2016 Lexus RX 350: Sophistication with an edge

The latest edition of Lexus’ most popular SUV, the RX 350, makes a strong styling statement. The look is more sport wagon than SUV, and it leads with its expressive chin.

The face frames the Lexus-signature spindle grille with a set of slanting, squinting headlamps. Sharp creases highlight the side view, which is capped by a narrow, low-slung roofline. RX brings up the rear with a milder reprise of the front spindle theme.

Though identical in height to the previous editions, the fourth-generation RX 350’s are substantially longer (nearly 5 inches), with a wheelbase that’s stretched almost 2 inches longer than before. The difference in dimensions makes for a mixed bag inside. The RX picks up an additional 1.2 inches of rear-seat legroom, for an adult-friendly total of 38 inches. That’s better than competitive models from Acura, BMW, and Volvo. However, the lower roof reduces cargo capacity to 18.4 to 56.3 cubic feet (depending on how you arrange the seats), which lags most offerings in this segment. Rear seatbacks don’t fold to a completely flat load floor, but lift-over height in back is comfortable, and adjustable rear-seat travel allows you to shift more space to the cabin or to the cargo hold.

Inside, the biggest difference between the current 2016 model and previous versions is the available, 12.3-inch display panel. The tablet-sized screen provides a crisp, panoramic view from its location atop the center stack. Luxury crossovers are fertile ground for new technology, and practically any tech feature that you can think of is offered either in trim levels, as a stand-alone, or in an option package.

Several sound system upgrades are available, capped off by an 835-watt, 15-speaker, 10-channel Mark Levinson surround sound system. An optional, heads-up display projects select speed, navigation, and audio information onto the windshield, requiring little diversion of your eyes from the road.

The RX 350 employs a combination of conventional switchgear and an available joystick controller known as Remote Touch. Offered as part of the Premium package, the electronics interface is used to operate navigation, audio, phone, and also HVAC if desired. The problem with this approach (as well as other similarly designed controllers) is that they require more finesse by the driver, which can potentially be more distracting than simpler, straightforward switchgear would be.

The RX 350 is offered in two variations — base and F SPORT — as well as a hybrid-powered model. Prices for the base RX 350 start at $41,900 (FWD) and $43,300 (AWD). The MSRP for F SPORT is $49,125 (AWD is standard). The RX 450h hybrids are available in FWD, AWD, and F SPORT versions with prices ranging from $52,235 to $55,645.

My test drive time was split between the base and F SPORT models. Hybrid models aside, the RX 350 powertrain pairs a 3.5-liter V-6 engine with a new eight-speed transmission. The engine makes 295 horsepower and 267 lb.-ft. of torque. That’s a substantial power boost over the former model (adding 20 horsepower and 19 more lb.-ft. of torque). The 0-to-60 mph time is in the mid to high-7-second range. While not the quickest in its class, the RX 350 feels responsive under foot, with ample power to pass, and it cruises quietly at highway speeds. With eight speeds to spread the power (compared to six speeds previously) the new transmission helps boost fuel economy numbers for 2016. EPA estimates for the RX 350 are 19/26 (AWD) and 20/28 (FWD).

While few RX 350’s are expected to venture off-road, many buyers will look to the all-wheel-drive versions to help combat snowy winter roadways. Lexus’ Dynamic Torque Control AWD system collects information from various sensors (wheel speed, steering angle, etc.), and directs power from front to rear wheels as needed to maximize traction. The power distribution can vary from 100 percent front to 50/50 front/rear, depending on road conditions and driving dynamics. When launching on a slippery surface, torque is applied through all four wheels for better grip. Eco, Normal, and Drive Modes are selected via console-mounted dial, each with corresponding programming for suspension settings and throttle and shift mapping.

F SPORT models are fitted with an array of show-and-go equipment and are notably fun to drive. Though not to be confused with a sport sedan, the RX 350 F SPORT is quite agile for the breed, and happily, the added driving dexterity doesn’t come at the expense of ride quality.