2011 Lexus RX350 Prestige (AUS)


Although Lexus sales in the vitally important US market remain very strong, in Europe things look quite different, with the initial two models in the range, the large LS and slightly smaller GS saloon failing to hit three digits worth of sales in the UK market in 2011. Until the launch of the cheaper CT200h model in early 2011, the best selling Lexus was the prestige RX Cross-Over Sports Utility, a vehicle that would seem so beloved of the affluent “Soccer Mom” in the US and the “Yummy Mummy” in the UK. Whilst RX easily tops its segment in the US and has done for some time, in the UK  only just over 2000 of these were registered in the last 12 months, which is less than half the number of BMW X5s, though it is a full 10 times the number of Infiniti FX models sold, both of which are natural competitors for the RX.  What we can buy now is the third generation of a car which started out as the Toyota Harrier in its native Japan. This latest version was launched at the Los Angeles show in 2008,  before going on sale around the world in 2009.  Despite actually being “all new”, the styling appeared to be more of a cautious evolution of its predecessor rather than anything radically different, and this may be one reason why observation of our roads suggests that there are more of these cars around than the sales figures would suggest   A friend of mine, who fits the stereotypical owner profile of living in West Hampstead and having a 2 year old daughter pretty well, bought an RX a year or so ago, and loves it, preferring it to the E92 BMW 325i Coupe which he had before. He’s not particularly a car enthusiast though, so the question I wanted to answer with this test was whether I would like it, and having sampled both an X5 and an Infiniti FX35 (in the US in both cases) whether I could determine which of these three prestige rivals is best and whether there is any logic to the sales success of the BMW relative to the Japanese cars in the UK, but of the Lexus in the far larger US market. .
Although Britain only sees the Hybrid engined RX cars these days, other markets still get models with a traditional petrol engine. Badged RX350 in accordance with the 3.5 litre capacity, the powerplant develops a healthy  270 bhp, which is plenty to endow the car with a decent feeling of oomph. It sounds good, too, with the special sound of a nicely balanced V6 evident on start up, and more obvious when you put your foot down more than very gently. It was soon apparent that you could easily accumulate enough points to be in trouble with the very camera-infested Australian authorities, so I was not able really to let rip, but after the slightly anaemic feeling smaller Lexus IS250 that disappointed me at the start of this trip, the engine in this one felt far more up to the job. Certainly for nipping past slower traffic, there were no issues, as the ample reserves of torque helped out. There is a 6 speed automatic gearbox, with ordinary or performance modes fitted to the car. Using the latter, you can select the gears yourself, by flicking the lever back and forth. The lever is mounted at a 45 degree angle and falls nicely to hand. You don’t buy an RX350 and expect to get parsimonious fuel consumption, and my test average worked out at just **************, which was comprised of a mixture of lots of stop/start motoring when doing the photos and in urban Sydney, as well as some gentle cruising. You are also not buying a sports car, as is obvious from the way it drives. The steering is light and lacks much in the way of feel. The car leans a fair amount on corners and does not encourage you to take the bends at speed, though I am sure that you could go far harder than I did with no real issues. The ride was soft but not unduly wallowy, and not subjected to extremes, as the roads of New South Wales all seem to be in a good state of repair. The brakes were effective, needing only moderate pressure to operate. A foot operated parking brake is found to the left of the brake pedal. The RX350 was easy to manoeuvre, despite being a large car, and the rear camera which projected onto the satellite navigation was particularly good, with a series of coloured lines helping you to judge better than you would just from a simple image of what was behind the car.  To help still further, the door mirrors tilt down very slightly when reverse is selected.       
The interior of the RX350 looks decently restrained, and is clearly made from high quality materials, with impeccable standards of build quality and fit. A cedar red style wood inlay is on part of the steering wheel, centre console, transmission selector and the door trims. As wood embellishments go, it is not too bad, and it makes a change from the various silver effect “plastiminum” that more and more manufacturers are using.  There is some interest in the shape of the dash, too, with a swooping elliptical style grouping together the central part of the dash associating it with the driver and leaving just the glovebox area in front of the passenger. This incorporates a high set centre console, which sees the transmission selector project at a 45 degree angle, and it also encompasses the recess for the display screen for the satellite navigation that doubles up as a display for the rear camera. The main instrument dials are grouped together under a single binnacle, and comprised clearly marked speedo, rev counter, fuel and water temperature gauges, with an area in the centre to display on-board computer data such as fuel consumption, as well as the odometer. Twin column stalks operate most of the other minor controls, with the left hand one operating front and rear wipers, and the right hand one doing indicators, and by twisting the end of the stalk, the lights. The centre of the dash contains simple controls for the climate control and audio unit, many of the functions of which are repeated with buttons on the left hand side of the steering wheel. Cruise control operates from the right hand sets of buttons. The satellite navigation system proved very easy to use, with a 3D type mouse to move the pointer on the screen and a large enter button, which could be used from either side presented in the centre console. Overall, I felt that the design looked far less fussy than the button fest that you can get in some German competitors and yet it proved easy to use.  Keyless ignition is standard, so as long as the key is in your pocket, you simply put your foot on the footbrake, and press the large start/stop button to the left of the wheel.
Although it is not particularly obvious when you get into the RX that you are stepping up higher than a regular car, once installed in the driving seat, you are in no doubt that you are sitting higher than many other cars and you do feel that sort of commanding view of what is going on around you. The seats themselves are electrically adjusted in every direction, with the added feature that when you switch off the engine, the seat motors back to give you more space to get in and out. Get in, and either fasten the seat belt, or turn the engine on and the seat powers back to the position it occupied before. The steering column has manual adjustment up and down and in and out. I felt that the wheel could usefully have gone higher than it did, though quickly adjusted to the driving position I selected. Thanks to the relatively short time I had the car, and that it had a mileage restriction on it, I did not spend hours ensconsed in the driver’s seat, but it certainly felt very comfortable during the time I was there. Rear seat passengers would be unlikely to complain much, either. There’s plenty of space for them, with generous levels of leg, shoulder and head room. The rear seat backrest angle can be varied simply by using the same lever as the one that fold the backrest down completely.  Unlike the BMW, this car makes not pretence at being a 7 seater. It has seats for 5 and that is it. The boot is a good size. The floor is almost flush with the tailgate aperture, and it extends back a fair way. It’s not particularly deep from window line to floor level, though, but easily swallowed my luggage with plenty of space to spare. More space can be created by folding down the asymmetrically split rear seat backrests, which drop onto the seat cushion, but slope up very slightly to create a longer load platform. Small cubbies are at either side of the luggage area and there is space for a few flat odds and ends under the boot floor. A roller blind to cover the luggage area is attached to the tailgate. There is an electric close mechanism for the tailgate, so no chance of not closing it properly. Inside the cabin, the glovebox is particularly meagre, and there are door bins which have a flap which hinges outwards to facilitate access, and there is a shallow area under the central armrest. There is quite a generous stowage area under the console moulding where you find the gearlever, though this is not something you could easily reach while driving. Two cupholders in the centre console are augmented by an additional one which is hidden behind a drop down flap on the right of the dash.  
In Australia, the RX350 is far from cheap. The test car was a Prestige, which is the least costly of three models – Prestige, Sports and Sports Luxury. It retails at AUS$ 90.154, which at current exchange rates is nearly £65,000. The other models cost AUS$ 97,434 and $105,754 respectively, which is a lot of money by any standards. Reviewing the specifications, there does not appear to be much difference between them, with a electrically operated moonroof coming on the 2 more expensive versions and the top model adding parking sensors to the reversing camera that is standard on all of them and heated seats. All models include the satellite navigation, the same AM/FM audio unit with 6 CD changer, iPod and MP3 connectivity and bluetooth, dual zone climate control, gloss paint in a variety of sober hues with light blue and white being the only vaguely light coloured ones, leather seats, wood trim, auto sensing lights and wipers and door mirrors that dip on reverse. Well equipped, for sure but so it should be given the price.      
Although I had been looking forward to getting to sample the RX350, when I arrived in Sydney to collect it, my initial feeling was one of disappointment. Here was yet another Metallic Grey test car, which turned out, thanks to the complex curves on the haunches of the car to be about the most difficult vehicle I’ve ever tried to photograph, with unwanted reflections almost impossible to avoid. To castigate the car for this, though, would be to sell if short. Having driven it for three days, I can see the appeal, and that is before you factor in the Lexus ownership experience which survey after survey repeatedly tells us is second to none. For those who want a car of this type, it is beautifully finished, roomy and there are no significant weaknesses. It is not surprising that it sells well to its target buyers. But I started out by wondering how it compares to the BMW X5 and the Infiniti FX35. I have to say that I liked both of those cars when I sampled  them, not least because they were surprisingly good to drive as well as being practical. The Infiniti is blessed with the same basic engine as you find in the Nissan Z car, and it sounded fantastic. It does not sell in the UK because cars of this type have to be diesel to be affordable, which Infiniti do now offer, and you do need more than a couple of dealers, which they don’t yet have. It’s a bit of an ugly brute, but in all other respects, it is better to drive than the Lexus, as long as you can afford it. That leaves the BMW. The one I tested was an xDrive 35i, so petrol powered, and it was very BMW like to drive. Again, it’s far from cheap to buy or run, but I concluded that anyone who bought one would be unlikely to be disappointed. In Europe, of course, virtually all sales are of the xDrive 30d model, which at least improves the fuel economy more than somewhat, without the complexity of the Lexus’ hybrid system. For the enthusiast, it’s the one to pick.
2012-04-16 19:01:08

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