Lexus injected its brand, which had taken the place of Cadillac among AARP members, with a little excitement when it introduced the LFA and the IS-F. While those models have legitimate sport cred, the F-Sport line of cars, exemplified here by the 2013 Lexus RX 350 F Sport, comes off as much less convincing.
In colloquial terms, F Sport is all hat and no cattle.
On its own, the Lexus RX 350 works as a solid luxury SUV. Seating for five, flexible cargo space, and an easy driving character have made it a strong seller for Lexus, and a success that other automakers attempt to duplicate. Appointments such as power-adjustable leather seats and a powered lift gate add to the RX 350's appeal, not to mention a base price around $40,000.
Lexus fits the RX 350 with a useful cabin electronics suite featuring navigation, hands-free phone, and a quality stereo. A few driver assistance features are also available, but Lexus pushes few boundaries, going with tried-and-true rather than setting a benchmark for the gadget-happy set.
However, Lexus made a significant step forward with its Enform app integration. This system lets drivers access popular apps such as Yelp, Pandora, and Bing local search using the car's interface, including voice command.
F Sport tuning
In F Sport trim, the RX 350's engine remains unchanged. A 3.5-liter V-6, it produces 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. The most significant changes come in the transmission and suspension.
The automatic transmission gets eight gears, instead of the six speed in the standard RX, and includes steering-wheel-mounted paddles for the manual shift mode. Although it does not shift with quite the snappiness I would want in a sport transmission, the extra gears are welcome for the sake of efficiency.
To earn its F Sport badges, Lexus tightens up the suspension, giving it a more rigid character so the RX 350 corners with better stability. In my opinion, this tuning effectively ruins the RX 350. Without F Sport, the RX 350 delivers a comfortable, luxury-oriented ride, suitable to the drivetrain and overall demeanor of the vehicle. Lacking an adaptive suspension to provide comfort and sport modes, the RX 350 F Sport bounced and jounced me on rough roads, while the ride over better pavement felt no better than a typical Toyota's.
Attempting to get into the spirit of F Sport, I piloted the RX 350 along twisty mountain roads, working the throttle hard and hitting the corners with the intention of hearing some tire squeal.
With the eight-speed transmission in D, it was loath to kick down to lower gears, making for a big gap between when I wanted power and when it got it. As there was no automatic Sport mode, I went straight to manual, which worked much better. A wide power band let me maintain third gear most of the time, with jumps down to second for the sharper turns.
Although not overwhelming me with power, the engine afforded steady, predictable acceleration.
The suspension tuning certainly aided cornering, but if you want to drive fast in an SUV, there are much better cars for this purpose. Both the BMW X5 M and Porsche Cayenne compete for king daddy in SUV performance, but even the Acura MDX, with its active suspension and torque-vectoring all-wheel drive, impressed the heck out of me.
The RX 350 F Sport I reviewed came with an all-wheel-drive system; Lexus also makes the model available in front-wheel drive. This all-wheel-drive system does not vector torque across the rear wheels, which would help cornering. However, Lexus does include a differential lock function, which hints what the RX 350 is better-suited for. In snow or other slippery conditions, the differential lock keeps power running to all four wheels, instead of automatically portioning it to the wheels that seem to have the most grip.
When I first got behind the RX 350's wheel, I could tell it used an electric power-steering boost. The feel of the electric motor helping me turn the wheels was unmistakable. Unlike past RX models I have driven, this power steering requires a little more effort to turn the wheel, although still maintaining a luxury feel.
For the F Sport model, Lexus does not change the power-steering tuning, leaving it with a little play in the wheel. This steering system feels nothing like the precise, performance electric power steering of something like the new Porsche 911. However, electric power steering will boost efficiency.
Despite F Sport not really cutting the mustard as a sporting trim, I mostly enjoyed driving the RX 350 around as transportation. The car easily pulled in greater than 20 miles per gallon with a good amount of freeway driving balancing out city miles. It's an uncomplicated car to drive: drop the shifter in D and enjoy the high seating position and luxury amenities of the cabin.
If it weren't for the F Sport suspension tuning, I would even recommend it for a road trip.
This RX 350 came with a blind-spot monitor system, lighting up icons in the side mirrors when other cars were in the next lane over, to help with the driving. Lexus also makes a head-up display available, which shows navigation instructions on the windshield. That option was not on this review car.