Few products in recent memory have had more of an impact on the automotive market than the Lexus RX. Its recipe for success? Start with one part SUV, add a bit of minivan, a dash of station wagon, and a dollop of luxury sedan. The resulting crossover outsells virtually all of its compact competitors combined—and is the single biggest nameplate in the entire Lexus brand. For 2010, the Japanese automaker, itself the best-selling luxury marque in America, is rolling out an all-new version of the RX, and the third-generation crossover is a decided improvement that will make it even more difficult for the competition to catch up.
To be honest, in our eyes, the look of the original RX300—and the subsequent RX330—always summoned the old bromide that goes: a camel is a horse designed by a committee. That's not surprising, as it wanted to deliver the flexibility of a minivan without looking like one, and the go-anywhere versatility of an SUV while still appearing luxurious. Somehow, this time, Lexus designers got it right. The new model has a more sporty and elegant appearance, enhanced by the Coke-bottle creases of its side panels and the integrated rear spoiler. The only dubious touch was the addition of a pair of essentially useless quarter windows up front.
The interior of the prior RX was a relatively chintzy affair. Not so the 2010 RX350, with its elegant blend of leather, wood and chrome. The new model is bigger in every dimension, and that translates into more passenger space as well as a decidedly larger cargo compartment. The seats are comfy yet supportive, and the layout of the gauges is much more refined. The big, 8-inch LCD screen rises to the top of the instrument panel, making it easier to keep your eyes on the road. While it's no longer a touch screen, few will care, thanks to the addition of the new Remote Touch controller. It's more mouse than iPod, and for that we thank Lexus profusely. It's the most intuitive control device on the road right now, though much of the RX's electronics can be operated by voice, using a new technology that recognizes everyday phrases—"I'm cold," for example—rather than rigid commands that a motorist would be required to memorize.
The larger, 275-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 is peppier than the old RX330's six-banger. The ride gets a hefty infusion of the sportive as well, thanks to a new rear suspension system and the standard electric power steering. At 18 mpg city, and 24 highway, the RX is fuel efficient for its segment, but for those who mind mileage, check out the RX450h. Lexus was the first maker to introduce a luxury hybrid, but the original RX version didn't really deliver on its fuel economy promise. The new model does a much better job, our initial drive suggesting it should hit its rated 30 mpg around town and 27 on the highway.
The original RX300 created the luxury crossover segment. Today, virtually every automaker plays in this sandbox. Even so, the folks at Lexus should have little to worry about. The new RX350 and RX450h are handsome, functional, fun to drive and reasonably fuel efficient—and continue to set the rules by which others will have to compete.