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Doing some SoCal flexing in a Lexus RX

IT’S A sun-drenched yet chilly morning in Santa Barbara, California — perfect for a long drive.

Lexus couldn’t have ordered for better weather as media practitioners from all over the world converge in this picturesque West Coast city chosen as the venue to formally get people behind the wheel of the midsize luxury crossover that is the Lexus RX. The vehicle had been formally revealed to the world online last June 1, but this is the first time that warm bodies will be ensconced in its cabin for a real-world taste of the latest iteration.

Yup, we got dibs.

The location is additionally appropriate, too, as Lexus had presented the very first RX (outside of Japan) in the United States in 1998, with export sales commencing in March of that year. The model is said to have opened the doorway into the luxury crossover segment, which many premium brands have capitalized on since.

We depart from our lodgings in this beautiful university city steeped in Spanish colonial revival architecture and head northeast on Route 101. We follow the directions pre-programmed on the RX’s navigation system, predicated on a large new Lexus Interface touchscreen measuring 14 inches in the center stack.

The RX 350h Hybrid we’re aboard (swathed in Nori Green Pearl paint) is an AWD, powered by the fourth generation of the Lexus Hybrid Drive. It gets a two-motor transaxle/single-motor rear differential, and electric power comes courtesy of a nickel-metal hybrid battery. Completing the one-two punch is a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder gas engine. The driver accesses the performance potentials via an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT). The system pumps out 246 horses, enabling this variant to reach 60mph (97kph) in 7.4 seconds.

On the highway, the RX feels secure, compliant, and sure-footed. Its system reads, through Road Sign Assist, highway markers and consistently monitors whether or not we are breaking the speed limit on a particular stretch of pavement. It’s a challenge, too, as the SUV remains unperturbed even at a high rate. The displayed speed limit turns red in hue once when it is exceeded.

We further enjoy the California sunshine and blessing of good weather by unsheathing the panoramic sunroof. I also enjoy a stint at the second row, taking in the unfolding scenery while savoring the extra legroom — an obvious happy consequence of the fifth generation’s 60-millimeter growth in wheelbase (for 2,850mm in total). Back here, passengers can also control the A/C’s fan and temperature settings. If you feel extra warm, you could even switch on the seat fan to cool your hindside. Two USB-C ports complete the accoutrements.

Our destination, the sprawling family-owned vineyard and winery Presqu’ile (pronounced “press-keel”) lies in the Santa Maria Valley. From the property ship out “cool-climate” Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah. But today is not for imbibing spirits but, rather, taking in the sensorial delights of the RX.

The property is an excellent, scenic backdrop for Lexus to formally present the vehicle to the assembled media practitioners.

Along with its extended wheelbase, the all-new iteration grows by 25mm in width (1,920mm) while keeping its 4,890mm total length; Lexus also shrinks the RX height by 10mm. The central idea is to bestow the crossover with a lower center of gravity and a “planted stance.”

Replying to a question from “Velocity,” Lexus College of Lexus USA Product Education Manager Paul Williamsen says that there are several highlights in the all-new Lexus RX. “It’s a completely new car — and all-new body shell, all-new platform, all-new suspension. So it’s thoroughly revised, at the same time very much in character for an RX. You know, the RX has a tremendously loyal fan base, and we wanted to be certain we didn’t disappoint them in any way. It has improved in many ways, and yet, for any longtime RX owner, we think they’ll feel quite comfortable in it,” he explains.

One of the significant developments in the model is that Lexus is offering it with an option of (count ’em) four powertrains — a turbocharged gas engine, a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid, and a turbocharged hybrid.

“I think it’s the global popularity of the RX that has led us to offer four different powertrains. Each market, of course, has its own customers, its own roads, infrastructure issues related to fuel or emissions testing or regulations or charging, and so we can cover all those possibilities now,” continues Mr. Williamsen.

And Lexus probably doesn’t need to confirm this, but it’s a safe bet to say that was immense pressure on the designers and engineers to deliver on the brand’s iconic model.

“The RX has a really interesting history, if you go back to the root of when it was first developed,” adds Paul. “The RX really was developed specifically for Lexus USA. It was a segment where some people in Lexus USA back in the mid-’90s saw an opportunity for what we now call the crossover SUV. Nobody else was doing those then; nobody had crossover SUVs.

“And honestly, within our company, we weren’t all that convinced it was a great idea… Fortunately, the smarter product planners won that argument, and it became very quickly our biggest-selling model,” he opines with a smile. “And then other countries began to say, ‘Hey, what are these guys selling that we don’t have in our market?’”

While we’re at it, Lexus Philippines says to expect the RX to arrive, supplies willing, before the end of the year. They’re also not yet confirming which variants will make it to the country.

What we do know is that the RX won’t be getting the three-row, seven-seater version anytime soon; this much we learn via a virtual presser with Lexus RX Chief Engineer Takaaki Ohno and Lexus RX Project Chief Designer Jota Kusakari. In reply to our question, Mr. Ohno says, through an interpreter, “When we were developing the vehicle, the size of the current model that you see today was very important. And that was a starting point that was through massive feedback from all of our customers. And so, given that, we had to determine what the best setup was to achieve our performance and design-related goals.”

He adds, “Within that we determined that two-row seating would be the best way to achieve that. So, for now, we proceeded development with only two rows.”

Speaking of development, there’s clearly much that’s happened in the looks department. The signature spindle grille has been interpreted to reflect a transitioning into greater electrification not just for the model but for Lexus, nay, even Toyota as well. The lower part of the grill remains open — both a functional and stylistic nod to the presence of an internal combustion engine (and its need to breathe, thank you very much). However, the open maw gradually transitions into a closed grille as you move up the spindle design. You can even make out that the top part of the spindle is actually completed by the crimping of the hood. Yes, I’d like to think that this signifies electrification. So, the hybrids that Lexus is releasing for now is truly emblematic of the move from ICE to full electric.

But you don’t have to overprocess the RX like us motoring dweebs. There’s much fun to be had by all with but a glance at the posture and pomp afforded by this project of much love and passion — sprinkled with a healthy dose of comfort and safety tech for good measure. As someone in our group cheekily declared, “We RX-cited.”

So should you.

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