Keeping things fresh can be hard in the automotive industry, especially if you’re a car company. Lexus designers faced this prospect when they went about updating the venerable Lexus RX SUV for 2021. The RX lineup is the bread and butter for Lexus’s coffers, and as a result, it’s essential to retain the core fundamentals that Lexus buyers love about the RX while making enough changes to help it stay fresh. Did Lexus succeed? We were keen and eager to find out.
Aging Exterior Styling Losing Ground To Rivals
The exterior styling of the 2021 Lexus RX 350 is still a very prominent calling card for the SUV and was left largely unchanged for the new model year. The front fascia is still very aggressive looking, and the spindle-style front grille remains a very prominent attention grabber. Our tester was an F-Sport model, and this particular trim is the way to go if you want to maximize your RX purchase’s styling.
The F-Sport is also the beneficiary of a major change for 2021. With that model getting an all-new limited-production Black Line model. Black Line models get trim exclusive color accents and other special goodies to help them stand out visually from their peers. Our standard F-Sport did not come in Black Line spec, but that’s ok since the standard version still retains a slight whiff of sportiness in its family-focused lines.
However, the F-Sport’s enhancements do little to hide that the RX is also an aging canvas. Many of its rivals have been updated, and the RX is falling behind some of the marques that it’s trying to chase, including the Jaguar F-Pace, BMW X5, and the Volvo XC90. These and many other rivals have benefitted from fresher designs, and it’s rapidly becoming a huge mountain for the RX to climb.
Luxurious RX Interior Still Hits The Mark In Comfort, Comes Up Short In Cargo
While the exterior may be rapidly aging, the interior still manages to hit the mark when providing passengers plenty of comfort and features. Our F-Sport example swaps out the standard seats for slightly more supportive leather sport seats, with the blood-red coloring enhancing our tester’s sporty personality. Metal trim is also used on the pedals, and the amount of wood and high-quality plastic on display here is very welcoming.
The RX 350 typically comes as a two-row model, but buyers can add an optional third row of seats with the RX 350 L. You can read our very colorful thoughts on that here; as for our tester, we really liked the second row with that space providing passengers decent amounts of head and legroom. Both the front and rear seats offer generous amounts of padding and are very spacious places to spend time in.
The infotainment system has much of the same flaws that dog other Lexus models, with the touchpad controller continuing its frustrating reign of supremacy in the cabin of the RX. For buyers who have always wanted to ditch the touchpad, they will be pleased to see that a formal touchscreen unit is now available. Another flaw that still presents itself is cargo space, with the Lexus only offering 60 cubic feet of space with the second row folded. That’s considerably less than many of its rivals and forces buyers to pack carefully for long family road trips.
Adequate Performance Still Gets The Job Done
The RX was never designed to be a serious performance SUV, but that doesn’t stop it from putting on a brave face in its attempt to deliver driving fun to buyers. The 2021 RX can be equipped with two engines depending on whether buyers go hybrid or not. Traditionally powered RX models like our tester get their motivation from a naturally aspirated 3.5 liter V6 that’s good for 295 horsepower and a 0 to 60 time of 7.3 seconds.
The engine does not try to punch above its weight class, but it’s still stout enough for urban driving, and it’s a smooth operator too. An eight-speed automatic is the lone transmission choice here, and it does a good job rowing through the gears smoothly and quietly. However, the performance option is found inside the RX 450h with the hybrid using its electrification technology to produce 308 horsepower and 247 lb-ft of torque.
As for non-hybrid RX models, the engine also allows them to tow up to 5,000 lbs, making up for its middling fuel economy numbers. The EPA estimates that RX 350s, like our tester, can achieve only 21 mpg in city driving and 23 mpg on the freeway. The 450h is a noticeable leap forward in both arenas and is arguably the one we would pick if we were to shop for ourselves.
Meanwhile, handling in our tester proved to be very solid, especially in the lingering amounts of snow that remained in Metro Detroit. The suspension does a good job of muting many road imperfections, and even F-Sport models like our tester were very composed with minimal jarring. The steering is very overboosted, but we do like how the F-Sport-designed steering wheel felt in our hands.
Pricing for the 2021 Lexus RX 350 is still on par with many rivals in its segment, and it offers a very diverse pricing ladder. In the F-Sport case, a front-wheel-drive example starts at $48,650, while all-wheel-drive-equipped versions like our example having a slightly higher $50,050 base sticker. That’s a bit less than the $53,790 Cadillac XT5 Sport and is much less than the 2021 Jaguar F-Pace R-Dynamic.
Our lightly optioned tester arrived with over $2,000 in options which helped raise the price to $57,975. This still allowed it to maintain a slight price edge over its rivals. Still, at the same time, it also makes it a harder sell as well since it offers weaker performance, aging styling, and inferior cargo capacity.
In short, the 2021 Lexus RX lineup is still a viable threat to much of the established luxury SUV stalwarts. It has brand recognition, tons of coddling, and a hybrid model for those that want more fuel economy. However, the segment is rapidly evolving, and it’s hard to ignore that the RX needs to fix some key flaws for it to remain a hungry contender in the luxury SUV segment.
Carl Malek has been an automotive journalist for over 10 years. First starting out as a freelance photographer before making the transition to writing during college, his work has appeared on numerous automotive forums as well as websites such as Autoshopper.com.
Carl is also a big fan of British vehicles with the bulk of his devotion going to the Morgan Motor Company as well as offerings from Lotus, MG, and Caterham. When he is not writing about automobiles, Carl enjoys spending time with his family and friends in the Metro Detroit area, as well as spending time with his adorable pets.