2011 Lexus RX 350

October 21, 2011

After a week test-driving the 2011 Lexus RX 350, a headline in the Wall Street Journal's April 18, 2011, edition caught my eye: "Lexus Falls Behind Rivals." The timing of this article was fortuitous because I'd been grappling with the fact that I really didn't love the RX 350 during my test drive. I was eager to drive it since I've seen so many of them around town and assumed there must be something extraordinary about this car since it's such a hot commodity. As it turned out, the RX 350 is extraordinary in how ordinary it is.

The RX 350 is the blue blood of luxury crossovers; it's well-appointed but sometimes it's just too reserved to elicit any excitement and pales in comparison to some of its rivals.

Acceleration, braking and everything in between was smooth. So smooth in fact that I barely even noticed any of it. However, I'd still recommend this car; it's comfortable, user-friendly in its simplicity and roomy enough for a family of four. However, if you want a car with a third row, an exciting driving experience and lots of high-tech standard features, this isn't it. The RX 350's competition — the Acura MDX, Cadillac SRX or BMW X3 or X5 — offers plenty of those things, though. The RX 350 is a crossover your mom would adore, but your younger brother would find totally dull, so make sure you know who you're shopping for (even if it's yourself) before you buy.

Besides a few new exterior colors and a new brake override system that is now standard across the line, the RX 350 doesn't have many new features for 2011. The 2011 Lexus RX 350 with all-wheel drive that I tested had a price tag of $51,234, though the base trim's starting MSRP is $39,075.

EXTERIOR

The 2011 RX 350 says luxury without being ostentatious and offers soft lines and curves that create a perfectly well-rounded facade. From the outside, it's easy to see why so many people drive this five-passenger crossover.

My test car had the optional 19-inch alloy wheels, folding heated side mirrors and headlamp cleaners. The retractable mirrors came in handy when I parked the RX in a crowded city lot on a busy Friday night. The parking spaces were tight, yet we had no problem getting in and out of it and no fear that anyone would skim the mirrors when walking by or pulling in next to us.

The featherweight doors and liftgate are great. They're not flimsy; they're lightweight and easy for me and my children to maneuver. With a car this easy to get in and out of with the kids, I might someday experience a life without neck and shoulder pain since the usual lifting of kids was kept to a minimum.

The power liftgate also made life easier. The rear cargo space was large enough and offered a cargo cover, net and under-floor compartment. There really was a place for everything.

Given my depiction of the Lexus as the blue blood of luxury cars, it was befitting that my test car came in a color called Satin Cashmere Metallic. Nothing says luxury like cashmere, and my test car's color spiced things up a bit.

The 2011 RX 350's 3.5-liter V-6 engine delivers 275 horsepower and uses premium fuel. The front-wheel-drive RX gets an EPA-estimated 18/25 mpg city/highway, and my all-wheel-drive test car gets 18/24 mpg. I split my time with the RX almost evenly between the city streets and the highway and ended up averaging upward of 22 mpg.

SENSE AND STYLE

Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Great

Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Some

INTERIOR

The interior of the RX 350 is surprisingly understated and simple. The wood trim looks nice, but the black- and silver-colored plastic surfaces could have appeared more upscale.

After testing a few cars whose center stacks resembled those of airplane cockpits, the simplicity of the RX 350's center stack was unique. While some have complained about the joystick-operated multimedia system, I found it intuitive and easy to use. That's not to say it was the fastest or most efficient system — at times searching for a song on my iPod was like using an antiquated PC mouse to scroll through a document — but overall, it got passing marks.

Everything else was easy to find and use, as well. The SmartAccess passive entry system anticipated my approach and unlocked the RX for me. Delightful. The RX also offers the opportunity to be organized. The center console, glove box, rear pull-down armrest and side pockets in the front doors all had a variety of tiers, shelving or convenient compartments. Another bonus was the extra cupholder to the left of the steering wheel. This enabled me to keep my water in the center-console cupholder and my tea in the extra one.

Most of the luxury features on this car came as part of optional packages. It seems to me that some of these options — leather seats, heated seats, USB input — would be standard on a luxury car. The $4,900 Luxury Package added the leather seats and leather-and-wood steering wheel, one-touch moonroof, USB input, power liftgate, driver's seat and steering-wheel memory, and passenger-side-mirror-mounted wide-view camera. For a few more thousand dollars, the interior was spruced up with heated and ventilated front seats, a Mark Levinson stereo and navigation system with voice activation, and a backup camera.

With or without the optional packages, road noise in the RX 350 is quite high. It was loud enough to hinder conversations my children tried to have with me and caused them to yell. Between the yelling toddlers and the road noise, it was never exactly a peaceful ride inside the cabin.

The good news, in this case, is only two of my children fit in the RX 350 at a time, so I never had all three of them screaming at me at once. Additionally, should you ever decide to leave the kids at home and bring a few adults along for a ride, three can fit in that second row. The person on the middle "hump" won't even complain about being crowded.

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT

Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample

Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample

SAFETY

The 2011 Lexus RX 350 received a Top Safety Pick award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It received the top score of Good in frontal-offset, side-impact, roof-strength and rear crash tests. It also has a standard electronic stability system.

The RX 350 is loaded with standard safety features such as front-wheel drive, antilock brakes with brake assist, traction control, active head restraints in the front row and nine airbags, including side curtains and side-impact airbags for both rows. Also of note is the standard mini tool kit and first-aid kit in the rear of the car. I'm a sucker for little extras like this and think of them as tantamount to the warm cookies and Champagne that you get when you fly first class. They're small things that make a big difference.

The RX's optional safety features included all-wheel drive, adaptive bi-xenon headlights, a head-up display, backup camera, front and rear parking sensors and wide-view camera.

The only safety downfall in the 2011 RX 350 came in the form of the two sets of lower Latch anchors in the outboard seats. I had to excavate them from the seats. This left me disgruntled and in need of a manicure. It's a pain to have to struggle to get your car seats installed. It should be easier, but it rarely is.

There was room enough for an infant seat, a convertible and a booster (just barely) across the second row, but since none of my children are in a booster yet, this configuration was lost on me. However, with just an infant seat and a convertible installed, or even two convertibles, the RX 350 offered plenty of legroom for the kids and the front driver and front passenger.

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