by Gabe Beita Kiser
Why on God's green Earth does utility have to be so unsexy? Not much would be more satisfying than strolling around town wearing crocs, sweatpants, and a cell phone holstered to your belt, but wear that during a night out on the town and chances are you'll be alone when last call is announced. Beauty is pain and luxury is beauty, but the amount of utility stuffed into the striking Lexus RX 350 F-Sport will make you think utility and sexiness have a shot in hell at coexisting.
You can imagine the looks of surprise and judgement from the neighbors when a Matador Red Mica Lexus arrived at my doorstep, akin to the reactions they'd give if I was spotted doing yard work with a purple mohawk. It's not that the color makes this RX any more brash than the hybrid RX 450h Lexus sent us last year, but the blacked out spindle grille lacks a clear border at the bottom, instead giving way to a protruding front lip that seems to serve more of an aesthetic purpose than a functional one. It gives the RX a mean stance, egged on by 20-inch F-Sport aluminum wheels that look sinister but cower at the prospect of rubbing face with a curb.
Laugh all you want at the "look at me" looks, but they do the trick. The RX and its smaller counterpart, the NX, sold a combined 164,319 units in the US last year, propelling Lexus to 331,228 units, not far from Mercedes' 374,541 and surpassing the 313,174 cars BMW sold in America during the same time frame. Sexy ain't it? What's sexier, however, is how urban utility meshes with Toyota quality and Lexus opulence. A 3.5-liter transversally mounted V6, the same inserted in our hybrid example, never seemed to need help with forward momentum thanks to the 8 speed automatic with paddle shifters that did well to dispense all 295 horsepower to the front wheels.
Throttle response is anything but linear, making smooth transitions from standstill to coasting speed a practice in surgical precision in any mode outside of Eco. At least it's brisk, with 60 mph coming only 6.9 seconds after mashing the throttle. Unfortunately, the engine and transmission never seem to be willing to open discourse with one another, taking pauses to kick down when accelerating and jolting forward or backwards as punishment for drivers that ask for frequent changes in speed. It's as if Lexus thought all of its drivers would be docile wimps shaped by the whims of surrounding traffic rather than dynamic drivers with assertive overtaking habits.
That runs counter to the aggressive character hidden in the Vehicle Dynamic Integrated Management system. Normal and Eco keep things on an even keel, with Eco differing by dulling throttle response and shifting sooner. In Sport or Sport +, however, the RX changes entirely. Suddenly there's an athlete at your command. Pitching left or right becomes easier once the adaptive variable suspension stiffens its knees and takes a stance against rubbery body roll. The throttle coxes the engine with a simple tap, but unlike in more tame driving modes, it never needs a poke to wake up because the transmission stays in high gears.
It's a neat trick to pull off and whether you actually care to take the RX to a track (please don't), the improved chassis response inspires higher levels of confidence at freeway speeds. Even with that capability and the F Sport package adding its functional and aesthetic knick knacks, its aggressive nature only feels like a tool in the RX's arsenal. If you need peace and calm, shelve Sport mode and turn up the dial controlling the 15-speaker Mark Levinson sound system. With the classical station selected on the satellite radio, honey seeps out of the speakers and cloaks the still quiet cabin with serenity. From the point, every piece of hardware is there for your pleasure. Soft touch leather heats or cools your bum or warms your hands.
If a light drizzle commences, the wipers will take care if it using brains of their own, and even the parking brake automatically activates when shifting into park. If Lexus has mastered one thing, it's making its cars work to conform to you, not the other way around. It's an amazing feeling really, but it's all shattered into a million bits as soon as you touch that weird nub controlling the 12.3-inch infotainment system. In this driver's eyes, Lexus' infotainment systems are the worst in the industry. Bad enough to put a damper on the otherwise flawless experience, and it's all because of how one has to position the selector over the icon and select it. It's easy to see the logic behind it.
In practice, however, it feels like using an old laptop with one of those equally awkward nubs in the middle of the keyboard in place of a mouse. Most buyers will hardly use it. Just set the best stations up on the preset dial, use the iPhone for navigation like everyone else, and focus on what the RX is made for. In short, for Lexus, that's to sell cars. But it's the approach the Japanese automaker took to convincing drivers to fork over cash that makes all the difference. Rather than start with a luxury car or functional SUV and then add the missing components, the RX feels as though Lexus took two pieces of twine, one for practicality and the other for luxury, and braided them together in one body.
Unlike some of the competition, the RX is a finished product, well-thought out from the beginning and built to feel solid and comfortable. That experience commands a $57,815 sticker price, on par with most of the competition, but so is the RX itself. Compared to unfinished products, such as those from Infiniti, the Lexus feels miles ahead. For the money, the best from Mercedes, Audi, and BMW is available. Thanks to how closely all four automakers compete, it's really hard to go wrong either way you choose, it just depends on whether or not that spindle grille does it for you.