2008 Lexus RX350 AWD

An appliance wrapped in posh accent. For the price of Kitchen Aid, you got the heart of Hamilton Beach.

There’s nothing wrong with buying a KitchenAid vs. Hamilton Beach appliance. They are both equally capable to perform what one would expect from a microwave, toaster, blender…. The foremost distinction lays on Hamilton Beach’s value oriented price tag, and the KitchenAid’s emblem to glorify and bring in that bling bling factor to the ordinary kitchen. It is all gravy with neither one. Buying an appliance isn’t exactly the same as choosing a ride. A car is a reflection of one’s personality, state of mind, and sexual orientation.

The Lexus RX350 in that regard is that KitchenAid with the equivalent functionality as the Hamilton Beach. The appliance analogy is the perfect way to describe the RX. The RX is just generic enough that a regular human being can’t gain any emotional attachment; the relationship is a bit more like between you and your garbage disposal. Even the intimacy between you and the water heater are pushing it too far. Put the car enthusiasts’ perspective aside, put on the hat of a financial advisor, why would someone buy the RX when a Toyota Highlander is just as bland? Bling Bling!? The RX and Highlander are so closely related that parking them side-by-side can be deemed as incest.

Introduction

The market is currently flooded with crossover SUVs. Just Nissan alone has products ranging from the entry/econo level Rogue, sporty Murano, near luxury Infiniti EX to the luxurious FX series. The late comer includes Lincoln MKX that’s a twin to Ford Edge and also related to Mazda CX9. The affordable market representatives are dominated by Hyundai Tuscon, and Kia Sportage.

The Lexus RX series first appeared in the U.S. market in 1998 as the “Sport Luxury Vehicle”, one of the very first pioneers in the luxury crossover utility vehicle segment. For reference, Nissan didn’t release the Murano until 2002. The first generation all embedded by the RX300 emblem on the rear hatch, denoted the 3.0L engine displacement, and was the only available engine with either front or all-wheel-drive. The second generation released in 2004 with three variants in the production run; RX330 from 2004 to 2006, then RX350 & the RX400h, the hybrid model came into play in 2005. Similar to the first gen, the platform is shared with Toyota Highlander SUV along with the 3.5L V6 engine. The second generation RX was assembled in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada or Kyushu, Japan. The third generation is scheduled to release in 2010.

The tester is the RX350 AWD with Premium Plus Package with optional 18 x7.0-in alloy wheels; MSRP at $43,000. It equips with Toyota’s 2GR-FE 3.5L V6 aluminum 24-valves DOHC MFI engine. With the help of variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cam (VVT-i), the engine pumps out 270hp@6,200rpm and 251Ib-ft of torque@4,700rpm on premium fuel. Engine is transversely mounted, and mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission, engine power is then transmitted through the viscous limited-slip center differential, driving a set of P235/55R18, Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires. The chassis is supported by MacPherson struts in front and independent struts with coil springs rear suspensions with stabilizer bars. Stopping power is generated by 4-wheel discs brakes with 12.6-in ventilated discs in the front, and 11.3-in solid discs in the back; Anti-lock brake (ABS), Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist are also employed. The tester is assembled in Canada.

Impression

Perhaps, the popularity of RXs on the road and the similar body style between both generations almost make it feel like I already have possession of one. Approaching the RX350 has the routine feeling as you are walking toward your stove.

If life is about excitement, don’t drive the RX.
If life is about uniqueness, don’t drive the RX.
If you want to make a statement about yourself, don’t drive the RX.
If you have a life at all, try testdrive something else twice before making the very bland decision.

We are not implying generic and typical a bad thing here; the RX350 has got the job done, the Toyota way. It’s nimble and smooth to drive but it just doesn’t have any personality.

Sliding into the driver’s seat that is properly positioned at the average hip height and submerging in the light-gray leather-wrapped high quality interior. Driving position is great for daily commute. You are seating high, not so high that you have to climb to get in, but just high enough to easily see what’s going on around you. Lower seats have sufficient thigh support to sustain a long journey. The RX is very easy to drive for long journey overall.

The cockpit has large gauges with large dials, very legible LCD screens for both audio and general information. Every switchgear throughout the cabin is placed at the appropriate places and intuitive to use. Excellence in workmanship is second-to-none.

The excellence also carries onto the art scripture like wood grain steering wheel. The steering wheel is where the driver spends the most intimate contact with but the wood grain is a constant reminder that the car is not my cup of tea. The wheel is un-uniform in texture; there is leather at where the rim connects to the spoke. In freezing cold winter, the wood gives frostbite sensation to your hands, and becomes blistering hot when expose in the sizzling summer sky.

It is apparent that the RX market’s in the pre-retirement group. Lexus data indicate that the median age for the RX330 buyer has been 45 -50 with median household income of $130,000 to $150,000.

What is the beauty of using wood accent in a car? Is the older you get, the closer to you want be cozy with expensive wood? Just like a high class solid wood casket, symbolize ones social statue? The, Lexus calls it “Light Golden Bird’s-Eye Maple”, interior wood trim in the tester only escalated this effect.

So how does it drive?

Steering is ultra light and responds averagely to your input yet there is no road feel to speak of, as if, the front wheels are disconnected from the road. Steering ratio is large. Front suspension alignment has obvious intent to follow the crown of the road. Overall, the day-to-day handling is good; the RX doesn’t drive like it is a boat considering its size.

Vehicle stability control (VSC) as part of the traction control is conservatively programmed. It is too intrusive. The VSC is a commonly used feature; it also features in the Scion brand. Instead of taking advantage of the All-Wheel-Drive system to transfer torque fore/aft to encourage on its target course, the VSC uses selective braking and torque reduction.

At tighter corners, the RX has the tendency to go in severe understeer, the VSC, with undefeatable “bee-bee-beep” audile warning will kick in violently to put the car back on the intended path by reducing the throttle input and applying brakes to an individual wheel. But most of time the problem has been corrected by a simple lift of the throttle for the front tires to regain traction. With the corner behind and the front wheels pointed straight, the VSC would still be in active and keep on chiming for seemingly minutes before it would disengage, and allow the ECU gradually give throttle input back to the throttle body even the gas pedal has been pushed in long ago. It is a good thing after all, it won’t be fun to have a 4,100Ib beast plowing the front tires, running straight into the wall or accidentally over corrected and go fishtail on you. With the pre-retirement group in mind, the VSC seems appropriate.

The AWD seems to eliminate the torque steer under hard acceleration of the previous RX but doesn’t seem to improve the handling aspect. The 300-ft-dia skidpad roadholding figure is at 0.64g, indicated embarrassingly low cornering grip. Despite, the equipped Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires are somewhat performance oriented. These Goodyear tires are very versatile except being too noisy. It is OEM equipment on Mazda 3s, and Infiniti G35/37 sedan; just to name a few. They tend to provide good grip and fairly communicative when approaching its adhesion limit on those vehicles. Did Lexus tune the suspension base on the specification of the tires?

Behind that out-of-place wood grain steering wheel is your standard Toyota gauge cluster made advanced in appeal by the LCD-like lamination, and just a couple of feet behind that is your typical Toyota’s already refined powertrain but made luxurious by both insulation & isolation via supplementary sound proofing measures and hydraulic engine and transmission mounts. To avoid the disconnected feel between the driver and the power plant, the laser-welded acoustic control induction system is employed to make throaty exotic engine note.

The 2GR-FE engine was smooth to operate and offered customary output figures in the 3.5L V-6 engines category. This engine is the workhorse in Toyota’s front-wheel-drive platforms such as its Avalon, Camry, Sienna, RAV4, Highlander, Venza, ES 350…. Due to the diversification of the engine, there is no prestigious to speak of. Mesh the accelerator, in exchange for some electric motor like engine note, the engine is capable of launching the RX from 0-60mph in mid seven seconds without any drama. This power is more than enough to pull around traffic with ease.

The drawback is the Toyota-way of programming the logic of the electronic controlled throttle. The throttle mapping is tuned aggressively toward the very tip of the accelerator. It doesn’t have the tip-in jerkiness of the ’07 Infiniti G35, but the first couple inches of pedal travel feels like it is using 70% of the engine output, which can trick you to sense that acceleration is effortless and still have plenty of power in reserve. Under pedal-to-metal action, power tends to fade off once you are in third gear when the weigh and the aerodynamic drag (cd=0.35) are robbing the power, but the RX ain’t no slow mover.

The five-speed automatic transmission is Toyota like, it gets the job done. Even the gated shifter’s shifting pattern is the industrial norm. Shifting is smooth but a tad slow in performance standard, but perfectly appropriate here. Don’t be surprised that this transmission is always mated to this 2GR engine; Toyota just alters the gear ratio to suit different Toyota products. Gearing seemed to be just right, and it returned 21 mpg during our test.

The unibody structure feels solid. There’s none of that creaking in the body in associated with flexing and twitching of structure over bumps despite the platform is based on the Camry. Body roll was nicely controlled but in exchange for a choppy ride, something you would not expect in a RX. Road feel thru the suspensions were accurate but only appropriate if you were in a rather sporty sedan with firm suspensions setting. The soft leather seats mis-suggested a soft cushion ride where you would just glide thru the pavement, completely isolated. Brakes were responsive and didn’t notice any fading, thanks to the 12.6-in ventilated front, and 11.3-in solid rear discs. Brake pedal was a tar soft but fits the Lexus. Under heavy braking, the weight and the high center of gravity promoted a lot of nose diving but it is expected in a car of this caliber.

Interior wasn’t “LEXUS” quiet, and the use of multi-layer and sound-reflecting film on the glasses was effective but the road noise emitted from the tires that transmitted via the floorboard were quite loud for concrete pavement, but seemed fine for asphalt, however this is typical for the Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires. Wind noise could get quite apparent on freeway speed and with noticeable rattles from the interior trims. The standard 8-speakers sound system provided is powerful and good definition. Once it’s on, it doesn’t matter if you are driving through a construction site during pile driving or blasting. You are in your own concert hall.

One thing that stands out from the norm in the Premium Plus Package is the Adaptive Front Light System (AFS) with High-Intensity Discharge (HID) headlamp and dynamic auto leveling. The system is excellent especially for mountain twisty, and freeway on-off ramps. The AFS is based on vehicle speed and steering angle to estimate and illuminate ahead by rotating the headlamps left and right. As the result, the familiar test route felt like a completely different road from the panoramic view provided. Compare to typical fixed headlight, where you feel like you are looking through the telescope of a WWII submarine, or thru the window of a commercial jetliner. The AFS should be standard on all HID equipped vehicles. Just like turbocharged cars, it is hard to go back once you experienced it.

Functionality of this tall Camry station wagon is great. There are plenty of room and storage compartments, and pockets inside. The rear seats are comfy and great for the long journey, they also fold down in a 40/20/40 split, creating a nearly flat trunk. The trunk can swallow 38 cu-ft of cargo, and expands to 85 cu-ft with rear seats folded down. If you need even more additional cargo space, the RX is capable of towing 3,500Ibs, if properly equipped. Otherwise, get yourself a tractor trailer if you need to bring your whole office or house with you at all times.

Exterior-wise, is just plain jane, except the Desert Sage Metallic paint on the Lexus is just eye-catchingly creepy. Have you seen a pinkish white looking ES350 with the Tungsten Pearl paint? Are the odd colors on the recent Lexus supposed to make retiree look like youngster once again?

Overall Impression
Scoring System:

Performance & Acceleration: 8
Comment: The amount of output will not embarrass car enthusiasts, but plenty for typical RX owners.

Drivetrain: 8.5
Comment: Baby oil like smoothness yet lack of personality.

Handling & Cornering: 7
Comment: Very good for daily driving. Surefooted up to 6/10, confidence degrades sharply after.

Brake Feel: 7
Comment: Never a fan of Toyota’s.

Ride Characteristic: 8
Comment: Body roll is nicely managed for its size and weight in exchange for firm yet choppy from time-to-time. Choppiness doesn’t match with RX’s style.

Interior Comfort: 9
Comment: Great for long journey in combine with awesome sound system, efficient buns warmer, and heads chiller.

Workmanship: 9.5
Comment: Doesn’t get any better. To nitpick on any flaw, the typical RX owner must need to use reading glasses.

Functionality: 9.5
Comment: How much more room do you need from a tall station wagon? A detachable or foldable third row seat might be nice.

Technology: 8.5
Comment: Has everything to fulfill your typical daily needs, lacking the fancy gadgets like backup camera, lane departure warning, intelligent cruise control…

Afterthought

The philosophy of car building for Toyota has become more apparent. Like any other businesses, they are here for profit but Toyota is in it more noticeably than let say Nissan. Toyota is in a race with General Motor to capture the world’s largest auto maker title. In attempt to do so is to sell more cars, have greater market coverage by expanding product lines, introducing more models while running three brands, Lexus, Scion & Toyota; each brand to capture a different market segment. The development in a brand new engine and platform are time consuming, and carries a great financial burden. Like any other car manufacturer, Toyota is also in the game of badge engineering. With the experience in the RX, it seems like the common parts bin components such as the engine, transmission, electronics are all well sorted out. Toyota apparently spent their money in these common components since it is logical to have them in fine quality but dial out any characteristics, with the intention that the same component can be used in a vastly different vehicle. Unfortunately, a car is not an appliance. The lack of characteristics in Toyota produces have turn a lot of enthusiasts away and not to mention Toyota’s deteriorating reliabilities concern associated to the race to compete with GM.