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Friday
Nov132015

First Run: 2016 Lexus RX

By Christopher A. Sawyer

Lexus has sold two million RX crossovers since its introduction in 1998. It is the highest selling model in the Lexus lineup, followed closely by the ES sedan. Like that vehicle, it has been one of the softest, conservative and most cautious designs in the stable. Until now. The 2016 RX takes the look of the brand’s youthful NX crossover, blows it up to full size, and adds an F Sport model to, let’s be blunt, attract men with even a hint of testosterone; the very people who have stayed away from the overtly feminine previous generations. Why take such a risk with a vehicle that sells more than 100,000 units per year? That’s easy. Lexus had to.

From the five competitors in the market when the RX launched in 1998 to the 16 competitors today, the battle for the luxury crossover buyer is fierce. In that time, the RX has seen its share of the market drop from 30% to 15%, and this erosion will continue as more players come onto the field. A facelift or refresh wasn’t going to be enough to hold on to these buyers. To be blunt, over time familiarity breeds contempt.

The model lineup retains the RX 350 and the hybrid RX 450h, but each adds an F Sport model. These additions are designed to attract male buyer and lure customers out of the competition by washing down the model’s estrogen-laden DNA with a subtle hint of musk oil and sweat. It does so by adding black outside mirror caps and badges, a unique 20-in. wheel design, scored aluminum interior trim, sport seats, F Sport instrumentation, adaptive suspension, a specially designed pipe to bring engine intake sounds into the cabin, and a center console-mounted Drive Mode Select controller with Sport, Sport S+, and Custom modes.

The 2016 RX is 4.7 in. longer, 0.4 in. wider, and sits on a 1.9-in. longer wheelbase. It may not seem like a big difference, but these dimensional increases allowed the engineers to improve the front and rear headroom (+0.3/+1.4 in.), front and rear hip room (+1.1/+1.5 in.) and front and rear leg room (+1.0/+1.2 in.).

In an effort to improve handling, the engine mounts were relocated to reduce the effect engine roll and lateral movement have on yaw response. Thus a mount on the upper body directly transmits lateral forces by tying body and engine together. Other mounts were moved to minimize the offset between the powertrain’s vibration axis and center of inertia, and limiting the delay between the inertial response of the engine and the vehicle’s yaw response. The whole idea is to make the RX respond more directly to steering inputs.

The front suspension is a conventional MacPherson strut design mated to more rigid lower suspension arms. Gone is the 26 mm solid front anti-roll bar, which has been replaced by a 28 mm hollow unit with a 0.75 mm wall thickness. Stiffer anti-roll bar bushings are used, the front knuckle assembly has been made more rigid, and the rebound damper tuning has been revised to increase the damper’s rigidity. By placing more responsibility for body roll control on the anti-roll bar, the engineers were able to soften the front springs, slow down vertical body movement, and improve both ride and handling.

The rear suspension features a double wishbone independent design with separately located coil springs and dampers. This separates the load paths, and reduces ride harshness. In addition the lead lower control arm bushing has been made stiffer, the spring rate has been increased on the carrier side, and the combination is designed to improve steering response without comprising ride comfort.

Lexus says the new body is lighter, stronger and more rigid through use of more high- and ultra-high-strength steel. Joint rigidity has been increased, the rear body frame construction revised, and the cowl ridge line strengthened. In addition, the crossmember behind the cowl is now joined to the A-pillar via a gusset, and both the hood and hatch are made from aluminum.

The front brakes are 12.9 x 1.1-in. vented discs, while the rear uses 13.3 x 0.7-in. solid rotors. These sit behind the standard 18-in. seven-spoke alloy, though a 10-spoke, 20-in. high-gloss machined alloy also is available. Ordering the Luxury Package gives the buyer the option of 20-in. Super Chrome alloy wheels with swappable color inserts that fit between the pairs of spokes. Michelin Premier LTX tires are used exclusively in 235/65R-18 and 235/55R-20 sizes.

The RX 350 gets a bump of 25 horsepower to 295 hp at 6,300 rpm, and 267 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,700. The 3.5-liter V6 (Toyota’s 2GR-FKS for the engine geeks) runs an impressively high 11.8:1 compression ratio on regular unleaded, and is mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. Oddly, and perhaps due to the all-wheel drive version’s better launch characteristics, the front-drive RX 350 goes from 0-60 mph in 7.7 seconds, while the AWD version does this same sprint 0.7 seconds quicker. And while the FWD version has better EPA fuel economy estimates than the AWD version, the difference isn’t that great: 20 city/28 highway/23 combined versus 19 city/26 highway/22 combined.

The RX 450h is powered by a 259 hp/247 lb.-ft. version of the 2GR-FXS V6 with a hybrid system that bring total output to 308 horsepower. Front-drive hybrids have an electric motor built into the front-drive system. All-wheel drive models combine this with an electrically driven rear axle. That unit combines an electric motor and a reduction drive unit within a lightweight aluminum case. Torque split is dynamic, and goes from 100:0 to 50:50 to 0:100 as needed. fuel economy is EPA rated at 30 city/28 highway/30 combined for the all-wheel drive version and 31 city/30 highway/30 combined for the front-drive model.

Inside, the instrument panel carries over the strong horizontal design seen in the IS, NX and RC, and is highlighted by yards of hand stitching. An eight-inch LCD screen is standard on vehicles with or without navigation. This unit has a thin bezel and no hood, which highlights its presence while not adding visual heaviness. Non-navigation cars get a round audio controller unit, while those with navigation systems receive the mouse-like Remote Touch Interface. Both have a small storage area hidden under the unit’s arm rest, and enter buttons have been added to either side of the RTI’s arm rest bezel. Also available is a freestanding 12.3-in. LCD display that takes place of the smaller unit, and it is pulled directly from the GS sedan. Of the two, it has the most dynamic impact, and makes it easier to read the displayed graphical information. An optional color head-up display continues to be available, and it’s viewing area is 362% larger at 90 mm x 240 mm (3.5 in. x 9.4 in.).

Rather than go into more minutia, let’s move over to the F Sport. This is Lexus’s attempt to make the RX more masculine and attract a higher percentage of male buyers. In addition to the F Sport badging, this model is identified by its honeycomb spindle grille, black exterior mirror caps, rear bumper trim and unique 20-in. wheels. Inside you will find unique sport seats, scored aluminum trim, a beefier steering wheel with paddle shifters, perforated leather trim on the seats and steering wheel. F Sport gauges, aluminum trimmed pedals and an aluminum door scuff plate.

The F Sport gauge cluster includes a g meter, but does not have the sliding tach face seen on cars like the F Sport versions of the IS and RC. What it does share with those vehicles, as well as the NX F Sport, is the option of a two-tone Rioja Red/Black interior. It’s a sporty, masculine color combination that accentuates the aluminum trim details and accents, and is quickly becoming an F Sport signature.

Adaptive Variable Suspension also is part of the F Sport package. It automatically switches to a lower damping rate on rough roads to preserve ride comfort, and a higher damping rate when cornering or during suspension rebound. These parameters are controlled based on two available algorithms, Sport and Sport S+. Choosing these settings also alters steering assist and throttle response, though a custom setting lets the driver choose which algorithm he wants for each. Surprisingly, the difference between the two settings (and between Normal and Sport) is more subtle than expected. Up to this point, Lexus engineers have to defaulted to Sport = Hard, Sport S+ = Harder school of thought. And while I reserve final judgement until I can get a F Sport RX on familiar roads, it appears as though the adaptive suspension has more finesse than force.

Though my time with the RX was somewhat limited, it took very little of it to determine that the most consistent, controlled sand cohesive version is the RX 450h. This is no surprise given Toyota’s leadership in hybrid vehicles, or the fact that the smooth combination of electric and internal combustion power are well-suited to the Lexus ethos. As for the F Sport, it would be easy to dismiss it as primarily an appearance package as there are no huge step changes in damping or steering feel. That’s not to say that the steering, for example, is a lifeless rheostat, but neither does it provide a sporting steer with loads of feedback. It is in line with expectations of the typical RX buyer, but with enough control to attract younger and male buyers.

Overall, the RX 350 and RX 450h are high-styled crossovers with handsome interiors, plenty of tech and luxury items, and improved road manners. Whether this is enough to break the image built up over the past 17 years of a soft riding, soft handling, cosseting crossover aimed primarily at women is hard to say. That recipe has worked well for Lexus, but it’s losing taste and flavor as new competitors come on stream. Undoubtedly, the RX with its “origami” styling will get attention from fans and detractors alike, and many will be attracted by its refinements, accoutrements, and sumptuous interior. Whether that will be enough to hold on to current owners while attracting those who might never before have considered an RX is unknown, but it is a path Lexus had to take.

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