Lexus sheds safe playbook with RX redesign

The redesigned 2016 RX is a deliberate move by Lexus to move its brand image younger, and one it says its hyper-loyal RX customers are ready for.

The RX crossover may be the best-selling thing Lexus builds, but when it came time to redesign the all-new fourth-generation model, Toyota’s luxury arm had no intention of playing it safe.

On sale this fall, the 2016 RX lineup replaces the soft curves from the outgoing model with sharp edges and a more aggressive presence on the road. It’s a deliberate move by Lexus to move its brand image younger, and one it says its hyper-loyal RX customers are ready for.

“What we’ve heard from people who have had three and four and five models, they’re actually ready for a change,” Brian Bolain, marketing manager for Lexus, told Automotive News at the press launch for the fourth-generation RX. “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 new model’s shapely lines hide modest growth over the outgoing RX. The wheelbase grows 1.9 inches longer, while the overhangs (especially the one up front) push the RX’s length 4.7 inches longer. While the exterior was deliberately spiced up, Lexus kept the interior relatively straightforward. While a 12.3-inch screen in the dashboard is new, the joystick controller for the infotainment system carries over.

While much of Lexus’ lineup is switching to a touchpad controller in the center console, Lexus is keeping the joystick on its two most popular models — the RX and ES — to keep its traditionalists happy (the RX’s 107,490 sales in 2014 accounted for 35 percent of all Lexus’ sales).

Another notable addition to the RX lineup for 2016 is the 450h F Sport model. Previously available on the RX350 only, the F Sport package brings with it minor interior and exterior trim, 20-inch wheels, upgraded seats and gauges, and an driver-adaptable suspension.

Those upgrades will now be available on the 450h hybrid model.

“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.”

The RX350 and RX450h powertrains get modest upgrades in the 2016 models.

The 350 still uses a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, though it gets 25 extra horsepower for 295 total hp. Torque rises to 267 pounds-feet from 248. The eight-speed automatic transmission that was on the optional F Sport in the previous model is now standard on all RX350s.

Meanwhile the 450h jumps to 308 total horsepower — a gain of 13. It uses a 3.5-liter V-6 and an electric motor.

Front-wheel drive is standard and all-wheel drive is optional.

And pay no mind to the RX200t — the turbocharged four-cylinder model — due on sale across the pond in Europe and China.

“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. With the smaller NX 200t crossover selling at rapid pace with that turbo four in it, Lexus doesn’t want too much overlap between it and the RX 200t in the U.S.

The 2016 RX models go on sale this fall. Pricing hasn’t been announced but Lexus has promised the RX350 will start under $45,000.

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