On Autos: Larger Lexus RX expands its appeal

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The 2018 Lexus RX 350L is a new seven-passenger version of the luxury brand’s best-selling midsize crossover. Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.

Lexus was an early pioneer of the luxury crossover — combining the comfort and fuel efficiency of a premium sedan with the high driving position and handy cargo space of an SUV. The first Lexus RX appeared in 1999, and it’s been a best-seller ever since.

But it took Lexus almost two decades to add a feature that’s offered on nearly every competitor: seven-passenger seating. The company has now rectified that omission with the new 2018 RX 350L and RX 450hL hybrid, which augment Lexus’ seven-passenger V8-powered SUVs: the midsize GX 460 and full-size LX 570. Prices start at $44,565 for the five-passenger RX and $48,765 for the RX L.

The RX L is based on the fourth-generation RX that debuted as a 2016 model. To fit a third-row seat, Lexus made the vehicle about 4 inches longer and created a boxier rear end. The result is a vehicle that brings extra cargo room without adding much extra bulk or giving up too much of its signature styling — begging the question of “what took so long?”

All of today’s RX models wear edgy sheetmetal that wouldn’t be mistaken for anything but a recent-model Lexus. Up front, a large hourglass-shaped grille runs from the hood all the way down to the base of the bumper. The side view features the trendy “floating roof” side windows that wrap around to the rear windshield.

Where the two models differ is around the back. The five-passenger RX is one of the sportier-looking midsize crossovers, almost with the shape that European competitors call the “four-door coupe” version of their own products, such as the BMW X6 and Mercedes-Benz GLE. The rear windshield is sloped rather than upright, and it stops before the end of the car, creating a several-inch ledge between the glass and the metal sections of the tailgate.

The result is that the RX has limited cargo space even compared to other five-passenger midsize crossovers: 56 cubic feet total, and just 18 cubic feet behind the rear seat. The latter figure is worse even than many compact competitors.

The longer RX L expands the vehicle’s footprint, while the more vertical rear windshield makes better use of the available space. The total volume still isn’t dazzling, but it’s a welcome improvement: 59 cubic feet with all seats folded down, 23 cubic feet behind the second-row seat and 7 cubic feet behind the third row.

A 7-cubic-foot cargo hold would be about half the trunk volume of a compact car, but the space is at least usefully allocated for small items like groceries. For something tall and bulky, you’d have to fold down one or both halves of the third-row seat, but there’s decent floor space back there.

There’s another reason, though, to keep the RX L’s third-row seat folded flat much of the time: It offers little passenger space. Unlike an Acura MDX, Infiniti QX60 or Volvo XC90, the RX L’s third row is more for occasional emergencies than everyday use. Not only is the third row itself uncomfortable, but middle-row passengers will also have to give up much of their own legroom even to fit children in the far back. That’s the downside of retrofitting a third row into a vehicle that wasn’t designed to maximize interior room to begin with.

The good news is that all RX models have comfortable, spacious seating in the front seats and the second row. The tested performance-themed RX 350 F Sport model has extra-comfortable front seating, which grips you more snugly in place while also feeling plusher. The tested RX 350 L, meanwhile, doesn’t offer an F Sport variant, only coming with the simpler, flatter, firmer — but still perfectly acceptable — chairs found in the base RX model.

In the rear, the RX comes only with a pleasant three-passenger bench seat, while the RX L also lets you switch to twin captain’s chairs, included the tested vehicle. The standard RX model offers a smooth, quiet ride and pleasantly responsive handling. It’s not sporty, but there’s more weighty, responsive steering than you’d find in some past RX generations. That said, the model’s Toyota-derived mechanical components don’t give it the same mechanical sophistication as something like an Audi Q7, which drives almost like a seven-passenger sports car.

The 2018 Lexus RX 350 has a more steeply sloped rear windshield than the RX L, which results in a sportier appearance but less interior volume. Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.
The 2018 Lexus RX 350 has a more steeply sloped rear windshield than the RX L, which results in a sportier appearance but less interior volume.
Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.

D.C. drivers should think hard before buying the F Sport model, despite its extra-comfortable front seats. A stiffer suspension can lead to a harsh ride quality on bumpy roads. And there’s little evident improvement in how the car steers and handles, despite some mechanical upgrades.

The powertrains are a highlight — a smooth, powerful V6 engine comes standard, while the pricey but effective hybrid model lets you sip gas around town like an economy car. The EPA estimates that the RX 350 will get 23 mpg with front-wheel-drive. Selecting the L model or all-wheel-drive each costs you 1 mpg. The RX 450h hybrid, sold only with all-wheel-drive, gets an exceptional 30 mpg — while also still offering plenty of power — and the L is again 1 mpg behind.

All RX models feature a mostly plush interior, marred by a few areas of budget-grade plastics. Also, their infotainment controls are modeled after a computer mouse’s in an era when most competitors use touchscreens. The approach can be dangerously distracting if you try to navigate through the system while driving. Fortunately, Lexus includes generous amounts of active-safety technology as standard equipment, which will do its best to keep you from drifting out of your lane or rear-ending the car in front of you.

Overall, no RX is perfect. But the five-passenger model is less expensive than a similarly sized BMW X5 or Mercedes-Benz GLE, offering the refinement of a V6 engine and spacious five-passenger seating for the price of those brands’ compact crossovers.

If you want a full-fledged three-row family car, the RX L still probably isn’t the best fit. But if you already like the RX and want some extra room, the RX L can be a compelling option.

For a more family-friendly version of the RX, you can check out the mainstream Toyota brand, where the Highlander shares its mechanical components with the RX. Priced from $32,275,  boxier Toyota manages to seat eight passengers, offers a similar driving experience to the RX, and shares its advanced safety technology. And like the Lexus, the Highlander is available as a powerful yet fuel-efficient hybrid.

The 2018 Lexus NX 300 offers similar cargo space to the larger RX for less money. Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.
The 2018 Lexus NX 300 offers similar cargo space to the larger RX for less money. Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.

The Highlander is available with rich-feeling leather upholstery in the tested Limited Platinum trim, which cost $47,655 — less than even the base price of the RX 350L, which reached $57,329 with options as tested. Other areas of the cabin don’t feel as luxurious as the Lexus, though, or even as some similarly priced competitors. And while the Highlander’s dashboard ergonomics are more conventional than the RX’s, foibles include shallow knobs that are awkward to grasp.  

The 2018 Toyota Highlander is a roomier, less expensive and less luxurious variant of the Lexus RX. Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.
The 2018 Toyota Highlander is a roomier, less expensive and less luxurious variant of the Lexus RX. Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in the five-passenger RX, also consider Lexus’ compact NX. Priced from $37,380 and newly updated for the 2018 model year, it features a four-cylinder engine instead of the RX’s V6, and it’s more of a squeeze to fit five passengers. The RX also has slightly richer-feeling leather upholstery and a slightly smoother ride.

But in addition to its lower price, the NX brings sportier handling and thriftier fuel economy (2 mpg better in EPA testing), along with similar styling. As with the RX, the NX offers an F Sport model with more supportive front seats but a stiffer ride quality. One big difference is the hybrid version: The RX hybrid is a smooth, powerful V6 that balances performance with efficiency, while the NX hybrid is slower and noisier than the gas-powered NX 300.

To see more photos of the tested 2018 Lexus RX, 2018 Lexus NX and 2018 Toyota Highlander, you can visit Brady Holt’s Facebook page. Brady Holt writes weekly car reviews, too.