The 2016 Lexus RX 350 F Sport Has Had too Much Plastic Surgery
I don’t know quite where to start with this new SUV from Lexus, so let’s just dive in.
(Brace yourself. This won’t be pretty.)
The 2016 Lexus RX F Sport is the “high performance” version of the fourth-generation RX crossover that Lexus introduced nearly two decades ago—the luxury crossover that started it all. Since its debut, the RX has become the ur-chariot for matrons of those suburban tribes that rule from Chicago to St. Louis. It regularly enjoys annual sales of more than 100,000 units in the U.S., which is almost unparalleled. (BMW’s 3-Series, the Ford F-150 pickup, and a few other flagship models are the only ones that can claim similar numbers.) By 2015 it had sold more than 2 million units worldwide. It has received multiple value and satisfaction awards from Kelley Blue Book and J.D. Power & Associates, among others.
But this new version, while an improvement over previous years, falls far short in virtually every category vs. competitors from Audi, Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, and especially Volvo's excellent XC90. Yes, it has a few inches more interior room, a bit more power, and a lot more styling. (I’ll get to that in a second.) Yet those gains fail to provide the stable handling, intuitive technology, and elegant design we expect from a crossover labeled “luxury"—one that, including options, costs nearly $60,000.
Classic Case of Over-Styling
Let’s start with styling. While the original RX models were basic to the point of boring—so bland so as to be inoffensive to anyone on any level, like a jellybean—Lexus has evidently decided that an “aggressive luxury” (their words) must be the new norm, and the way to achieve this is by plastering some “razor” edges and “sharp” style elements around the exterior.
To wit: the RX F comes with special “sport” badging, Lexus “signature” inserts around the grille, a cliffs-edge front bumper, weird angular plastic covers over the tail lights, and a grill blown so out of proportion that it overpowers the rest of the car, demanding your attention like a mole perched at the tip of someone’s nose. You try to ignore it, but it ends up being the only thing you can see.
“It looks like a really bad pair of Oakleys,” a colleague declared after I drove him home one night. Another compared it to something that rolled out of Tron. This is a classic case of over-styling: a lot of visual noise that masks an otherwise-serviceable car.
Wobble Wobble, Watch That Throttle
In fact, as any Kardashian knows, cosmetic enhancements usually don’t indicate anything about what is happening under the skin, er, hood. They create a distraction or a diversion, at best. The fact is proven by how this space invader feels when you drive it.
The RX F Sport is kind of fast for a car this size, achieving 60 miles per hour in a fraction less than eight seconds. But its 295-horsepower engine is far slower than, say, that of the Audi Q5, which costs less, gets the same gas mileage, and has better handling. (Elsewhere, the entry-level Cayenne is a hair more expensive but again, much more powerful and quicker off its feet—not to mention better looking, and that's saying a lot.)
The overriding drive impression of the RX, though, comes not from how it does on the straightaways but from everything else: how it feels around corners, threading through traffic, avoiding potholes. It’s not good. Even with the new, eight-speed automatic transmission and the additional stability and ride control systems that elevate the price of the AWD RX F Sport, it wobbled like the top of a Jello bundt when I drove it.
Here are some nice things: The brakes performed well. There’s lots of visibility through the newly thinner A- and C-pillars. The crash avoidance controls (pre-collision with pedestrian detection, dynamic radar cruise control, lane keep assist and departure alert, steering assist and intelligent high-beams) functioned without reaching the level of intrusiveness other cars often reach. And Lexus safely retains the same 3.5-liter V6 engine and hybrid variants of its previous generations; stay with what works, the thinking goes.
This car has sold well for a reason—millions of moms can’t be wrong, right? I’m not going to say it’s bad to drive, per se. But I will say that this version, at least, is inferior to its competitors.
Inside, the car is a funhouse of contradictions. The special bolstered F Sport seats, with their quality leather trim and heating/ventilating capabilities, felt lovely to my long back. The $1,600 panoramic sunroof enhanced the generous feeling of space in the back seat and storage areas, even though the expensive power-folding option seemed a little extravagant.
But the technology system, run on a foot-long screen set what seems like miles back in the dash, far away from any connection to anyone inside the vehicle, is the worst I’ve encountered. Its main problem is the weird rectangular joystick that is supposed to control it from the middle of the center console; the controller was somehow simultaneously imprecise in its motions and overly sensitive to any sort of input. It was so bad I tweeted my frustration with the system while pulled over on Third Avenue (forced to listen to MMMBop while I frantically tried to switch the radio channel). The next day, a company representative e-mailed me about my complaint, offering to send a representative to “resolve the issues.” (By which she meant: train me to use the radio.)
Call me old fashioned, but unless I’m in a rocket ship (or maybe an i8), I don’t think an official training session should be required in order to listen to something other than Hansen. (In Lexus’s defense, a knob to the far right of the dash can control some settings on the radio, but it is positioned at such a distance from the steering wheel and the road ahead that I was loath to distract myself sufficiently to use it.)
I would also gently inquire about the (optional) heads-up display with which Lexus has graced us. It has the spitting image of an Infiniti logo indicating the cardinal points as you drive. It seems odd to put anything even remotely resembling the image of a competitor in your vehicle. Talk about mixed messages.
Still with me? If you move forward with a purchase, opt for the $1,085 Premium Package (leather trim, rain-sensing wipers, defrosting mirrors) and the $1,615 pretty triple beam headlamps. The comforting ambient lighting, roof rails, auto dimming mirrors, and UV-resistant glass all come standard. It’s a nice touch.
Have I sounded spoiled, calloused, nitpicky? I don’t mean to be. But I do want you to have a very clear picture of what you’re getting into when you buy this car—if you buy this car. It is sure to sell well to persons such as my college roommate, a bona fide Southern belle whose father bought a previous model for her as a safety precaution, more than anything. She would appreciate its large size and premium leather interior. But if you care about drive performance, chic design, and flawless technology, choose something else. The RX F Sport is not the car for you.
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