The 2006 re-launch of Lexus in South Africa remains one of the car industry’s biggest success stories, taking the company from “a-Toyota-with-a-different-badge” to a respected luxury brand that is providing serious competition in every segment in which it competes. Well, just about every segment. While the IS, GS and LS models have been gaining a reputation for excellence, the RX SUV has been battling in the local market.

It may be the best-selling crossover luxury SUV and one of the best-selling luxury vehicles in the US, but I’ve never particularly liked the RX because of its decidedly odd design, especially when in the local context. In South Africa, SUVS need to be one of two things: either a big, practical go-anywhere off-roader or a big, luxurious, super-fast brute that will give a decent hot hatch a run for its money.

The RX was obviously not created to venture very far off the beaten track, but to me, it’s never featured as an alternative to any other luxury SUV either. It’s always been an odd-looking crossover that would possibly appeal to high-brow fashionistas “battling” life in the urban jungle.

The new Lexus RX, available as RX350 and RX450h, takes that designer look and roughens up the edges ever so slightly for an end-result that is best described as evolutionary. It’s undoubtedly more macho than its predecessor, but unfortunately the new RX still looks as out of place in the bush as Miss B in full drag would.

The design cleverly incorporates Lexus’s well-known L-finesse design philosophies to bring it in line with the other models, the SC430 excluded of course. Both front and rear are now more squared off and more pronounced, giving the RX a decidedly squatter stance. Photographs do not do the design changes justice and it takes a while to truly appreciate the changes, but it is generally a much-better looking RX.

The bulk of the changes have taken place under the skin though, with Lexus’s engineering improvements resulting in more comfort, better stability, higher quality and tangible improvements in terms of efficiency and performance. On the inside, a brand new cabin awaits you, with a sleeker and more modern fascia design being a welcome addition.

One of the more significant additions inside the cabin is Remote Touch, a new interpretation of a centralised control system to allow easier use of on-board entertainment, navigation and information systems.

The Remote Touch centralised control system.

The principle is just like that of a computer mouse, positioned on the centre console immediately below the gear shift (which is now, awkwardly, positioned on the hang-down). Making it even more simple and intuitive to use is the inclusion of touch feedback that allows the user to ‘feel’ their way around the screen as the cursor ‘clicks’ onto the various icons. If you’re unfamiliar with the previous Lexus interface, finding your way through the menus with Remote Touch is very frustrating at first. However, once you know where to find the information you require, using it is a cinch.

The RX range again comprises two models with different trim levels, starting with the magnificent new RX350. It’s fitted with a 3.5-litre petrol V6 engine with dual VVT-I that delivers 204kW of power and 346 Nm of torque, with 90% of the peak torque available between 2 300 r/min and 6 200 r/min. During the launch in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, the RX350 impressed with its general drivability, taking corners in its stride with little body roll.

Much of the launch route included gravel roads through forests (which used to form part of the Sabie rally) with several steady inclines and tricky corners; not only to simulate the extreme driving circumstances owners my find themselves in, but also to show off the RX350’s poise on uneven terrain. Driving through a new six-speed automatic transmission with Active Torque Control All-Wheel Drive, the RX350 does 0-100km/h in eight seconds and returns 10.6 l/100km (with 250g/km of CO2 emissions) on the combined cycle.

Lexus has again shrugged at convention by keeping the range-topping RX a hybrid and not making use of turbodiesel technology. The RX450h is powered by a series/parallel hybrid system employing a highly efficient 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine and two powerful electric motors working in tandem to provide ‘intelligent’ four-wheel drive capability.

With a total system output of up to 220kW, the RX450h truly offers petrol V8 levels of performance with the economy and torque characteristics of rival turbodiesel SUVs. Second generation Lexus Hybrid Drive technology also ensures the RX450h has class-leading CO2 emissions of just 148g/km and a combined cycle fuel economy of only 6.3 l/100km (which is the same as a Golf 6 1.4 TSI Highline, mind you).

While Lexus hybrid technology is truly remarkable, there are a few downsides in the RX especially. Because the system is mated to a CVT gearbox (as in the GS450h), the power delivery and actual performance is disappointingly clinical, quite contrary to that in the GS. Most importantly, there’s no V8 growl to it, something I personally quite enjoy in big SUVs (or any car that claims V8 performance, for that matter).

The utter silence that the hybrid system is also famous for works a charm in the GS, actually making a significant contribution to the luxurious ambiance of the car, but it leaves the RX feeling dead from the waist down. Unfortunately, the whine of the CVT gearbox also gets remarkably annoying at higher speeds. Thankfully, an exceptional sound system comes standard.

The RX350 is available in SX and XE trim at R633 400 and R682 000 respectively, with the RX450h available in SX and LXE trim at R698 700 and R769 300 respectively. Compare these cars to their rivals on a spec-for-spec basis and you’ll probably be shocked to see just how well the RX range is priced. It’s quite frankly brilliant.

According to the most recent J.D. Power and Associates study, Lexus is the most satisfying car brand to own in South Africa, and having spent a couple of days behind the wheel of the new RX, and a fortnight in a GS450h preceding the RX launch, I can understand why. The new RX range builds on the excellent reputation the IS, GS and LS has already established and adds to it SUV versatility.

The RX450h is a great improvement on the previous generation RX400h (which made up 37% of all RX sales in the country), but the RX350 is undoubtedly the better-rounded vehicle in my opinion, especially if you do occasionally venture off the beaten track. Think of the RX450h as camp, and the RX350 as made for real campers. That said, the Lexus RX range should now make every potential SUV buyer’s shortlist.

Lexus South Africa paid for all flights and accommodation in Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

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