First Drive: 2010 Lexus RX350 and RX450h
Few vehicles have done more to establish a genre and define a brand as much as the Lexus RX. Introduced over a decade ago to suburbanite real estate agents and their Napa-weekending friends, the original RX300 helped boost Lexus sales by 60% when it hit dealers in late 1998. Over the ensuing years, Lexus' posh people mover slowly evolved to include a hybrid drivetrain, a refreshed exterior and tasteful appointments that helped solidify its success. For 2010, the RX plays the same tune but adds a few more instruments, a new backbeat and reworked crescendo.
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Try as we might to fight tooth-and-nail for the original CUV – the loved and loathed AMC Eagle – the Lexus RX foisted the crossover concept onto center stage and proved to the public there was a credible alternative to joining the SUV set. The styling was inoffensive, the interior was typical late-90s luxury and – being a unibody vehicle – the ride was astoundingly smooth compared to the SUV-turned-Rapper's Delight sold at Lincoln and Cadillac dealerships.
The 2010 Lexus RX brings more of the same, beginning with a reworked exterior that adopts the L-finesse design theme and grows in several dimensions. The rolling jellybean aesthetic of the outgoing model is ditched in favor of sharp creases and broad shoulders that give the RX a more hunkered-down appearance while still remaining innocuous. The RX's newfound stance is thanks to a 2.2-inch wider track in front and a 2.6-inch stretch in the rear, along with a wheelbase that spans 107.9 inches. The added girth improves interior room and helps handling, but the 2010 RX pays the poundage piper for its widened proportions and added safety. The standard RX350 in front-wheel-drive spec packs on almost 500 pounds over its predecessor, while the AWD version deals with an additional 400 pounds of mass. The RX450h doesn't fair much better, with the FWD version motivating an additional 460 pounds and the AWD model carrying an extra 445 pounds. Despite the added weight, and helped in part by revised drivetrains and a coefficient of drag of 0.33, fuel efficiency is up across the range, with the RX350 returning 18/25 city/highway in FWD trim and 18/24 with AWD, while the RX450h FWD gets 28/27 and the AWD variant achieves 28/26.
The grille, headlamps and tail-lamps are far more dynamic, and tie in nicely to the tweaked C-pillar, swage lines and subtle roof-mounted spoiler that completely conceals the rear window wiper and houses the AM/FM antenna. The RX450h features a smattering of blue tinting on the front and rear emblems, headlights, tail-lights and "hybrid" logos to set it apart from its standard sibling. Base models are fitted with halogen headlamps and 18-inch wheels, while HIDs, 19-inch rolling stock and a "sport" package that features revised dampers, stiffer bushings and a recalibrated electronic power steering rack are optional.
The L-finesse philosophy carries through to the inside, with a completely revised instrument panel, center stack and navigation system. The new navi and its all-new Remote Touch controller are far and away the biggest thing inside the RX, which takes the iDrive/MMI/COMAND idea to a level that even Grandma with her 386 Pentium can understand. The controller rests easily in hand, with buttons placed on either side of the raised mounting for selections. If you've used a mouse, you're good to go. The controller moves an arrow on the eight-inch screen to operate the sat-nav, enter addresses into the QWERTY keyboard and, most impressive, features haptic feedback that provides a subtle tug when mousing over the on-screen options. The Remote Touch and voice command operations proved incredibly intuitive during our drive, although the navigation software has a slightly steeper learning curve.
Both the RX350 and RX450h feature a new Eco driving indicator that shows real-time fuel economy on the blue-backlit dash, and a new heads-up display projects speed, navigation and audio information onto the windshield without being a distraction around town or on the highway. Other interior features include standard 10-way adjustable power front seats, SmartAccess keyless entry, standard 12-speaker stereo or 15-speaker Mark Levinson system, HDD navigation, optional rear displays for back-seat passengers and a wide-view side monitor and back-up camera that shows the surroundings on a 2.4-inch screen in the rearview mirror or on the optional sat-nav screen.
Lexus engineers also replaced the strut-based rear suspension with a new double-wishbone setup that completely removes the towers from the storage area and frees up an additional 40 cubic feet of space over the outgoing model. The front suspension geometry was tweaked and fitted with a larger front sway bar to improve handling, while the task of slowing the RX's substantial mass is left to two-piston front and rear disc brakes.
On the safety front, Lexus has thrown Campbell's alphabet soup surplus into the new RX, with the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system orchestrating the ABS, Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and Traction Control (TRAC) systems. The RX also features Hill-Start Assist Control to prevent rolling on an incline and works both in Drive and Reverse. Adaptive front lighting is also available, along with the Pre-Collision System (PCS) equipped with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control that tightens the front seat belts and pre-loads the Brake Assist if the system detects the CUV bearing down on the vehicle it's pursuing.
Last year's DOHC 3.5-liter V6 soldiers on under the hood of the 2010 RX350 with five more horsepower and an additional six pound-feet of torque, bringing peak output up to 275 hp at 6,200 rpm and 257 lb-ft at 4,700 rpm. The intake and exhaust manifolds have been revised, along with the cylinder head and variable valve timing, which now operates on both the intake and exhaust cams. A six-speed automatic with quick, nearly imperceptible changes thanks to the AI-SHIFT control system, replaces the five-speed unit found in the outgoing model and is equipped on both the front- and all-wheel-drive models. The AWD system on the RX350 uses a viscous coupling locking center differential to doll out either 100% of the power to the front wheels or a 50:50 ratio front to back. And not that anyone cares, but the RX350 AWD can hit 60 in 7.5 seconds, with the FWD model passing the magic mark one-tenth of a second quicker.
The 2010 RX450h is equipped with an Atkinson-cycle 3.5-liter V6 that features lighter electric motors and a compact power-control unit that boosts fuel economy an estimated 8-12% over the RX400h. The engine alone produces 245 hp at 6,000 rpm (up from 208 hp) and 234 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm (up from 212 lb-ft), with total power increased to 295 hp when the electric motors are spinning away. A 288V DC Ni-MH battery pack is mounted underneath the rear seats and receives power from either two or three motors depending on FWD or AWD configurations, with the RX450h AWD ditching the front-to-rear driveshaft for a rear-mounted electric motor.
Our time behind the wheel primarily consisted of suburban jaunts and the occasional Northern California back-road, where both the RX350 and RX450h proved to be competent, compliant day-to-day cruisers. Power delivery is a staid affair on both the standard and hybrid model, with few peaks and fewer valleys. When things turned twisty, the RX did little more than hold it's own, but with a suspension tuned for effortless wafting, we weren't expecting our neurons to be set ablaze. Braking and bends are dealt with ease, but the added mass and Lexus' tradition of creating a reasonable facsimile of steering feel is obvious the moment you turn the wheel.
Lexus has learned over the past decade not to mess with a proven success, and the 2010 RX350 and RX450h proves the point by crossing the Ts and dotting the Is. There are certainly more entertaining, attractive and powerful ways to transport five people and their weekend getaway gear, but that's never been what the RX is about. Simply put, it's about the destination, not the drive. And because of that, the RX will continue to define the segment without ruffling the feathers of public's consciousness.
Autoblog attended a manufacturer sponsored event to facilitate this report.
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