In the midsize luxury-crossover segment, large families make up a large segment of the buying population.
That’s not too surprising, if you’ve ever looked at the price tags for fully-loaded family cars even from mainstream brands — crossovers and minivans that reach or even exceed $50,000 with all the options. When you’re looking at $50,000 for a Honda crossover or a Toyota minivan, it’s natural to see what the luxury class can offer.
That’s the domain of such models as the Acura MDX, Infiniti QX60 and Volvo XC90. These family-friendly models blend luxury and functionality, with elegant styling, high-grade interior decor and seven-passenger seating.
But one longtime leader in this class was also a longtime holdout in pursuing this segment of the market. That’s the Lexus RX, which lasted nearly 20 years with only five-passenger seating before debuting a third-row option for 2018.
The new 2018 Lexus RX L is about four inches longer than the standard-length five-passenger RX, whose current iteration debuted as a 2016 model and remains on sale. This RX generation has adopted an edgy, swoopy styling that few competitors can match — its sloping rear-windshield glass would never have allowed for third-row headroom. Through some clever styling details, though, the RX L has a boxier rear end than the standard-length RX without really looking like it. The car’s most dramatic attributes — a large hourglass-shaped grille and tiny side windows — carry over onto the new L.
It remains a car that puts form over maximum function. The newly available third-row seat is quite small, even by the standards of a midsize crossover. There’s little legroom even for children, unless the middle-row seats slide so far forward that their passengers become cramped. And those signature tiny windows can create a claustrophobic feel, granting little view to the small children who’d most easily fit back there. Also, the power-folding third row forces you to hold down a button while it slowly raises and lowers — more effort than manual operation would be.
Overall, the RX L is a car with a third-row seat you’d use for emergencies, not for daily carpool duty.
On the other hand, even RX buyers who’d never carry a carload of children might appreciate the new L model. The longer body and more functional rear-end design give a boost to cargo capacity. There’s a tiny 7 cubic feet of space with the third row in use, but it folds flat to offer a more-decent 23 cubic feet behind the middle row. That’s still less than most midsize crossovers, but it’s up more than 25 percent from the 18 cubic feet in the standard-length RX.
Whichever length of RX you pick, you’ll enjoy an easygoing but generally unremarkable driving experience. The ride is quiet and respectably smooth, and the RX feels maneuverable and easy to drive. The standard-length RX is available in an F Sport model, which brings sportier styling cues, more-supportive front seats and a stiffer ride quality, but little evident advantage in sporty performance.
The most popular RX 350 and RX 350L models use a 3.5-liter V6 engine that delivers smooth, quiet power and a decent fuel economy of 21 to 23 miles per gallon in mixed driving (selecting either the L model or all-wheel-drive presents a penalty of 1 mpg). There’s no four-cylinder like it, even with a growing number of competitors, but Lexus does offer an excellent gas-electric RX 450h and RX4 450hL hybrid that achieves up to 30 mpg in mixed driving.
Back inside, the RX has a graceful dashboard design with some design foibles: a few components that feel borrowed from cheaper Toyota products rather than carefully crafted specifically for the RX, and — like other Lexus models — a cumbersome infotainment system that uses a touchpad controller rather than a touchscreen.
RX prices start at $44,595 for the five-passenger model and $48,795 for the three-row RX L. While that’s obviously not super-cheap, it undercuts the German luxury marques, particularly when you factor in their infamously expensive optional features. Overall, while the RX has some flaws, it brings V6 performance, a comfortable cabin, a quiet ride and unique looks to the midsize luxury-crossover segment. And the RX L brings a useful bump in interior space, whether you’d be carrying small kids in the far back or keeping it folded down.
Shop the standard-length RX against the similar Cadillac XT5 and Lincoln Nautilus, along with luxuriously finished mainstream five-passenger crossovers that include the Ford Edge and Nissan Murano. Given the limited utility of its third row, the RX L could also be shopped against those models. Among seven-passenger vehicles, also consider the aforementioned MDX, QX60 and XC90, along with less-prestigious but luxuriously detailed models that include the Honda Pilot, Kia Sorento and Mazda CX-9.
Visit tinyurl.com/sentinel-lexus-rx to see more photos of the tested 2018 Lexus RX 350 and 2018 Lexus RX 350 L.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.