Exciting to look at, if not to drive, Japan’s sales-leading luxury high roller is where the press and buyers part ways.

Stubble-faced and sulky, the criminal informant sits at a conference table in a government office. A federal agent is framing out his new life in the witness-protection program: a new name, a new house, and a “perfectly inconspicuous” SUV. She slaps down a photo of a Lexus RX. His face twists in disappointment. Smash cut to the doomed bastard wheeling away in an Audi Q5.

“I’ll take my chances,” he says.

In the mind of the marketer, this recent TV spot for Audi’s volume crossover is “ideal self-conception” psychology at work. The Q5 is the “passionate lover” and the RX a “prison of the spirit.” It’s the oldest trick in the book, and it works because the sales-leading Lexus is conventional by definition.

But if you’re really paying attention, you’ll note that Audi’s little passion play is undone by cognitive dissonance: The Q5 looks like a pot of Sleepytime tea on all-season tires, while the hawk-like Lexus appears ready to claw the Mafia’s eyes out. In fact, from its samurai-mask grille to the facets and origami-like folds that intersect, mingle, and collide in Byzantine combinations, the Lexus RX enjoys some of the rowdiest sheetmetal in the industry. It’s an inexplicably daring act of automotive design in a space that had previously seen inconspicuousness rewarded with cash.

And the market has spoken: The RX continues to crush its competitors in the midsize luxury crossover space, and sales have been on an upward climb since its radical redesign for the 2016 model year. Recently, I pulled our test RX 350, painted in matte-like Satin Cashmere, into an empty parking lot and had a good look at it. (I see 50 of these a day in the NYC metro area, but I’ve never actually looked at one.)

Character lines ascend and descend in counterpoint, creating a range of surfaces that absorb or reflect light, adding depth to body panels or lifting them to the surface. Metal and plastic edges come together to form deep creases, through which one can imagine the laws of fluid dynamics working their Newtonian magic as the RX exits Earth’s atmosphere on its way to a dinner date in the Crab Nebula. For the “safe choice” the RX wears quite an avant-garde costume.

Still, Audi can get away with chiding the Lexus for its lackluster driving dynamics—which we’ll address in a bit—as well as working the Lexus-is-bland perception, which endures despite the company’s best efforts to impale it on designers’ sharpened pencils. The reason is, the RX is a paradox, a car that’s as interesting to look at as it is completely uninteresting to drive. That sounds like a negative. It’s not.

The Pros

  • Exterior design. Maybe being the “bland choice” got under Lexus’s skin, or maybe its goal was to attract younger buyers raised on mecha anime, but the post-2016 Lexus RX 350 is, hand-down, the least mundane thing to look at in day-to-day traffic. Critics hate it in the same way they hated prog rock and the movie Waterworld, but critics aren’t always right. Sales figures bear out the risk Lexus took with this design. It’s a winner.
  • Interior design. Lexus excels where it always has, in creating a spacious, luxurious cabin that doesn’t overload the senses. Materials and interior design recall stylish living rooms from glossy magazines. Designers created an interior space that employs enough angular shapes to keep your beta brainwaves occupied, without taxing the alphas. It’s like a talk show’s “green room” without the green.
  • Overall comfort. When a bank manager gets in her RX at the end of a rough day doing, er, bank managing, she wants not to be messed with. With a smooth powertrain and compliant chassis, the RX 350 is quiet, comfortable on bad pavement and in dodgy construction zones, and effortless to maneuver. It’s the ultimate urban-driving bullshit filter.

The 2018 Lexus RX 350, Ranked:

Comfort: 4/5

Luxury: 4.5/5

Hauling People: 5/5

Hauling Stuff: 4/5

Curb Appeal: 5/5

“Wow” Factor: 3.5/5

Overall: 4/5

The Bottom Line

Lexus knows a large portion of crossover buyers don’t care which SUV rocks the slalom at the test track hardest. As such, the RX 350 is a made-to-measure luxury crossover stolen from the dreams of millions of stressed drivers, purpose-built to mitigate the demands of urban motoring: traffic, crap roads, construction zones, heavy weather, and overall sensory overload. It’s a rolling stress reducer created only to satisfy drivers for whom “steering feel” is another word for “drives rough.” Never before has a vehicle left so much space between its legion of loyal buyers and the automotive press. You might say the RX is truly a crossover for its times. The Audi Q5 may be quicker and more nimble, but let’s face it: That only matters if you’re running from a Mafia hit crew, right?

The 2018 Lexus RX 350, by the Numbers:

Powertrain: 3.5-liter V-6, 290 horsepower, 268 pound-feet of torque; eight-speed automatic; all-wheel-drive

Fuel Economy: 19 city, 26 highway

Passenger Volume: 121.3 cu. ft.

Cargo Volume (flat-floor with seats folded down): 18.4 cu. ft. (56.3 cu. ft.)