Review: 2023 Lexus RX 350h Resets the Brand’s Most Popular SUV
It’s status quo redux for their best-selling vehicle, which might make it the best option for you
The argument of logic versus passion presents a useful lens through which to examine much of the Lexus lineup. Undeniably built to a more reliable standard than many of their luxury counterparts, the Japanese brand has long skewed its marketing to left-brain thinkers seeking a premium ride that ticks every equipment box while avoiding the anguish of repeat visits to a dealer’s maintenance bay. This rigid approach to building a high-end automobile certainly gets the job done, but it does so at the expense of an emotional connection with the driver that for decades was the hallmark of European engineering.
Fortunately for Lexus, there’s been a single segment where ignoring excitement and focusing on executing the expected game plan has yielded exceptional results for the bottom line. The Lexus RX has long been not just the best-selling model bearing the canted-L logo, but also one of the strongest performers among similarly-sized luxury SUVs. In a slice of the market where pulse-raising performance and scintillating styling are often secondary to carrying the kids while maximizing coddle, the RX has stood out for its feature-rich options sheet, and remarkably frugal hybrid history.
For 2023, Lexus debuts a new RX that stays almost entirely on-script. While the mechanical and metal details may have changed, conceptually the RX pays tribute to its predecessors by embodying the same lab-engineered essence that has guided the sport-utility since its introduction at the end of the 1990s. This cloning program helped move more than 100,000 RXs off the lot last year alone, and judging by what 2023 has to offer, the SUV’s sales science isn’t about to stumble any time soon.
Following Well-Worn Footsteps
Regardless of the angle, the 2023 Lexus RX (which I sampled in 350h hybrid trim) is instantly recognizable as having sprung from the loins of last year’s model. With a more prominent snout carved from the leading edge of its hood, and a slightly longer wheelbase helping to stretch proportions all the way to its almost-bustleback hatch slope, the RX retains the modest visual personality that has long been its calling card.
The world has swallowed its indignation at the larger-than-life Lexus grille that adorns nearly every model at this point, and the blacked-out glass and trim used to float the RX’s roofline aren’t as extroverted a cue as they once were when other sport-utilities were flaunting similar setups nearly a decade ago. Not quite handsome, but certainly staying within the bounds of conservative taste, Lexus continues to project a low-key personality that helps it blend into an urban landscape.
Inside it’s a similar story, albeit with a bit more of an exclamation mark for longtime Lexus buyers. The RX’s cabin is tastefully adorned with precision-tailored leather on the seats, door panels and console, but the latter has lost its touchpad interface for the infotainment system, reverting to a far more useful touchscreen setup. It’s a change that instantly amplifies the vehicle’s appeal by a factor of 10: that finger-as-mouse trackpad was the single most frustrating experience in modern automotive interaction.
The rest of the RX hews towards similar progress, with my tester’s head-up display tasked with showing a variety of menu options accessed via touch-sensitive buttons on the steering wheel. Much of that content would have been better served by the gauge cluster, rather than the cramped acreage hovering over the hood, but since most of that functionality is duplicated by the main infotainment display it’s a minor complaint.
Big Leather Bucket
More important than how the Lexus RX looks (or where it chooses to direct the driver’s eyes) is the fact that almost everything else about the 350h comes together to cover every important quadrant of whatever computer-generated customer-needs matrix guided it from drawing board to boulevard.
Pop the lid at the back of the RX and you’ll be as surprised as I was to discover just how much junk you can stuff into it from floor to roof, especially with the second row of seating tilted forward. In my case it was a full pallet of plants destined for the garden on my back deck, joined by a giant roller suitcase, a folding queen-size bed frame and a hefty etched-wood art piece, all of which left space for groceries and more on the way home from the hardware store and storage locker.
All that gear didn’t rattle once during the trip, either, thanks to the RX’s super-soft approach to suspension tuning. Forget anything resembling connection with the road below and instead revel in a chassis that tries its hardest to tune away the grumble and grind of the daily commute. For returning buyers, it will feel like coming home; for everyone else, welcome to the Lexus sensory deprivation chamber.
Unexpected Grindcore Soundtrack
Aside from the infotainment upgrade, another major change for 2023 is found under the hood, and here the result is more mixed. On the one hand, the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that replaces the RX’s traditional V6 engine is a paragon of efficiency, and in combination with a set of electric motors and all-wheel drive it manages to return up to 37 mpg in around-town driving (a figure that fell in line with my own experience).
Unfortunately, on its way to generating 246 usable horsepower the entire shebang is shockingly coarse. Numerous times when getting on the accelerator at low speeds, I turned off the stereo so I could determine whether the unwelcome grinding noise assaulting my ears was emanating from the steering system or the engine itself.
This abrasive aspect of the RX 350h’s drivetrain was truly unexpected, and its repetition over and over again during my time behind the wheel did much to subtract from the serenity evinced elsewhere inside the SUV (especially as compared to quieter highway operation). If you’d prefer to trade mpgs and brusque behavior for a little more pep, the turbocharged version of the RX starts at a few thousand less than the 350h’s $50,550 price tag.
Playing to the Crowd
Everything about the 2023 Lexus RX 350h feels centered on keeping existing owners in the fold. There’s been no effort made to athleticize the strong-selling hybrid model, nor has Lexus seen fit to go all-in on building an electronics-heavy interior that is currently the rage in some corners of the luxury SUV campus. It simply continues the play of a model whose resolute left-brain appeal has so far carried it deep into the Lexus record books.
Many of the RX’s updates solidify what most Lexus fans already liked about the vehicle, wrapped in a package that maximizes interior space, and, aside from the aural assault of its new four-cylinder hybrid, minimizes intrusion from the outside world. For an automaker that sees no need to do more than tweak a copy/paste spec sheet that regularly dumps six-figure sales numbers onto the spreadsheet, the redesigned RX does exactly what it has to, no more, and no less. Whether that appeals to you as a prospective luxury buyer depends entirely on which side of the cerebellum holds the purse strings on your monthly SUV payment.
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