Rating: 7.8
Bottom Line:
The all-new 2010 RX 350 looks and drives very much like the previous model, in spite of extensive upgrades and several pertinent innovations. It should feel and drive much differently.
  • Impeccable front seats
  • Fit and finish beyond reproach
  • Electronics abundant and useful
  • Detached driving feel
  • Lacks low-end muscle when climbing
  • Climate control system buttons are tiny

Ten years ago, Lexus placed the body of a sporty midsize SUV on top of a platform designed for a car and called it the RX 300. The luxe utility vehicle offered a commanding view of the road and plenty of usable interior space, like a traditional SUV, combined with the fuel efficiency and smooth ride of a car. It was an instant hit, and the first-ever crossover. Over the last decade, more than a million RX series utility vehicles have been sold around the globe, making it one of the most popular crossovers ever.

The groundbreaking RX series is now entering its third generation with the 2010 RX 350. Though longer and wider than its predecessor, the 2010 RX 350 hasn't changed very much in the looks department. But as the saying goes, looks are only skin-deep. Virtually every component under the RX 350's shapely sheet metal has been enhanced to improve performance, utility and comfort.

Model Lineup
The new RX 350 comes in a single trim level with either front-wheel or all-wheel drive. There will also be an all-new hybrid, the RX 450h, with Lexus' second-generation gas-electric powerplant.

Though you can see evidence of Lexus's L-Finesse design language that has largely shaped the look of the recent GS, LS and IS models in the body of the new RX, it is very subtle. The point of L-Finesse was to give Lexus design a greater emotional connection with consumers. But what Lexus discovered through customer feedback is that current RX owners didn't want the automaker to needlessly mess with the look of the RX. They love it just the way it is.

Nevertheless, Lexus did increase the size of its popular little crossover. The new RX 350 is 1.38 inches longer, 1.6 inches wider and a touch higher. Its wheelbase is also 0.79 inch longer and its front and rear wheels track 2.8 inches wider for a broader and more solid stance. A smoother shape helps reduce the drag coefficient from 0.35 to to 0.33.

On the safety front, Lexus offers a couple of new high-tech options in addition to anti-lock brakes and stability and traction control. The first is an intelligent Adaptive Front-lighting System (AFS) with xenon headlamps. It monitors vehicle speed and steering angle, then points the headlights in the direction the vehicle is turning for a better view of the road ahead. The second is a Pre-Collision Warning System (PCS) that uses radar technology to recognize a possible frontal collision, and tightens front seat belts and primes the brakes in anticipation of an impact.

Finally, there's an available wide-angle side-view monitor to help the driver see what's happening in blind spots on the passenger side of the vehicle. The image can be viewed either on the nav display or on a 2.4-inch display set in the rearview mirror on versions without it. You can even get a system that automatically selects high or low beams using a camera mounted behind the rearview mirror. Passive safety is another crucial element in the new RX 350, handled among other measures by the new version's 10 standard airbags. A rollover sensor will also deploy the side-curtain airbags if a specific threshold is reached.

Under the Hood
The newest RX gets a refined version of the existing 3.5-liter V6 engine mated to an electrically controlled, sequential-shift 6-speed transaxle. Thanks to new intake and exhaust manifolds and various other measures to reduce weight and internal friction, the engine's output has gone from 270 to 275 horsepower. Plus, 90 percent of the vehicle's 256 lb-ft of torque is available from 2300 to 6100 rpm, thanks to the magic of variable intake and exhaust valve timing.

An all-new 6-speed automatic gearbox replaces the previous 5-speed unit. With more sophisticated electronic control, it can skip two gears in hard kick-downs for quick passing, while a new low-speed damper favors torque converter lock-up from second to sixth gear to improve fuel economy. This way, the slightly larger, heavier and more powerful RX 350 AWD version gets fuel-efficiency ratings of 18/24 mpg (city/highway), up from the previous version's 17/22 mpg.

The all-wheel drive RX also features an Active Torque Control system that distributes driving force or torque depending on driving conditions, within a range of 100 percent to the front wheels to a 55/45 percent front/rear split.

The Lexus Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system, which seamlessly combines the stability control, traction control and anti-lock brake systems, is now available on the RX 350, as is Hill-Start Assist control. It uses brake pressure to keep the vehicle from rolling back while starting on slopes or off-road inclines.

Inner Space
Lexus conducted extensive human-machine interface studies to help optimize the ergonomics of the RX's dash and center console. The signature Lexus fluorescent gauges, for instance, are now housed in a single cluster rather than the older model's three interlaced housings. The result is a no-nonsense layout that's easy to follow.

Novelties designed to enhance the ownership experience abound in this vehicle, and they are all integrated in a subtle and efficient manner. Most notable is a new voice-activated hard-disk navigation system; an impressive-looking organic LED multi-information system; and an optional, bright heads-up display. This layout has a display zone centered around the dash-mounted 8-inch LCD, while the operation zone, closer to the driver, includes a remote touch-navigation controller and steering-wheel-mounted multi-information switch.

The Remote Touch controller is perhaps the biggest development here. It acts similar to BMW's iDrive and Audi's MMI systems, but instead of a fixed knob that spins to run various vehicle functions, the Lexus system acts more like a more sophisticated computer mouse — moving on multiple planes. It can also be programmed for different levels of tactile feedback, just like a video game controller.

The Remote Touch controller works but requires too much effort, so it is distracting. Thankfully, the system accepts voice commands as well, and is equipped with some of the best voice-recognition software we've ever used. The multi-information steering-wheel switches also do a good job as redundant controls. The optional heads-up display also offers clear, high-contrast data about your speed and both navigation info and audio system settings.

Also on tap is a full array of communications and infotainment features: auxiliary and USB inputs for iPods and such; Bluetooth connectivity and XM Satellite Radio with the standard 9-speaker audio system with 6-disc changer. A 12-speaker system and a top-line 15-speaker Mark Levinson surround sound system are also available, as well as a rear-seat entertainment system with high-definition 7-inch screens mounted behind the front-seat head restraints that can play video and audio from separate sources.

On the Road
All-new on the 2010 RX 350 is a double-wishbone rear suspension that replaces the struts on previous iterations. This layout brings dynamic benefits but also increases luggage capacity by adding six inches in width to the cargo-area room between the wheelwells. In spite of its bigger tires and longer wheelbase, the RX has kept its 38.8-foot turning circle. The front suspension also gets a thicker stabilizer bar and inversely wound springs designed to quell "bump steer," while the steering now has speed-variable electric assist. The brakes also get 2-piston front calipers and larger rotors front and rear.

The result, unfortunately, is still a very aseptic and detached experience for anyone who enjoys driving in the least. The steering and front end offer very little feel, even on the twistiest parts of the Napa Valley roads where we tested the vehicle. And when we gathered the slightest bit of momentum in some tight corners, the VDIM (stability control, traction control, brake assist and more) system kicked in and dulled the excitement.

In addition, the RX 350 struggled slightly going uphill in spite of the usually feisty nature of its 3.5-liter V6 engine. It truly seems happier on flat ground and in mild driving, busy at coddling its occupants more than thrilling the driver.

Right for You?
The all-new RX 350 is a discreetly improved version of the best-selling luxury crossover or sport-utility. In its typical manner, Lexus has effectively polished every major system and added several well-designed new features while making the vehicle slightly more efficient. This conservative approach will no doubt please existing owners and might very well attract new buyers. Although several of its features are leading-edge in many ways, thrill seekers, fans of innovative design and driving enthusiasts should probably look elsewhere.

A professional auto journalist for more than 25 years and the founding editor of Sympatico / MSN Autos, Marc Lachapelle is a two-time winner of the Canadian Journalist of the Year award from the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, an accomplished photographer and licensed racer.