CALISTOGA, Calif. -- In quick whip-whip-whip motions, the nubby 19-inch front tires on a Lexus RX 350 luxury crossover utility vehicle claw for asphalt through a series of right-left-right hairpin curves as California 29 wiggles around Sugarloaf Mountain in a climb out of the Napa Valley.
Through occasional gaps in sideline tall stands of redwoods you may spy the checkered patchwork of vineyards in the flat valley far below, but who can scope the scenery when steering a fancy CUV up a tricky mountain road as eyes must focus on the next in an endless string of twists and bends and serpentine esses? Of course, we're pushing our RX 350 to the limit of all laws of physics in order to sample its promised sporty personality and agile nature. And, quite frankly, we're zipping the route.
Still, this special Lexus invites more participation: Feed it more throttle, carve out tighter turns, fling it quicker through the dips, run it faster up the steep grades. With superior power of a strong engine on tap and sophisticated electronic control systems always engaged to keep the wheels tracking true along the roadbed, this RX seems well armed for pavement romps like our excursion up the 29 out of Calistoga, as trappings of luxury in the cabin coddle one driver.
The 2010 RX 350 represents a new and larger design for the original Lexus CUV, the RX 300 which landed in America in 1998 as a compact-class 5-door wagon with unibody construction and front-wheel-drive (FWD) orientation plus car-like components which eradicated the driving hassles associated with a truck-based SUV. In effect, the Lexus design pioneered the concept of a luxurious crossover wagon that functions like a sport utility but drives like a cushy luxury car. The concept proved so popular that by 2002 the RX 300 had cornered almost a quarter of the market for luxury SUVs, making it the best-seller in its class.
A larger and more powerful edition emerged as the 2004 RX 330, with numerals in the nameplate denoting increased displacement for the engine as expressed in liters. Then the 2007 RX scored even more juice -- a 3.5-liter V6 to make the RX 350. New RX 350 of 2010 stocks a revised version of the 3.5-liter V6 as the vehicle expands in size again and gains even more sophisticated electronic controls.
The revamped 3.5-liter V6 -- Toyota's impressive 2GR-FE aluminum-block plant -- has dual camshafts with dual VVT-i (variable valve timing with intelligence) to optimize cam timing and maximize power production at all engine speeds. As a result, it rocks with 275 hp at 6200 rpm and torque rising to 257 lb-ft at 4700 rpm. To increase the traction advantage, Lexus adds the option of a new all-wheel-drive (AWD) system which sets an electronically controlled coupling in front of the vehicle's rear differential in order to vary torque distribution between front and rear wheels.
The device can apply 100 percent of the engine's torque to the front wheels or direct up to 50 percent to the rear ones as pavement conditions and driving dynamics warrant. Armed with a stronger engine and more electronic vehicle controls, the new Lexus wagon rides on a revamped platform that stretches the wheelbase for an inch longer than the previous edition and expands the overall structure -- by 1.4 inches in length, 1.6 inches in width and a fraction of an inch in height.
The larger package creates more space for passengers in the five-seat cabin and more room for cargo. Riders on the front buckets will find more than half an inch of additional legroom available, while another suitcase will fit in the back bay as cargo space expands by 1.7 cubic feet to 40.0 cubic feet. This wagon looks bigger too.
Stylists at Lexus inscribed fluid aerodynamic lines on a sleek shell with the tapered body distinguished by a low-canted roofline and muscular flanks flashing chiseled flat-rim wheelwells housing large 18-inch alloy rollers or optional 19-inchers. Up front, the aggressive face focuses on a raked trapezoid grille ringed in chrome and flanked by corner headlamp clusters glimmering through multiple lenses.
Note those front lamps: With optional xenon high intensity discharge (HID) headlamps, Lexus adds a new intelligent adaptive front lighting system (AFS) where the swivel lamps -- each keyed to the angle of the steering wheel -- rotate during turning maneuvers.
The new trick for this smart system is that it can estimate where the wagon will be on the road in three seconds through calculations factoring vehicle speed and front wheel angles. A computer then resets the swivel lamps to the estimated road position to keep a light shining on the vehicle's forward path.
The RX 350 cabin is wrapped in concealed air bags -- up-front inflators for front seats plus seat-mounted side air bags and two more to shield the knees of front riders, then curtain-style air bags tucked into headliners above side windows front and back.
On tap to help stop the two-ton RX are four big disc brakes tied to electronic devices as acronyms in car safety: ECB (electronically controlled brakes), ABS (anti-lock brake system), VSC (vehicle stability control), ETC (electronic traction control), and ECTS-i (electronically controlled throttle system with intelligence). For preventive safety the vehicle offers the Advanced Pre-Collision System (APCS) packaged with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (DRCC). The equipment can detect pedestrians in the path of the car and warn the driver or even deploy the brakes, if necessary.
A deluxe cabin piles on fancy appointments including electro-luminescent instruments in a vivid display. Stock equipment ranges from power controls for windows and mirrors to SmartAccess with push-button start/stop and door unlock settings, automatic dual climate controls, steering wheel audio controls, courtesy lamps mounted on doors, 10-way power controls for the two front bucket seats and genuine walnut or bird's-eye maple wood lining console and doors.
Options in packages bring leather upholstery and memory settings for seats and mirrors, a moonroof, navigation system with voice commands and rearview camera, and a sports package with tuned suspension and VDIM (vehicle dynamics integrated management) system. Lexus sets price points for the 2010 RX 330 at $36,800 for FWD and $38,200 with AWD.