You've got to wonder how Toyota's (TM) massive recall and production shutdown will affect Lexus. Toyota's luxury division has been largely excluded from the recalls, but things seem out of control and doubts about Toyota could easily start to undermine Lexus's reputation for bulletproof quality.
The model to watch, in my opinion, is the new Lexus RX 350, the pioneering, five-passenger, luxury crossover vehicle that was redesigned for 2010. The RX model, which also includes the hybrid-powered RX 450h, is by far the top-selling Lexus. It's the only continuing Lexus model whose sales increased last year.
Toyota's latest recall, which concerns glitches in the brakes of the 2010 Prius, which is made in Japan, could raise concerns about all Toyota-made hybrids, including the RX 450h. Indeed, the latest recall includes the new Lexus HS 250h hybrid, which also has problems with its brakes. Meanwhile, Toyota's main recent recall, of 2.3 million vehicles that have problems with their accelerator pedals, centers on models made in North America. If that recall raises questions about North American-made Toyota products, that's bad news for the gasoline-powered RX 350, which is the only Lexus not made in Japan.
About 80% of the RX 350s sold in the U.S. are manufactured in Cambridge, Ontario, according to a Lexus spokesman. The others, plus the RX 450h, the hybrid version, are made in Kyushu. No big problems have been associated with the Canadian-made RX 350s. But some RX owners are already fretting in online owner's forums—such as us.lexusownersclub.com—if their vehicle identification number starts with a "2" (for Canada) instead of a "J" (for Japan).
Toyota's quality crisis may already be hurting the RX. Model sales increased 10.9%, to 93,379, last year (the RX 350 accounted for 84.5% of that number, and the RX 450h the rest). In January, however, RX sales fell by 5.5% vs. the same month a year earlier, to 5,688 (factoring in the different number of selling days in '08 and '09). Of course, one month doesn't make a trend, but that's a big downturn, especially considering that overall Lexus sales increased in January and RX sales were up 10.5% in December and nearly 50% in November.
Should you be afraid to buy an RX 350? Probably not. The RX 350 has been made in Ontario since 2003 with no major complaints, and the company says Lexus uses a different North American accelerator-pedal supplier than Toyota. Lexus also made the new RX slightly bigger and roomier than the old one, while holding the line on price. The starting sticker on the 2010 RX 350 is $38,500 with front-wheel drive and $39,900 with all-wheel drive, about the same as on the '09.
However, there's no reason to rush out and buy an RX 350, either. There are numerous alternatives to choose from, including Honda's (HMC) redesigned Acura MDX, General Motors' popular new Cadillac SRX, Ford's (F) Lincoln MKX, and Daimler's (DAI) Mercedes GLK350. Moreover, if you want an RX 350, Toyota's problems could eventually force dealers to cut prices to move the metal.
Behind the Wheel
Is the new RX 350 an improvement over the previous one? To me, the answer is mixed. The basic formula remains seductive: The RX 350 is conservatively styled and just big enough, luxurious enough, and sporty enough to appeal to the middle-of-the-road shoppers who are its target market. But it has some small design miscues I found extremely annoying. My test RX 350, which was made in Ontario and only had around 13,000 miles on it, also had some annoying quality glitches.
Let's start with the good stuff. If anything, the 2010 RX 350—which is powered by a 3.5-liter, 275-horsepower V6 engine paired with a six-speed automatic transmission—is quicker than advertised. The company says it will accelerate from zero to 60 in 7.5 seconds, but my test vehicle consistently clocked times of seven seconds or less. That raw speed is surprising because the new RX 350 is heavier than the previous one, which makes it feel more solidly planted on the road.
Despite the added weight, fuel economy is better. The front-wheel-drive 2010 RX 350 is rated to get 18 miles per gallon in the city and 25 on the highway for an average of 21 (up from 20 mpg in 2009). Mileage drops one mpg to 20 with all-wheel drive (up from 19 in '09), but that's better than AWD versions of the Acura MDX and Mercedes GLK350 (both 18), and the Lincoln MKX and Cadillac SRX (both 19).
The RX 350's ride with the optional sport package ($1,300) is a bit stiff for those who want a traditional luxury feel, but I liked it. In my test car, the AWD system (which about 61% of buyers opt for, according to Lexus) did a good job of distributing power to avoid slippage on wet and icy roads.
Safety is another strong point. The RX 350 earned the government's top five-star crash test rating in every category except rollovers, where it earned four stars. The RX now comes standard with 10 airbags, including side bags in both the front and rear seats, knee bags, and cabin-length head-protecting bags.
The interior design is clean and crisp, with dabs of wood trim on the doors and center console and eye-pleasing curves in the dash that integrate into the design elements in the doors. I found the front seats just soft enough to be comfortable, though some may find them too firm. There's a bit more passenger space in back, and the rear seat slides and reclines. The soft cover over the rear compartment snaps loose on its own when you fold down the rear seats, a nifty convenience feature. It's also easy to reattach.
The navigation system ($2,465 extra) is a major plus. To operate it, you point to commands on the screen using a knob on the center console that's like a cross between a joystick and computer mouse; to enter commands there are squeeze controls on either side of the console. The whole system is extremely easy to use even in the dark, and can be operated by the front-seat passenger as well as the driver.
Now, here are some gripes about the new RX 350: The rear seat is too hard to be comfortable. The storage compartment in the center console is cavernous, but why are the iPod and auxiliary power hookups way down at the bottom, under removable storage trays? It's like dumpster diving to get at them. And what's the deal with the cup holder to the left of the steering wheel? There really isn't enough space for it so it's hard to use. And why aren't the sunroof, garage-door, and reading-light controls illuminated so you don't have to grope around in the dark to find them?
Other problems included the following: The engine emitted a somewhat muffled but nonetheless annoying sewing-machine sound during acceleration. At highway speed, the driver's side window started to sound as though it were slightly cracked when it wasn't. I could never find a way to silence the noise. The cover over the rear compartment rattled on even slightly bumpy roads, and there's no place to stow it inside the car. A number of creaks and rattles also became audible on bumpy roads.
Am I nitpicking the RX 350 in light of its parent company's problems? Maybe, but I'll bet many shoppers and owners are doing the same thing.
Buy It or Bag It?
Overall, the RX 350 is an appealing vehicle aimed at middle-of-the-road shoppers who don't put a priority on sporty handling and distinctive looks. It sells for an average of about $43,000, according to the Power Information Network, which is a bit more than the Cadillac SRX, Lincoln MKX, and Mercedes GLK350, all of which average under $41,000, according to PIN.
If you have doubts about buying a Toyota product right now, wait a month or two. We're in the silly season, when all things Toyota are being called into question. Eventually, fixes will be found for whatever problems are uncovered, and shoppers will remember why so many of them loved Toyota (and Lexus) products in the first place.
Click here to see more of the 2010 Lexus RX 350 crossover.