Pros: Satisfying gasoline and hybrid V6 powertrains, excellent hybrid fuel economy, relaxed ride, quiet cabin.
Cons: Low rear bench, Toyota Highlander offers similar hardware and a third row for less money.
The 2012 Lexus RX crossover SUV has been a top seller for years because Lexus knows how not to offend. Seems like everywhere you look these days, there's some newfangled crossover with polarizing looks designed to attract attention. That's a good strategy for getting stares, but what happens when it's time for people to open their pocketbooks? The sales charts don't lie: a whole lot of them will be making beelines for their Lexus dealers.
Truth be told, we find the current RX a bit underwhelming relative to its predecessors. The interior seems to be a little less fancy now, while the mechanically similar Toyota Highlander has closed the gap from below with a pretty nice cabin of its own. Moreover, the Highlander offers a third-row seat, while the RX is strictly a two-row crossover. And if you're going to have just two rows, shouldn't rear passengers get more support than they do from the RX's low-mounted bottom cushions?
But for the RX's legions of fans, the current model seems likely to satisfy. The RX 350's V6 is powerful and refined, the RX 450h's hybrid powertrain is exceptionally fuel-efficient without sacrificing performance, and every RX has that creamy ride quality that loyalists expect. Although some revisions are in store for next year, don't expect the RX to deviate much from its current course. Bold new faces may dominate the headlines, but it's the tried-and-true RX that keeps bringing home the bacon.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Lexus RX comes in regular RX 350 or hybrid RX 450h trim.
Standard features on the RX 350 include 18-inch alloy wheels, a sunroof, keyless entry with push-button ignition, a power tilt-telescopic steering wheel, 10-way power front seats, fabric upholstery, driver memory functions, electroluminescent gauges, a trip computer, an 8-inch infotainment screen with the Remote Touch mouse-like controller, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth and a nine-speaker audio system with a six-CD changer, satellite radio, an auxiliary input and iPod/USB connectivity.
The RX 450h adds a unique grille and front bumper as well as hybrid-specific status gauges, but otherwise mostly shares the RX 350's equipment roster.
Notable options include 19-inch alloy wheels, adaptive xenon or LED headlights, a sunroof, two different kinds of leather upholstery, dynamic cruise control, a rear-seat entertainment system with twin headrest-mounted seven-inch screens, a 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio system and a hard-drive-based navigation system with the Remote Touch interface, voice-command functionality and the Lexus Enform with Safety Connect telematics suite (see "Technology," below).
The RX's cabin certainly looks more high-tech than its predecessors, but our first impression was that some of the old Lexus quality had been lost in the transition. No matter-the RX's interior does have a palpably premium vibe, and that should be good enough for most fans. We could go for considerably more lateral support from the front seats, but at least they've both got a standard power lumbar adjustment. Ergonomics are generally beyond reproach, and the gauges are exceptionally clear thanks to Lexus's trademark electroluminescent illumination.
The RX's back seat is unexpectedly not a strong suit. We figured this two-row crossover would lavish attention on its rear passengers, but the bottom cushion is mounted surprisingly low to the floor, resulting in a knees-up riding position for those with long legs. Don't get us wrong, though: there's plenty of room for adults in the RX's rear quarters.
Cargo space measures a generous 40 cubic feet behind the rear seatbacks and 80.3 cubic feet with those seatbacks folded down. The Cadillac SRX is sometimes mentioned as an RX competitor, but the RX would dominate the Caddy in a hauling contest. Note that the RX 450h has the same cargo capacity as the regular RX 350 because its battery pack is concealed beneath the rear seat.
Being one of Lexus's newer models, the RX is treated to some of the company's latest techno-gadgets, including Remote Touch, a mouse-like infotainment controller that's mounted on the center console. Of course, you have to ante up for the hard-drive-based navigation system to get Remote Touch. RX models without navigation have a relatively straightforward dashboard layout. As is the norm for Lexus products these days, the RX boasts standard iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity. We'd like to see an infotainment screen with Remote Touch come standard in the RX like it does in the GS sedan, but, overall, it's hard to complain about the RX's technology offerings.
Notably, the navigation system includes the Enform telematics suite, which lets you either plan trips from home using a Lexus-exclusive online search called eDestination, or leverage your smartphone for this purpose with the downloadable Enform mobile app. Destination Assist provides live navigation assistance from Lexus's 24-hour response center. Both features are facilitated by direct communication with the RX's navigation system.
Note that Toyota's Entune system, which uses smartphone data connections to integrate mobile apps like Pandora into the driving experience, isn't available in any Lexus for the 2012 model year.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The RX 350 is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 rated at 270 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque. The transmission is a six-speed automatic. The RX's V6 is essentially a Camry V6 tasked with pulling around an extra 500 pounds, so you're not going to set any speed records here. But what a lovely motor-so smooth and restrained, yet so eager to charge toward redline. It's a highlight of the RX experience.
As for the RX 450h, it features a 3.5-liter V6 on the Atkinson cycle that works in tandem with electric motors and a battery pack. Total system output is 295 horsepower, which makes up for the hybrid's extra 350 pounds or so. Acceleration is remarkably swift by hybrid standards, and the continuously variable automatic transmission is quite responsive.
Both RX models offer a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.
Fuel economy isn't an RX 350 strength, checking in at 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway with FWD (18/24 mpg with AWD). The RX 450h is a superstar, though, yielding 32/28 mpg with FWD (30/28 mpg with AWD).
The 2012 Lexus RX comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, active front headrests and 10 airbags (front, front side, front knee, rear side and full-length side-curtain). All models include Safety Connect, which uses the same 24-hour response center as the Enform system to get you the help you need if the unexpected occurs.
In government crash-testing, the RX received four stars out of five overall, including four stars in frontal impacts and five stars in side impacts. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the RX its highest rating of "Good" in all tested categories.
The RX's elevated ride height and pillowy suspension tuning will be instantly familiar to longtime fans. Toyota hasn't tinkered much with the RX's basic driving formula over the years, yet no other crossover has really managed to duplicate it. Road and wind noise are hardly noticeable on most roads. We'd resent being stuck in an RX on twisty tarmac, but for commutes or family trips, this Lexus is hard to beat.
Other Cars to Consider
BMW X3 - Although the X3 is a bit smaller than the RX, it's got ample rear passenger space, and it engages the driver like few other mainstream crossovers can.
Cadillac SRX - Equipped with a powerful 3.6-liter V6 for 2012, the SRX is ready to rumble with the Lexus. The SRX's dashboard design and materials are particularly impressive.
Volkswagen Touareg - A dedicated two-row crossover like the RX, the Touareg is available with an excellent "TDI" turbodiesel V6, and it's got a nicer interior and a more comfortable back seat than the RX.
Keep it simple. The LS is at its best when it's undercutting the competition's prices by a healthy margin, so we'd take the keys to an entry-level LS 460 and congratulate ourselves on getting an executive sedan for the price of a well-optioned 5 Series.