Don’t worry, Lexus didn’t tinker too much; the 2016 RX retains the luxury crossover soul you’ve always loved.
Apparently Lexus has been listening to you. It’s been several years since the RX, Lexus’ most popular model, had its last makeover. The company’s challenge was to improve the most popular luxury crossover—which leads the most popular car category in the US, the most popular among women and the #1 seller for Lexus— without disrupting what its customers love most about it. And, leaders gotta lead. Right?
We recently got a look at the changes to the Lexus RX line of crossovers—the RX350, RX350 FSport and the RX450h hybrid. Overall, we were very impressed: Lexus made changes that needed to be made, left alone the things that customers love (including the price) and put a little more testosterone in the tank so that everyone in the family, not just you, will love driving this car.
Getting the Mr. more into the picture
Women love the RX series, and Lexus loves that. Women value its luxuries, its higher stance so you can see over traffic, its smaller size so it’s easy to handle and park. More women drive the RX, even though men may sign the papers on more than half of sales.
But as men take on more family responsibilities—taking kids to school, attending sports and even doing the weekly Costco run—they’re charged with driving the family car more often. So, we want them to like the experience, not dread it. Understanding this, Lexus put some thought into how to make the RX more appealing to both sides of the equation.
More aggressive appeal: Lexus created a front grille for the F Sport and some of its sportier sedans, characterized by a pair of chevrons that frame a diamond crosshatched or slatted panel topped with the iconic ‘L’ emblem. The grill serves to set apart the headlights which have a narrowed, steely-eyed look, framed by a lightening bolt-shaped running light. All this adds up to a look that has personality and confidence.
More cutting edge technology:
- Cornering lights, small lights just under the headlights, which adjust to illuminate the road in front of the wheels, no matter where the wheels are pointed
- Adaptive cruise with lane keep assist, which keeps you in your lane and adjusts your speed to the traffic ahead (even coming to a full stop!) and letting you truly relax behind the wheel
- Intelligent high-beam lights—set it and forget it— lets you leave your bright lights on all the time; the system adjusts for other cars, people or objects
- EV drive mode that lets you drive entirely on battery in the RX450h (only up to about 25 MPH for about 25 miles, but still, no need to use gas in the school pick up lane or gated community!)
- “Sway” warning that monitors your eyes behind the wheel and prompts you to stop for coffee if it thinks you’re sleepy
- Improved Heads Up Display that adds color, navigation and other features to this great safety feature
Sport drive options in all models: Adding to the enhanced drive experience is a choice of drive modes: Normal, Eco and Sport and Sport Plus options (in some models). I will drive around in Eco all day long, but when we are out on a not-so-crowded highway or roads over rolling hills, Sport or Sport Plus makes the drive experience all the more fun.
FSport option even in the RX450h hybrid: It might seem silly to think a car built for eco driving would also have a sport mode; that’s what I thought; it feels so hypocritical! But actually, an EV or hybrid makes the best use of Sport mode: the electrical system (rather than gas engine) can engage power much more quickly. So that lag you feel when you hit the gas in a regular car? You’ll feel less of it in an electric car. Add to that the sport tuned suspension and a responsive drive feel, and a hybrid is a natural. Though, one caveat: if you drive fast and furious, your fuel economy will show it.
Subtle changes to the rear end: Comparing 2015 to 2016, the lines of the rear end have been refined but not changed all that much; the biggest change is in (of course) the tail lights, which use modern-looking LED lights; the side windows are a swooshing line from front to back.
Design with you in mind: Small changes that equal a huge upgrade
The biggest changes are inside the passenger cabin (though design geeks may argue this). The first thing I noticed—and cheered— was that the gear shift was moved from the instrument panel (just to the right of the steering wheel) to the center console. While I liked that it was on the panel before—this left the center console open for other uses—the console was mostly dedicated to the remote touch infotainment system controller and cup holders; it didn’t make use of all that space. The Lexus designers moved the gearshift down to the console, giving the car a sportier feel and also, creating a bit more space for stuff.
A wireless charging cubby
The biggest addition to this space is a new phone compartment with a wireless charger (YAY!) and a small storage space under the ‘wrist rest’ for the infotainment controller. I was really glad to see this added; not long ago I test drove a Lexus NX200t that someone, thinking that the rest opened, had pulled it off, leaving an ugly scar on the console.
Now, this place to rest your wrist while you command the infotainment system doubles as a place to store small objects, such as change or mint tins; it’s almost exactly the size of the iPhone 5, which fit in the space with only centimeters to spare, and it wouldn’t fit if the phone was plugged into the charger.
The designers also thought about what you put in your cup holders and added a novel function: the floor of the forward cup holder can push down to hold extra large cups or water bottles, and a touch of a button raises it back up again. Now, my large Trader Joe’s water bottle won’t tumble out of the cup holder when we round a corner.
Last, an additional ‘stuff pocket’ was added to the passenger side of the center console; it’s a great place to put your phone or —egads!—store paper maps.
Bigger screens for everyone, and more entertainment options
The infotainment screen was lifted out of its box on the center dash, made bigger and given a more prominent place on the dashboard. It no longer needs to be shielded from the sun to be viewable— the reason for putting it in a box before— and the 12.3 inch LCD screen (up from 7 inches) made navigation and other function easy to see. In the back seat, 11.6-inch screens (part of the entertainment package option) attached to the front seat head rests, giving back seat passengers their own entertainment options on long (or short) drives. The addition of an HDMI port allows a wider range of devices to be plugged into the car.
A roomier cabin, but not a bigger car
This was probably the number one thing that Lexus engineers listened to customers about: people love the size of the RX, so that hasn’t changed much (it’s two inches longer to accommodate more leg room). It’s still smallish, easy to drive, handle and park. But inside, it feels roomier than ever. Designers added more head room, leg room and elbow room. Compared to the Lexus NX200t we drove a few weeks ago, the RX is much more comfortable for back seat passengers, and I think the head room is the reason.
The addition of a panoramic sunroof (in the models we tested) added to the car’s airy feeling, as did the quiet ride, something Lexus is known for. The car and all its functions were so quiet that even when tapping the button to roll down the window, I had to try it several times because I didn’t hear it the first time to know if it was functioning or not.
Another advantage of this roomier cabin is that it can enhance acoustics. There are several options, including a 12-speaker Pioneer sound system, or the premium 15-speaker Mark Levinson sound system.
So I had to ask: Who is Mark Levinson?
I’ve seen the name in Lexus models and wondered why it made a difference. Turns out, he’s the father of high end audio systems; he got his start as a music producer and built the mixing boards used at the Woodstock Music Festival. To pursue his passion, he teamed with Harman to build world class systems. A good Mark Levinson home system can cost $100,000, but in the Lexus, which works with the Levinson team to perfectly tune the cabin for an optimal listening experience, it’s a lot less: about $1,000.
The reinvented lift gate: magic opening, and a better way to lock up
Lexus is the latest to toy with the idea of auto-opening lift gates. Their approach is more of a magic hand (rather than a swipe of a foot or a stand and wait strategy): with your smart key in your bag or pocket, wave your hand in front of the Lexus emblem on the lift gate and it will open automatically.
It’s a great trick, and useful, but then, there’s this: closing the gate just got better, too. Push a button on the lift gate to close it. Push it twice (with all the car doors closed) and it locks the car. No need to fumble for the key fob to lock up. Brilliant.
What’s missing? Not much, but…
We would have loved to see more USB ports in the RX models we test drive. There is only one in the center console. There are more charge options, though, including a cigarette style charge port in the center console, one on the back of the center console (for back seat passengers) the wireless charge pad (which is built into some phones and requires a charge case for others) and with some packages there is a household plug option. But USB ports are the standard for phones, and that’s what gets used in the front and back seat most often, so that’s what we’d like to see more of.
Maybe the best news: Prices remain competitive
The luxury car category is brutal when it comes to value for the money. There are more models—luxury or not— that offer more and more for your money. So the Lexus strategy is to keep pricing in its current range, with models starting at under $45,000 (exact pricing won’t be announced until November, 2016). The RX350 we recently drove was priced at about $54,000; add about $7,000 for the RX450h hybrid. This is where we expect the 2016 model to come in, too, but with a lot more for the money.
Oh, and how was it to drive?
Great. Quick, responsive and smooth acceleration, easy to handle, easy to park. Just what you expect from Lexus.
Disclosure: Lexus provided my travel and accommodations to the the RX introduction event; opinions (and some research!) shared here are all my own.