I have spindle grille on the brain.
Let’s be clear. I am not a fan of the most obvious design feature of the in-progress reinvention of Toyota’s Lexus luxury brand. But at least on the 2013 RX 350 F Sport ($57,900), the spindle treatment is relatively subdued. The mesh design here is not as overwrought at what I just saw at the Paris auto show.
There, I circled the Lexus LF-CC concept car that Automotive News reports will be a coupe version of the GS sedan by summer 2014. The spindle grille looked like a mesh snow catcher inspired by Jack Nicholson’s Joker lips from the 1989 Batman movie. It was the one design element I did not like. The rest of the car, its interesting shapes and creases that are also expected to show up in the revamped Lexus IS sedan due next summer, is a triumph.
Between now and when the GS coupe and IS sedan hit showrooms, Lexus will have refined the spindle, no doubt. Certainly the LF-CC concept hints at the sportier direction Toyota is channelling for its premium brand. Now while Lexus engineers its new direction, the all-wheel drive RX 350 F Sport is something of transition vehicle.
It has a 3.5-litre V-6 (270 hp) mated to a new eight-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. Where the LF-CC suggests sporty but responsible, the F Sport is all about injecting energy into the aging RX lineup.
The sport-tuned suspension is just a little firmer and more responsive than the base RX 350 ($44,950). The front bumper is racier, too, and I like how the front fog lamps are integrated into the lower bumper. And 19-inch, five-spoke wheels finished in dark graphite are just right for an SUV/crossover that mostly trades on its astonishing reliability.
The RX F Sport follows a tried-and-proven formula in the car business, by jazzing up a model on the eve of a major makeover. This is done on a budget, of course. That explains why the V-6 here has exactly the same output as the V-6 in the RX base model.
On the other hand, the base RX gets the older six-speed automatic, not the quick-shifting eight-speed with behind-the-wheel paddle shifters. They give you an extra bit of control that you may not often use, but when you do, they’re entertaining. The shifts themselves are quick and smooth.
This RX also has a reasonably advanced AWD system. This one can’t shift power across the wheels, side to side, but what Lexus calls Active Torque Control can send torque front to rear and back in any ratio, from 0 to 100 or just plain old 50:50. If you want a quick launch, the system puts power to all four wheels, while to save fuel on the highway, this sporty RX is a front-driver.
This RX also has firmer shocks and springs, but they’re not punishing – just enough to tighten up the ride, without rattling your fillings. Where the base RX is soft and seems aimed at moms and dads doing grocery runs, the F Sport is a little firmer, a tad more entertaining, though if you really want a racy crossover from a Japanese maker, try Infiniti’s FX.
Should you get over your head, the RX’s electronic nannies kick in to save you from yourself. What Lexus calls VDIM – vehicle dynamic integrated management – boils down to a computer brain that co-ordinates the interference of all those electronic aids: anti-lock braking, stability control, traction control. If your driving gets a little bent, the nanny system makes corrections to keep you out pain. That said, the RX scores well in crash tests.
Most important, I think, the cabin here is handsome, not racer-boy cheesy. The seats are covered in black leather with white perforations, dressed up with white stitching – stitching also found on the centre console and armrests. However, the seats themselves could be more firmly padded and their bases up front, especially, could use more under-thigh length for support.
The look of the ebony wood trim, though, is first-rate. What we have here is a dark theme that’s carried right through to the black headliner and perforated leather-wrapped steering. An “F” logo adorns the wheel and aluminum pedals set off the look with a touch of shine. This is as badass as a Lexus gets these days.
Now given the F Sport is a $13,000 walk up from the base RX, you’d expect plenty of add-ons and goodies. That’s the case. A 90-day subscription to XM satellite radio comes with the audio system with Bluetooth and standard voice recognition. Thankfully, you can manage your iPod with visuals displayed through the centre console screen that also shows navigation data. Lexus’s Remote Touch mouse-life interface is really easy to use, quite intuitive and an improvement over anything the German luxury brands offer.
The point is, this RX is really good at what it is, despite the hefty price premium. Best of all, the spindle grille is not utterly out of control.
2013 Lexus RX 350 F Sport
Type: Mid-size crossover
Base price: $57,900 ($1,995 freight)
Engine: 3.5-litre V-6
Horsepower/torque: 270 hp/248 lb-ft
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.2 city/7.7 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Infiniti FX, Acura RDX/MDX, Audi Q5, Cadillac SRX, BMW X3/X5, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Land Rover LR4, Lincoln MKX, Mercedes-Benz ML, Porsche Cayenne, Volkswagen Touareg, Volvo XC90