2011 Lexus RX350

October 21, 2011

The luxury market is a diverse one. Some buyers expect a car that's fast but also has a pretty interior. Others want a boulevard cruiser so they can tool down the road in a mobile living room. The Lexus RX 350 crossover is more of the latter type. That's not to say it's a lumbering beast, but nor is it meant to blast down country roads.

The RX 350 is a very comfortable, nice-looking crossover that will carry you, your family and your stuff on a long drive, leaving you none the worse for wear.

Driving Impressions

The first thing that struck me about the RX 350 was how light and precise the steering is; it's easy to handle the RX in a parking garage or any tight space. That's not impressive in itself, but the fact that the RX is also not twitchy on highway drives is very impressive. Often, a car that's easy to steer in a parking lot can be too light at speed, meaning you constantly have to correct it. Not the Lexus. It didn't give any feedback through the steering wheel — as other cars do — but I guess you have to give something up sometime.

It's largely the same for the accelerator and brake pedal: light and precise. I thought the brake pedal was a bit too light — it was hard for me to judge my stopping distances — but others who drove the RX disagreed. Either way, it's something you should pay attention to if you test-drive an RX.

As far as handling, well, this car is tuned for luxury. I noticed more body roll in the RX than I did in other high-end crossovers I've driven. Its ride is good, though, and it absorbed bumps on the highway well. I prefer a firmer ride than many others do, but even taking that into consideration I wouldn't hesitate to say the RX has a good ride.

In fact, the RX excels at long highway drives; it's a car I'd consider if I had to drive from Chicago to Oklahoma. Visibility also makes it good in the city. It's easy to judge passing maneuvers or whether you have enough room to squeeze between two delivery trucks hogging the entire street.

I tested the all-wheel-drive version of the RX. It differed from most all-wheel-drive cars I've driven in that I never felt the system "dig in" to carry me around a turn. In many other cars, I feel the outside wheels turning faster than the inside wheels, giving the sensation that the car is slinging itself confidently through the turn. I never got that sensation with the RX — it just glides through turns. It's not a bad thing; it's just different.

All in all, the RX is an easy car to live with. While it doesn't offer the driving thrills that other SUVs do, it also doesn't feel ungainly or out of place in any driving situation I put it in.

Gizmos & Amenities

Our test model came pretty nicely equipped with the stuff you'd expect in a luxury car: heated and cooled seats, navigation system, power-closing hatch, rear-seat entertainment system, and leather upholstery and trim.

Everything is well-executed, and that's the key. A lot of cars these days have leather seats, for instance, but that doesn't mean the leather is any good. It is in the Lexus. Also, the real wood trim is very tasteful. That's something I detest on most cars, but Lexus chose good wood and didn't go overboard applying it everywhere.

The navigation system/multimedia interface works well. Instead of a touch-screen or dial, the RX has a mouse-like controller. I'd read about the system and wasn't sure I'd like it, but it turned out to be easy to use. Lexus did a nice job of incorporating into the touch-screen only those functions (audio, navigation, etc.) that should logically be there. You don't have to go through the screen to change the climate-control settings. That's how it should be.

Our RX also featured two cameras to assist with parking maneuvers. One is a standard backup model; the other is mounted on the passenger-side door mirror, facing down. I found it helpful when snuggling up to curbs, but it wasn't much use at night in parking lots. Something about the glare off the pavement and paint of the parking lines made it hard for me to use. However, I preferred this system to others that offer a view on all sides of the vehicle, like Infiniti's Around View Monitor. Those systems provide too much information to be useful at a glance.

If there was one flaw that really stood out, it was the heated and cooled seat buttons. It's a roller switch, and it's too easy to switch from a heated seat to a cooled seat when you're just trying to turn it off. A minor issue, you say? Try sitting in a heated seat when it's 90 degrees out, and then we can talk. In any case, if a car model is to be the best, its manufacturer has to sweat all the details, and Lexus could've done better here.

Mileage, Models, Reliability

The RX is offered in both front- and all-wheel drive, as well as a hybrid version called the RX 450h. Choosing between the front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive versions likely won't hinge on gas mileage, as their mileage is estimated at 18/25 mpg city/highway and 18/24 mpg, respectively. The hybrid versions get an estimated 32/28 mpg with front-wheel drive and 30/28 mpg with all-wheel drive. Premium gas is required for all.

The RX 350 was redesigned for 2010, and there's not a lot that's different between this year's model and last year's, but you can compare the 2011 with both the 2010 and the previous generation of the RX here to judge for yourself. The most interesting thing to me about the 2010 redesign is that Lexus made the RX slightly larger, but only by a few inches here and there. Lexus said its owners appreciated the smaller size, and the automaker listened.

The 2010 RX is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick. It scored the Institute's highest rating, Good, in frontal-offset, side-impact and rear crash tests, as well as in a roof-strength test. It's predicted to have better than average reliability.

RX 350 in the Market

The RX was arguably the first luxury crossover SUV, and this model remains competitive in a segment that's exploded with new offerings.

It helps that Lexus clearly decided to build a comfortable luxury car that was also practical and easy to live with. It didn't feel the urge to suddenly switch things up and make, say, a hot rod.

When other automakers are offering extreme touch-screen navigation/multimedia/climate-control options, it's nice to see someone come up with a system that might not look as fancy, but is more functional. In fact, that's probably the best way to summarize the RX: It's not the newest, flashiest SUV out there, but it is one of the better-executed ones.

Snapshot

$37,975 – $39,375

EPA Fuel Economy:

City: 18

Highway: 24 – 25

Available Engines:

275-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 (premium)

Available Transmissions:

6-speed automatic w/OD and auto-manual

New or Notable

• Brake override system

• 10 airbags

• FWD or AWD

• Optional wide-view side monitor

• Optional head-up display

What We Like

• Overall refinement

• Gas mileage

• Seat comfort

• Optional Pre-Collision System

• Optional dual-screen entertainment system

Photo courtesy of Lexus

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