Lexus rewards RX loyalists while luring young buyers

Lexus‘ F Sport performance package will be available on the 2016 RX 450h.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The RX crossover became Lexus’ best-seller soon after it went on sale in 1998 and has held on to the title ever since. It practically created the luxury crossover segment, and through three generations of safe, modest designs, it racked up 2.1 million sales globally.

Now Lexus is coming to market with a fourth-generation model that gets a complete styling overhaul with more sharp cuts and creases.

Why mess with a proven performer?

It was time, said Brian Bolain, Lexus’ marketing manager, at a press event here. The goal of the redesign was to push down the average age of the RX buyer by attracting a new generation of customers while also giving the many returning customers something new.

“They’re actually ready for a change,” Bolain said of the RX’s loyal buyers. “They’re actually a bit happy or relieved that they can continue to buy what they like but one that now makes them feel like it’s progressed.”

The dramatic styling update is in keeping with a concerted push by both Lexus and parent Toyota to bring more emotion to the brands and their vehicles. A sultry new ad campaign this fall will help.

But keeping loyal buyers happy is critical for Lexus. The RX’s 107,490 sales in the U.S. last year made up 35 percent of its total volume, and 40 percent of RX buyers are repeat customers.

While the exterior was deliberately spiced up, Lexus kept the interior relatively straightforward. The 12.3-inch screen in the instrument panel is new, but the joystick controller for the infotainment system carries over in the RX, even though it’s being replaced by a touchpad in other models.

For the younger buyers, Lexus is making its F Sport package of performance-oriented options more widely available on the RX. Lexus has found that the F Sport package — featuring minor interior and exterior trim modifications, 20-inch wheels, upgraded seats and gauges, and a driver-adaptable suspension — can lower the average buyer age by as much as 12 years, depending on the model, Bolain said.

Those upgrades, previously available on the RX 350 model, now can be ordered on the 450h hybrid as well.

“We’ve always held back because it felt like some people might perceive [hybrids and sport packages] as a conflicting message,” Bolain said. “But I think now we have enough equity built in the F Sport that there’s no chance of watering it down by mixing it with hybrids.”

While Lexus is dipping its toe into turbos with a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder turbo in the NX crossover, RC coupe, and IS and GS sedans, the company currently has no plans to bring the turbocharged RX 200t from Europe to the U.S.

“I wouldn’t say it could never happen in the U.S., but there’s no plan right now to bring it here,” Bolain said.

Lexus hasn’t announced pricing on any of the RX lineup, saying only that the base RX 350 would start under $45,000.

The redesigned RX’s shapely lines hide a modest growth over the outgoing version. The wheelbase is 1.9 inches longer, while the overhangs (especially in front) help make the vehicle 4.7 inches longer than the previous model. Like its predecessors, it remains a five-seater. A seven-seater based on the RX can’t be far behind. It has been the No. 1 request from dealers over the past few years, and Lexus has all but promised that it’s coming.

One issue is what to call it. The company reportedly has been considering the TX nameplate. But the large and loyal following of the RX has some inside Lexus wondering whether it would be a mistake to give it a new identity.

“Personally I would say RX has an awful lot of equity,” Bolain said. “To move away from that equity just creates more expense frankly with having to build a new nameplate.”

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