Set your Wayback Machine to March 1998, and you’ll witness the first flash of a coming boom.
Today, high-end crossovers lurk at every stoplight. But for a brief moment 15 years ago, there was just one, the Lexus RX 300. Its leather-and-fine-audio aesthetic opened new vistas in a segment ruled by such humble rigs as the Toyota RX4, Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester.
It was a floodgates moment. BMW and Mercedes-Benz quickly countered, and the rest of the world followed. From Acura to Volkswagen, there’s a luxury crossover for every taste — if not every wallet.
Remarkably, after 15 years and a barrage of new competition, the RX remains by a wide margin the best-selling luxury crossover in the U.S.
Lexus debuted the third-generation RX in 2012 and offers it today in three trims; standard ($40,670), F Sport ($48,360) and 450h hybrid ($47,320). Key third-gen updates included an AWD system that could send up to 50 percent of torque to the rear wheels, electrically assisted steering and a new rear suspension that improved handling and boosted cargo space.
The RX grew a bit and bolder styling incorporated Lexus’s new spindle grill.
The standard features list grew to include keyless entry and start, electrochromic heated side mirrors, U-V reducing glass, Bluetooth, power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, power 10-way driver and passenger seats, sliding and reclining rear seats and a power rear hatch.
A new F Sport Package added an eight-speed automatic transmission, 19-inch wheels, a sport-tuned suspension and an array of appearance upgrades.
For 2014, Lexus takes a deeper step into cabin technology, with the availability of Apple’s Siri Eyes Free Mode technology. Compatible with iPhone 4S and forward, Siri Eyes Free allows hands-free calling to iPhone contacts, iTunes access and turn-by-turn navigation. Siri can read calendar events and notifications and accept spoken input.
F Sport cabins are awash in black leather with contrasting silver stitching, ebony bird’s-eye maple wood trim, black headliner and aluminum pedals and footrest.
Our 2014 RX 350 F Sport tester brought a number of pricey options (dual-screen rear-seat entertainment system; Mark Levinson audio; parking assist; but not Siri) and rang the bell at $56,534.
A 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 power both the base and F Sport trims. The standard RX is available in FWD and AWD configurations and uses a six-speed automatic. F Sport is AWD only and gets an eight-speed gearbox.
The RX 350 can tow up to 3,500 pounds.
EPA-estimated fuel economy for the base trim is 18 city/25 highway/21 combined, FWD, and 18/24/19 highway), AWD. The F Sport is rated at 18/26/21. The 295-hp 450h is rated at 28/32/30 and 30/28/29.
The F Sport is no quicker than the standard trim, but it’s clearly the enthusiast’s choice. Some may find its ride too stiff and track testing reveals its stopping distances to be longer than the base or hybrid trims, but it’s more engaging than either.
Fifteen years at the top is no small feat but Lexus seems reluctant to give up the crown. We’ll need a Wayforward Machine to learn how long it can hold on.
2014 Lexus RX 350 F Sport
Vehicle base price: $39,769
Trim level base price: $47,450
As tested: $56,534
Optional equipment included rear-seat entertainment system; navigation; backup camera; Lexus Enform; satellite radio; heads up display; Mark Levinson audio system; Intuitive Parking Assist; cargo net
EPA ratings: 18 city/21 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified