Lexus RX

Edgy to look at, but creases appear in the driving experience

ALEX INWOOD

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

BLAME (or thank) Akio Toyoda. Heís the one responsible for the mad scattering of lines, creases and angles stamped so proudly into the body of this new Lexus RX. But not in the way you might expect.

As this fourth-gen RX neared the very end of five years of development, the Toyota CEO dropped a bomb on the Lexus chief engineer: ďI donít like the styling,Ē he said. ďChange it.Ē

The chief engineer now shakes his head sadly, the way you might remembering a dead loved one, when asked how much his team needed to change.

Just a month later, the new design was finished, its lines sharper, the styling bolder, details more aggressive.

Akio was happy.

But this RX has to be more than a visual statement. It needs to have the engineering depth and technical nous to trump fresh rivals such as the Volvo XC90 and Audi Q7, which have set new benchmarks for quality and dynamics.

On the surface, things look positive. This new model is 120mm longer, 10mm wider and has had its wheelbase stretched by 50mm, which translates into 25mm more space for front and rear passengers.

Three engine choices will be available at launch in November, including a 2.0-litre turbo-petrol in the front-drive 200t and a more powerful version of Lexusís venerable 3.5-litre V6 in the allpaw RX350. The atmo V6 is mated to an electric motor in the 450h.

The V6 now sports direct injection and, in the 218kW/360Nm RX350, uses a new eight-speed auto (the 450 retains its CVT tranny). Lexus reckons the 350 will be the volume seller and, while the V6 is smooth, the calibration of the new íbox is less convincing and delivers jerky shifts under part-throttle.

The clear dynamic standout is the base 200t with six-speed auto. The new 2.0-litre turbo is eager, zingy and is both more refined and efficient than the brawnier V6, and trumps the 450h for smoothness.

All RX models work best in sporty F Sport trim that, as well as wearing unique styling tweaks, adds an active antiroll bar. The tech is fitted to all F Sport models and works alongside a more sophisticated version of Lexusís adaptive variable suspension to completely transform the SUVís handling.

No RX is what youíd call inspiring to drive thanks to light and lifeless steering, but F Sport models feel the most tied down. Bodyroll is well controlled and, while it will understeer if pushed, the handling is predictable and adjustable.

The trade-off is a firmer, choppier ride but this is preferable to the sloppy body control and head-toss so prevalent in variants without the fancy roll-bar tech.

Annoyingly, the 200t F Sport isnít coming to Australia. Lexus Oz is only taking the 200t in base Luxury form, which is a glaring oversight given the 350 and 450h will be offered in all three equipment grades: Luxury, F Sport and Luxury Sport.

Where the RX really excels is the interior. The RX cabin is one of Lexusís best, with an airy, effective design dominated by a massive 12.3-inch floating central screen in higher-spec variants. Itís also beautifully made and suitably quiet, although there is some tyre roar on course-chip surfaces.

Overall, though, the RX falls flat where it matters most Ė how it drives. It means the RX is only a small step forward at a time when its competitors are taking leaps and bounds.

Model Engine Max power Max torque Transmission Weight 0-100km/h Economy Price On sale Lexus RX350 F Sport 3456cc V6 (90į), dohc, 24v 218kW @ 6300rpm 360Nm @ 4700rpm 8-speed automatic 2085kg 7.9sec (estimated) 9.6L/100km $85,000 (estimated) November

PLUS & MINUS

Ride quality; bodyroll; no seven-seat option; 200t F Sport not for Oz Bold styling; interior; F Sport dynamics; effervescent turbo four

01 ROLLING

Every RX now rolls on bigger 20- inch wheels (shod with 235/55 rubber). There are five designs to choose from, including one with changeable colour inserts, which is a Lexus first.

02 NOT CRASHING

A suite of standard RX safety gear labelled Safety System+ combines pre-collision and lane-departure warning systems, auto high beam and active cruise.

03 FLOATING

Bold exterior design is polarising, but blacking out the C-pillar, which is now thinner to improve rear visibility, is a masterstroke and gives the RXís roofline a floating effect.

Is seven really sales heaven?

DONíT HOLD your breath for a seven-seat RX; Lexus says itís not happening any time soon. Lexus had been tipped to unleash a third-row option to battle its people-lugging German rivals (a seven-seat RX test mule has even been spied), but chief engineer Takayuki Katsuda says the seven-seater is still only under consideration.

Adding a third row is no easy task due to the RXís smallish body and would likely require a stretch in wheelbase and significant bodywork changes.

Weakening the case even further is Lexus research that shows the market for a seven-seater isnít as big as it first thought.

OR TRY THESE...

Volvo XC90 Inscription D5 $96,950

ALL-NEW XC90 is sleeker, smoother and sports a breathtaking interior plus class-leading safety equipment. Itís no dynamic frontrunner, though, and avoid the optional air suspension, which lacks pliancy and composure.

Audi Q7 3.0TDI quattro $103,900

SIGNIFICANTLY more expensive than RX in this spec, but a new entry-level Q7 with the same engine in a lesser tune arrives early next year. Trounces the RX with its refined road manners, class-leading safety tech, luxurious interior and seven seats standard.