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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

2010 Lexus RX 350- The Same Only Better

First Impressions: Lexus builds us a slightly more refined, slightly higher-tech version of the most popular luxury SUV of the last decade.

We're lost in the 2010 Lexus RX 350. Napa Valley is a nice place to lose your bearings, but as the late afternoon sunlight turns the harvested Cabernet vines golden brown, we know we'd better find a road back to St. Helena.

Blame our confused state of affairs on winery traffic and the 2010 RX 350's all-new double-wishbone rear suspension. Finding Highway 29 jammed with tourists, we'd turned to the Remote Touch navigation system for a detour. Squiggly Spring Mountain Road looks good.

There's no way we'd drive Spring Mountain in any previous-generation RX crossover SUV. But the 2010 Lexus RX 350 can handle it. Though it looks the same, it acts different.

Navigating the Wine Country
Invariably, the Lexus RX 350 understeers through the tightest corners on Spring Mountain Road. Soon, though, we find our groove and the Volvo S40 that had been dogging us falls out of sight. There's less body roll than on last year's RX 350, and even with its extra inches and pounds, the 2010 Lexus RX 350 has a better feel for the road. The new electric-assist power steering is an upgrade, too, with a quicker ratio and better weighting than the old hydraulic-assist rack.

By now we're practically in Santa Rosa, so we try keying in our hotel on the navigation system with the Remote Touch mouse controller on the RX 350's center console. Yes, the traditional touchscreen for the Lexus navigation system is history.

Our experience with iDrive, COMAND and MMI tells us that Remote Touch will be more cumbersome than using a touchscreen. But between the ergonomic controller, a responsive QWERTY onscreen keyboard and our two decades of mousing experience, it's actually quicker — a lot quicker.

And, as the first example of a truly user-friendly remote-control interface, Remote Touch might be the most important innovation on the redesigned 2010 Lexus RX 350.

You Grew a Few Inches
Save for that Remote Touch mouse, you'll struggle to find physical evidence of a redesign on the 2010 Lexus RX 350. To the untrained eye, it appears to be exactly the same midsize luxury crossover SUV as the 2009 Lexus RX 350. Oh, the front and rear fascias are slightly different, and the wheels are larger, but the basic silhouette is intact.

Also intact is the RX's traditional five-passenger seating layout. "We certainly studied whether we wanted to add a third row," says Ben Mitchell, corporate manager of Lexus product planning. In talking to current RX owners, he says, "Keeping the right size was something we heard a lot of."

Accordingly, the RX 350 adds only an inch to its wheelbase, now 107.9 inches. That's enough for a 0.6-inch increase in front legroom but not much else.

The biggest dimensional change on the 2010 Lexus RX 350 is a 2.2-inch-wider track in front and a 2.6-inch increase in back. Rear shoulder room edges up slightly, but improved handling is the main reason for the wider stance.

Same goes for the switch from a strut-type rear suspension to the new double-wishbone design. If you're a current Lexus RX owner, though, we bet you'll be more impressed by the cargo bay. Without the intrusion of strut towers, the 2010 RX 350's bay is larger (40 cubic feet) and more usefully shaped.

Strangely enough, the cargo volume with the rear seats folded down drops more than 4 cubic feet to 80.3. Total interior volume holds steady at 140.9 cubic feet, so we're not sure where those extra cubes went. Maybe the rear seat cushions are thicker.

You Got Fat
We're also not exactly sure how the 2010 Lexus RX 350 put on so much weight in this redesign. The front-wheel-drive RX 350 now weighs in at 4,340 pounds, a gain of 470 pounds. The all-wheel-drive RX 350 weighs 4,510 pounds, a gain of 420 pounds.

Paul Williamsen, national manager of Lexus College (the sales training arm of the Lexus division of Toyota), tells us that the Lexus engineers have beefed up the RX 350's structure so it performs well in every conceivable test of crashworthiness. Usually, this requires a whole lot of extra steel.

"Every vehicle we make meets the strictest possible passenger car standards, even ones that do not apply in its primary market," Williamsen says. "As a result, the 2010 RX 350 might be overbuilt in some areas, depending on the market. We know our engineers worked their brains out cutting weight out of the car, but we're never going to have the lightest car in the class."

Of course, Lexus could have opted not to provide these heavier 18-inch wheels and P235/60R18 102V tires as standard quipment. Last year's RX had 17-inch wheels, and even with the slightly larger brakes on the 2010 RX 350, we're told 17s still would have fit.

"It's a customer preference issue," says Williamsen. We expect many customers will prefer the still heavier 19-inch wheel option with P235/55R19 101V tires. They're part of a sport package that features revised suspension dampers and bushings and sportier calibrations for the electric power steering.

Additional equipment likely accounts for the remaining pounds. Keyless start is standard this year, so that adds another computer to the vehicle. The Remote Touch nav system is optional, but with an anticipated 80 percent take rate, it's included when measuring curb weight.

Most RX crossovers end up with a hearty plate of options, so we suppose the 2010 Lexus RX 350 also rolled onto the scales with leather seat upholstery (in some magical dream world, there's a stripper RX with cloth seats), heated and ventilated seats, the 15-speaker Mark Levinson sound system and adaptive bi-xenon headlights.

Not Slower or Thirstier
Somehow the 2010 Lexus RX 350 carries all its extra pounds with grace. It's also just as quick as the 2009 RX 350 when you lay into the gas pedal. And fuel economy is actually a little better. Although the redesigned RX has a lower 0.33 coefficient of drag (compared to 0.35 in 2009), we're still amazed that the Lexus engineers pulled this off.

Last year's DOHC 3.5-liter V6 carries over and it's only rated for 5 horsepower more and 6 pound-feet of torque more than last year's version made at the same rpm. So that's 275 hp at 6,200 rpm and 257 lb-ft of torque at 4,700 rpm.

Yet the V6 features fairly significant changes, including new intake and exhaust manifolds, a new cylinder head design and revisions to its variable valve timing, which operates on both the intake and exhaust valves.

More help comes from the adoption of Toyota's excellent six-speed automatic transmission, which offers shifts that are as quick as they are smooth. Compared to the old five-speed, it adds an additional overdrive gear, of course, but has a shorter overall ratio thanks to an aggressive 4.398:1 final drive.

On all-wheel-drive RX 350s, the transmission drives all four wheels through a clutch-type coupling mounted just ahead of the rear differential. Lexus says it's 35 percent lighter than the previous AWD system, which had a true center differential with a viscous coupling.

Lexus says a front-drive RX 350 will hit 60 mph in 7.4 seconds and go through the quarter-mile in 15.7 seconds. Add an extra tenth if your RX 350 has AWD. That's quicker than an Acura MDX or Mercedes ML350.

The EPA rates the front-drive RX at 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway and the AWD RX 350 at 18/24. It's not much better than the 2009 RX 350, but among midsize luxury SUVs, only the diesel ML320 Bluetec is more efficient.

It Still Owns This Market
We hear that nobody's buying cars right now, but when the 2010 Lexus RX 350 goes on sale in late February, Lexus expects to come out slightly ahead of 2008 sales, which topped out around 80,000.

If you're a cynic, you might call this hopeless optimism. You'll point out that the redesigned RX 350 has put on all kinds of weight without getting much quicker or more fuel-efficient.

But we take a longer view. The RX crossover has been the best-selling luxury SUV, crossover or otherwise, since its introduction for 1998. It has never been the most attractive, best performing or most opulent SUV of its kind, yet its middle-of-the-road, perfect-for-five packaging will always be a strong draw.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.