RX Marks Spot: Lexus beefs up bestseller for 2013 while bolstering car-like ride, sport-utility cargo space

The new Lexus RX350 includes an available navigation system with map and indicators for places to eat and gas stations ahead (Leroy Burnell/postandcourier.com/5/17/2012).

By JIM PARKER The Post and Courier

When carmakers mess with their bread-and-butter, they better not leave the customer hungry.

Lexus understood this when it restyled the popular RX, considered a trailblazer in 1999 as one of the first sport-utility vehicles built on the same line as sedans.

“We invented the crossover vehicle,” said Mike Warren, general sales manager of Lexus of Charleston.

The result is a slick 2013 RX model that adheres to its classic looks while giving buyers some juicy features — freshening up the design, expanding high-tech gadgets and tweaking the powertrain to provide cost savings.

“The RX is still Lexus’ A1 selling model because of the versatility. It’s on a car platform,” Warren said. The fourth generation model, which seats five, has “the versatility of a crossover SUV,” he said.

Lexus of Charleston started receiving its first new Lexus RX350 and companion hybrid 450h models in mid May. The base price is $39,310, and a well-stocked 350 version at the dealership ran $48,968.

A noticeable change of the 2013 RX350 is the fuel that powers its 3.5-liter V-6 churning out 270 horsepower. Lexus retooled the engine so “now you run on regular (gas) instead of premium,” Warren said. At today’s pump prices, that’s a 20 cents a gallon savings.

At the same time, the sport-utility posts fuel economy numbers of 18 mpg city, 25 mpg highway and an overall 21 mpg.

Inside, Lexus styled the model with luxurious touches while adding a few clever conveniences.

Take the cupholders and drink holders. There are about a dozen and some are in unusual places, such as a cupholder to the left of the steering wheel.

The driver and front passenger ride on leather trimmed seats, which are heated and ventilated. Seats throughout are perforated to let air through.

In the ample cargo hold, levers on either side pull down the back seats in a 60-40 split.

The RX employs a “smart” key that unlocks the doors automatically when the driver or other possessor of the key approaches the car. Start and stop is push button. Driving modes on the six-speed transmission can be changed at the turn of a knob: They include sport, fuel-friendly “eco” and normal. Front-wheel drive is standard on the RX350, while all-wheel drive is an option.

Following the lead of fellow 2013 Lexus models, the RX can be purchased with its space-age Enform Application Suite with connections to Bing, iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com, Open Table, Pandora, Yelp and Facebook.

The navigation package offers weather and traffic information, satellite radio and is enabled for hands-free cell phone use. There are plugs for music and tablet devices. When the car is in reverse, the center console screen provides back-up views via a rear camera.

Outside, Lexus installed collapsible side-view mirrors that make it easier to maneuver in tight spots and protect them from damage. Another feature is light-emitting diode (LED) daytime running lights.

The looks are subtly different. New taillamps provide a broader base. “They basically streamlined (the RX),” Warren said.

At least from a moderate turn behind the wheel, Lexus can be given kudos for fine-tuning an already staple model.

This RX350 impressed as a car-about-town: roomy seating, varied console, great placement of cupholders, low noise level inside, effective dual climate control.

Steering was fine although a bit loose, and braking was firm. Maybe the most unexpected perk was the powertrain, which glided the sport-utility up to interstate speeds.

The claret mica exterior of the driven model, one of nice choices available for the RX, was a pleasant change from the common beige, silver or gray.

If there are quibbles, the visibility was obscured by the rear seat headrests and the rear seating was a little tight.

Yet, Lexus is trying to build on a vehicle that already has an esteemed track record. That can be a challenge, but the carmaker was largely able to pull it off.

To steal a page from the marketing world, the 2013 RX is “new and improved.”

Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or jparker@postandcourier.com.