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Something has happened to this Lexus, and it isn't good

I thought it was going to be another SUV home run for the automaker, but I was wrong


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The 2016 Lexus RX 350 – the Toyota luxury line’s mid-sized SUV/crossover – is a wonderful vehicle that drives beautifully, has all the “stuff,” is quite comfortable, super quiet, roomy, and for this model year has a new bold look that is stunning. I drove it for three or four days thinking it was just another Lexus home run, that I would try to find something unique to say about it that would distinguish it from a very good pack.

Then it hit me: It has hidden flaws.

Oh, it’s a great vehicle and anyone who buys one will probably have nothing but a good experience. And that could be a lot of people – for the 2015 calendar year, Lexus sold just over 100,000 RX models in the US alone, and if you look at historical sales data the RX was one of the few vehicles of any make that weathered the economic recession with relative ease. US sales for 2011 were 82,595 RX units, which is spectacular given the overall collapse of auto sales during that time.

And the RX is now almost entering its venerable stage – Lexus introduced it in 1998 as a compact SUV, upgraded it to a mid-sized SUV/crossover in 2002, and to this day has only gone through four generations or redesign. You don’t mess with perfection, or at least near perfection.

But I mentioned hidden flaws in the RX.

It started with a couple of comments from passengers who noted that the RX, while nice, seemed to have a lot of plastic this and plastic that, accessories that just seemed, well, cheap. The dash board. The storage bins in the door panels. The cup holders. One of the guys said “If I saw this storage bin on a Chevrolet, I wouldn’t be surprised.” It wasn’t a compliment.

Then I was talking with a couple of people of my acquaintance with a lot of car knowledge, and as usual they asked what I was driving, heard the answer, and then wrinkled their noses. I said, “What?” They said, “Oh, I don’t know, but lately Lexus seems to have cheapened up.” When I pressed they went into the same complaints about all the cheap plastic things.

I became introspective. I began looking around in the vehicle. There is a minimum of wood grain trim, it is very dark and almost unnoticeable. There are a lot of relatively cheap plastic accessories. Not a big thing, but to be honest when I started looking around in the interior – the exterior is spectacular – the interior seemed rather drab. Not downbeat exactly, just nothing special.

Then, over the weekend, I figured out what is wrong with this RX. On Sunday night during my test drive my wife and I joined our neighbors and went to a concert of the Denver Municipal Band in Washington Park (the concert was wonderful). My neighbors drove, and as it turned out we went in their 2005 Lexus RX 330, which they proudly pointed out has 124,000 miles on it. Obviously, an 11-year old vehicle with that many miles on it (and the obviously great shape it is in) is a testament to Toyota/Lexus quality, durability and longevity, which I am sure the 2016 model will uphold. But, seated in the front passenger seat, I noticed something right off the bat that spoke volumes about not only Lexus, but about the entire world of autos these days.

The 2005 RX was absolutely beautiful inside. The most striking feature was the abundance of unbelievably gorgeous wood trim – on the steering wheel, on the door panels and especially on the center console. It looked like light-colored walnut, and it gave the whole interior a warm, inviting feeling. The cup holders, in the console, were covered with a retractable lid, festooned with the wood, that when closed gave the whole console that warm feeling.

So then I went back to my 2016 RX 350 to wonder why it didn’t feel as warm – and the reason stuck out like a sore thumb: technology. We have come so far with technology, with a mouse-like device to operate and access all of the systems with a leather arm rest for your wrist and hand while you operate the mouse, and a dial for ride variances and AWD preferences – all on the console – that there isn’t any room to put in any beautiful wood accents.

And especially no room to have a wood-trimmed retractable cover for the cup holders, which are now just open holes and relatively plastic-y. And on the dash and doors, while there is some very dark and almost unnoticeable wood trim, the wood has been scaled back in the modern version to accommodate – you guessed it – more technology: a huge 12.3” multimedia LED screen the most obvious. Oh, sure the 2016 RX 350 has all of the whiz-bang technology that everyone demands these days in luxury cars, but the victim has been the sheer beauty of what it meant to drive a luxury vehicle just a few years ago. It has all of the bells and whistles, to be sure, but little of the ambiance, and more’s the pity.

For the record, the 2016 Lexus RX 350 features a 3.5-liter V6, with some 295 horses, and coupled with an 8-speed automatic transmission which is very smooth, this vehicle is a powerful ride. And it is rated at a respectable 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway in this AWD version (it is also available in FWD). The base model AWD version carries a base price of $43,300, with the model I drove, with the F Sport “tuned” option, the base price is $49,125 – the one thing most people raved about is the new front grille, called the “Spindle,” that give the outside that bold look. You can also get the RX in a 450h Hybrid version, with 308 combined horsepower. The F Sport trim on the 450h carries a base price of $55,645.

On my test-drive model they added in a few accessories – the coolest among them being a touch free power rear door where you just wave your hand and the liftgate opens, , costing only $200 – and with $940 in destination charges the bottom line was $56,995.

Everything you’d want in technology is in the vehicle, and it drives and rides beautifully. It’s a little high price-wise, but what isn’t these days?

But – I long for the days of ambiance and beauty. The engineers – the tech engineers – have taken over the design departments at the expense of interior designers with a little style.

As I said, more’s the pity.     

RATING: THREE WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)

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Jeff Rundles

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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