CAPE TOWN – The market for seven-seater luxury SUVs is a slim one, and when it comes to the brands that play in this segment, Lexus is probably the most marginal of all. That’s not stopped the firm’s local arm from introducing a lengthened version of its RX SUV, but does it have the means to upset the likes of Land Rover’s new Discovery, the de-facto Mercedes-Benz GL-Class or the Nipponese leviathan that is Infiniti’s QX80?
What is it?
While Lexus isn’t necessarily the brand you’d immediately associate with SUVs, it has been a player in this now-lucrative arena for 20 years. The current model made SA landfall years ago and met with some criticism for its compromised rear packaging, particularly its modest second-row legroom and a meagre boot that was the upshot of that rakish roofline. Now, on the back of a mild update, the RX range has expanded to include a seven-seater variant. Basically, Lexus extended the RX's body by 110 mm and repackaged its luggage compartment to accommodate a pair of modestly proportioned rear seats that can be electrically folded into the boot floor. Rear headroom also grows by 10 mm and a third-row climate control system has been added in a bid to make the rearmost pews a touch more habitable.
Does it work?
If you’re talking about the usual frame of seven-seater SUV reference that serves up generous quarters for the first two rows while rendering the third-row seats the reserve of kids and denizens of the Shire, then yes. Certainly, the attempts to concertina my six-foot, 100-plus kilogram frame into that last row were unfruitful, to say the least.
Styling a stretch?
The aesthetic result of stretching an SUV’s body can easily have an undesirable effect upon its appearance, but the RX’s complex sheetmetal creases and that raked rear glasshouse help absorb much of that potential awkwardness. I don’t know if I’m just becoming accustomed to Lexus’s application of sizeable "spindle" grilles on its wares, but the RX350L just seems to lack some visual pizzazz. It’s not an ugly car by any measure; it’s conservative and upmarket, but just doesn’t set pulses racing or garner envious glances from bystanders. The cabin is a mixed bag, with perceived and material quality of a high standard. But the dated centre console, with its scattergun switchgear, sits at odds with the swooping cabin elements and woodwork that incorporates aluminium pin-striping.
On the road
It’s fair to say that those in the market for a seven-seater SUV won’t have any pressing desire to throw their car into bends, and in the softly sprung RX350L such antics will likely see the cabin resemble a sort of domestic space station scene with kids/dogs/groceries floating around and bumping off the ceiling. But in its proper milieu, round town and on the open road, the big Lexus does a good job of ferrying its occupants in a serene manner.
Lexus’s engineers have done a great job of configuring the suspension to resist any joggle or jolting from anything other than the worst potholes. The steering, although bereft of feedback and possessed of plentiful play around dead centre, is fingertip-light; a boon that takes the edge off threading this sizeable car through town traffic or docking into tight parking spaces. Quietly whirring away in the nose is the same 3,5-litre V6 that does service in the standard variant, a refined unit that in this configuration develops 216 kW and 358 N.m of torque.
Rear packaging concessions made to accommodate that additional row of seats while still providing a reasonable amount of luggage space mean that Lexus has had to utilise a single-pipe exhaust system in lieu of the standard model's twin-pipe item. The result is a slight decrease in engine outputs to the tune of 5 kW and 12 N.m. While it is buttery smooth in its operation, the eight-speed auto ‘box is a little hesitant when tasked with downshifting in response to sudden, hard throttle inputs. This means that overtaking manoeuvres must be well judged; fortunately, once the transmission has kicked down, the engine has enough grunt to confidently whisk the RX350L past slower-moving traffic.
What you get
With a sticker price just shy of a million, you’d expect the RX350L to be well equipped, and your money does net you some neat features. Tri-zone climate control, 10-way electrical adjustment and heating/ventilation for the front seats, LED headlamps, leather upholstery, an infotainment system with sat-nav and 20-inch alloy wheels are among the standard-fitment items. With its family-ferrying proviso, the RX350L also has the safety bases covered, with such features as front/side/curtain airbags, Isofix child seat anchorage points and assisted brakes all present. A four-year/90 000 km maintenance plan is also part of the package.
Although it lacks the charisma and presence of its above-mentioned rivals, the RX350L is comfy, quiet, and fairly practical. And it will likely prove mechanically unburstable.