How does Lexus RX 300 Sports Luxury rate as a contender in the premium large SUV segment?
What we liked:
• Comfortable, spacious cabin
• Impeccable quality
• Great road cruiser
Not so much:
• Four-cylinder engine intrusive under pre
• Low-res sat-nav screen
• Touch-pad controller
A 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol front-drive-only large SUV for $92,701 (plus on-road costs) sounds a bit steep. In reality, those facts tend to fade into the distance once you’re on board the Sports Luxury version of the upgraded Lexus RX 300 (previously called the RX 200t). Quality is top-notch, it’s both spacious and sumptuous inside and it’s surprisingly capable on the road. Then again, so are most of its competitors…
The upper crust
Lexus has been selling its RX series in Australia for 15 years now.
And, although today its sales in the premium large SUV segment are overshadowed by the likes of BMW X5, Range Rover Sport and Audi Q7 it remains, in its fourth generation (only the second and third generations were previously sold here), a solid presence that outsells contenders such as the Range Rover Discovery, the Infiniti QX70 and the aging (and just-replaced, in Europe) Volkswagen Touareg.
AWD. Who needs it?
As is the way with vehicles of its ilk, the Lexus has, over the years, eschewed some of the things once thought to be SUV staples – most significantly, across-the-board 4WD technology. 4WD might have fit preconceptions of what an SUV should be in early times, but it’s so irrelevant today that many SUV owners probably don’t know if they have it or not.
That’s why Toyota’s luxury brand is able to field its front-drive-only Lexus RX 300 Sports Luxury, pre on-roads, for a princely $92,701.
Although AWD is well represented elsewhere in the RX range, which spans from the four-cylinder turbo-petrol 300 reviewed here through 3.5-litre V6-based conventional and hybrid models (and now includes seven-seat variants), the fact that the technology is not necessarily a given is a clear indication of the real priorities of those who buy large SUVs.
The point is driven home even further by the 300’s lofty position in the RX hierarchy. Despite its driveline shortcomings, the Lexus RX 300, in Sports Luxury form, is showered with a host of technology embracing safety, comfort and dynamic capabilities.
The safety rollcall includes radar/camera actuated autonomous emergency braking, lane-keep assist and lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, 10 airbags, LED headlights and adaptive cruise control, while luxury items extend to leather trim, powered front seats with three-position memory settings and built-in heating and ventilation, two-zone climate-control, head-up display and the usual lineup of a top-quality audio system, sat-nav, a glass sunroof and keyless start.
The 2.0-litre turbo-four might lack the creamy smoothness of the 3.5-litre V6 and the efficiency of the hybrid drivetrain used elsewhere in the range yet, at $92,701 pre on-roads, the RX 300 is very much a premium SUV.
It’s more expensive than similarly-equipped rivals such as the V6-engined Infiniti QX70 S Premium ($86,400) and Volkswagen’s Touareg V6 TDI ($85,490) and is on par with the $92,659 TD6 SE Land Rover Discovery.
Continuing the RX theme
So how does the large premium SUV showing the outrageous face we have become familiar with since its 2015 launch cut it in this lofty sector?
In reality, the Lexus RX continues the theme laid down by the first RX that came here in 2003.
In essence it is a beautifully put together, spacious and comfortable conveyance that delivers safe handling and a ride quality that remains cosy and absorbent – even though it may have been overtaken in that context by rivals such as the air-suspended Land Rover Discovery.
If you can get your head around that crazily-sculpted front end, you’ll find the Lexus a neat to drive and easy-to-live-with five-seater that, although it presents a truly spacious passenger cabin with great head, shoulder and legroom, disappointingly lags behind its aforementioned peers in total carrying ability.
In the RX’s defence though, it must be said that despite its load maximum being quoted at a paltry 924 litres, real-world experiences suggest otherwise. The seats fold nicely, and we had no trouble loading our usual paraphernalia (including mountain bikes) into the Lexus. We didn’t mind the hands-free tailgate operation either, although we noted the temporary spare hiding under the rear floor.
The beauty within
If the external styling is somewhat unsettling, the RX’s cabin is pretty much the opposite: The seats are wonderful, especially in the front, and the instrument panel layout, despite at first looking a little busy, presents no challenges other than the touch-pad controller on the centre console that attempts to simulate laptop-style functionality but fails miserably.
Time for Lexus to admit this technology simply doesn’t belong in a dynamic car environment and switch to an iDrive-style system similar to that pioneered by BMW and now also used in principle by carmakers such as Mazda and Mercedes-Benz.
Other than that design glitch, the RX controls are generally tactile and intuitive to operate. The Mark Levinson sound system belts out a suitably symphonic experience and there’s nary a sign of Toyota heritage showing through other than, maybe, the jerky, low-res sat-nav imaging on the free-standing centre screen.
Four: Better or worse?
Although it’s nothing new in today’s cars, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine is bound to feel a bit out of place in a nearly two-tonne SUV.
With 175kW and 350Nm on tap, the direct-injected, Atkinson-cycle turbo engine produces adequate power and torque, sure, but it can be heard thrashing away when being pressed. On the plus side, the claimed combined fuel consumption – helped by the fact it’s front-drive, not AWD – of 8.1L/100km isn’t too bad for a big, petrol-driven SUV.
The RX 300’s six-speed transmission is down a couple of ratios on the eight-speeder used in V6 RXs, so finding the exactly-right gear is not quite as easy a task.
As mentioned earlier, the RX’s steering and handling are comfortably predictable. The Sports Luxury 300 might ride on decent-size 235/55R20 tyres, and it might have a set of driver-selectable adaptive shockers working for it but, whatever suspension mode you choose, it’s no BMW X5. And the generous tyre specs tend to introduce higher levels of road noise than you might expect into the otherwise quiet cabin.
The compensation is in the MacPherson Strut/double-wishbone suspension’s ride quality which, even though the RX’s wheelbase is shorter than the bulk of its direct competitors, remains calm and composed in most conditions. The Lexus RX might no longer be able to claim a spot among the best-riding cars in the land, but it’s still a quite-nice place to be.
With a four-year warranty and 12-month/15,000km servicing intervals the Lexus doesn’t do too badly either, although the warranty distance is limited to 100,000km.
Still a big deal for Lexus
Last year, the RX was the second-best seller for Lexus in Australia behind the new, steadily-growing NX mid-size SUV.
The advent of the new seven-seat version of the RX is unlikely to close that gap, but it will undoubtedly help grow Lexus sales and maintain the model’s significance.
And, if you want an RX but have no need for more than five seats and are not fussed whether or not you have AWD — and would like to pocket a little extra cash at the same time — a front-drive Lexus RX 300 should suit your needs nicely. In the real world, there is very little compromise.
How much does the 2018 Lexus RX 300 Sports Luxury cost?
- Price: $92,701 (plus on-road costs)
- Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol
- Output: 175kW/350Nm
- Transmission: Six-speed automatic
- Fuel: 8.1L/100km (ADR Combined) (10.5)
- CO2: 189g/km (ADR Combined)
- Safety Rating: Five-star ANCAP