Test Drive: 2010 Lexus RX 350

Reworked midsize premium crossover continues as pacesetter in its segment, and can be packed with helpful technology

by James M. Flammang

2010 Lexus RX 350

When Toyota's luxury division launched its original RX 300 in 1998 (as a 1999 model), few believed it would establish a trend for a sizable batch of premium crossover sport-utility vehicles. In fact, the term "crossover" hadn't even come into general use at that time. Yet, the Lexus RX captured a considerable number of sales in the ensuing years, helping to trigger a phenomenon.

Redesigned with a substantially different look for 2004, the second-generation RX soon was joined by a companion: the first-ever luxury hybrid crossover SUV, dubbed RX 400h. More than a million RX models have been sold worldwide over the past decade.

A newly redesigned RX 350 has been on sale since February 2009, along with a comparable RX 450h hybrid that arrived later in the spring. In the conventional-engine RX 350, a revised 3.5-liter V-6 works with an all-new six-speed multi-mode automatic transmission, replacing the prior five-speed. To help boost fuel economy, the transmission's torque converter uses a new low-speed lockup damper for second to sixth gear. New direct-downshift control permits direct shifts from sixth to third, or fifth to second, skipping intermediate gears. Lexus also claims that "shift shock" has been further reduced.

Artificial Intelligence shifting (AI-SHIFT) control sets shift patterns based on vehicle speed and throttle position, estimating road conditions and driver input. In hilly areas, AI-SHIFT can prevent unnecessary gear changes.

New intake and exhaust manifolds improve engine breathing, to enhance performance and fuel economy. Horsepower has been raised from 270 to 275, at 6200 rpm. Ninety percent of the RX 350's 256 pound-feet of peak torque is available from 2300 to 6100 rpm. An insulated engine cover conceals the new V-6, to help keep the cabin quiet.

Inside the engine, Dual Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i) controls both intake and exhaust camshafts, independently. An Electronic Throttle Control System-intelligent (ETCS-i) softens throttle response during initial acceleration.

As before, the RX comes with front-wheel or all-wheel drive - the latter incorporating a new Active Torque Control AWD system. Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) handling technology now is available on the RX 350, anticipating loss of control in virtually any direction. VDIM governs all dynamic handling systems: antilock braking, brake assist, Vehicle Stability Control, and traction control.

New Hill-start Assist Control uses brake presssure to help prevent rollback when starting off on an incline. Lexus's RX again offers an Intelligent Adaptive Front-lighting system (AFS), which guides headlamps through a turn. When entering a corner, AFS estimates where the vehicle will be in three seconds, and adjusts the lateral aim of the headlamps. Using a camer on the inside mirror, a new available intelligent high-beam system switches between high and low beams in response to oncoming vehicles, as well as vehicles ahead. An optional Pre-Collision System with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control uses millimeter-wave radar to maintain a pre-set following distance.

Despite the increased competition in recent years, in the minds of many analysts, Lexus continues to set the pace for luxury crossover wagons. Can a crossover SUV be serene, and even suave? Lexus's RX always has approached the top levels of refinement and excellence. Now, the 2010 model reaches even further in that direction. Carlike? That's just a starting point. This latest RX goes beyond carlike in its roadgoing qualities.

Even the RX 350's handling ranks well above the SUV norm, and is more pleasing than a lot of sedans. No particular lean in curves is noticeable. Steering feel is enjoyable and certain, with reasonably quick reactions. No, it's not exactly nimble - but not far short of that status.

Ride comfort approaches the gentle mark, actually, but with total control and confidence. It takes a substantial bump or hole to produce an unpleasant reaction. Quiet-running under nearly all conditions, the RX exhibits only slightly noticeable automatic-transmission responses, which are prompt and appropriate.

Front and rear occupants get plenty of space all around, and the sizable cargo bay is easy to load. Over-the-shoulder views are troubling, due to wide B-pillars and big headrests. Huge mirrors help the views, but they're so large that they almost prove distracting in themselves.

Conventional gauges and controls make for easy operation. Lexus's huge navigation screen is among the easiest of them all to read, delivering super clarity. Pushbutton start works beautifully. Though good-sized, the glovebox is partitioned so space is more limited.

Pricing starts at $37,675 (including destination charge) for the front-wheel-drive RX 350. All-wheel drive boosts the outlay to $39,075. The RX 450h hybrid stickers for $42,535 with front-drive, or $44,125 with AWD.

With front-wheel drive, the RX 350 gets an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 18 mpg in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway. All-wheel drive drops the highway figure to 24 mpg. In city driving, in particular, the RX 450h is considerably more thrifty: 32 mpg with front-drive, or 30 mpg with AWD. Hybrid highway economy is an estimated 28 mpg either way.

Like its RX 400h predecessor, the new RX 450h uses a separate electric motor-generator to power the rear wheel when conditions dictate that all-wheel-drive operation is needed. Lexus Hybrid Drive includes a 3.5-liter Atkinson-cycle V-6, yielding 295 total system horsepower (up 27).

Attention Editors: This complete 2010 Lexus RX 350 review is available now for your publication. Please contact us at JF@tirekick.com for details. Tirekicking Today has not yet tested the RX 450h hybrid model.

© All contents copyright 2009 by Tirekicking Today
Text and photos by James M. Flammang
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