On Autos: ‘Sporty’ Lexus crossover muddles potential appeal

The latest Lexus RX 350 features more dramatic styling than its subtle predecessors. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Since its first generation appeared nearly two decades ago, the Lexus RX has been an understandably popular choice in Northwest. Posh and comfortable but not ostentatious, and practical without being overly bulky, this midsize premium crossover has checked the right boxes for many local buyers.

But in recent years, Lexus began to worry that it had an image problem. Concerned that younger buyers might be shunning the RX as stodgy and dull, the company worked to add spice to the model’s most recent redesign, introduced as a 2016 model. A more prominent grille and sharply creased bodywork convey an edgier vibe than past models, particularly on the tested F Sport model.

Lexus might have been wiser, however, to focus on the RX’s historic strength: comfortable, relaxed and user-friendly luxury. Even buyers who love the styling won’t appreciate the way it cuts into cargo space, and the F Sport model doesn’t even deliver the RX’s famously cushy ride quality.

Priced from $44,095, the 2017 RX 350 stacks up especially well on paper for the money. It’s a size larger than similarly priced European models like the Audi Q5, BMW X3 and Mercedes-Benz GLC, and it comes standard with a V6 engine instead of a four-cylinder.

The 2017 Lexus RX 350 F Sport model has available red leather upholstery. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The base model — rather than this tested F Sport — delivers the relaxing luxury that loyal buyers have come to expect from the RX. While its European competitors tend to be the SUV versions of sports sedans, the RX traces its mechanical roots to ordinary but comfort-focused models like the Toyota Camry family sedan. That difference leaves the RX without those competitors’ handling grace, but it also results in a ride quality that’s better at muting potholes and other bumps. Meanwhile, the Lexus’ V6 engine is whisper-quiet in gentle driving and richer than competing four-cylinders when it’s pushed hard.

In terms of the F Sport model, however, stiffer suspension tuning and giant 20-inch wheels do it no favors on imperfectly paved D.C. streets, even as the RX continues to handle with the agility and grace expected of a taller, heavier Camry — which is to say, not very much, especially compared to the Europeans. The F Sport’s main advantages are cosmetic, including eye-catching red leather upholstery as well as some exterior design modifications, but be sure your test drive isn’t limited to smooth roads around your suburban Lexus dealership.

Inside, the RX’s interior is modern without being as dramatically styled as the exterior. Most materials also look and feel high-quality for this price point. As with other Lexus models, though, the RX eschews a touch screen or rotary knob for its infotainment system; instead, drivers navigate through menus using a controller like a computer mouse that’s mounted between the front seats. There’s a reason that no competitor followed Lexus’ lead on that approach, which is particularly cumbersome to use while you’re trying to drive.

The 2017 Lexus RX 350’s shape cuts into its interior room compared to similarly sized crossovers. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The RX has spacious, comfortable seating for five passengers but surprisingly little cargo space. Blame the high load floor and the low, sloping roof and rear windshield for pinching the space. Unlike the Acura MDX and Infiniti QX60, no third-row seat is available — though Lexus is planning to launch a seven-passenger extended-length RX within the next year.

Perhaps the RX’s best feature is its available hybrid powertrain. Despite its ample acceleration performance, the RX 450h hybrid is rated for an exceptional 30 mpg in mixed driving compared to 22 mpg for the RX 350. The gap widens in stop-and-go conditions, where hybrids can take fuller advantage of their electric motor to drive the car; the EPA rates the hybrid and gas-only RX at 31 mpg and 19 mpg, respectively, in city driving. The RX 450h starts at a steep $54,010, though it does have more standard features than the RX 350.

Aside from the optional hybrid powertrain, the RX’s leading strength remains its comfortable and quiet ride. Buyers seeking a sportier driving experience would be wise to consider a competitor, or Lexus’ own compact NX crossover, rather than buying the F Sport. And don’t overlook the space efficiency, fuel efficiency and more user-friendly control layout found in such compact premium crossovers as the Q5, the X3 and the newly redesigned Volvo XC60.