2012 Lexus RX 350 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Good fuel economy, easy to drive, rides softly.
First launched as a 1999 model, the Lexus RX was most recently redesigned and re-engineered for 2010. Changes since have been minimal. Most significantly, the 2012 RX 350 has been tuned to run on regular unleaded (87 octane) fuel. Premium (91 octane) is recommended for the 2012 RX 450h.
(For 2013, Lexus RX models will feature revised styling and new interior materials. The 2013 RX is expected to go on sale summer 2012. The 2013 version won't be that much different from the 2012 except in terms of its appearance.)
The 2012 Lexus RX 350 and RX 450h are easy to operate and ride more softly than other SUVs. They're also more fuel-efficient than many of their competitors.
Powered by a 3.5-liter V6 mated to a 6-speed automatic multi-mode transmission, the RX 350 beats the fuel economy ratings of the Acura MDX, Mercedes ML 350, and BMW X5 xDrive3.5i. The RX 450h hybrid gets better mileage yet, and achieves a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV II) certification in California, and a Tier 2-Bin 3 emissions rating in all other states.
The 2012 RX 350 and RX 450h are offered with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. The RX 350 uses a light-weight all-wheel-drive system that operates through an electronic coupling on the rear differential, eliminating the need for a center differential. The RX 450h uses an electric motor to drive the rear wheels so no mechanical connection between the axles is needed.
The 2012 Lexus RX 350 comes with front-wheel drive ($39,075) or all-wheel drive ($40,475). The RX 450h offers the same choice of front-drive ($45,235) or all-wheel drive ($46,825) and comes with a bit more standard equipment, which is why some of the option packages listed below cost less for the Hybrid than for the standard RX 350. Both come with fabric upholstery, automatic dual-zone climate control, AM/FM/6CD with nine speakers and a luxury level of standard equipment.
The optional Luxury Package includes semi-aniline leather trim interior; one-touch-open/close Moonroof; Power Retractable Electrochromic Outside Mirrors; Wood and Leather Steering Wheel and Shift Knob; Wide Angle Side-View Monitor, 19-inch Alloy wheels with Mud and Snow Tires; iPod/USB port; Power Rear Door; Illuminated Scuff Plate; and Headlamp Cleaner. The Comfort Package includes bi-xenon high intensity discharge (HID) projector headlamps; adaptive front lighting system; automatic high beams; rain-sensing automatic wipers; 12-speaker audio; and heated and cooled front seats.
Dual-Screen Rear Seat Entertainment with Navigation ($5,005) includes DVD rear-seat entertainment system with wireless headphones, audio/video inputs, 120V AC power outlet and navigation system with voice command, backup monitor, XM Nav Traffic and Nav Weather with 90-day trial subscription and Remote Touch controller.
Options include a Heads-Up Display ($1200), Heated/Ventilated Front Seats ($640), 19-inch Aluminum Alloy Wheels with Mud and Snow Tires ($660), and Bi-Xenon High Intensity Discharge Headlamps with AFS and Automatic High Beams ($875). Mark Levinson Audio ($1610) and Intuitive Parking Assist ($500) are also available as stand-alone options. The Navigation System option ($2465) includes Hard Disc Drive Navigation with voice command, Backup Monitor, XM Nav Traffic and Nav Weather with 90-day trial subscription, and the Remote Touch controller. The Sports Package ($1300) includes 19-inch Sport finish alloy wheels with mud and snow tires, sport-tuned suspension, and Vehicle Dynamic Management (VDIM). The Sports Package is not available on the Hybrid; but then only Hybrid buyers can choose energy-saving LED headlamps ($1825), which come with washers, AFS, and intelligent high beams.
Safety equipment includes front airbags; front-seat mounted side airbags; roll-sensing front and rear side-curtain air bags; driver and front passenger knee airbags and side airbags; active headrests for front seats; force-limiting seatbelt pre-tensioners for driver and front passenger seats; three-point seatbelts with pre-tensioners for all rear seating positions (3); direct-type tire pressure monitoring system; four-sensor, four-channel anti-lock brake system (ABS) with Brake Assist; enhanced VSC (Vehicle Stability Control). Optional safety features include Pre-collision System and Dynamic Radar Cruise Control. Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) comes with the Sports Package. Like all Lexus vehicles, the 2012 Lexus RX comes with Smart Stop Technology, which automatically reduces engine power when the brake and accelerator pedals are applied simultaneously under certain driving conditions.
The Lexus RX gets revised styling for 2013. The 2012 RX is beginning to look dated.
A 64-inch front tread width lends the 2012 RX a wide stance. The wheel openings are round and unadorned. The whole shape of the vehicle is ovoid, yet highlighted by crisp, defining lines. And it works as well in the wind tunnel as it does visually, delivering a slippery Cd of just 0.33.
Blacked-out roof pillars combine with rear privacy glass to merge the three side windows into a single visual unit. The standard 18-inch wheels, with their five triple-ribbed spokes, are a bit fussy; but the 19-inch, seven-spoke wheels that come with the Sports Package are truly lovely in their simplicity.
The 2012 RX 450h is distinguished from the RX 350 by its more finely slotted grille with an extra horizontal opening just beneath it. Lexus says the 2012 RX hybrid's front bumper is different, but the difference is subtle. More noticeable is the blue enamel-like background added to the Lexus Circled-L in the center of the grille, with echoing blue highlights in the front and rear lamp clusters. Optional energy-saving LED headlights look sharp and are exclusive to the hybrid.
Both the 2012 RX 350 and RX 450h have LED brake lights and LED turn signals integrated into the side mirrors. Auto-dimming outside mirrors, optional on the RX 350, are standard on the hybrid. The 450h also has blue emblems and logos, and is available with exclusive Black Opal Mica paint.
It's strangely exciting to sit in the cockpit of the 2012 Lexus RX 350 and RX 450h. There is a sensation of having so much to do, just like configuring a new computer. There are seating adjustments to lock in, preferences for the Remote Touch controller, operating modes to select and dashboard combinations to try out. We have a feeling an RX owner would be surprised to discover new features after months of ownership.
The RX comes to life with the push of a button. The instruments are bright and engaging, and shaded from outside light. The seats have side bolsters that are high enough to provide support during cornering, but they're still easy to get into. They feel firm at first, but medium-soft once you settle in, and are easily adjusted to a variety of positions. Mood lighting in the footwells and cabin supports a sense of quality and well-being.
The cockpit conveys a sense of sophistication, due in part to a gifted design scheme that includes no straight lines or sharp corners. Every element of the interior is curved, arched or rounded in some way, so lines blend with subtle grace and harmony. California Walnut or Birds-eye Maple wood trim accents complement light gray fabric; or black, light gray, or parchment leather.
The cockpit is divided into two separate zones. The first is for information functions, located higher up where they are easy to see. The second is for control functions, located lower and within easy reach of both front seat occupants. This division is made possible by Remote Touch.
The Remote Touch system is essentially a computer mouse. It's located exactly where your hand would fall if your elbow were resting on the center console. This mouse will be immediately familiar to anyone who has used a computer. It replaces the need to reach out and touch the screen to use the Navigation system, or adjust audio or climate settings. We found it was simple to use while driving. It allowed us to avoid focusing on the navi screen to tune the climate control or turn down the volume. Plus, no more fingerprints on the screen.
The center console is bridge-like with open storage under the center. The shifter is immediately above the Remote Touch mouse.
There are a number of redundant hard buttons on the steering wheel, and at various points on the dash, 52 in all, but the Remote Touch mouse really does reduce the need to use them. Like a computer mouse, Remote Touch can be adjusted for sensitivity to your preference.
The navigation system includes casual-speech voice recognition capability for hands-free operation of audio, climate, and Bluetooth. The system runs from a hard disc, not a DVD, so it's faster and allegedly smarter than a DVD system. Among the improvements are easier phonebook transfer, voice command access to the phonebook, and smart auto-fill when selecting destinations.
XM satellite capability is built in, and the first three months are free when you buy the RX. Three services are available: real-time traffic, advance weather forecasts and XM Satellite Radio.
The standard audio system has 9 speakers, a 6-disc CD changer and can play MP3 and WMA files from your iPod. A 12-speaker system comes with the navigation system, and a 15-speaker Mark Levinson Surround Sound system is available for those who require an audio system consistent with the very best home systems.
The front seats are fitted with active headrests as standard equipment. The headrests are designed to adjust upward in the event of a rear-end collision, reducing whiplash. Because of the active headrests, rear-seat entertainment screens are independently mounted in pods behind the headrests. The two seven-inch LCD screens can operate separately so one passenger can play a game while another passenger watches a DVD. The seats are covered in fabric in standard trim, with leather and semi-aniline leather offered as available options.
One of our test units had seats covered in the consistently flawless semi-aniline leather, and we were hard pressed to find a misplaced stitch or shadow of stain anywhere. In fact, the leather is so supple and uniformly perfect we first thought it must be synthetic material. Regardless of the covering, both front seats are 10-way adjustable, with memory, and heated/air conditioned seats are available.
The rear seat can accommodate three and has a 40/20/40 fold-down split. One or both seatbacks can be released from behind, while loading cargo, eliminating the need to walk around to the side of the vehicle.
The rear seats also have a fold-down center console with a covered wood grain cupholder and separate covered storage compartment. The rear seats are shorter, with less reclinability than the front seats, but with good legroom for average-size adults like ourselves, much better than a seat on a 757 these days. There are four grab handles, one for each door. There are two rear air conditioning vents to cool the rear compartment.
Cargo room behind the rear seats is 40 cubic feet, enough for four average golf bags.
When it comes to the interior, the hybrid 450h is essentially the same as the 350, except that the 450h has an Eco driving indicator that displays fuel economy using a bar graph. A hybrid system indicator replaces the tachometer to provide driving feedback.
We've driven RX 350 models with front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive as well as an RX 450h hybrid.
The 2012 RX 350 responds well to throttle out on the road. Part of that is the big 3.5-liter V6, part of it is the 6-speed transmission. The 6-speed automatic has a lower first-gear ratio than the typical 5-speed, so it gets the RX quickly up to velocity for merging or highway entry. Lexus told us to expect 0-60 acceleration times in the neighborhood of 7.7 seconds, and a quarter mile time of 15.7, and that's about the way it felt. We didn't go there, but top speed is electronically limited to 112 mph.
The transmission quickly selects gears based on throttle input, so you can ask for a gentle downshift just by giving it a little more gas. If you floor the accelerator, it kicks down two gears and moves out. It's also possible to select your own gears in multi-mode shifting, but the automatic's logic seemed so intuitive that we would probably drive in Auto 95 percent of the time, using the manual mode for downhill control on the highway or a long uphill when heavily loaded. There is no V8 option for the RX, but if there were, we'd wager that performance would not be much improved, and mileage would suffer.
We did not feel much torque steer in the front-wheel-drive models, particularly not in the Hybrid.
The RX 350 is not built for road racing, but more for passenger comfort. The double-wishbone independent rear suspension has a lot to do with that. Still, it has a nice, clean turn-in and good lateral grip for an SUV. Here's where its genuinely wide track (a little over 64 inches in front, a little under in the rear) contributes noticeably to agility.
We expect Lexus vehicles to be exceptionally quiet, and the RX is no exception. That said, the 19-inch wheels on the Sport Package do allow for more road input, and a little more noise and vibration seep through. The suspension is tuned slightly differently with the Sport Package, but the end result is still not as aggressive as Porsche's Cayenne or the BMW X5. To us, that's fine. We think SUVs are better at grocery-getting than corner-carving anyway. Bigger wheels, thinner tires and tighter damping tend to compromise Lexus ride quality and noise control, without delivering all that much gain in handling. So our preference is for the 18-inch wheels.
Regardless of the tire choice, we found it easy to maintain a conversation using a low tone of voice at normal speeds. Lexus pioneered the science of quietness in a car, with the result that almost all cars are significantly quieter than they were five years ago. New tricks, such as optimized wheelwell damping coatings and fender liners, have been incorporated into the RX. The underbody of the car has also received attention against wind noise. And the sixth gear in the transmission allows for ultra-quiet cruising, with less engine noise, on the highway.
All those things also hold true for the 2012 RX 450h, but because it is a hybrid, it regularly operates with the engine off altogether. During those times, noise reduction is even greater, bordering on eerie.
The brakes feel strong and progressive, with just a little squish at the top of the pedal before stronger grip kicks in. The hybrid brakes, which are regenerative, are much more smoothly modulated than earlier hybrid brakes. The transition between light braking, when the generator reclaims power, and the serious stopping power that comes on when more pedal is applied, can still be felt, but you have to look for it.
Steering effort is light, and proportioned electronically, with power-assist logic based on vehicle speed. The slower you go, the less effort required, so it can be just as appropriate in the parking lot as in the fast lane on the way to Las Vegas. Lexus uses the electric steering system on a number of its vehicles, because it reduces drag on the motor and thus, improves fuel economy. It's also more compact, so there are packaging advantages, and once you have a computer controlling steering, you can add VDIM.
VDIM is not a system easily tested in normal driving, because it requires driving out of control, and then recovering. At which point, nothing will have happened, except maybe a brief flash of an icon on the dash. But it's a system that looks at steering, braking, throttle and motion sensors in the cabin to predict what will actually happen, compared to what the driver is asking for. If there is any difference between the two, the system intervenes and selectively brakes individual wheels to correct the path of the car. It happens so fast you might not notice.
We've tested VDIM on race tracks and lonely dirt roads. It works without slowing down the car much, unlike VSC, which is the standard traction/stability control system. It's an expensive option, but one we wish was on every car.
The RX is an easy SUV to see out of, and fairly easy to keep track of the area around the vehicle when backing up or parking. Driver visibility is enhanced by small windows in the A-pillar, and by small TV cameras that track the rear and passenger-side of the RX. One camera is located in the right side mirror, the other in the rear bumper. We found we could toggle between the two views, front and side, to see how close we were to the curb or pedestrians.
We found the RX to be a relaxed and comfortable ride, so we spent time trying out some of its electronics systems.
We actuated the heads up display and found it makes it easy to stick to speed limits in unfamiliar ground. Bright white, high-contrast figures were easy to read, even heading into sunlight. It's the best we've seen so far. It's possible to project the display anywhere on the windshield; we liked it best low and to the left.
Voice recognition, something we've never really trusted, still takes a little getting used to, but the system in the RX is much closer to something we might use every day. We began by asking it to switch to channel 143 on XM, which it had no problem doing. It also seemed to quickly be able to supply the nearest gas stations, although not the cheapest prices, and turn down the air conditioning. However, when we asked it to play Grateful Dead, it did not find the channel on its own, so evidently there are limits to Hal's intelligence.
The RX 450h is offered in front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, but the all-wheel-drive system is different; it incorporates a separate rear electric motor to power the rear wheels. Because it is a hybrid, the transmission is a continuously variable automatic and the brakes are different due to the need to regenerate electricity. And there are a few packaging and styling differences to consider when making a decision between the two. Because of the addition of electric motors, the RX 450h has 25 more horsepower than the RX 350, which compensate for a weight penalty of over 300 pounds.
Using the EPA combined city/highway ratings, both FWD and AWD versions of the hybrid get 9 mpg better fuel economy than their non-hybrid counterparts. Even with the hybrid's smaller fuel tank, it can travel 115 miles farther on a fill-up. However, at $4 per gallon, you'd have to drive close to 100,000 miles before you recouped the $6000 premium Lexus charges for the hybrid.
In short, dollar savings would be modest even if prices rise. For that reason, most current Hybrid buyers chose the vehicle because they want to drive the most fuel-efficient, cleanest SUV possible, one that reduces dependency on imported oil and reduces emissions. The RX 450h we drove averaged 23.4 mpg over 120 miles of mostly around-town driving.
The hybrid brake system uses the same ventilated four-wheel discs as the RX 350, but has an electronically controlled regenerative brake feature that charges the batteries when the brakes are applied gently. The hybrid system includes ABS, Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist and more important, Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system (VDIM) as standard equipment. As we said before, we've tested VDIM on controlled proving-grounds settings, and consider it a remarkable safety system.
The hybrid can drive in three modes: Normal, Eco for best mileage, and EV Mode which allows the vehicle to operate on battery only. Lexus tech sources estimate the EV-only mode operating distance at about a mile. The EV feature is aimed at allowing the RX to be used as an electric car in closed urban areas where internal combustion engines are banned altogether, such as in parts of some European cities.
The 2012 Lexus RX is exceptionally quiet and sumptuously comfortable. It boasts a long list of safety features, and its electronic accessories are at once entertaining, sophisticated and user-friendly. The RX 350 is a good choice for people who don't tow or need to move more than five people at a time. The RX 450h offers all that, plus the greater fuel efficiency and environmental friendliness of a hybrid. The RX is being revised for 2013, so look for deals on 2012 models.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent John Stewart filed this report from southern California. John F. Katz also reported from south-central Pennsylvania.
Lexus RX 350 FWD ($39,075); RX 350 AWD ($40,475); RX 450h FWD ($45,235); RX 450h AWD ($46,825).
Kyushu, Japan; Ontario, Canada.
Options As Tested
Luxury Package ($4900); Mark Levinson Audio ($1610); Navigation System ($2465); Sports Package ($1300); Towing Prep Package ($238).
Lexus RX 350 AWD ($40,475).
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