2013 Lexus RX 350 F Sport
"A Sporty Package Does Not Necessarily Make a Sporty Crossover"
To say that the Lexus RX crossover has been the brand's sales success is an understatement. Last month, the Japanese automaker sold 7,357 units out of the brand's 18,235 total sales – nearly every other vehicle leaving a Lexus showroom is an RX.
Introduced in 1998, the RX immediately established a name for itself. While other automakers were still offering truck-like sport utility vehicles, Lexus built its new crossover on its ES sedan platform. Enthusiasts looked the other way, but the bulk of the marketplace embraced the new five-door with its very comfortable car-like ride, luxurious passenger accommodations and the brand's well-known levels of build quality and customer satisfaction. After just a few years on the market, Lexus was selling more than 100,000 units annually.
Now in its third generation and facelifted for 2013, the RX seems to be pleasing everyone – except male buyers. Even though Lexus as a whole is targeted predominantly at men, it is a well-known fact that RX crossover buyers are mostly female. To capture an even larger share of the segment, Lexus needed to give its best-seller a shot of masculinity. Enter the 2013 RX 350 F Sport.
The 2013 RX 350 F Sport, introduced at the Geneva Motor Show earlier this year, is differentiated from the standard RX lineup by several significant alterations. Most obvious is the unique sport front bumper, mesh spindle grille and 19-inch alloy wheels finished in dark graphite. Inside, the F Sport cabin features black leather-trimmed seats (with contrasting white stitching), a black headliner and aluminum pedals. The steering wheel has an F Sport badge and paddle shifters – an RX first. Under the skin, there's an eight-speed automatic transmission exclusive to the F Sport (standard RX models still use a six-speed) and firmer F Sport suspension with front and rear performance dampers.
Base price of the 2013 Lexus RX 350 is $39,310 (plus destination charges of $895), but the range-topping RX F Sport starts at $47,000 (plus destination). Aside from the aforementioned upgrades, the F Sport model also arrives with all of the features from the Premium and Comfort packages (e.g, power moonroof, electrochromatic mirrors, heated seats, HID headlamps, etc...) as standard equipment. Lastly, while the standard RX is offered with front- or all-wheel drive, the F Sport sends power to all wheels in standard configuration.
Aside from the eight-speed automatic, the powertrain is standard RX fare. Under the hood is a naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 boasting intelligent dual variable valve timing with intelligence. It is rated at 270 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 248 pound-feet of torque at 4,700 rpm. Lexus says its electronically controlled Active Torque Control all-wheel drive system uses an electronically controlled coupling ahead of the rear differential to vary torque distribution anywhere from 100:0 to 50:50 front to rear, depending on driving dynamics and road conditions. At steady speeds, only the front wheels are powered. In layman's terms, that means the system is designed to maximize grip in inclement weather (e.g., when starting off on a low-grip surface), not as a performance driving tool. The AWD system also features a manual-locking center differential for when things get really sticky (via a switch on the center console).
Official EPA fuel economy figures have not been released, but Lexus estimates the F Sport will achieve 18 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway (21 mpg combined). Thanks to the eight-speed gearbox, those numbers actually equal or better the lighter front-wheel drive base RX. With a curb weight of 4,510 pounds, Lexus says the RX 350 F Sport will hit 60 mph in 7.7 seconds and march on to an electronically limited top speed of 112 mph (oddly enough, the F Sport wears V-rated rubber good for 149 mph).
The injection of sport does the RX cabin well. The seats (identical in shape and bolstering to the standard models) are comfortable and we like the perforated leather on the steering wheel and the Ebony Bird's Eye Maple trim. Lexus has attempted to lighten up the cabin a bit with silver trim on the center console and steering wheel. It's a nice contrast to the black leather and matching dashboard, but we prefer the darker matte finish in the standard model as it is less reflective.
We found the interior ergonomics compromised – form over function. The asymmetric dashboard appears interesting at first glance, but the controls are haphazardly placed across its face and there is an obvious lack of flat and easily accessible storage space for frequently used items (such as rectangular mobile phones). The traditional transmission shift lever always seems to be in the way, and the wrist rest for the automaker's Remote Touch interface (replacing the touchscreen display) is massive.
On the road, the difference between the regular RX and RX F Sport is immediately noticeable. The steering – electronic on all RX models – is unchanged, but its accuracy was never an issue. Lexus has fitted firmer shocks and springs to the flagship RX, and there is a lateral performance damper system designed to minimize body vibration in lieu of a fixed brace (the system features a front performance damper and a rear damper connecting the left and right sides of the rear structural frame). All of this hocus-pocus does reduce body roll, but it strikes us as overkill. The ride is harsh, bumpy and rather uncharacteristic of an RX. What's more, it doesn't actually feel sporty. Rather, it feels as if the inside of each tire has been filled with concrete. The ride was something that frustrated us each time we climbed behind the wheel.
The paddle shifters are a gimmicky add-on. They work well, shifting the wet eight-speed between gears exactly as commanded, but there is no compelling reason to ever use them. Manual control of an automatic gearbox is wonderful on the track, or when enthusiastically carving a canyon, but not in a two-plus ton CUV with a Lexus badge on its nose. After the salesman proudly shows them off during the test drive, they will collect dust and lint (as most paddle shifters do).
Developing a "sport package" isn't simple science, and the RX F Sport is a perfect example of why. When automakers bundle a myriad of performance-oriented mechanical changes and slap them into an optional package, they walk a delicate line between handling and harshness. If the oversized wheel/tire package doesn't mess things up, suspension tuning usually does. Few automakers do this dance well.
We were genuinely looking forward to the promise of a sportier, more dynamic RX F Sport, but it let us down. The poor ride quality cannot be blamed on the wheels and tires, as the 19-inch cast alloys wearing 235/55VR19 all-season Michelin Latitude Tour HP rubber are no larger, wider or noisier than the standard setup. And it cannot be blamed on the brakes either, as the rotors (12.9-inch ventilated rotors up front and 12.2-inch solid discs in the rear) and calipers are the same size and weight as lesser RX models – the offender is not unsprung mass. All focus is on those cursed dampers and springs.
While we genuinely like the standard RX 350 for many of the same reasons those 100,000 buyers plunk down their hard-earned wages each year, we found it difficult to smile while behind the wheel of the RX 350 F Sport. Frankly, the ride is too harsh. Much like the automaker flubbed its suspension tuning in early IS F sport sedans (Lexus recalibrated the model's suspension for 2010 with much better results), this first-attempt RX F Sport needs a bit of tweaking.
From where we sit, Lexus should take a page from the BMW playbook. Years ago, the German automaker realized that buyers of its premium X5 utility who ordered the optional sports package didn't necessarily want firmer suspension tuning – they wanted the cosmetic enhancements and the interior appointments. BMW (quietly) dropped the springs and dampers from the package and buyers now seem pleased with the sport goodies riding atop the standard underpinnings (it helps that the standard X5's suspension is sportier than the Lexus, of course). The F Sport package on the RX, in like manner, would be much better if it retained the stock suspension, or at least did a better job tuning it.
Despite its nearsightedness, the sportiest of Lexus' light utilities still figures to be the answer to countless prayers. We suspect it will sell very well, especially to the thousands of men who accompany their wives into Lexus showrooms in pursuit of a new crossover. Those husbands and fathers will understandably be apprehensive about purchasing the standard RX, wanting something with a bit more character, strength and boldness – then the salesman will take a deep breath, smile and point them to the F Sport.