Phil Huff puts the new Lexus RX L through its paces and – spoiler alert – discovers a drive that ‘feels a million dollars’
The market for a premium seven-seater SUV might be small, but it’s growing. Currently dominated by the Volvo XC90 - and for good reason - there are a number of rivals that bring different qualities to the segment. There’s the sporting Porsche Cayenne, the luxurious Range Rover Sport and Velar, and the gargantuan Audi Q7 to name just a few.
Lexus has its work cut out to compete against those, but the unique qualities of the brand means it stands a better chance of muscling in on the territory than many others might.
The actual muscle is provided by the only self-charging hybrid power unit in the market. There’s a 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine up front, tied to an electric motor. There’s also a second electric motor at the back, providing a bit of four-wheel drive capability and allowing for limited pure-electric driving. The system is designed to switch between petrol, electric and both as the car sees fit, offering the best balance of economy and performance, but an EV button allows you to force it into electric mode for a mile or so at low speeds.
There’s enough power to propel this huge chunk of metal to 62mph in just eight seconds, but it’ll also return 47mpg, at least officially. After a week’s driving, I’d averaged around 40mpg through a mix of long motorway runs and short urban hops. Some rivals have full plug-in hybrid abilities, allowing for more emission-free electric motoring but, while they’re a great tax benefit for company drivers, few actually ever plug them in, negating the economy and environmental benefits. Still, any five-metre long SUV probably can’t ever be described as environmentally sound. . .
At least you can squeeze seven into the RX L. In making the switch from the standard RX to the RX L, Lexus has increased the length of the rear overhang by 110mm and pushed the rear window into a more upright position, freeing up room. The rearmost pair of seats electrically fold out of the floor, leaving room for two kids to squeeze in behind the folding centre row of seats. This middle row slides forward to create legroom for those at the back, but that robs that row of valuable space, meaning everyone is compromised a tad. It’s all fine when fully loaded with five children, but add an adult to the mix and it starts to get tight.
In five-seater mode, it’s glorious. There’s acres of room for everyone, and a simply enermous boot. There’s even a space under the boot floor to hide the parcel shelf, should you need the sixth and seventh seats at short notice. It’s the front of the cabin that makes the best impression though.
Lexus has recently found its mojo, employing and combining the very best of Japanese craftsmanship with cutting edge design and exquisite luxury. The way the instrument binnacle cover flows along the dashboard, into the centre stack and down to the console is almost art. The wood trim used around the cabin is simple, elegant and never feels overdone. The half-leather, half-wood steering wheel adds warmth to the interior, and to the hands as it’s also heated. A combination of traditional dials and digital screens sit behind the wheel, working together wonderfully.
Combined with the hush that envelops the car at speed, and the refined ride that cushions most imperfections on the roads, it’s an environment that feels a million dollars. I want Lexus to design the interior of my house.
Of course, there’s always something that’s not quite right. In the RX L it’s the infotainment system, presented on a 12.3-inch screen that sits atop the dashboard. It looks a little dated, but the main problem is that it’s entirely impossible to use. The navigation is unfathomable, and finding secondary settings requires some sort of degree or reading a manual that’s probably larger than the one for the Space Shuttle. It’s all controlled by a mouse-like device that sits between the front seats which, despite what you’ll read elsewhere, actually works OK once you get the hang of it, but it’s all for nought as the system itself is unusable. To rub salt in the wounds, there’s not even the option to revert to Android Auto or Apple CarPlay instead.
But, once you’ve hit the motorway and engaged the adaptive cruise control, you can sit back and revel in the wonderfully isolated experience. There are few cars in the UK that can offer such a smooth long-distance cruising ability, and even fewer that can combine that with the demands of seating seven - even if it’s a tad compromised. Others are more involving to drive, and some are more practical, but the North American-feeling, Japanese-styled and engineered Lexus RX L offers something unique in the market.
Model Tested: Lexus RX L Premier
Range: £50,995 - £61,995
Top speed: 112 mph
0-62 mph: 80 seconds
Official economy: 47.1 mpg
CO2 emissions: 138 g/km
Car tax: £440
Power: 308 PS (304 bhp)