2018 Lexus RX 350L Test Drive Review: Comfort First

Test Drive

But Last in Space.

In an automotive marketing world obsessed with sporty image, sometimes it seems like comfort has been largely forgotten and ignored. Yes, the sport sedans of the world strike a balance between stable grip and a livable ride, but even mainstream cars and crossovers are slipping more towards the sporty end of the spectrum rather than delivering the everyday comfort that most drivers will appreciate more often.

Lexus has not forgotten, and along with reliability and luxury, it has been key to the brand’s success, still entrenched as one of the top three luxury brands in the United States, and the Lexus RX crossover dominating the midsize luxury crossover segment. Not content with the top spot in an incredibly popular and still-growing midsize SUV segment, Lexus recognized an overall need for a three-row, six- or seven-seat utility vehicle based on a more modern, comfortable crossover platform in addition to their rugged, old-school GX and LX SUVs.

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Growth Spurt

Rather than starting from scratch, Lexus decided to adapt its proven, familiar RX platform, stretching it by over four inches but keeping the width, height, and wheelbase the same. In addition to reconfiguring the RX’s 18.4 cubic feet of trunk space, Lexus engineers also took a bite out of second-row space, particularly legroom, in order to accommodate that third row.

The third row is tiny, but it works for kids. Split 50/50 and power operated, all it takes is the press of a button and it (slowly) folds itself down or back up again. With all the seats up, the 6.2 cubic feet is just enough for a small load of groceries, then it grows to 15.2 with the third row stowed, and up to a maximum of 58.5 cubic feet with all seats down and loaded up to the roof.

It’s a practical size for a small family occasionally carpooling some extra kids or traveling with grandparents, but it’s well short of competitors for cargo and passenger space, like the Acura MDX with 15 cu-ft in the trunk, 38.4 with the third row folded, and up to 90 max, and it has five more inches of legroom in the second row plus four more in the third.

Those extra inches at the back and folding seats also take their toll on the curb weight, starting at 4,442 pounds for six-seat front-wheel-drive models and up to 4,619 lb for seven-seat all-wheel-drive models, which is up over 200 pounds from equivalent RX models.

Power to Spare

With an extra couple hundred pounds to lug around and potentially even more with a couple extra passengers, you might think it needs extra power, but the base powertrain for the RX is already a 3.5-liter V6. While I could sit back and criticize Lexus for actually reducing power, I never once felt that the 290 hp and 263 lb-ft of torque weren’t enough even though peak power only arrives at 6,300 rpm and peak torque at 4,700 rpm.

Power builds gradually and smoothly, the eight-speed automatic seamlessly rolling between gears, and the car getting up to speed at a respectable pace – not too fast, but not holding up traffic. There is a Sport mode that holds gears longer and makes the throttle response more immediate, but it feels out of character with the car and taxes the softly sprung suspension.

The front McPherson struts and rear double wishbone provide a classic luxurious ride that soaks up any sort of road impacts, potholes, and speed bumps with barely a nudge in the cabin, although larger humps launch the car into a bit of rolling waftiness as it settles back down.

On the highway, it just floats along in peace and quiet, even more so with the adaptive cruise engaged, which does a good job of maintaining a gap even if the wand and button controlling it are a bit confusing and awkward. In the corners, it will lean quite a bit, but efficiency-minded tires squeal early, letting you know to back off. Do you care what the steering feel is like? If so, you’re probably reading the wrong review. Try this one instead. It is very light, which makes it a piece of cake to steer in tight parking maneuvers, but the visibility to the sides and back is pretty limited, so the 360º parking cameras were hugely helpful for placing it in parking spots and then getting out safely.

There wasn’t any point when driving the RX 350L that I felt it needed a more sporty driving experience. In normal or eco modes, it might be a touch slower but smooths out your inputs even more. The result is that you feel like a professional limo driver is at the wheel even if you’re a bit jerky with your own actions. I loved it. It works wonderfully for the family car that it is, and I can’t compliment Lexus enough for not buying into all the ‘sporty’ marketing hype and delivering a truly luxurious driving experience.

Flawed Interior

At some point in the past decade, someone in the Lexus User Experience team got transfixed by a mouse controller for the infotainment system and sold it all the way up the chain. This RX is still contaminated by that atrocious little joystick, which in this case should be called a nuisance-stick because it seems to do nothing but infuriate me.

Other Lexus vehicles are moving on to track pads, which aren’t perfect, but are a step forward and will likely be easier to get used to over time. The mouse here moves around the screen erratically and snaps to icons I didn’t want to select, but can’t find others that are tiny and poorly placed in the middle of the screen. Icons at the edges are much easier to find, but anything in the middle is practically hopeless without looking at the screen and concentrating solely on that for a couple of seconds. Sound unsafe to you? I certainly thought so.

It’s especially a shame since the system is pretty awesome in terms of graphics, layout, menus, and navigating the different functions. The screen is extra wide, so there is plenty of real estate for the split screen, and you can mix and match what info you keep in the two zones.

The remaining center stack is occupied by a classy analog clock flanked by vents, audio shortcut controls with lovely machined metal knobs for volume and tuning, and the three-zone climate control.

Descending into the even more trivial, check out the excellent cupholders. Excellent size with grips to hold your drink steady, but the front one has a bottom that can be pushed down so that extra tall travel mugs or water bottles don’t stick up too high. Thoughtful, and it’s surrounded by a gorgeous piece of wood trim with light pinstripes that really jazzes up the interior along with the slightly coppery satin metallic trim.

The materials around the center console are equally refined, the brown leather seats are beautiful with subtle red stitching, though the other interior color combinations in the Lexus build tool look just as inviting. Most of the materials maintain that high standard, except for a couple of oddities, like the weird, cheap leather on the shifter boot, and imitation “woodgrain” rather than real wood on the steering wheel, which is paired with real leather that is as good as the rest of the interior.

The seats themselves are as comfortable as the ride, with power adjustments in 10 directions for both chairs in front, plus heating and ventilation and three memory positions for the driver in our fully loaded model. As our tester had the second-row captain’s chairs, they were almost on par with the front seats, lacking only the ventilation and adjustability, though they were still heated with reclining seatbacks.

Like the regular RX 350, the RX 350L offers good value compared to German competitors, undercutting prices for Audi, BMW, and Mercedes three-row SUVs by tens of thousands of dollars. Starting at $47,770 for 2019 front-wheel-drive models, $49,170 with all-wheel drive and reaching no higher than $60K fully loaded, even with the $1,295 Destination fee, the RX 350L price is closer to smaller five-seat European models like the Q5, X3, and GLC.

However, seven-seaters from Acura and Infiniti match the RX 350L for features and price while delivering far better cargo and passenger space since they were designed from the ground up as three-row family shuttles.

As much as Lexus needs a three-row crossover to offer shoppers looking for a modern, luxurious family vehicle, the Lexus RX 350L disappoints in some key areas. The ride is as comfortable as anything, the powertrain is silky smooth, and the interior is appealing and full of quality material, but the infotainment system is distracting and the third-row seating is nearly useless and even compromises the second row and cargo capacity.

If you really like the Lexus and can manage with five seats, the RX 350 or RX 450h are both great vehicles, but if you need a useful third row and more cargo space, I would suggest looking at the Acura MDX, Infiniti QX60, or stepping up to something like the Volvo XC90 or Audi Q7.

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