sport 2 package, and includes triple-beam LED headlights, 20-inch black alloy wheels, and black badges and accents. Note that it only comes in two exterior colours: Ultimate White, or my tester’s handsome shade of Grecian Water blue.
The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the RX 350 its highest five-star rating, while the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) awards it a Top Safety Pick, plus a top “Good-Plus” for its easy-to-use child-seat latches.
The RX comes standard with such features as adaptive cruise control, emergency front braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, blind-spot monitoring, automatic high-beam headlights, and the back-up camera that’s required on all new vehicles. The Black Line Edition further adds clearance sonar with emergency rear braking if it detects cross-traffic and you haven’t stopped for it.
The RX has the inherent practicality of a sport-utility: it’s easy to get in and out, thanks to its not-too-high height and not-too-wide sill. About the only part that isn’t too practical is the black-and-white upholstery colour scheme that comes with the Black Line Edition. It’s gorgeous, but the white edges on the seat and console easily show any dirt.
The cargo compartment has a large opening and it’s easy to pack items in. It has a capacity of 453 L when the seats are up, and they fold flat for a total of 924 L of space. There isn’t a great deal of small-item storage in the console, but you do get a generous console box with a removable liner. Should you have too much to carry inside, the RX 350 can tow up to 1,588 kg (3,500 lb).
User Friendliness: 6.5/10
The RX has buttons and dials for many of its functions, including climate control, stereo volume, drive modes, and its heated and cooled seats, and that’s all good. But then you have items that must be accessed through the tablet-style centre screen, such as navigation, phone, and radio functions. You either use the touchscreen, which requires a reach, or the console-mounted touchpad, which leaves much to be desired.
The touchpad moves a cursor that you must accurately position over the small icons, and then activate without inadvertently moving that cursor away from that icon. It’s tough enough to do when you’re sitting still. Try it while you’re trying to pay attention to the road, or you go over a bump, and you’ll likely think I’ve been a bit too generous with my score.
In addition to its high-tech safety features, the RX 350’s standard equipment includes a power tailgate, eight-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, auto-dimming rearview mirror, heated and ventilated front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, and a cargo net and cover.
The Black Line Edition adds items including auto-levelling headlights, LED exterior lighting, automatic air recirculation, 12.3-inch centre touchscreen, and some extra connectivity items such as embedded navigation with destination assist, safety and service connections, and mobile apps, most on a three-year trial.
The RX 350 contains a 3.5L V6 that makes 295 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque, mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. It comes in a front-wheel-only version for American buyers, but in Canada, all RX models are all-wheel drive. The system primarily powers the front wheels under most conditions, but sends power to the rear when needed for extra traction. It can also be locked in at low speeds for sticky situations, such as a snowed-in driveway.
Those power numbers are a good fit. Acceleration is smooth and linear, both from a standing stop, and when you need extra oomph when passing on the highway. Its get-up-and-go won’t take your breath away, but it gets the job done quietly and efficiently, and the transmission shifts are silky-smooth. I like that while many automakers are going to tiny turbocharged engines to move bigger vehicles around, the RX sticks with a naturally aspirated powerplant. I prefer that for its simplicity, especially if long-term ownership is the goal.
The RX is a roomy vehicle, with lots of headroom and a considerable amount of rear legroom. The front seats are nicely sculptured and bolstered, and they’re supportive – and that’s what you need to stay comfortable on a longer drive. The heated seats have three temperatures and can be set to an auto function that gradually lowers their heat as the cabin gets warmer. Likewise, there are three levels of cool for the ventilated-seat feature.
The rear seats have been given more attention than often is to back chairs, with their own sculpted surface in place of the often-flatter cushions. Take some friends along and they’ll stay happy back there for quite a while too.
Driving Feel: 8/10
If you want really sporty sport-ute handling, you’ll have to go over to automakers like Audi or Jaguar; but if you want to be coddled in comfort, the RX 350 is your ride. The steering is light, and there’s not a lot of feedback, but the vehicle responds well to input, and that neutral touch on the wheel makes it easy to manoeuvre in tight parking spots.
The ride is very smooth without being squishy, and very few road bumps make their way up into the cabin (mostly, it seems, whenever you’re trying to move the centre screen cursor with the touchpad). It’s quiet, it’s calm, and it’s just plain nice.
Fuel Economy: 8/10
The RX 350 is rated by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) at 12.2 L/100 km in the city; 9.0 on the highway; and 10.8 L/100 km in combined driving. In my week with it, I averaged 11.1 L/100 km, and on regular-grade fuel.
That’s about midway for the segment: slightly more than a fairly comparable BMW X3 or Audi Q5, but better figures than an Acura MDX, Porsche Macan, or Buick Enclave. The RX 450h hybrid is rated at a combined 7.9 L/100 km, but of course it’s pricier than its non-electrified RX 350 sibling.
The RX 350 has several premium features and a very high-quality cabin for its starting price of $56,150, but it’s expensive to add more items. My tester’s Black Line Edition option was a hefty step up at $8,850, but all of the packages are pricey, adding between $7,900 and $14,050.
You also have to look at how those packages distribute their goodies, too. All of them add such items as premium lighting and the upgraded infotainment system, but you have to move up to the top package, which brings the RX 350 to $70,200, to add such items as wireless charging, hands-free tailgate, a panoramic sunroof, or a head-up display.
Overall, the RX 350 has long been a favourite of mine. It won’t impress the sports-driver crowd, but that’s not its intention. Instead, it’s roomy, it’s coddle-you-comfortable, it’s lovely inside, and it’s just plain nice to drive. If that’s your list, then this vehicle should be on it.
|Peak Horsepower||295 hp @ 6,300 rpm|
|Peak Torque||267 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||12.2 / 9.0 / 10.8 L/100 km city/hwy/comb|
|Cargo Space||453 / 925 L seats up/down|
|Model Tested||2021 Lexus RX 350|
|Price as Tested||$67,195|
$8,850 – Black Line Edition package (auto-dimming mirror, premium front and rear LED lighting, auto-levelling headlamps, LED fog lamps, clearance sonar with rear braking, Lexus Navigation with Remote, automatic air recirculation, 12.3-inch touch display, 20-inch black alloy wheels, three-spoke F Sport steering wheel, front and rear performance dampers, F Sport Nuluxe seats in black and white with blue stitching, black exterior accents), $8,850