2010 Lexus RX350 first drive review: The latest of the best seller from Lexus

2010 Lexus RX350

2010 Lexus RX350

True fact: The Lexus RX series—the RX350 and RX450h hybrid SUVs—is the top selling model in Toyota’s premium division’s line. Al Smith, Lexus VP of customer services says the RX is Lexus’ Camry.

That’s not the insult it might at first seem At 80,000 units last year, the RX means as much to Lexus as the Camry does to Toyota. Each is its division’s top seller. But it also put Lexus chief engineer Takayuki Katsuda in the classic dilemma of following a success: there’s always room for improvement but there’s even more to fail.

Not to worry. Katsuda-san came through with flying colors.

2010 Lexus RX350 engine

The 2010 Lexus RX350 engine is wrapped in sound-deadening plastic. (click to enlarge)

Katsuda’s efforts to reinvent—his description—the RX series had a particularly difficult challenge with the exterior, making it new yet not turning off the loyal customers. We think the 2010 RX350 straddles that divide. It’s immediately identifiable as a Lexus RX but a longer look will ascertain not only changes but significant differences between the second generation and the third.

The 2010 RX has a crisper, more angular form than its predecessor which looks “soft” in comparison. The new model’s shoulders are broader and the whole vehicle has a more masculine mien, with fender creases flowing back into the doors. Details include the headlamp cluster covers and taillamps lenses shaped to control laminar flow along the bodysides for reduced drag and wind noise.

The spoiler at the top of the liftgate is functional and standard equipment (and it also hides the rear wiper). Lexus chased aerodynamic drag even under the RX with airflow smoothing underbody panels. It sounds excessive, perhaps, for an SUV but it rewarded Lexus with a coefficient of drag of 0.33, remarkable for the traditionally blocky shape of an SUV.

2010 Lexus RX350 interior

The 2010 Lexus RX350 interior is swaddled in leather. (click to enlarge)

The engine for the Lexus RX350 is a revision of the dohc 3.5-liter V6. New intake and exhaust manifolds helped nudge maximum power from 270 to 275 horsepower with no change in torque that, appropriate for an SUV has a broad range, at least 90 percent of its maximum, from 2300 to 6100 rpm.

The advanced engine has dual variable valve timing, able to change valve timing on intake and exhaust independently, which along with variable intake runner length helps provide that wide torque spread.

If the tech details are mumbo-jumbo to you, the foregoing means that the engine will not only has more than adequate acceleration but will feel strong in day-to-day driving as well. Not overpowering, however, because Lexus uses electronic throttle control to soften initial acceleration “for smoother takeoff and help reduce wheel spin.” That’s known officially as the PPP, or Party Pooper Program.

The RX350 has an all-new six-speed automatic transmission, replacing the former five-speed. The new gearbox is designed for quicker shifts and has advanced torque converter lock-up for improved fuel economy. Not only does the trans have more gears—allowing a wider ratio spread for easier take-off and quieter, more efficient highway cruising—it’s also smarter, with the ability to skip shifts during kick-down for acceleration.

The 2010 Lexus RX350

The 2010 Lexus RX350 (click to enlarge)

The transmission can also be tip-shifted manually and for the first time in the RX, the transmission has “intelligence,” knowing not to shift up when the vehicle is driving downhill, for example.

The Lexus RX350 is nominally front-wheel drive but all-wheel drive is available. New for the 2010 is an all-new electronically controlled “Active Torque Control AWD” system. The new all-wheel drive system eliminates the 50:50 torque distribution of the previous generation’s viscous coupling center differential. The new system has an electronic coupling ahead of the rear differential that’s computer controlled to vary torque split from 100:0 to 50:50, depending on conditions.

The benefit of the new system is that it stays in front-wheel drive mode except when all wheel drive is needed for added traction or vehicle stability. The bonus is reduced mechanical drag when the RX350 is in front wheel drive, yielding better fuel economy. Another plus is that the new all-wheel drive system is 35 pounds lighter.

Now optional on the Lexus RX350 is “Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management” technology. VDIM, which remains standard on the hybrid RX, anticipates loss of vehicle control and calls on ABS, brake assist, vehicle stability and traction control to “collectively and seamlessly” keep the vehicle on the road. The stability control system also helps on split traction surfaces by adding steering assist torque—adding twisting force—to act as a limited slip differential.

Standard on the RX models is hill-start assist, which prevents a vehicle from rolling back when starting uphill. Adaptive headlights have been upgraded for the 2010 models, and an option is an automatic high beam system that can detect oncoming headlights, the taillights of vehicles ahead or just ambient lighting and then dim the RX’s high beams when necessary.

Also optional is a pre-collision system that works with the dynamic cruise control to anticipate collisions, pretensioning seatbelts and prepping the brake assist system for quicker response.