The Lexus RX 350 is the best-selling luxury crossover SUV on the market today, and with January sales up 7.1 percent to a segment-leading 5,394 vehicles, it doesn’t figure to give up the title any time soon.
But sometimes being popular can actually work against you.
On a visit to South Florida a couple of years ago, Mark Templin, group vice president and general manager of Lexus, told automotive media about a neighbor of his who had made it a point to come to his house to tell him she was shopping for a luxury SUV but she wasn’t going to buy an RX.
“OK,” he said to her, “I’ll bite. Why?”
Well, she said, the RX looks really great, “but there are so many of them out there I don’t want to be like everybody else. I want to have something different.”
Fair enough, he said.
Then, two weeks later, Templin spotted a new RX in her driveway. He couldn’t resist going over and asking her what had happened.
She had done her homework and shopped around, she said, and after test driving one, she said she saw why everybody else was driving an RX.
“It was the best product, the best value, had the most features, ride, and handling,” she told Templin, “so I bought it.”
Though the story, at least from his point of view, has a happy ending, there is also a lesson in it, and that is if a company doesn’t manage its portfolio carefully, a particular vehicle can lose its edge if it gets too big, especially in the fashion conscious luxury segment.
“I don’t think that’s true in what Toyota is trying to do in the mass market,” Templin said, referring to Lexus’ parent company. “Volume is a good thing for them. But volume is not always a good thing for a luxury brand.”
As Yogi Berra might say, nobody buys an RX any more because they’re too popular.
Popular, yes, but to me the RX kind of lacked something. Even if you’re not going to drive it through the woods or up a mountain, your SUV should give the impression you could do it if you wanted. The RX has been all about finesse and refinement when it comes to style. Getting actual mud on the tires would be a definite no-no.
While the engine is the same as in the base RX -- a 3.5-liter V6 that produces 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque -- the standard transmission is an eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters you can use in regular drive mode as well as shifting to “Sport” mode. (The base RX 350 has a six-speed automatic.)
All-wheel drive is standard on the F Sport (optional on the front-wheel-drive base model), and the wheels are 19-inch with a graphite finish that, along with the unique front bumper and F Sport badging on the exterior, gives the RX 350 a more aggressive appearance. The sport-tuned suspension stiffens the ride a bit, but not to the point where it is uncomfortable.
No, you still don’t want to take the RX 350 F Sport off-roading, but when you’re behind the wheel, you don’t feel like you’re on your way to soccer practice either. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)
Inside, you still get the usual luxury touches Lexus is known for, like lots of soft leather and wood trim and lots of technology, most of which is operated by the Lexus Remote Touch system, a mouselike device that sits on the console and allows the user to maneuver an arrow on the display screen to denote what function (audio, climate control, navigation) you want.
If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s probably best you leave it alone while actually driving and allow your passenger to seek the desired setting. After a while, you get better at it and can quickly accomplish what you want to do with a quick glance. There are some functions the system isn’t going to let you operate unless the car is stopped any way.
The RX 350 both in the base and F Sport versions comes pretty well equipped, but the really good stuff, like a navigation system operated by voice command, an upgraded Mark Levinson sound system, parking assist, ventilated seats (for cooling) and rear-seat entertainment, is available in option packages.
That’s going to put the cost for the F Sport model, which starts at $48,245, quickly over the $50,000 threshold. The base RX 350 starts at $40,555, including destination and delivery.
Some reviewers have been critical of the F Sport’s ride and handling and don’t recommend it all not even considering the extra cost. The recommendation here is to give it a good test drive, not a cursory spin around the block.
Whichever version you settle on, Mark Templin is betting you’ll come to the same conclusion as his neighbor and wind up with one in your driveway.