F Sport Transforms 2013 Lexus RX 350

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These 19-inch five-spoke wheels are exclusive to the RX F Sport. The ‘Predator’ snout is the new look of Lexus.
These 19-inch five-spoke wheels are exclusive to the RX F Sport. The ‘Predator’ snout is the new look of Lexus.

About 15 years ago, when the original Lexus RX appeared, I wrote in a huff, “If you think the Hamptons are ‘the country,’ then this is your ‘off-road’ vehicle.” That was during the dawn of the age of deluxe sport-utility vehicles as we know them now, and I was still fixated on 4x4s as ruff-tuff rock-crawlers. Silly me.

Like a good doctor’s prescription, the RX became the best-selling Lexus. And why not?

It packaged Lexus strengths—sybaritic comfort, preternatural quiet, bombproof quality—with features we suddenly all wanted: a raised driving position, extra ground clearance, all-wheel drive, four doors for four seats, and a Labrador retriever-size cargo bay with a liftgate.

The family station wagon, reborn as the SUV. Manufacturers went mad one-upping each other in size, gadgets, power and performance. Never mind that these vehicles generally couldn’t climb out of a wet sandbox.

One more thing truly cemented the modern SUV’s place atop everyone’s short list: crossover construction. These weren’t just pickup trucks with enclosed bodies; they’re cars welded up in one piece, not a body lashed to a separate frame. This meant familiar car-like feel, with fewer squeaks and rattles.

No maker did it better than Lexus, which grew the RX from its popular ES sedan, which in turn was begat by the ridiculously successful Camry sedan of parent Toyota. Want to breed a winner? Start with a winner.

The RX was so well-received that in 15 years it’s only been changed three times. The RX 300 became the RX 330 and then the RX 350. Power, luxury and features went up; prices stayed reasonable. I still didn’t like it. In 2009 Lexus introduced a hybrid gas-electric RX. That was a big deal, but to me the RX didn’t climb down out of the trees and stand up on its hind legs until 2013, with this RX 350 F Sport. Why? The improvement in handling completely erases the Jello effect. I like it.

The F Sport difference is immediately noticeable. The shocks and springs are firmer and Lexus has added side-to-side and front-to-rear dampers (instead of fixed braces) to soak up any shimmy. Hard braking no longer makes the RX’s nose dive. Quick lane changes are now single agile movements. No more high-speed float, no more spastic behavior on washboard surfaces. The upgrade even improves the steering. It transforms the RX—but it doesn’t just swap the marshmallows for granite blocks; if anything, the ride is even more comfortable than before.

The F Sport RX also gets the latest version of Lexus’s VDIM (Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management) handling technology. This is a higher-order blending of the vehicle’s alphabet soup of active safety widgets—ABS (Anti-lock Braking System), BA (Brake Assist), VSC (Vehicle Stability Control) and TRAC (Traction Control)—with the throttle, which is also electronic. VDIM monitors these systems at a high sampling rate and steps in to help make corrections seamlessly at higher speeds than before. Poor driving skills go ever more unpunished.

Want still more reason to tick the F Sport order box? This RX also gets a creamy-smooth 8-speed transmission that squeezes out a bit more mileage, yet makes the V-6 feel stronger than its 270 horsepower. As an automatic, the transmission does its job near-perfectly. In “M” mode, the driver can shift it with the stick or paddles on the wheel; otherwise, the box will faithfully hold each gear to 6,200 RPM, the rev ceiling, before upshifting.

Lexus calls this Manual mode, not Sport, and the company did not deck the RX-F with superfat tires, a megamotor or a loud exhaust. No testosterone poisoning here; Lexus fixed the only thing wrong with the RX and resisted any impulse to go after the likes of the Infiniti FX50 with a fire-breather. That wouldn’t fit the Lexus ethos.

The RX is still the quintessential deluxe soft-roader, but now it can drive as confidently and competently as anything else out there. The AWD-only RX 350 F Sport starts at just below $48,000. At that, it’s already nicer inside than your house. But even if we gild the lily with premium entertainment, navigation and connectivity toys, the price rises only into the low 50s. Not inexpensive, but real value.