We could jump right in and describe the performance of the Lexus RX 350 EX and RX 450h SE but that would be like ignoring the elephant in the room… its distinctive styling.
In the same way that the Nissan Juke’s design was very polarising when it first emerged (it is tough to remain indifferent) the design of the Lexus RX, although on the opposite side of the spectrum, is equally divergent from the status quo.
Bold and aggressive-looking with a strikingly angular design, its shark- (or perhaps tiger-like) outline has a very predatory feel to it. I find this quite agreeable. The previous Lexus RX was lackadaisically generic. This is not. It is self-assured and it demands your attention.
The 450h SE has exceptionally good-looking tri-LED headlights, while the high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps fitted to the front of the 350 EX are, if not as distinct, certainly not bad.
The rear looks classy with its L-shaped lights while the blacked-out C pillars on the side of the car are meant to create the illusion of a floating roof. I’m not quite sure this has been achieved, but it’s a nice touch, nonetheless.
The wheelbase has been increased by 5cm, and track by 1cm front and rear, while the height remains virtually the same (2cm lower to give a sleeker profile). In total, the car is 12cm longer and 1cm wider.
All-wheel-drive is standard on both vehicles and from a mechanical point of view there have been some slight upgrades from the previous generation. The 3.5-litre V6 remains in the 350 and delivers 221kW and 370Nm (17kW and 24Nm more than the previous generation) and it makes use of an eight-speed transmission.
The RX 450h hybrid develops 230kW-combined power, a 10kW increase over the previous generation and powers the four wheels via a CVT transmission.
Now for the nitty-gritty. What was the drive like? Mmm… rather impressive. The RX isn’t a racing machine but it strikes a good balance between performance and drivability.
I started off in the luxurious 450h from the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport for a fitting destination (once I’d figured out the 10-way electrically adjustable seat) – Richard Branson’s Ulusaba Private Reserve. The ride was refined with the interior styling plush and the angularity within the cabin reminded me of large old cars from the 60s and 70s – but with all the mod cons. Perhaps it was the analogue clock on the dash and the long cubbyhole section? One thing that I wasn’t wild about initially was the steering wheel, which is high gloss and slippery, other than the padded sections at 3 and 9 o’clock.
On the open, winding roads of Mpumalanga the Lexus cruised happily and the 450h had enough clout to overtake on the hills. Going slowly at about 40km/h within the game reserve saw the electric motor kick in automatically, taking some strain off the petrol tank.
I enjoyed some of the minor details like the seat ventilation (at 34 degrees Celsius outside, I didn’t bother to test the heating feature) but what impressed me the most was the suspension on the bumpy gravel roads. Bear in mind the RX is carried on low-profile 20-inch tyres. I have to give credit to the new trailing-arm double-wishbone rear suspension and a MacPherson-strut front suspension.
Lexus has also adopted a pre-load differential on both RX models to improve driveability, but not having driven the previous generation RX, I’ll have to take their word for it.
The difference in feel between the two RX vehicles was almost imperceptible in the few hours that I had with each one. Transitioning from the hybrid to the RX 350 SE, I didn’t feel obviously short-changed when it came to features, although the hybrid includes a few extras. The drive was very similar in terms of feel. The acceleration feels slightly punchier on the RX 350 and vaguely more moderated on the RX 450 h, which makes use of a CVT.
In a nutshell, the RX is luxurious and spacious with ample leg room in the front and back, powerful without being intimidating and it handles itself well both on and off-road with quite impressive suspension on the dirt. It combines the best of both worlds in luxury and all-wheel drive capability within reason – the tyres are not what you would use on an overland adventure, but then again, neither is the vehicle. If an SUV is your thing then you can’t go wrong with the Lexus RX.
*The introductory prices for these vehicles are R799 000 for the RX 350 and R999 000 for the RX 450h. We’ve been told that the prices are likely to increase in a few months’ time.
Words: Elise Kirsten