Test Drive: 2018 Lexus RX 350L

Lexus was one of the first manufacturers to tap into North America’s appetite for a mild, family-friendly utility vehicle with its RX crossover, giving up off-road capability for a more refined and comfortable ride. Considering its incredible success over the past couple decades, it’s shocking that it has taken them so long to offer a three-row crossover, instead offering only their traditional (and now archaic) body-on-frame GX and LX in three-row setups.

It was a simple enough plan

Cramped Cabin

It was a simple enough plan, adding 110 millimetres to the RX’s length (5,000 mm compared to 4,890) while keeping wheelbase the same at 2,790 mm and width at 1,895 mm. What’s not so simple is how Lexus stretched and squeezed the space they had to work with inside to accommodate the three rows in the 2018 Lexus RX 350L. Engineers stole headroom and legroom from the first and second rows to make room for a truly cramped third row.

It might be okay for small kids, but I could barely get in there even with the tilt and slide function, so you can’t really use it for grandparents if your kids are in child seats and can’t easily move their boosters into the third row. Headroom isn’t all that bad, but with less than 60 centimetres of legroom, there really isn’t anywhere to put your feet unless the second squeezes way forward, which will be difficult considering there’s less than 80 cm of legroom for the second row. Typical legroom for a three-row midsize crossover is over 90 cm for the second row and over 70 cm for the third row, and even small-ish mid-sizers like the Kia Sorento and Mitsubishi Outlander manage better than that.

Obviously, the point of a three-row crossover is to have at least an occasionally usable third row, but I’m not so sure this qualifies. If you actually need to use that third row, and want it from Lexus, you’re better off going with the old-school GX 460, which has better rear headroom and legroom than the RX 350L. But hey, at least each third-row seat has a nice cupholder and storage bin! Aside from the modest legroom, the second-row seats are very comfortable, with manual recline, good support and shape, separate centre armrests for each side, and little pop-out cupholders of their own.

Cargo space is small at 210 litres with the third row up, but it powers down (slowly) to reveal 650 L, and the second row also folds down for a completely flat 1,650 L load space. The Acura MDX pretty much doubles it with 447/1,230/2,575 L, and it has more headroom and legroom despite being a very similar size overall. Practicality-wise, the RX L is something of a disaster, so despite its fine qualities as a luxury vehicle, I can’t say that I’d recommend it over any of the three-row competition or its five-seat RX twin.

Built for Comfort

While third row passengers might be packed in like sardines, the driver and passengers in the first two rows should be very comfortable (which is why the regular RX seems like the better option). The front row seats don’t have six thousand adjustments, but they don’t need it because they are well designed and supportive, with heating and ventilation for maximum comfort in any weather. However, making the entire experience even more mellow is a ride that puts comfort first, and I was more than okay with that. Perhaps I’ve truly finally turned the corner to becoming old and cranky, but I was really happy just floating along as the well-cushioned 20-inch tires and soft-sprung suspension muffled any bumps or dips to oblivion. There may have been some secondary floatiness after big undulations, but it was a wafting, relaxing settling and in no way disconcerting.

I’m sure plenty of reviewers will moan and complain about its handling and cornering, but that’s like complaining that the ocean is wet. This is a vehicle built for comfort, which crossovers are ideal for, and it fulfills this mission superbly.

Making acceleration easy is a slightly detuned 3.5L V6, its 290 hp and 263 lb-ft of torque each 5 short of the five-seat’s figures, but the eight-speed transmission and all-wheel drive carried over as is. While power is down slightly, curb weight is up over 100 kilos at 2,095 kg, you wouldn’t know it from stomping on the gas pedal. Acceleration is more than adequate for a family vehicle, and cements Lexus’s reputation for smooth powertrains, gear changes going unnoticed unless you put your mind to it.

Unfortunately, the weight takes its toll on fuel consumption fuel consumption up to 13.1 L/100 km in the city, 9.4 L/100 km on the highway, and 11.1 L/100 km combined according to Transport Canada.

If you do catch yourself driving a bit too fast, the brakes respond promptly and despite some pronounced body roll, the car will hold on and squeal its tires for some time before stability control has to intervene. In other words, despite being quite soft, it can still hang on if you are in a rush and decide to push it out of its comfort zone – it’s just slightly disconcerting doing so. A Sport mode dials up quicker throttle response and holding gears longer, but the suspension is fixed. But overall, if you’re looking for something sporty and engaging in your three-row SUV, you’re better off in a Mazda CX-9 or Acura MDX, or step up to a BMW X5 if you can stretch your budget.

Luxury and Quality

While the interior of the RX 350L is cramped in the back, up front it’s not so bad, so you get to appreciate the finer aspects of the Lexus interior, like the stylish metallic trim that wraps around the centre stack, and pinstripe wood trim in the console. Our RX featured the all-in $6,050 Executive Package, cranking up the opulence with premium leather in a warm brown with red stitching, 15-speaker Mark Levinson surround sound, rear window shades, rear power recline, separate climate controls for the third row, 10-way power front seats, hands-free tailgate, and cool tech like wireless charging and head-up display.

It’s not just the wealth of features, it’s the top-notch quality throughout, and lovely details like an analogue clock and machined metal dials. However, there are the occasional missteps, like the cruise control stalk shared with the Toyota Corolla (and probably every other Toyota product on the planet) and some chintzy leather on the transmission shifter boot.

And now we get to the fun part, the infotainment system. I can’t recall the last time I got so frustrated with an infotainment system. I’m not a fan of Acura or Infiniti’s dual-screen systems, but at least they are passably functional once you get used to them. The Lexus system is controlled by a little mouse on the console, which is not very accurate for placing and moving around the screen, with weird haptic feedback that felt more like shakiness than positive feedback. To make matters worse, some of the key functions are tiny icons in the middle of the screen, and the cursor tends to jump past them to larger edge and corner icons, the haptic feedback fighting you every step of the way. I was sorely tempted to rip it out and just suffer whatever manual controls are available to listen to CDs.

While the mouse controller is irritating and distracting, the cup holders next to it offer a bit of redemption. The front spot has a floor that can be pushed down so that taller drinks don’t stick up so much, potentially getting in the way and increasing the risk of tipping. If you switch back to a smaller drink, just push the arrow button and the bottom rises back up to normal depth. Then again, if both you and your passenger like big, tall coffees, then one of you still has to suffer a short spot because the second cupholder in the console is just the regular size.

Final Warning

I said it earlier and I’ll say it again: The Lexus RX 350L just doesn’t make sense. The third row is one of the worst I’ve ever crammed myself into for a mid-size crossover, so it’s really only suitable for small children, and it cuts into second-row seating quite a bit. If you really need that third row, a fully loaded Acura MDX Elite comes in at $66,690 with a $2,075 destination fee, while the RX 350L price starts at $66,250 with $2,075 destination fee, and like the RX, you can get the Acura in Hybrid form as well. The regular RX 350 offers better cargo space and the same comfort and luxury for a far better price (starting at $56,750), and the three-row RX 350L just seems like a poor adaptation of an excellent vehicle that dominates its segment for good reason.

2018 Lexus RX 350L
Engine Displacement: 3.5L
Engine Cylinders: V6
Peak Horsepower: 290 hp @ 6,300 rpm
Peak Torque: 263 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm
Fuel Economy: 13.1/9.4/11.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space: 211/650/1,650 L behind 3rd/2nd/1st row
articles_PricingType 2018 Lexus RX 350L
Base Price $66,050
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,075
Price as Tested $74,275
Optional Equipment $6,050 – Executive Package (Woodgrain- & leather-wrapped steering wheel, rear-seat climate controls, automatic air recirculation control system, 15-speaker Mark Levinson surround sound audio system, premium leather seat surfaces, 10-way power adjustable front seats, power foldable rear seats, rear-seat power adjustable recline, Qi-compatible wireless smartphone charging with charge indicator light, touch-free power back door, manual rear-door sunshade, head-up display, aluminum scuff plates – front LED illuminated) $6,050
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.4
7 Styling
8 Powertrain
9 Quality
9 Comfort
6 Practicality
8 Drivability
6 Usability/Ergonomics
6 Fuel Economy
8 Features
7 Value