LEXUS RX 350L EX LAUNCHED

A new seven-seat family SUV based on Lexus’ popular RX range patches a significant hole in the brand’s local line-up. BERNIE HELLBERG was at the recent launch in the Western Cape and filed this report.

While many automakers are downsizing their offerings to local car buyers, there is still a significant market for larger SUVs, especially of the seven-seat variety. In line with that thinking, Lexus has introduced an extended version of its medium-size RX 350 L SUV, and popped an additional row of seats in the back.

According to Lexus, seven-seat models represent a significant slice of luxury SUV sales, making the new RX 350L EX an important alternative to the likes of Audi’s Q7, the Volvo XC90 and the Land Rover Discovery.

HOW DID THEY DO IT?

Toyota’s luxury arm built on the versatility of its regular five-seat RX crossover by extending bodywork behind the rear wheels by more than 10 centimetres, allowing room for a third row of electrically adjustable seats just ahead of the tailgate.

But instead of just extending the bodywork to make room for more seats, Lexus engineers spent a significant amount of time and money working on a seating solution that optimises rear space for two more occupants, without infringing on the roominess offered to second row passengers.

Besides the extra space, third row occupants also benefit from full-length curtain airbags, twin cup holders, tri-zone climate control and a single child seat anchor point on the passenger side.

As is the case with most of the breed, the third row is ideal for incidental use as opposed to everyday duties, and hard-wearing faux leather trim for the third row is evidence that the space isn’t really intended for grown-ups – a notion confirmed by head and leg room being in short supply for average-sized adults.

Nevertheless, the RX 350L offers more than just another place to put more passengers. When not travelling with seven occupants – which we guess will be most of the time for the average RX owner – the extended wheelbase also means more available boot space than on the standard car. At the top end of its load capacity, the RX 350L can carry up to 966 litres versus the 924-litre maximum offered in the RX 350. Paying a mere R32,700 extra for so much more space, plus the availability of extra seats, starts to make pretty good sense to us.

Other tweaks include extended sliding adjustment and manual folding functions for the second row that make third-row access a reasonably straightforward proposition. Reasonably, because the third row still takes up to 14 seconds to fold down and 17 seconds to get back up again. Not quite the quickest in the business.

CABIN OFFERING

Up front, the RX delivers on Lexus’ usual values – it’s a comfortable, beautifully executed space with rock-solid quality and plenty of toys to play with.

Unlike many rivals, the RX is loaded with plenty of kit as standard. 20” wheels are thrown in, as is a powered tailgate, leather trim on the first two rows of seats, and a 10-way adjustable drivers’ seat with memory function joins heated and ventilated front seats and heated second-row seats as standard kit on the RX 350L.

Although the RX 350L comes with a new 12.3” infotainment screen hooked up to a brilliant Mark Levinson stereo, the absence of Apple CarPlay is a surprise. Instead, Lexus has opted for its proprietary system, which in our opinion really limits its functionality. Those systems aren’t available at any price, and even the most advanced version of Lexus’ infotainment system doesn’t quite compete with the more intuitive and smartphone-linked solutions.

We must also continue our refrain that the Lexus Remote Touch user interface needs a rethink. Although the mouse-like controller’s armrest and handrest feels luxurious, you sometimes end up guiding the cursor beyond where you wanted it to go on the screen even if you’ve adjusted the system’s sensitivity.

DRIVING EXPERIENCE

As the RX rides on the same wheelbase and suspension regardless of whether you select the regular five-seater or the seven-seat variant, the changes don’t have a dramatic effect on the RX’s driving experience.

Some niggle factors include more pronounced blind spots due to the extended C-pillar of the extended RX, while the heftier bulk (gross vehicle weight is up by 150 kg) causes a slight increase in body-roll over twistier roads.
In addition, packaging constraints for the longer version necessitated a switch from twin exhausts to a single outlet for the V6 petrol, sapping 5 kW from its ultimate output.

Not that this noticeably changes the way that the car feels on the road, as Lexus’ crossover remains a comfortable and effortless cruiser, the kind of car that soaks up highway distances or school run duties with ease.
Our brief test drive at its national launch in Cape Town blended winding country roads with a highway leg – the latter playing to the RX’s natural strengths.

Powered as standard by a smooth and familiar 3.5-litre V6, the RX 350L offers 216 kW and 358 Nm outputs of power and torque respectively, along with slightly thirsty 10.2-l/100 km economy. The five-seater RX 350 will run on slightly less fuel, of only 9.6-l/100 km.

LAST WORD

Having spent some time in the hybrid before, we believe that the non-hybrid versions (RX 350 and RX 350L) actually offer better value. For a start, the R273,300 price differential between the hybrid and the extended RX 350L does endear us to the latter more so than to the hybrid. Especially if you’re choosing the RX for longer family trips. In terms of fuel economy over distance, hybrids are great for city use rather than longer distances.

The RX 350L offers a more direct driving experience thanks to its crisp eight-speed auto (as opposed to a CVT) and fixed-rate shock absorbers that strike a reasonable balance between cosiness and precision. Though the RX L will likely not be a top pick for enthusiastic drivers, it represents a comfortable, well-specified, and practical addition to the Lexus range. SUV customers with an occasional requirement to carry an extra bod or two should add it to their shortlist.