I remember when the RX rolled onto the scene in 1998. It was truly the first successful crossover as we would know it today. While everyone else was trying to produce a truck-based luxury SUV, Lexus took the Camry/ES platform, put a jelly-bean inspired box on top and jacked the ride height up to 7.7 inches. The result was instant sales success. As we all know however, success has a price. The marshmallow-soft FWD RX lacked road feel, steering feel and sex appeal. Although it’s a bit late in the game, Lexus has decided to fix that last problem with the introduction of the 2013 RX F-Sport.
F-Sport is to Lexus what M-Sport is to BMW. (No, not M, M-Sport.) That means the RX gets a new grille, flashier wheels, some suspension upgrades, a new transmission and interior tweaks. You’ll notice I didn’t say “more power.” That’s because this is “F-Sport,” not F.
We should talk competitions first so we can discuss the F-Sport in the proper light. First up, the MDX. We need to cross that one off the list. Why? Primarily because it has seven seats, but also because the all-new MDX is being shown off in the next month or so. (Check back for an RX vs MDX overview at that time.) That leave us with the Lincoln MKX, Cadillac SRX, Volvo XC60 and the Audi Q5. Yes, in some ways the BMW X3 and Mercedes GLK compete, but their RWD drivetrains put them in a different league. Not to mention Mercedes and BMW owners don’t seem to see the RX as competition.
The nuts and bolts of the RX date back to 2009 when the platform received its third redesign, while the bumpers received a nip/tuck for the 2012 model year. The 2013 F-Sport builds on that refresh, retaining the new spindle grille but swapping horizontal slats for the signature F-Sport “squiggle” grille. Since our readers have complained we don’t offer enough subjective styling criticism, here we go. I’m feeling the love for Lexus’ F-Sport nose, especially on the RX. The new IS F-Sport takes the F-Sport squiggle theme to the extreme with lines going from the hood to the air dam, but the RX breaks things up with a body-colored bumper section in the middle. Overall I find the look elegant with just a hint of aggressiveness. My only issue is: every RX should look like this.
I’m not sure what Lincoln’s engineers were smoking when they styled the MKX’s nose, but it must have been some strong stuff. As much as folks think I dislike GM products, I find the SRX to be aggressive, bold, and stylish, all in good ways. The Q5 makes me yawn. Volvo’s styling has always struck a chord with me, but the Swedes aren’t known for bold and daring. The MDX? I can’t get past the beak. My personal style ranking would be: SRX, RX F-Sport, XC60, Q5 and then the MKX. Sorry Lincoln.
The 2012 refresh didn’t bring sweeping changes to the interior. In truth, aside from an infotainment software update and a new steering wheel, the only changes were to the color palette. That means we still get the slightly rubbery (but still soft) injection molded instrument panel dominated by an infotainment screen. The shifter still pops horizontally out of the dash, and we still have 2009-era plastics. Keeping the competition in mind, the MKX has an interior style I appreciate more, and has more soft-touch plastics. However, Lincoln’s interior quality is more of a mixed bag than the Lexus. The Audi Q5 strikes me as a little cheap on the inside, sorry Audi fans. The Volvo scores points in my book for diverging from the typical CUV interior style and ties with the SRX in terms of style, fit and finish and interior feel. The Lexus slots in second, followed by the MKX while the Q5 brings up the rear.
Back in the RX, the front seats are comfortable and supportive, just as you expect from Lexus, but the passenger seat doesn’t have the same range of electric adjustibility as the driver’s seat. In tune with the RX’s mission as an upscale crossover, (marketed towards buyers older than the RAV4 rabble) the rear seats are higher off the ground and more suitable for adult transportation. Thanks to the FWD based drivetrain, the RX has no differentiable “hump” in the rear making sitting three-across far less painful than RWD based crossovers. Cargo hauling is the RX’s strong suit with the largest hold of the bunch.
You won’t find many examples on dealer lots, but base RX models get a standard 7-inch “multi-information” screen in the dashboard. Available as a separate $860 option, standard on F-Sport and included on most option packages is the “display audio” system. Display audio bumps you up to an 8-inch LCD with a backup cam, HD Radio, rotary controller in the center console and the 12-speaker Lexus branded audio system. This middle system is my personal preference because it is the only way to get the 8-inch screen without Lexus’ joystick controller device.
Lexus calls the controller “remote touch,” I call it the most aggravating input method so far. Remember Volvo’s pop-up nav with the controller on the back of the steering wheel? This is worse. Don’t get me wrong, the system is easy to use; it works like a computer mouse: just point and click. My problem is two fold. First, you have to spend more time staring at the screen to operate the system than you did with the old Lexus touchscreen interface. Second, the location of the controller makes it difficult for your front passenger to use the system. If you want to know more, check out the video at the top of this page.
If SMS text-to-speech and smartphone app integration are must haves, be prepared to shell out $2,775 for that navigation system ($1,916 over the display audio system). Nearly three grand is a steep premium, even in this segment. On the flip side you do get full voice commands for your USB/iDevice, XM radio with XM data services, and Lexus tosses in the 12-speaker sound system.
I appreciate my tunes, do I’d also need to splurge on the $995 15-speaker Mark Levinson sound system. With 330-watts and a subwoofer, the system is a noticeable step up from the base or 12-speaker systems, but is not as impressive as the 650-watt system in the XC60, or the Meridian systems in the Range Rover Evoque. With the blind spot monitoring system ($650), the nav, up-level sound and parking sensors, our RX 350 F-Sport rang in just under $53,000 without destination.
Since F-Sport isn’t about power, you’ll find an identical 270 horsepower 3.5L V6 engine under the hood of the RX 350 and the RX 350 F-Sport. This is the same smooth “2GR-FE” engine used in everything from the Toyota RAV4 to the Lexus ES 350. That also means this mill doesn’t benefit from Lexus’ direct-injection sauce used to increase power and torque in the IS and GS. With only 248 lb-ft of twist on tap at a lofty 4,700 RPM, the only competitor with less is the Volvo XC60 3.2. But we must compare apples-to-apples and that’s a problem here because Volvo also offers the most powerful engine in this segment at 325 HP and a whopping 354 lb-ft of twist from the 3.0L twin-scroll turbo in the XC60 R-Design.
To compensate for the power deficit, Lexus connected the V6 to the world’s first 8-speed automatic transaxle. The new U880F transaxle features a much lower effective first gear ratio at 17.31:1 vs 14.48 for the non-F-Sport model (gear x final drive) and a taller final gear at 2.28:1 vs 2.66:1. The new ratios make the F-Sport quicker off the line, quicker to 60 by 4/10ths and improves fuel economy by 2MPG on the highway. The 18/26 MPG (city/highway) score ties with the 8-speed Q5 3.0T for the best fuel economy, 2-3MPGs better than the Americans or the Swede.
The RX has never been known as a corner carver, something that is expected of a sports package. So Lexus stiffened the dampers, fiddled with the springs, made the optional low-profile rubber standard and dropped in a version of the cross damping system found in the CT hybrid hatchback. The system uses two braces with integrated gas-shocks, connecting the left and right side of the chassis (front and rear). The braces aren’t there to increase rigidity, but rather to absorb and compensate for body vibrations. I wouldn’t say the system makes a night and day difference, but driving the F-Sport back-to-back with a “regular” RX on broken pavement, there was a difference. Depending on what you expect from your RX, that difference may excite or disappoint. If you want a marshmallow soft ride with more shove, get the RX 450h. If you’re just interested in a polished ride, get the regular RX 350 since the F-Sport tuning seems almost at odds with the RX’s mission.
You notice I didn’t say: wider tired. Most companies include wider and grippier rubber in their sports packages, but that could have led to more road noise, lower fuel economy and a crashier ride. Those don’t sound very “Lexus” to me, and apparently the engineers thought the same. Pity. While this is an omission you can fix aftermarket, the narrow 235-width tires and hefty 4,510lb curb weight mean the RX lands at the bottom of the pack when it comes to grip. That means even the porky 4,430lb MKX manages to hustle through the twisties with more poise than the RX. If grip is what you seek, look no further than the XC60 T6 AWD R-Design thanks to the lowest curb weight and some seriously wide 255/45R20 rubber. You know, for this segment.
The case for the F-Sport starts to fall apartwhen you look at that $53,000 price tag and consider our RX lacked a few options like the heads-up display and radar cruise control. That’s a $7,000 premium over the faster Volvo XC60 T6, and a $3,000 premium over Volvo’s performance trimmed XC60 R-Design. Feature for feature, the F-Sport commands a higher price than the Lincoln, Cadillac or Audi as well, not to mention those Germans we didn’t talk about. Lexus counters with a reliability and dealer reputation that is second to none. But, you can have plenty of off-warranty repairs done to your Euro crossover for the difference. Still, the RX leases well thanks to a high residual value and I suspect that has something to do with its continued dominance when it comes to sales.
Lexus has, without a doubt, created the perfect RX. It looks better than the regular RX, goes faster, is more economical, and handles slightly better as well. If you’re reading this because you want the RX, then go ahead and buy one. If however you want the best handling and performing small luxury crossover, stop by the Volvo dealer. Want sexy? Check out the 2014 Evoque with the new 9-speed.
- I have to admit, the F-Sport nose job works for me
- Lexus reliability reputation
- Down on power compared to everyone else.
- Lexus Remote Touch. Enough said.
Lexus provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Specifications as tested
0-30: 2.35 Seconds
0-60: 6.55 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 15 Seconds @ 92 MPH
Average Observed Fuel Economy: 19.2 MPG over 679 miles