Fleet News

Lexus RX350

Lexus

Review

IN 1997, Lexus, the premium division of Toyota, launched a new premium SUV, the RX300.

Since then the Japanese carmaker has seen sales soar. After redesigning the RX300, and adding the hybrid RX400h to its portfolio, Lexus has sold more than a million RX models worldwide in the last nine years. In the UK, 16,000 RXs have been handed over to new owners since 2000.

All this means that a fresh RX is big news for a company on the up. The RX350 is only a new RX in the loosest sense of the word – to all intents and purposes it is visually indistinguishable from the RX300. But the larger number in the name announces the introduction of a new 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine which pushes RX power and acceleration figures ahead of its rivals.

The hybrid RX400h has been selling well on the basis of its advanced technology, but Lexus is aiming this new engine at the driver looking for a more traditional powerplant.

That’s not to say that the V6 engine is a dinosaur – fuel consumption is lower than the RX300, even though performance is up.

The 24-valve aluminium block is used to produce 272bhp and 252lb-ft of torque, or 35% more power than the RX300. The figures mean a 0-62mph figure of 7.8 seconds for the RX350, but a combined economy of 25.2mpg, 8% better than its older sibling.

This puts the RX350 SE in a good position when compared with similar spec rivals. It is cheaper and more powerful than the equivalent Mercedes-Benz ML350, BMW X5 and Porsche Cayenne 3.2.

The engine is the major change from RX300 to 350, but there have been a few other tweaks as well. The five-speed automatic gearbox is the same as the RX300’s, but the manual sequential shift system has been improved to reduce shift time by an average of 0.1 seconds, with better engine braking.

The permanent four-wheel-drive system has a new viscous coupling that gives a limited-slip capability to help handle the extra power and give better traction and stability. The steering has also been made more direct with additional power assist for low-speed manoeuvring.

Noise and vibration reduction has been looked at carefully, and the new car has new insulation including an ‘acoustic windscreen’ with a noise-reducing film to bring more serenity to the cabin.

Lexus’ latest satellite navigation system is also included as an option, along with a new Mark Levinson stereo. And for those who have trouble parking what is a pretty big vehicle, a colour reversing camera is available.

Prices for the RX350 will start at £31,890 when it hits UK streets this week. That gets you the base spec model, which includes electric seats, auto-dimming rear view and side mirrors and multi-zone air-conditioning. £36,040 will buy an SE model, which includes as standard adaptive headlights, automatic lights and electric steering column adjustment, as well as an electric tailgate, leather seats and 18-inch alloys.

The SE Multimedia car includes the uprated sat-nav and hi-fi package for £38,990 while top-of-the-range is the SE-L for £42,505. That gets you the reversing camera and air suspension.

Fleet expectations for the RX350 are not huge, according to Lexus’ UK director Steve Settle. He reckons total sales in 2006 will be around 1,000 units, rising to 1,800 in 2007. Settle said some user-choosers could be interested, but anticipates the warm reception for the hybrid (and tax-friendly) RX400h to continue in the corporate sector.

Behind the wheel

DESPITE the power-hike and improved handling, the RX350 remains a large, heavy car and drives as such. Those expecting something sporty will be disappointed.

However, drivers looking for a smooth, comfortable ride, decent acceleration and positive handling could find what they are looking for here. Take the Lexus on the motorway and, while bumps in the road can certainly be felt, they never intrude on the impression of luxury already set by the quality of workmanship inside the very roomy cabin.

Lexus launched the RX350 on the winding Tuscan roads between Pisa and Siena in Italy. Those who like to drive enthusiastically may find the car lacking in eagerness to dive into corners, but it is perfectly possible to keep everything smooth and still make quick progress.

The new engine is barely audible at cruising speeds, but plant your right foot and the V6 woofle burrows through the acres of sound insulation. The car picks up speed quickly, if entirely without any sense of drama. Acceleration is far from instant though. The gap between foot stamp and gearbox kickdown is a good second, and the sequential manual shift is not much quicker. But adapt your driving style to suit it and it ceases to be a problem.

The steering has been tuned up for the new car and the lightness of the wheel when manoeuvring at low speeds is fantastic, although quicken up and it feels a little too light and distant from the front wheels.

The air suspension also feels a touch numb in comparison to the regular springs when the car is pushed, but when cruising it means the RX350 wafts along serenely.

Lexuses are not built to be thrashed. Keep that in mind and the RX350 goes well, handles admirably – considering its size – and can easily transport driver and passengers in comfort and luxury.

Driving verdict

FOR comfort and a decent turn of speed in an SUV, it is hard to fault the RX350. However, fleet managers and company car taxpayers may find the CO2 emissions figure of 264g/km hard to swallow and could find solace in the greener, but less rapid RX400h.

Max power (bhp/rpm): 272/6,200
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 252/4,700
Max speed (mph): 124
0-62mph (secs): 7.8
Fuel economy (mpg): 25.2
CO2 emissions (g/km): 264
On sale: Now. Prices (OTR): £31,890 - £42,505

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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