Behind the Wheel

2020 Lexus RX 350 F-Sport Review: Refined, responsive, and hampered by its infotainment technology

The stance and fascia of the model make it more crossover-like and harkens back to original RX design.

Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

There is no shortage of SUVs for buyers to choose from. When it comes to luxury vehicles the market is split between sport-centric engaging models and more typical family haulers. As mass market SUVs become more premium and offer advanced technology and high-quality interiors, the cost of going all-in on a luxury model might make buyers question if it's worth it.

The revisions to the 2020 Lexus RX 350 are made to persuade customers that a $50,000 luxury model is still the right way to go. But are the changes enough?

2020 Lexus RX 350 F-Sport Revisions to the car's front end have helped with its much-derided looks.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

The exterior of the RX has gotten refreshed to make it less hand vacuum-y and more crossover. That's not a bad thing. It's now more attractive than before though that's not really saying much. This isn't exactly the sales segment for sexy design.

Lexus has improved the model's stability on the road, steering responsiveness, and ride quality. The SUV is a better drive than before though still not in the same room as the conversation being had by Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz models. Its all-wheel drive helped the all-season shoes stick to dry roads with ease.

The RX 350 continues to prove easy to steer and a breeze to park though its A-pillar hampers visibility during turns. That's not an uncommon complaint of SUV drivers regarding a number of models.

The wheel feels good in-hand, but the wheel itself is a bit fat. The car's heated steering wheel feature only warms small sections of the wheel at three- and six o'clock, which is disappointing.

2020 Lexus RX 350 F-Sport The steering wheel of the model is fatter than what one may expect from the SUV.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

Lexus did not update the powertrain of the model as part of the refresh. It still has a 3.5-liter V6 under the hood that delivers a competent 295 horsepower in the 350 F-Sport grade and is paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission. The powertrain feels more responsive in this edition than it did in the last. The SUV gets 23 mpg combined, which isn't ideal, but not terrible.

The interior of the RX 350 F-Sport tester featured the new Circuit Red color throughout that garnered several compliments by passengers and passersby during the week-long test drive. The red-covered seats were comfortable, even on extended trips. Four adults easily fit in the two-row SUV.

Still, the overall Lexus drive and ride experience is hampered by the SUV's infotainment system. Lexus wins points for moving its available 12.3-inch screen 5.5 inches closer to front seat occupants. Despite spending a week behind the wheel, it was just easier to not deal with the infotainment system rather than use the awkward touch pad to plug in addresses for navigation and change the radio system.

2020 Lexus RX 350 F-Sport Some design elements of the RX are outdated, like the cell phone holder.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

The Lexus now comes with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and Amazon Alexa compatibility but during the test drive, despite several attempts with different cords and a variety of iPhones, the system never worked with the phones.

There are some design elements that are outdated. Its heated/ventilated seat controls appear from a lower-class parts bin while the slot cell-phone holder is from a small period of design history that is best left behind.

As tested, the RX came with a number of safety technologies that are part of the Lexus Safety Suite. None of the included features of the Safety Suite are obtrusive or annoying in their employment.

2020 Lexus RX 350 F-Sport This car has the new Circuit Red upholstery throughout the cabin.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

The tested 2020 Lexus RX 350 F-Sport has a starting price tag of $47,950.

The Lexus RX 350's closest competition is the Infiniti QX50. Its bests that model by a large margin. With the Nissan Murano getting a bit long in the tooth and Chevrolet Blazer coming in around the same price as the RX with less premium appointments, it's easy to make the argument that the RX is the right model for many buyers.

Still, it faces stiff competition from the spunkier and more agile Acura RDX, which easily earns top accolades for SUVs at this price point and size.

Celebrated storyteller Malcom Gladwell takes listeners behind the scenes at Lexus in a new podcast.

Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc.

He's written several bestselling books, been a longtime storytelling in The New Yorker magazine, and has hosted the Revisionist History podcast. Malcom Gladwell is also a self-proclaimed car nut. He's has teamed up with Lexus for a six-part podcast that is available now.

The podcast is titled "Go and See", which is an approximate translation of the Japanese "genchi genbutsu," or "go and see for yourself." The idea stems from the idea that if someone goes to see how something is made, designed, or created, they'll gain a greater understanding of the people behind the method. Lexus has invited Gladwell to visit Japan to take a behind-the-scenes look at Lexus operations.

Go And See Malcom Gladwell The podcast is available on a number of platforms.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc.

"Human-centered design has been a Lexus core value since inception, and this has led to some interesting and original approaches through the years," said Lisa Materazzo, vice president of marketing at Lexus. "Malcolm Gladwell's curiosity is contagious, and we are so pleased that he accepted our invitation to take a closer look at Lexus. I believe he was able to gain an understanding of how we learn by studying people. The resulting podcast series is truly intriguing."

According to a release, the podcast series follows Gladwell as he travels to the company's headquarters in Japan, explores a top-secret racetrack, and shadows engineers and executives.

Lexus excels at infusing key components of Japanese culture into its vehicles' identity. Take, for example, the oragami-inspired folds of material in the Lexus LS.

The podcast takes a deeper look at this including how a Japanese tea ceremony influenced the engineering of a car window; to the musical composition of a coupe's engine and the emotions it elicits.

"I once had a Lexus sports car and loved it. But after I gave it up, I didn't really give them much more thought," said Gladwell. "In Japan, I saw firsthand just how much thought and cultural know-how and expertise goes into the final product."

Recorded over 10 weeks from December through February, Gladwell's own Pushkin Industries produced the six-part series in partnership with Lexus. The first episode became available on March 5, 2020, and new episodes launch on subsequent Thursday.s Listeners can stream or download the series from Apple Podcasts, Radio.com, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pandora, Pocketcast, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, Castbox, NPR One, Web Players and more.

Dreams do come true for one child, who received a fancy new Lexus play car.

Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc.

Lexus has teamed up with the Cerebral Palsy Foundation (CPF) to create a one-of-a-king ride-on vehicle inspired by children with cerebral palsey. The automaker says that the untraditional vehicle combines Lexus's "human-centric design philosophy with CPF's mission of improving the lives of people with cerebral palsy and opening up the world of possibilities."

The special ride-on vehicle was presented to its recipient Finley Smallwood earlier this month, which is designated National Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month.

Lexus Cerebral Palsy Foundation custom car The play car has been modified to allow Smallwood to enjoy play in a way that doesn't restrict her.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc.

"People with cerebral palsy rarely get the interventions and support they need at the moments they need them," said Rachel Byrne, CPF executive director. "Our mission is to shift that paradigm and be a catalyst for creating positive change through innovative collaborations and partnerships."

For children with cerebral palsy, one of the greatest challenges is being able to participate in their environment and play as other children do. Many children with cerebral palsy don't have the strength to be able to hold and turn a steering wheel consistently for a given period of time, and mobility challenges can make using a foot pedal impossible. Smallwood has difficulty sitting for long periods of time.

"At Lexus, our core design philosophy has always been human-centric," said Cooper Ericksen, Lexus group vice president, product planning & strategy. "We create vehicles around the art and science of human needs. In this case, we wanted to push the envelope and explore what that might mean for a child with cerebral palsy who hasn't been able to experience the joy of mobility like other children have."

Smallwood's custom crafted vehicle includes modifications to the seat, with additional side padding for lateral support around her waist along with an adjustable headrest and a five-point harness. Her customized ride-on car also includes increased door size and reduced ground clearance to allow for ease of entry and exit.

Lexus Cerebral Palsy Foundation custom car A team of Lexus engineers worked on the project.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc.

There's an armrest joystick that allows Smallwood the ability to control the direction and acceleration of the vehicle without the need for foot pedals or holding a steering wheel for an extended period of time.

"Oh, and we painted the body of the car purple," said Ericksen. "Because that's Finley's favorite color."

The project was in partnership with Givewith. You can learn more about Smallwood's story here.