Lexus renders RX 350 sportier; luxury is still main asset

Posted: March 30, 2014

The RX 350 is already Lexus' best-selling vehicle. But if there is one thing better than success, it is even more success.

So, in an apparent effort to get performance-minded men into the cockpit of its midsize crossover SUV (which is already heavily populated by soccer matrons), the luxury automaker has come up with an RX 350 model called the F Sport.

I've always thought that applying sporty suffixes to beasts of burden was a tad misleading - sort of like calling a trailer park the Estates at Heatherford Heath. But if it makes some customers happy and sells some wheels, what the heck.

As you probably expected, the F Sport is longer on Lexus luxury than it is on performance. I found the F Sport's stiffer suspension and paddle shifters less impressive than the car's comfort, quietude, and well-built quality.

So what are the differences between the F Sport, which comes only with all-wheel-drive, and a base AWD RX 350? First, there is the $6,290 price differential: $41,160 for the base all-wheel-driver, and $47,450 for the F Sport.

Then there is the F Sport's longer litany of standard equipment, which includes performance paraphernalia such as an eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters, stiffer suspension, tuning, and 19-inch alloy wheels, instead of the base car's 18-inch wheels.

The F Sport is also fitted with a special lateral damping system that reduces vibration and enhances ride quality rather than improve handling through increased structural rigidity.

The smooth, nifty-shifting eight-speed automatic in the F Sport not only out-finesses the six-speed found in the base car, but gets better mileage. Both gearboxes have city EPAs of 18, but the eight-speed's 26 highway is 2 mile per gallon better than the six-speed's.

The F Sport is powered by the 3.5-liter, 270-horsepower V-6 used in the other RX 350s. This engine was detuned slightly for the 2013 model year - from 275 horsepower to 270 - to allow it to use regular gas instead of premium. This move saves the customer money while whacking only about a tenth of a second off the car's zero-to-60 time (now about 7 seconds flat).

While the F Sport's acceleration and improved handling and steering certainly make it a pleasant driver, its fun quotient isn't quite on a par with competitors such as the Audi Q5 and BMW X3.

Where the F Sport does excel is in the fit and finish of its attractive skin (that includes a unique front bumper and grille) and the quality, comfort, and facile design we find inside.

The test car was indeed blessed with a handsome interior, as in fresh, clean, and flowing.

The seats are upholstered in supple, smooth, and perforated black leather. The front ones were heated, cooled, and equipped with 10-way power. They were also reasonably bolstered and quite comfortable.

The F Sport tester's upmarket cabin amenities were joined by high-quality workmanship and low noise levels. I don't know what the base F Sport's sound system is like, but the Mark Levinson system I found in the test car (a $995 option) was a real treat.

The F Sport is a roomy five-passenger crossover with good rear-seat leg and shoulder room. A reclining/sliding 40-20-40 split-rear seat adds to the car's passenger and cargo-carrying versatility. Ride comfort is probably a mixed bag. I found the ride acceptably firm, but others may not.

The car did well enough in the government crash testing. It earned a maximum five-star rating in side crashes and four stars for frontal crashes and rollover.


2014 Lexus RX 350 F Sport

Base price: $47,450.

As tested: $53,375.

Standard equipment: 3.5-liter engine, 8-speed automatic gearbox, all-wheel-drive and a premium amenity list ranging from heated/cooled power front seats to leather, veneer accents and a power rear lift gate.

Fuel economy: 18 city/26 highway

Engine performance: Adequate but sub-par in segment.

Handling: Competent.

Styling: Fluid.

Ride comfort: Firm.

Warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles bumper-to- bumper.

The Ben key: four Bens, excellent; three Bens, good; two Bens, fair; one Ben, poor.

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