What happened to the once adorable Lexus RX? Is a third row of seats a betrayal of what the RX has been and should be? Or is it the embodiment of what it always was destined to become? Such are the epistemological dilemmas that arise with the arrival of the 2018 Lexus RX350L.
The original RX300 appeared as a 1999 model and changed the world with its cuddly mix of SUV-ish utility and a creamy, Toyota Camry–derived V-6 drivetrain. The ambiguous term “crossover” was created to explain the RX300; now the world has been re-created in its nonthreatening, family-friendly, near-luxury image. The original RX was a big darn deal.
This latest RX, on the other hand, has become a big darn crossover. The last first-gen RX300 we tested (an all-wheel-drive 2001 model) was 180.1 inches long, had a 103.1-inch wheelbase, and weighed 4023 pounds. The new RX350L tested here, a front-driver, stretches 196.9 inches from stem to stern, sits astride a 109.8-inch wheelbase, and weighed 4487 pounds according to our scales. By Lexus’s numbers, the all-wheel-drive version weighs an additional 155 pounds.
That 196.9-inch overall length is 0.7 inch longer than an Acura MDX, but the Acura rides on a 0.2-inch-longer wheelbase. The RX L is still smaller than, say, a Mazda CX-9. But the gap between them has shrunk.
To stuff a third row into the RX, Lexus engineers added 4.4 inches of length behind the rear wheels and redesigned the roof to sustain its height over the rearmost seats. But they did not change the wheelbase. And since the wheelbase is the same, the aft pair of doors are not any longer than those of the standard RX. The window frames on the rear doors are slightly tweaked to work with the taller roof, but squeezing past the rear wheel well to access the third row of seats is a challenge even for a modestly large 10-year-old. The second-row seats will move forward to help actual adults get back there, but what are they going to do with their legs once seated? Lexus claims there’s 23.5 inches of legroom in the third row (versus 28.1 inches in the Acura), but if the second-row occupants aren’t cooperating by scooting their seats forward, actual legroom is virtually nonexistent.
The third-row seats are good only for occasional use by small children. From a strictly utilitarian perspective, then, the stretched version of the RX is a life-stage vehicle. It’s fine for those few years when you will occasionally need to accommodate surplus tots for things like birthday parties at bowling alleys or when there’s just no way to get out of chaperoning the kindergarten field trip. But once the kids reach the point where they’re old enough to complain and make arguments, there won’t be any gentle way to shove them into those wayback seats. Timed right, that point will arrive just as the lease on the RX L expires.
There are separate climate controls and vents for third-row passengers. That additional oxygen may keep them from getting lightheaded as blood circulation to their legs is cut off. And it may even compensate for the third row being vinyl covered while the other seats are wrapped in genuine dead-cow skin.
With the third row up, there’s only seven cubic feet of cargo space available—a measly single cube for each of the seven people who can theoretically be aboard and eight cubes less than what’s behind the MDX’s third row. That in mind, there is 23 cubic feet back there with the third row folded, and that’s up from 18 in the two-row RX. And when both the second and third rows are down, the cargo hold expands to 58 cubic feet, two cubes better than the regular-strength RX. Two cubic feet ain’t much, but it may be just enough to squeeze in one more toy poodle. If you’re into toy poodles, that may be critical.
Still an RX
The mechanical substance of the RX350L hardly differs from that of the regular RX350. That means it’s powered by the same 3.5-liter V-6 found in many Toyota and Lexus models. Somewhere, potentially in the slightly longer exhaust system, five horsepower was lost—what is a 295-hp V-6 in the RX350 becomes a 290-hp V-6 in the RX350L. If you’re planning to go drag-racing in your new RX, stick with the two-row version. Front-wheel drive is standard on the RX350L, while all-wheel drive is a $1400 option. (There’s also a hybrid model, the RX450hL, which has 308 horsepower and all-wheel drive.)
In our recent test of an all-wheel-drive, two-row RX350, it huffed and puffed to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds and completed the quarter-mile in 15.3 seconds at 92 mph. This front-drive RX350L did those same deeds in 7.1 seconds and 15.5 seconds at 92 mph. The eight-speed automatic transaxle never does anything untoward, but there’s a softness to its shifts that adds an element of laziness to the driving experience. A touch of mechanical engagement would be appreciated.
Wearing 235/65R-18 Bridgestone Ecopia H/L 422 Plus all-season tires, the cornering limits here are modest. The 0.78-g skidpad number doesn’t reflect the wallow that defines the RX350L’s handling. Braking from 70 mph comes in at a so-so 183 feet. This isn’t a vehicle that bites into corners so much as it nibbles at them as if it’s gnawing the crusts off a PB&J sandwich. The RX350L always seems as if it would be much happier parked—or at least moving in a straight line.
The original RX300 had an easygoing friendliness to it that has been progressively drained from the RX over its four generations. This current RX, introduced as a 2016 model, has a harshly faceted brutalism to its design that runs counter to its otherwise gentle personality. Toyota and Lexus should have the confidence to restrain their stylists.
As with all the vehicles in this class, the RX350L can be stuffed with the technology that buyers demand, like cameras all over the place, radar monitoring distances and speeds, and a power liftgate. No competitor in this segment would dare be left behind when it comes to tech and feature load.
That said, the RX feels a bit dated. With companies like Volvo and Tesla leading the way, touchscreens and digital displays have reset the standard for how drivers interact with their vehicles. The RX’s conventional instrumentation and odd little mouse like thing for controlling its center screen seem archaic and goofy. And how can Apple CarPlay and Android Auto continue to be unavailable?