The Spousal Report: Popularity does not prove worthiness, and the 2018 Lexus RX is a case in point

Oct 26, 2017

Nearly two decades have passed since the first RX went on sale, riding a ripple of enthusiasm for crossover SUVs that has since transformed into a towering tidal wave. Fast-forward to today, and the RX faces an onslaught of competitors from nearly every premium automaker. Nevertheless, it not only leads its segment in terms of sales, but it is also the most popular luxury model in America.

Through the end of September of 2017, Lexus sold 75,880 examples of the RX since the start of the year. That makes the company’s midsize, 5-passenger, crossover SUV the best-selling luxury vehicle in the U.S., and by a significant margin. In second place, Mercedes-Benz moved just under 59,000 C-Class models during the same period of time.

Obviously, the Lexus RX is an important vehicle.

The Spousal Report: Popularity does not prove worthiness, and the 2018 Lexus RX is a case in point

Lexus wanted to make a statement with the latest RX, seen here in F Sport trim. Consider that part of the mission a success.

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Yet, the company took a big risk by rolling out a striking redesign for 2016, the RX adopting a dramatic appearance, new technologies, and improved dynamic qualities. Tired of building boring cars, Lexus wanted the new RX to spark emotion and treat the senses, and while it still lacks a third-row seat, the sales figures don’t lie. People adore this Lexus.

Daily News Autos editor Christian Wardlaw and his wife, contributing writer Liz Kim, wanted to find out if they would adore it, too. They spent a week driving a 2018 RX 350 F Sport with front-wheel drive, LED headlights, blind spot monitoring, and a package containing a navigation system and Mark Levinson premium sound system. The price tag came to about $56,000.

This is their story…

The Spousal Report: Popularity does not prove worthiness, and the 2018 Lexus RX is a case in point

Now common on American roads, the Lexus RX’s wild styling is less polarizing than it was when the current version of the SUV debuted.

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She Says:

Elsa’s ice kingdom. Edward Scissorhands. Optimus Prime. Jagged little pill. Pick your pop culture metaphor to describe this midsize crossover’s design cues.

When Lexus first debuted the fourth-generation RX for the 2016 model year, eyes opened in shock and tongues wagged in derision at its overly stylized acute angles, floating roof and origami-like creases along the flanks, prickling at your senses.

Time has a way of sanding sharp edges down, however, as does seeing so many RX models on the road. Two years on, this Lexus now looks a little more distinguished than odd. It is also distinctive, and copies from no other vehicle on the road, although it’s hard to tell it apart from its little brother, the NX.

My big problem with it now is that it has a long, unseemly snout, resulting in a front overhang that protrudes further than you think. It’s hard to judge from the driver’s seat where exactly the front end ends. Good thing that the RX has a decent amount of height, or I would’ve constantly crunched the air dam into parking stops.

Inside, you’ll find a fairly minimalistic cabin, at least compared to previous iterations of the RX. Lexus used to be all about the overtly lavish “Dynasty”-style interior, with glossy burled woods and ruched leather. Now, the RX has lost some of its grandeur.

Don’t get me wrong, everything is still top-notch. All the materials are high-end and assembled with care. But it doesn’t have the old-school sparkle anymore, and at the same time it lacks the cold, high-tech elegance that Audis, which currently rule the roost when it comes to pretty cabins, display. By comparison, the RX is rather plain and dowdy.

There’s also a distinct whiff of Toyota in the newest RX. Perhaps only those who are familiar with the company’s less expensive products will notice, but it’s definitely jarring to see the same fonts, buttons, knobs, and switches that you might find in a lowly Camry.

The Spousal Report: Popularity does not prove worthiness, and the 2018 Lexus RX is a case in point

A cockpit-style dashboard wraps the controls around the driver. Outward visibility is excellent.

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He Says:

You’re right about how the RX’s ubiquity has normalized the styling. When this design first debuted, I thought Lexus had recklessly understeered way across the double yellow line of good taste. Now, I mostly like the way it looks, but only when it is equipped with the larger 20-inch wheels.

In F Sport trim, dark gray lace-spoke wheels add attitude. So does a mesh maw up front, with a deeper air dam. And this is where I still have trouble accepting this Lexus’s look. There is far too much visual weight hanging forward of the front axle centerline, and this largesse throws the SUV’s visual balance completely off.

Switching to the interior, I don’t disagree with your overall assessment, which is that Lexus ditches old interpretations of luxury for a moderately successful high-tech look. But plain? Dowdy? I think not, despite occasional evidence that the RX has dipped into the Toyota parts bin for certain components.

The Spousal Report: Popularity does not prove worthiness, and the 2018 Lexus RX is a case in point

Equipped with heating and ventilation, the test vehicle’s front seats proved comfortable if ultimately lacking in range of adjustment.

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He Says:

Comfort is good, but not great. While I definitely appreciated the test vehicle’s heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats, and preponderance of soft-touch surfaces, I had trouble dialing in the amount of seat height and thigh support that I prefer.

Of course, this could have been due to the latest RX’s driving position, which is low and sporty behind a thick-rimmed steering wheel and driver-centric dashboard and center console. In this respect, the RX feels more like a car than a truck, which I suspect most people would deem to be a good thing.

Rear comfort is adequate. Space is not an issue; rather, I thought the bottom cushion was too low and lacking in terms of leg support, while the backrest was reclined at too great an angle. As a result, I slouched, and found it harder to exit the RX. Toe space beneath the front seats was tight, too, and because the RX lacks triple-zone climate control, the kids got cold pretty quick.

For the most part, the materials are appropriate for a $55,000 vehicle, but some of the parts-bin components and lower cabin plastics are off-putting. More than anything, this is where the Lexus RX allows its Toyota origins to show.

The Spousal Report: Popularity does not prove worthiness, and the 2018 Lexus RX is a case in point

Rear seat room is expansive, though space for feet under the front seat is tight. Triple-zone climate control would improve comfort.

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She Says:

Yes, the RX’s Toyota is showing, but for me it’s about visuals, not the quality of the materials.

As proof, just press a window button. The frictionless glissade whispers attention to detail and luxury, as do any of a number of small but noticeable touches throughout the cabin, such as the self-gripping cup holders that would never, ever allow your cold brew to wobble.

I thought the front seats were supremely comfortable, with just the right amount of bolstering, and a front passenger’s seat height adjuster is always appreciated. Also, the low dashboard and thin windshield pillars help with visibility, and make for a nice, airy cabin.

The Spousal Report: Popularity does not prove worthiness, and the 2018 Lexus RX is a case in point

An optional 12.3-inch infotainment display is operated using controls on the center console, the steering wheel, and through voice commands.

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She Says:

Wow, that is a huge, 12.3-inch screen on top of the dash, and it displays navigation and radio information at the same time. I wish that our car had a screen like this, rather than its clumsy dual-screen setup that bugs me every time I get into it. Plus, the RX’s display supplies crisp, high-resolution graphics. Just the way l like it.

Too bad the rest of the controls are so clunky. The Remote Touch center controller loosely rolls around in its socket, and the buttons are not clearly marked to show what’s going on where.

I’m glad to see that Lexus didn’t bother with stuffing a third-row seat into the RX. Not that it could — this is one of the least generous midsize crossovers in terms of available space aft of the back seat.

In fact, the RX seems small even when compared to compact crossovers, offering just 18.4 cubic feet of cargo space with the 40/20/40-split rear seat in use, and around 56 cubic feet when it’s folded down. Our Acura MDX spanks the RX when it comes to utility. So there.

The Spousal Report: Popularity does not prove worthiness, and the 2018 Lexus RX is a case in point

Offering just 18.4 cubic feet of space, the Lexus RX’s trunk holds just a little more luggage than you might be able to cram into a Lexus ES sedan.

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He Says:

If this SUV was built by a German company, marketers would be tempted to label it a coupe. The rear hatch is rakishly penned, and that’s the primary reason this midsize SUV carries no more cargo than a typical compact model, and not much more than a typical family sedan, behind its rear seat. However, we picked this test vehicle up at the airport following an extended family vacation, and it had no trouble accommodating all of our belongings.

Switching to the passenger compartment, the RX’s control layout is busy compared to many modern vehicles. The good thing about this approach is that it minimizes interaction with the infotainment system. The bad thing is that the cabin looks cluttered. Personally, I’ll take clutter over minimalism, though I must admit that modern Volvos are an example of how simplification of a cabin should be done.

As far as the infotainment system in the Lexus is concerned, I have historically been one of the few fans of the company’s Remote Touch Interface (RTI) design. Mounted on the center console, this setup works like a computer mouse to select and use content on the 12.3-inch display mounted atop the dashboard.

Perhaps I should have adjusted the feedback settings on our test car (they were set to medium sensitivity), but this version of RTI seemed less pleasing to use than those of previous Lexus models. Either that, or other car companies have refined their infotainment system user interfaces to the point where the Lexus approach now seems clunky. In any case, I don’t recommend using RTI while driving. It is too distracting.

By the way, you should know that Lexus does not supply Apple CarPlay or Android Auto in any of its vehicles. Currently, the company feels that its customers may relinquish too much privacy through such connections, and so it is resisting inclusion of this technology for now.

Also, the RX’s safe teen driver offering is skimpy. As a part of the extra-cost Lexus Enform Remote subscription package, a Guest Driver Monitor provides alerts related to speed, curfew, and geographic boundaries. You can also remotely find the car right from a smartphone app. Such features are offered on a wide variety of vehicles at various price points.

On a positive note, starting in 2018, Lexus Enform Safety services are free for the first 10 years of ownership. Highlights include automatic collision notification, an emergency assistance button, and enhanced roadside assistance, among others.

The Spousal Report: Popularity does not prove worthiness, and the 2018 Lexus RX is a case in point

In F Sport trim, the Lexus RX looks appropriately racy, especially its attractive 20-inch aluminum wheels. But when you drive it with enthusiasm, you’ll find relatively modest limits.

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He Says:

Frankly, I was expecting better of the RX 350 F Sport. Though it weighs more than 4,200 pounds, its 295-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine, 8-speed automatic transmission, various driving modes, sport-tuned adaptive damping suspension, and appealing 20-inch wheels should have delivered greater dynamism.

Acceleration is strong off the line, but with front-wheel drive the RX has trouble getting it to the ground. The tires easily break loose, and on uneven pavement torque steer is an issue. As revs climb, energy wanes, odd for a vehicle making peak torque at 4,700 rpm and peak horsepower at 6,300 rpm. Must be reflective of transmission gearing.

Most of the time, the 8-speed automatic behaved appropriately, but not always. I left the RX in Normal driving mode, assuming that’s how most people will drive the SUV. Sport mode sharpens drivetrain response in what is – to me – a more satisfying manner, but each time the driver restarts the vehicle it defaults to Normal.

Sport mode also stiffens the sport-tuned adaptive damping suspension. Around town and on the highway, the result is a pleasing firmness combined with impressive body motion control. On a twisty mountain road, however, the RX F Sport exhibited more roll, jiggle and wiggle than I expected, and the P235/55R20 Bridgestone Ecopia tires gave up too early, howling in discontent with each crossed pavement stripe.

Pleasantly and consistently weighted throughout the range of motion, the steering wheel feels good in a driver’s hands, but the steering itself is ultimately lifeless, lacking crispness, accuracy, and communication. Driving enthusiastically, I found that I needed to pay extra attention and make lots of little corrections.

Least impressive, the RX F Sport’s brakes simply are not up to the task. During a family beach run over the Santa Monica Mountains, they warmed up and shuddered while descending from about 2,000 feet of elevation. While running hard on my test loop’s twists and turns, they faded to an appreciable degree.

Granted, most people aren’t going to exercise the RX, even the F Sport, like I did on my testing loop. But that’s beside the point. Every vehicle should deliver competent driving dynamics under a variety of situations and conditions, especially if it has “Sport” as a part of its official name.

Compared to the RX 350 F Sport, I had more fun driving the redesigned 2018 Honda Odyssey.

What we’re left with then is perfectly suited to what I assume is a typical Lexus RX buyer. This SUV is quiet, quick, refined, isolated, and perfectly at home on city streets, suburban boulevards, and fast-flowing freeways. And the F Sport costume makes it look better, if not drive that way.

The Spousal Report: Popularity does not prove worthiness, and the 2018 Lexus RX is a case in point

Check out that front overhang! Viewed in profile, the Lexus RX’s visual balance is out of whack, especially when the SUV is perched on its tiny little standard wheels.

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She Says:

This Lexus feels quick. The transmission steps down swiftly when asked, sending a surge of power accompanied by a naughty growl. It was a pleasure to squirt through traffic and climb up grades, especially when switched into the Sport + driving mode.

I was, however, beyond disappointed by our observed fuel economy of 18.7 mpg. The EPA says to expect around 23 mpg in combined driving, and we got nowhere near that. Yes, we tend to exercise heavy right feet, but we drive all of our test vehicles in similar fashion, and sometimes we exceed EPA estimates. The RX’s fuel economy is dismaying.

It sure is nice to climb into the RX, get on the road and zone out, though. Superlatives such as silky and supple are appropriate when discussing the ride quality around town. It swallows up the vast majority of road imperfections and scoots about as if on a cloud of non-stick spray, like a puck on an air hockey table. This will please the vast majority of RX buyers, who seek nothing more than a peaceful chamber to insulate them from the corruption of the outside world.

Ask it to show off its moves on a canyon road, however, and the RX, despite its F Sport finery, balks. Its suspension allows the crossover to roll and wallow, while the tires protest their load with every turn. The steering is indeed well weighted, but lacks accuracy. I had no issues with the brakes, but overall, this isn’t a vehicle I’d want as a companion to enjoy a long, scenic drive.

The Spousal Report: Popularity does not prove worthiness, and the 2018 Lexus RX is a case in point

In terms of cargo volume, the Lexus RX competes one class down. That’s the price to be paid for rakish styling.

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Her Verdict:

Collectively, the Kim family is a big fan of the RX, with several generations gracing several of my relatives’ driveways since its introduction in 1999.

Back then, it promised legendary Toyota dependability combined with Lexus luxury, a comfortable ride, and lots of utility. Almost 20 years later, there are legions of vehicles that offer the same attributes, along with even greater space for things, room for seven in a pinch, and driving dynamics that can rival that of a sport sedan. The latest RX, with its limited cargo space and soft-to-a-fault underpinnings, falls behind on several fronts.

I can still recommend the Lexus RX to friends and family who aren’t driving enthusiasts and don’t have a whole lot to carry, but this member of the Kim family won’t be welcoming an RX into her household anytime soon.

His Verdict:

No, I would not buy a Lexus RX. First, I’m not a big fan of the design. Second, I’m not crazy about how it drives. Third, I don’t consider it to be an especially good value. Fourth, I can’t figure out how a vehicle engineered during this decade earns no better than 4-star ratings from the NHTSA in frontal-impact crash testing.

Would I recommend the Lexus RX? Well, it is virtually guaranteed to be reliable. So there’s that. It also earns top Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) crash-test ratings. And most people don’t drive with the same level of enthusiasm that I do, so the RX’s modest dynamic limits won’t be an issue.

Therefore, if you like the way this SUV looks, and you find it comfortable, and you can easily understand the controls, and you don’t want a third-row seat, and you don’t need lots of cargo space, and you could care less about smartphone projection technology, and you keep expectations around fuel efficiency in check, then sure, check out this Lexus.

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