Many of today’s premium crossovers offer more performance than you’d expect from anything that looks at all like an SUV. But it’s simple enough to see why: Most of them are basically tall versions of luxury sports sedans.
Lexus is trying to tap into the sporty crossover market with the latest version of its best-selling RX, last redesigned for 2016. Edgier styling and an available F-Sport version try to win over driving enthusiasts from BMW or Jaguar.
But from behind the wheel, the RX 350 F-Sport doesn’t deliver. Even worse, it compromises the RX’s true appeal: comfortable, relaxed luxury. The F-Sport’s stiffer suspension can slam over bumps, and its heavier steering feels unnatural. And the RX still has clumsy handling and disconnected responses that would turn off buyers accustomed to top-tier luxury models.
That said, there’s a reason that the RX is a best-seller. Though it’s a midsize model, it’s priced more like a compact European competitor, with a base price of $44,095. If passenger and cargo space are more important than poised handling, the RX is a strong value. As long as you skip the F-Sport trim, it competes favorably in this niche with the less fuel-efficient Lincoln MKX and the less refined Cadillac XT5 – courtesy of the smooth, quiet ride and comfortable seats.
There’s also a unique model in the RX line: the RX 450h gas-electric hybrid, which has a powerful engine yet returns a thrifty 30 miles per gallon in mixed driving; the tested RX 350 is rated for 22 mpg with all-wheel-drive, though unlike the hybrid, it’s fine with regular gas instead of premium. It starts at a lofty $54,010, albeit with more standard features than the RX 350.
Note that unlike an Acura MDX or Infiniti QX60, the RX isn’t offered with a third-row seat – Lexus gives that duty to the truck-based V8-powered GX 460. And note also that the RX suffers from a convoluted infotainment interface.
But overall, it’s worth a look from buyers seeking a roomy interior, a smooth ride and lots of features. Buyers seeking sportier handling can consider Lexus’s own compact NX 200t crossover – or should simply buy a competitor.
If you picture a $40,000 car, chances are you aren’t thinking of a Ford Focus – a compact economy car that starts at less than half that figure. Nor are you likely to think of a zesty performance car, even the base Focus has earned a reputation for nimble handling.
But the Focus RS turns expectations on its head. Ford essentially wrapped the shell of its budget hatchback around an all-wheel-drive 350-horsepower sporting machine, and fitted in aggressively bolstered racing seats to keep the front-seat occupants firmly in place as the car flies around corners. Explosive acceleration and high handling limits have won the Focus RS significant praise from automotive journalists who have driven it on a racetrack.
During a weeklong test conducted exclusively on public roads in the D.C. area, the Focus RS also proved enjoyable – unlike many performance cars, which can feel downright dull if you aren’t pushing them hard. And although some reviewers have said the Focus RS’ ride quality is too stiff for everyday use, most of those critics were driving on ultra-high-performance tires that are suited mainly for a track. The standard tires – “Super Sport” rather than “Sport Cup 2” – are more appropriate for public roads.
To be clear, the Focus RS still feels a small niche in the automotive marketplace. There aren’t many people who want the styling and dashboard of a Ford Focus when they spend $40,000. Nor do many buyers demand 350 horsepower – especially given that, for $25,000, you can already risk a ticket from the 252-horsepower Focus ST, and given that the RS gets a mere 22 miles per gallon on premium fuel. In addition to the extra power, the RS does provide all-wheel-drive, which distributes that power among four wheels instead of just the two fronts.
The Focus RS’s top competitor is the Volkswagen Golf R – another pricey compact hatchback with a powerful engine and all-wheel-drive. The two provide a different experience when you drive normally, though. The Golf is placid and demure until you start to dig into it, at which point it can always shock you with its hidden potential; it also has a fancier interior, roomier rear seat and an available automatic transmission. The Focus is rawer but always lively and fun, whatever the circumstance. It doesn’t beat you up or force you to break the law to enjoy it, but it never settles into the background. It’s a standout car if you’re interested in its unique experience.