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February 3, 2014

Lexus RX crossover gets upgraded style, crispness with sport package

Ever since the Lexus RX was launched 15 years ago, it’s followed a three-part formula that buyers seem to like.

One, it’s built incredibly well. From the rich materials to the tight construction and subtle color choices, it’s hard to find any crossovers that are executed better than this one.

Two, it’s got a quiet, smooth ride that makes it a joy on highway trips.

And three, it’s got an overall style that is classy but doesn’t draw too much attention to itself. It’s more subdued than ostentatious.

That’s why I was surprised to see that Lexus has dramatically changed two-thirds of that formula on the 2014 RX 350, at least when you opt for the F SPORT package.

The sporty version of the RX is still built as wonderfully as any other RX, but its firm suspension and more aggressive styling combine to give it a different personality from the standard model.

First, there’s the bling.

The F SPORT package adds big, dark, 19-inch wheels that look trendier and more youthful than the base RX. It also gets an angrier looking front end, with a unique mesh grille treatment and bigger air intake thanks to its revised front bumper.

Inside, black leather upholstery with silver stitching, ebony bird’s eye maple wood trim and a black headliner give it a sinister look. But, despite all the blackness, it doesn’t have the cave-like feeling you might expect. The textures are different and rich enough that it feels more warm and cozy than dark and cold.

The biggest surprise for me, though, is just how differently this F SPORT version drives. A major reason for that is a firmer suspension, of course, which makes it much more controllable in aggressive maneuvering and tight turns.

Another reason is that the F SPORT model gets its own special transmission, an eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters. Not only does it drive extremely well with crisp, quick shifts, but it also results in a 2-mpg improvement in fuel economy on the highway.

The big question is whether you should opt for the firm-riding F SPORT or the smooth-riding regular RX. Personally, I’d pick the smoother, squishier suspension since that’s what crossovers are best at. If I wanted a car that thrills me, I’d get a true sports sedan like the new Lexus IS instead.

At the same time, I understand the appeal of the RX 350 F SPORT. For people who like the quality and practicality of the RX but want it with a more exciting, engaging look and feel, it’s a nice twist on the RX’s longstanding formula for success.

Pricing starts at $39,760 for the RX 350 and $47,450 for the F SPORT model. A more fuel-efficient version, the RX 450h hybrid, is also available starting at $46,410.

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