An early look at the upcoming Lexus RX

It won’t be until next month when Lexus starts production and launches the ad campaign for their upcoming new RX model. But Core77 and a group of mostly automotive journalists were invited to pilot and evaluate RX pre-production prototypes fresh off the ship from Japan.

The RX is Lexus’ midsize luxury SUV, smaller than the top-of-the-line GX, bigger than the crossover NX. The RX was essentially the first luxury mid-size SUV, introduced in 1998, and has since dominated the category in terms of sales, at least in the all-important US market.

In particular, sales of the RX have fallen off a cliff in Europe. That continent never had much of an appetite for SUVs in the first place, and while RX sales there peaked at 14,322 in 2006, they have fallen to just 5,347 units sold last year. By comparison, Lexus sold 108,348 RXs in America in 2006, and last year — even amid the pandemic and supply shortages — a whopping 115,320.

That tells you two things. Firstly, that this vehicle was not designed to appeal to European tastes, which to me explains a lot about the vehicle’s appearance. Second, Toyota’s incredible, seemingly unbreakable supply chain dominance is one of their many superpowers.

Other superpowers are their reliability – JD Power ranked Lexus number one in reliability in 2021 – and their engineering.

As for the design, let’s say true beauty comes from within.

The RX, like any vehicle in its class, is saddled with a proportion problem. A midsize SUV is essentially a box on top of a rectangle, and the dimensions needed to fit people and a motorcycle inside it, within the midsize category, mean those two shapes don’t relate very well. The design teams of different car brands use different techniques to mask this.

The Range Rover Velar team has brilliantly created the top and bottom in different colours, recognizing that they are separate shapes and allowing the eye to read a clean beltline as the dominant gesture. But the other brands usually derail. The BMW X5 grabs your eyes with an obscene grille. The Acura MDX tries to fit as many triangles into its surfaces as possible. The Mercedes-Benz GLE adds a very strange hump behind its A-to-C pillar, as if it were an Audi TT with a hump. Only the Volvo XC90 leans on it and says, “Look, I’m an orthopedic shoe, take it or leave it.”

Lexus’ approach is different – in a nutshell: “Surface it, surface it, surface it.” If I had to guess, within Lexus’ secretive design studios expressiveness is prized over discipline and the clay modeller’s days are long.

One design difference between the new RX and the old one is that the outgoing version’s surfaces were hard-edged. In contrast, the new design adds a wildly filleted ray to the waving gesture that extends from the lower front corner of the front doors to the rear door handles. Depending on the light and angle, it’s visually distinctive but jarring, and I would have liked to see this with more grace.

The rear of the car, especially the transition from the fender to the tailgate, also reads dissonant, with some extra transitions.

The continuous rear light is cool.

The grille is in line with today’s modern SUV design rules: a purely vertical surface on which many repeating shapes can be stored.

Where the RX shines – as with all Lexus products – is on the inside. Not only the technology, which is Toyota top, but especially the interior design. It’s such a stark contrast that if you showed me the inside first, I’d never guess what the outside looks like.

Barring a few UX missteps, the interior makes this a car I’d want to drive every day if I had to commute. The driver-oriented cockpit is comfortable, above all easy to use and feels expensive, with leather and solid touch points. The CMF team has done its job.

The electrically adjustable seats (both heated and cooled are available) appear to be infinitely adjustable, making it easy to get to the desired position, and the steering wheel is also electrically adjustable, providing precision.

The layout of everything is just about perfect. The huge screen is as high, and thus visible, as it can be without obscuring the view of the road. Even though they are wedged under the screen, the central vents can still be blown directly onto your right hand at 2 or 3 o’clock on the handlebars.

A “View” button directly below the climate button, and thus easy to find and reach, immediately switches the display of the screen (at low speeds) to the camera setting you have pre-selected. Very useful when parking or trying to squeeze through a narrow space.

The shifter takes some getting used to depending on what your daily rider is. Here R, N and D are engaged by the shift knob, but P is a knob. I always find that a bit contradictory, but I only spent a few hours with the cars then.

At the front of the shifter is a reasonably spacious storage compartment with a sliding lid that can be operated by a button.

The door handles on the inside have that new Lexus feature where they are activated with a button. So you press it with your thumb, the door lock unlocks electronically and then you push the door out. I’m still not crazy about this – it seems to me that the engineers are still fine-tuning the timing, at least on these pre-production prototypes, between the moment you press the button and the moment the lock releases – but I admit that it makes the door a little easier to open.

My main UX flu is here. The temperature control knob is a physical dial with easy-to-read numbers, which is great. The volume control is a physical knob, silky smooth, great. But the fan speed control is a touchscreen slider. I hate it. This is virtually impossible to adjust without taking your eyes off the road.

The navigation system is actually quite good. While I always prefer to use those in my phone, it’s nice to have a solid backup if you’re in areas with no cell service, which is a reality for me where I live.

The steering wheel is uncluttered and was easy to train even in the limited time I had to drive the cars. There are navigation pads on each side that correspond to the left and right screens next to the central speedometer. The buttons are responsive and their careful placement makes them easy to use without looking at them and without having to stretch your thumbs.

Obviously I couldn’t shoot this while driving, but there was a heads-up display in the F-Sport model I drove. It’s a great feature and something you’ll want to check for yourself on a test drive. I experimented with different seating positions during my riding time, and in one with the seat down low, I noticed the HUD drifting out of sight as my posture changed. That probably depends on the body type.

A note about the interior is that when you lower the rear seats, the cargo floor is not flat. But again, this is not a car to pick up Billy bookcases. It was also unclear at the time of going to press whether Lexus had jettisoned the optional third row of seats or would offer it on production models.

When the RX launches later this year, three powertrains will be offered:

The 350 will be available with either FWD or AWD, while the 350h and 500h will be AWD only.

To me, this car only makes sense in its AWD hybrid options, where consumers can get the best of both worlds: a spacious, comfortable vehicle, with better gas mileage than a much smaller car. The fuel-sipper of the RX lineup is the 350h. Its 2.5-liter 4-cylinder gets 36 MPG combined, but offers decent acceleration; going up to the 500 hrs gets you a turbocharged 2.4-litre four-cylinder, and while the combined mileage drops to 27 MPG, you get more off-the-line launch if you’re in a rush.

The brakes on all the models I drove were fantastic, with great and confidence inspiring stopping power, especially for a vehicle of this size. Handling is about what you’d expect from Lexus, with a good balance between ride comfort and the ability to corner without losing composure.

All in all, this car won’t make you forget it’s an SUV, but it’s fairly fast, and the overtaking ability is available (although it does require a bit of patience unless you’re driving the 500 hours). Above all, this vehicle is supreme comfortable.

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I must tell one anecdote from the trip, which perhaps only industrial designers would appreciate:

At press events like this you’re not driving all the time; there’s downtime, where you and the other journalists are waiting for a car or the bathroom, chatting.

The group is mostly dominated by dedicated automotive journalists, with a few industry analysts on the side. There are very few design shops and we are sometimes the only ones, which means I have no one to rant or rant against.

During a break, I was chatting with an analyst from a large company. He had never heard of Core77 and asked what I was covering. When I said “Design” he said:

“Oh, so you and I are pretty much on the other end of the spectrum.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I really love function. I’m more of a functionalist. I don’t like design that much,” he said.

I was amazed. This industry expert considered design as the opposite of function.

I suppose you could say that’s true of some parts of a car’s exterior – that a slash across the door serves no purpose at all – but what about the interior? I’m surprised this guy doesn’t realize that a team of designers are the ones providing the resources to, well, every function in the car.

After all these years, the recognition of design still has a long way to go.