“My husband just bought me the top-of-the-line Lexus,” a woman told me the other day. “But who wants a tarted-up Toyota with pedal problems?”
How quickly the consumer world shifts. Toyota Motor Corp. and its upscale brother Lexus have been playing the sensible, smart foils to blunder-prone American carmakers for so long that it is almost cliche.
So while Toyota’s problem with sticking gas-pedals is certainly serious, one feels there’s a certain media glee to the upending. The too-perfect heroes take a tumble.
Last year Lexus celebrated its 20th anniversary in the U.S. Along with several new convertibles, it recently released two new versions of its best-selling SUVs, plus an uncharacteristic $375,000 supercar. So this seems like a good time to check in.
First, those pedal worries: “Gas-pedal assemblies in Lexus models are from a different supplier than the ones that are the focus of the recall and are thus unaffected,” said Wade Hoyt, a company spokesman.
Still, some Lexus ES 350 and IS models were subject to a separate recall last year to fix floor mats. And this week Toyota recalled 437,000 hybrids, including the new Lexus HS 250h sedan, to repair faulty braking systems.
To get a handle for quality and feel, I tested the latest RX and GX SUVs and got a first look at the oddball LFA supercar.
This is the third-generation of the RX people mover, which debuted in the late 1990s. The hybrid RX 450h starts at $43,500 versus the regular $38,500 RX 350. Both come in front- or all-wheel-drive (AWD).
For an SUV, the RX seems gentle and a bit pedestrian. In truth it’s a minivan in disguise and therefore brilliant indeed. (I’m in favor of doing away with minivans forever.)
While it doesn’t have a sliding door or dozens of sippy-cup holders, the RX is aimed at families who wouldn’t be caught dead in a Dodge Grand Caravan. Seating five, it has up to 80.3 cubic feet of storage.
I tested an AWD hybrid. In typical Toyota fashion, the hybrid system is so seamless that I barely noticed. The company has so clearly won the hybrid wars that it was basically a Velvet Revolution.
The AWD model delivers decent pep around town, where you’ll enjoy 30 miles per gallon. While it’s no highway blaster, power always feels adequate and you still get 28 mpg. The all-petrol AWD 350, by comparison, gets 18 mpg and 24 mpg.
The RX rides smoothly and is very quiet, but is not a heck of a lot of fun to drive.
The exterior is pert and generally inoffensive except for a strange reverse indentation on the rear doors’ lower panel. I briefly thought it was a nasty dent when I returned to a crowded parking lot.
The interior has nice wood inserts and the dash is formed into elegant, organic folds, kind of like a plastic Zen garden. Doors close with a satisfying, vacuum-like seal.
It’s no wonder the RX rocks the segment. Mercedes’s dreadful R-Class thing-a-bob looks like the ugly baby of an SUV and minivan.
By comparison, the second-generation, seven-passenger GX, which starts at about $53,000, is not sure what it wants to be. The new three-row GX 460 replaces the GX 470, bringing a slightly smaller engine and additional power.
You’d figure that since it is all-new, Lexus would have jettisoned the decade-old idea that consumers want an SUV that can do it all -- namely go to Sam’s Club and ford rivers.
My $58,000 tester had big 18-inch mud-and-snow tires, a limited-slip center differential and low-gear four-wheel-drive settings, all meant for off-roading. It still uses body-on-frame construction, like a pickup truck, rather than the modern and carlike unibody method.
So forget about that patented Lexus glide. The heavy GX tumbles you around like a lumber truck, and seems ill-suited for highway off-ramps and around-town jaunts. Bummer.
This ethos extends to the interior. Among the pretty wood and soft-grain leather you’ll find oversize panic handles on the inside of the sills -- for hanging on while descending 35-degree mountain screes, I suppose. Legroom goes from okay up front to so-so in the middle and downright scant in back.
Still, I can see the appeal of such a big vehicle. It offers a command driving position. The many windows mean there are no blind spots, and you sit so high you can see everything on the road.
For those who aren’t looking to move families around, Lexus offers its unlikeliest vehicle: the very expensive, very powerful LFA supercar.
I haven’t yet had a chance to drive this $375,000 javelin, but did get a walk-around. Lexus has never been known for its sports cars, so the rear-wheel-drive LFA, with a 552-horsepower, 4.8-liter V-10 is a true departure.
It’s brutal-looking up close, with a blunt snout, big rear wing and many air intakes. Top speed is more than 200 mph.
Production starts later this year, with only 150 coming to the U.S. Oddly, would-be American collectors can only lease them for two years.
So, the state of Lexus? It’s a mixed bag. Stalwarts such as the RX look as strong as ever and there are surprises like the LFA. But it’s the safety questions that are likely to weigh on buyers’ minds for some time to come.
After all, if you’re doing 200 mph, you want to be sure the brakes work.
The 2010 Lexus RX 450h and GX 460 at a Glance
Engines: 3.5-liter 6-cylinder and two electric-drive motors for a combined 295 horsepower; 4.6-liter V-8 with 301 hp.
Transmissions: Continuously variable; six-speed automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds; 7.8 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 30 city, 28 highway; 15, 20.
Price as tested: $52,303; $58,039.
Best features: Overall practicality with hybrid gas mileage; command driving position.
Worst features: Rather bland to drive; heavy and unwieldy.
Target buyers: The family who hates minivans; the would-be luxury mountain climber.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)