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Posted: July 27, 2009

Executive wheels: 2010 Lexus RX 350 AWD

It's a great car, but if you don't care about the "brand" thing, get a Highlander

Jeff Rundles

In doing a little research on the background of the Lexus RX 350, I found out that it is – by far – the best-selling vehicle in the history Lexus line, if you include the RX 300, which debuted 1998.

This shouldn’t have surprised me, what with the American penchant for larger vehicles, SUVs in particular. It’s just that I would have thought the smaller sedan, the ES, would have led the pack.

But having driven around in the RX 350 for the past week, my own personal examination would have told me the RX is the sales leader, at least in Denver. They are everywhere. Since I had Lexus on the mind, I also noticed more than few old Lexuses running around, many of them sporting those temporary plates signifying a recent buy. What with the recession and all, there’s been a lot of buzz on the Internet about the value in older cars, particularly luxury-brand vehicles in the 3 - to 7-year-old stage; apparently the prices in the “previously owned” category, as it were, coupled with the reputation for longevity from Toyota/Lexus, means a used Lexus can be quite a bargain.

But for those in the new-car market, and those who want the utility of a SUV with some economy both in price and fuel economy, then the Lexus RX 350 demands a close look.

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Lexus, as I have indicated, is the luxury division of Toyota and, as such, shares with the parent line a well-deserved reputation for quality and longevity. I know: I own a very old and very reliable Toyota.

Indeed, I asked my wife the other day what car she would choose if money was no object, and she said, “I’d have to go Toyota.” Now I know many people who, given that same option – money no object – would go ‘Vette or Bentley or some other exotic or fast-as-hell cool car, but my wife tends to be more practical and not wont to be overly showy. I like that about her: safe, reliable, long-term. She lets me be the goofy one, and then she grounds me. A perfect marriage. Besides, I love Toyotas, too.

Truth be told, the American car owner owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Toyota and Lexus. It’s no coincidence that many of the cars on the American road – Japanese, Korean, European and American makes – look like a Toyota or compare themselves to Toyota. I have said for years that if GM, Ford and Chrysler had bother to figure out in the early 1980s how Toyota made such fine cars at a good price, and them emulated them, the American automobile business would never have entered financial limbo-land, in spite of a disparity in labor and retirement costs.

If Chevrolet had actually built the Toyota Corolla all these years, the demise of the American car would never have occurred. So, finally, everyone else is coming around to the notion that Toyota must have done something right. Toyota set the standard, and it elevated the quality of every other car line sold in the country over the last 10 years except the American brands, and they too now seem to be getting it. They had better.

To Lexus, the debt of gratitude is many-fold. While there have been luxury cars sold in the U.S. for decades, Lexus was the first luxury brand launched by the Japanese and it shook up the world. First, it virtually created a mass market for luxury vehicles. This is important because it is in the luxury lines that most of the innovations, which eventually become standard on non-luxury cars, are introduced – cruise control, intermittent  wipers, ABS brakes, high-tech electronics, navigation, air bags, etc. So everyone benefits.

Second, when Lexus debuted here in 1989 with the large sedan LS 400, it came with a promise of free scheduled maintenance for the warranty period – a savings of thousands of dollar for car purchasers -- and it set in motion an all-out war for market share with Mercedes and BMW that kept costs down, elevated service and promoted innovation.

I have been reviewing automobiles since way before the Lexus debut, and I recall how arrogant Mercedes and BMW had become. The brand-new Lexus dealers in Denver in 1989 and 1990 used to rub it in big time by placing their trade-in lots conspicuously near to the front doors and then placing a ton of Mercedes and BMWs there as a show of how many luxury car drivers had made the switch to Lexus.

The benefits derived by such competition have a ripple effect throughout the automobile world, so in the end everyone who drives gets something good.

I’ll give you a good example of how this works on the simplest level. Before the explosion of the luxury-car market in the 1990s, set off by Lexus, Honda’s Acura and Nissan’s Infiniti lines, and joined by the Europeans, nearly every other car on the road was noisy as hell. One of the key battlegrounds of the luxury models was road noise abatement, coupled with the introduction of premium stereo systems and other on-board entertainment. And it eventually trickled down.

Now even the cheapest cars on the market are amazingly quiet. I was in a friend’s 1989 Honda Accord the other day, and someone in the back said the car was very noisy “probably because it was so old.” Nope. The ’89 Accord was noisy when it was new. The 2009 or 2010 Accord is quieter than a 1992 Lexus LS 400. 

So on to the RX 350, the progeny of all this.

I have driven a ton of SUVs, many of them in the Toyota line, and for the most part I am a fan. The RX 350 isn’t a small SUV, but neither is it one of the big ones. It’s in the Goldilocks, baby bear “just right” category: the mid-sized SUV. For such a potent vehicle, it gets great gas mileage – it’s rated at 18 mpg city/24 mpg highway – and as Lexus goes, and the SUV market in general, it isn’t a particularly expensive vehicle: $38,200 base price.

On pricing, however, the devil is in the details.

One wonders if it is possible to actually buy one without all of the luxury add-ons that seem ubiquitous. Included on my test-drive model were 19” aluminum alloy wheels for $660 – I could live without them, although they are handsome (18” alloy wheels are standard, and that’s enough); and the $1,200 heads-up display, which projects the speedometer in digital format onto the windshield, which I personally find annoying because I find myself focusing on it rather than the driving. I found the switch and turned it off.

Lexus touts a new innovation with its heads-up system that makes it work even in bright sunlight glare.

There was another $1,175 for Bi-Xenon headlamps and automatic high beams. Once again, I could live without the upgraded headlamps, but I must say that I have experienced automatic high beams, and they are wonderful. Heated and cooled front seats add $640. The system works great, but I could live with just the heated side, which one presumes would be standard.

Then the biggies: $1,610 for a Mark Levinson Audi, DVD Changer and 15 speakers. Yup, it’s nice, but so is the standard Lexus Premium Audi System. Then $2,440 for the Navigation system with voice command, backup monitor (rear camera), XM Radio NavTraffic and XM Radio NavWeather. Now I must say, I am not a big fan of navigation, particularly at these prices, because I so rarely use it. Other people have said they love it because they have to use it all the time, but not me. And the NavTraffic and NavWeather (which comes with a 90-day trial subscription) are very cool: They alert you to traffic and weather conditions in, as they say, “real time,” so you can avoid problems, so I can imagine many people have this need.

Then there’s another $2,400 for the premium package: leather trim interior, one-touch open/close moonroof, auto-dimming electrochromic power-heated outside mirrors, power rear door, MP3 mini-plug with UBS audio plug. All nice, but expendable. For another $1,500 there’s a pre-collision system with dynamic cruise control, and fortunately I didn’t get a chance to test it out. The Lexus website is very vague about what it does, but presumably it monitors a potential crash and offers early airbag deployment, braking assistance and the like. It doesn’t sound as advanced as the new Mercedes system that actually takes over and brakes the car (which I saw in a television ad), so I might skip that, too.

Add $875 for destination charges, and this Rx 350 comes in at $50,700. While this is a magnificent vehicle, I could get most of the magnificence for around $40,000, nearly all of the “brand” significance and save a cool 10 grand. In the low 40s, this is a great buy.

The reason lies in all the things that don’t cost extra.

The RX handles beautifully. It weaves in and out of traffic, never leans and takes the curves in the mountains with ease. It’s easy to drive, yet it is also a pleasure to drive – it has great feel for the driver.

The power plant here is a 3.5-liter V6 with 275 hp, and it is all the power one would need. With a six-speed automatic transmission, it is also very smooth, with very little jumping between gears even when punching it on the highway for a quick lane change.

I was very impressed with the mirrors and the overall view of the vehicle, as well. It sits up nice and high and gives the driver a very comfortable view of surrounding traffic. It is also a very quiet vehicle, comfortable without being too soft and a great ride for the long haul. It feels like a larger vehicle, which adds to its panache on a road trip.

Inside, the RX is as handsome as it gets.

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Lexus, and indeed all of Toyota, really gets interiors. They are beautiful, all of the equipment is intuitive and easy to use, it is very roomy both up front and in the rear seat and the doors open wide enough to make getting in and out a breeze. I enjoyed the inside a lot.

This is the third generation RX, and for 2010 they have “freshened” the look. Basically, it is a little more rounded, and they have given the grill a smaller, more aggressive look.

But I do have a few quibbles.

The other night I let my wife drive the RX while I followed in the family car, coming home from a Little League game. It gave me an interesting perspective. First, I was unimpressed with the tail lights and all the rear lighting. Very small, so much so that it took me a while to realize my wife had turned on her turn signal. Not the best design. Also, in those fancy mirrors they charge so much extra for, they have added, like many carmakers, turn indicator lights. Once again, they were so small I, at first, mistook them for glare from the street lights. In the daytime they are virtually invisible, and at night they are little more than firefly lights.

I perused a blog about the RX and the biggest gripe seemed to be the placement of the gear shift lever. To accommodate the electronic system controller (more on that in a minute), which is flat on the console, they moved the gear shift lever half way up the dash, in the middle. Several people noticed it and commented on it without really saying whether they liked it. Personally, I found it easy to reach and operate, and I liked the placement.

On the blog, I found a lot of people – mostly men – who thought it was too mini-van-like. It is odd, often, how macho comes out.

As for the electronics controller, I have said many times how much I dislike the iDrive in the larger BMWs because it is so difficult to use and requires so many steps to accomplish the simplest things. Leave it to the Japanese to simplify.

You place you hand on it, right next to the driver, hit the “menu” button, which displays climate, audio and the like, then you use a mouse-like lever to highlight what you want, and then you push a button with your thumb on the side to activate the control.

I figured it out in seconds without owner’s manual assistance and liked it very much. You don’t even have to look much, so it is far less distracting than the BMW system.

But in the end, I am over the whole LED - or LCD-screen thing in the middle of the dash that controls everything. They keep getting larger and larger, and therefore more distracting, and in a vehicle like this RX, you can’t really turn them off (although it allows you to do so), if you still want to make audio selections or change the climate controls.

So the map just is there, all the time. I like simple elegance. I have my habits, my radio stations. I find push-buttons to change stuff easy, and all luxury cars had them before the advent of the screen.

So there you go. I’ve given you all of the options, an overview and my opinion. I love the basic vehicle here in the 2010 Lexus RX 350. At or near $40K, it’s a winner. But at $50K, there’s a ton of competition, and personally I don’t like or need all the modern bells and whistles.

And one other thing: In doing the research, I discovered, although I intuitively knew anyway, that the RX shares a chassis with its cousin, the Toyota Highlander. I felt all long during the week that the RX was very Highlander-like, and it’s no coincidence that a new generation of the Highlander made its debut two years ago. While the RX is a bit more handsome, and it has more “brand,” as they say, the RX and the Highlander are pretty much the same vehicle.

Personally, I’d get the Highlander, decked out or not, and save the extra money in the “brand” thing.

RATING: THREE-AND-THREE-QUARTERS WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR) 

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

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