Payne: Darth Vader’s Lexus RX350h rolls out some interior hospitality

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 4, 2023

Southfield — The Lexus RX has been a standout SUV for better or worse. And its 2023 makeover is largely for the better.

Long the best-selling SUV in the midsize class, the vanilla RX went full sci-fi goth with its 2016 extreme makeover. What emerged from the changing room was the Bride of Darth Vader. Huuuuge spindle grille, broad shoulders, menacing headlights … what, no cape?

It was even more polarizing inside with a touchpad-operated center infotainment screen that had Mrs. Payne running from the cabin in frustration. It was nearly impossible to use on the road with your finger bouncing all over the interface, and the hearing-challenged voice-recognition command system wasn’t a viable alternative. I expected the Lexus faithful would reject this style ‘n’ ergonomic heresy en masse.

The 2023 Lexus RX350h comes equipped with all-wheel drive for Michigan winters.

But like a patient spouse in a loving marriage, customers just shrugged off the inconvenience as a phase Lexus was going through.

“I love my dealership,” said a Chicago friend even as she admitted she didn’t bother to use the maddening screen controller. “They treat me like family.”

On such standout service is Lexus built, and it helps weather its designers’ more extreme urges. Sure enough, Lexus owners’ patience has been rewarded with Vader, Part 2.

The Darth Vader grille on the 2023 Lexus RX350h is as big and menacing as ever - but a more pronounced nose has helped the appearance.

The spindle grille is just as prominent as ever, but — like shoulder-length hair braids in the NFL or Jennifer Grey’s nose job — you get used to it over time. And Lexus designers have softened its look with a hood cap that better integrates the face with the rest of the RX’s sculpted bod.

When I emerged from Zoup! in Southfield with my favorite lobster bisque for lunch, RX stood out in a sea of dark and white SUVs. The blingtastic grille was right at home amidst Southfield’s shiny golden towers. The body has more surfaces than a Frank Gehry building (maybe Gehry is the secret designer?), yet somehow it all works together with a full-width taillight punctuating the sculpted rear tuchus.

Inside is where Lexus has really made strides over the previous-generation vehicle.

The 2023 Lexus RX350h has much improved ergonomics - and nice screen for the 360-degree backup camera.

RX has flushed the misbegotten touchpad for a proper touchscreen — which has also made for a better organized console for cupholders, phone storage and driving mode buttons. My RX350h hybrid tester featured the optional 14-inch center screen and is an ergonomic standout with big climate controls, volume button and prominent STARTER button in the northwest corner.

It’s the rotary climate controls that grabbed me first. Concave and colorful, they are among my favorite dial designs in the industry. A single volume knob splits them under the infotainment screen.

The screen can’t match best-in-class graphic designs from the likes of BMW or Jeep’s Uconnect, but it is state-of-the-art with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. And state-of-the-art with voice commands. Where I might as well have been talking gibberish to the last-gen system, the new Lexus translated my southern drawl navigation commands every time.

Navigate to MJR Theater in Troy.Navigate to Uncle Joe’s Chicken in Southfield.Navigate to QuikPark in Romulus.

This being a Lexus, of course, the RX can’t be content with convention. Never mind the touchpad controller disaster, designers are determined to experiment with new toys.

The 2023 Lexus RX350h has clever door handles that just need a light squeeze to open.

The squeeze-open handles are beautifully done for entering the SUV. And the armrest push buttons upon exit are nearly as easy. More problematic is the automatic shifter that always demands a left notch to negotiate the gear you want. It’s fussy at first, but with time you can master it.

But, Lexus, I draw the line at the touchpad steering wheel controls. Yes, yes, I see what they are trying to do there. Designed in coordination with the head-up display so you never have to take your eye off the road, the touchpads nevertheless are distracting (Lexus isn’t alone. Mercedes has tried similar, quirky steering wheel touch-pads) as you try and coordinate their commands with what you see in the head-up display.

Simple rollers to adjust adaptive cruise control speed work perfectly, thank you very much.

The rear seats of the 2023 Lexus RX350h recline for passenger comfort.

Otherwise, the interior is comfortable and well executed with plenty of rear leg and cargo room. On an airport run, the RX350h swallowed a large suitcase, two carry-on bags, a tennis bag and commuter bag without infringing on the second row. Second-row passengers are encouraged to infringe on the cargo space with reclinable seats.

Oh, did you want to hear about the powertrain? I nearly forgot.

The RX offers three drivetrains — base RX turbo-4, RX350h hybrid (my tester) and RX500 hybrid. The latter boasts a range-topping 366 horsepower, but somehow I doubt you’ll notice. The Lexus is intent on getting you to your destination unruffled, not tempting you to carve apexes like a Bimmer X5 or Mazda CX-50.

The 2023 Lexus RX350h is powered by a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder up front and an electric motor in the rear.

The hybrid’s continuously-variable tranny can be mildly annoying as it operates the turbo-4, but the cabin is quiet enough and the acceleration competent enough. I was quickly disabused from trying to lean on the door handles through Oakland County’s rural twisties, but the Lexus won’t let you down if you need to merge with authority onto the I-696 drag strip. In all-electric mode at slow speed around the MJR parking lot, the RX350 was positively pleasant.

The rear of the 2023 Lexus RX350h isn't as radical as the front, but the wide LED taillight is a distinctive touch.

Which generally sums up the Lexus RX experience. When I last spent a week in an RX driving to West Virginia and back with Mrs. Payne, we had no interest in spending any more time in the luxury SUV than needed. My wife physically cringed whenever I tried using the touchpad. No more. With clever touches like the door handles and interior ergonomics, I looked forward to driving the RX.

Just as Lexus owners have looked forward to their dealership experience for years.

Next week: 2023 Honda Accord

2023 Lexus RX 350h

Vehicle type: Front engine, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger SUV

Price: $48,550, including $1,150 destination fee ($58,755 Premium + AWD as tested)

Powerplant: Gas-electric hybrid with 2.5-liter inline-4 cylinder and rear electric motor

Power: 246 horsepower, 233 pound-feet torque

Transmission: Continuously variable transmission (CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.4 seconds (mnftr); towing, 5,300 pounds

Weight: 4,450 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA est. mpg 37 city/34 highway/36 combined (est.)

Report card

Highs: Much improved touchscreen; good interior ergonomics

Lows: Polarizing exterior; confounding steering-wheel controls

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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