We took the 2016 Lexus RX 350 outside its comfort zone and into the back-woods of New Hampshire to find out if it can handle dirt roads and high elevations. We also packed it to the gills and then took it for a ride on some of our favorite back roads to see how well it performs when fully loaded with gear.
What we discovered is the Lexus RX 350 outperforms most SUVs.
What is it?
The 2016 Lexus RX 350 is the latest generation of the company’s premium, mid-size, two-row crossover. Lexus invented this segment back in 1998 and has maintained its number one sales position for decades.
The RX 350 is not just the best selling premium crossover in its segment – it’s the best-selling premium vehicle in America of any type and at any price point. That it can handle mall-crawling and highways is not in question.
Why Did We Test It Again?
There are over 1.6 million miles of unpaved dirt and gravel roadways in America. What we wanted to find out is how the RX performs when the pavement ends. We also wanted to see if it works well as a utility vehicle.
Pricing and trims
Our tester was loaded, which is to say that it had all the safety systems, along with navigation, moonroof, and the Premium Package with heated and ventilated front leather seats and heated steering wheel. Everything one would expect to find in a luxury sedan is here and nothing else you don’t need or want to pay more for.
At $51,630, our tester was about $33K less than a similarly-sized Mercedes Benz GLE 400 we recently tested. The Mercedes may have a slight edge on the Lexus RX 350 in some ways, but when cost and value are considered, the Lexus RX 350 is tough to beat.
Dirt Road Comfort and Handling
New Hampshire’s dirt road network is vast and varied. During our testing, we encountered all types of surfaces. One of the toughest for any vehicle to handle are the stretches of washboard-like dirt which get a vehicle vibrating and which force the driver to either slow down considerably or risk shaking the vehicle to pieces. The Lexus RX 350 handled this better than anything we have ever tried. We tested a 2016 Ford Edge Sport here last year. That vehicle was superb on pavement, but on these same dirt roads it had a harsh ride we mentioned many times in our review.
Some dirt road sections are hard-packed, and the surface is almost moist. This combination can be slick in a fun way. One can get the vehicle to slide just a bit around corners even at moderate (safe) speeds. We didn’t expect much from this large crossover here, but the RX 350 proved to be quite sporty and responsive. The infotainment screen can display the power being put to each of the four wheels, and it was fun to glance at that and see the AWD system shifting torque from side to side and end to end.
Transitions from driveways and entrances to the road can be a little bit tricky on dirt roads. Graders that smooth the road tend to leave six-inch differences in the height of the road at these junctures, and in some place it is more like a foot. The RX 350 had more than enough ground clearance to handle these without us having to worry about bottoming out. The nose is also up high enough (“approach angle” is the technical term) that we never scuffed the bottom of the front fascia.
Performance When Loaded To The Gills
All premium vehicles have great performance when test-driven. However, with more and more vehicles shifting to smaller, four-cylinder turbos, power can be lacking when the vehicle is fully loaded with people and gear. We stuffed our RX 350 tester to the roof with all the things we would need for a week away. Collectively, the passengers added another 500 pounds to the weight. Despite this, the Lexus RX350’s 3.5-liter V6 never broke a sweat even when climbing steep grades in the mountains.
The Lexus V6 makes 295 hp running on regular gas. Its 22 MPG combined may not sound very good to those cross-shopping a smaller vehicle, but when fuel costs are factored in, the Lexus RX 350 has a lower cost per mile than the smaller Audi Q5, which uses a significantly less powerful small turbocharged engine and requires premium fuel.
Ride and Handling: Climbing Mt. Kearsarge
We climbed Warner New Hampshire’s Mt. Kearsarge with the Lexus RX 350. The twisty paved road climbs about 2500 feet from the base. At no point did the RX 350 feel anything but gutsy and powerful. With no turbo lag to slow us down, the many stops, starts and speed changes were smooth and enjoyable. The eight-speed transmission typically seemed to be in the right gear and never hunted or shifted too high up in the gears like many modern vehicles do to try to save fuel.
Wheels and Tires
Low-profile tires on huge fancy rims may look good in a picture, but in reality, low profile tires hurt the handling and ride comfort of crossovers and SUVs and are more easily damaged. Lexus fits “high-profile” Bridgestone Ecopia tires (Size 235/65/18) on reasonable 18-inch rims. This had positive impact on the dirt-road handling of our test vehicle. With the security of knowing there is a spare under the cargo mat, we didn’t worry we would be left stranded during a holiday weekend if we tore a sidewall. Lexus owners who do need to replace a tire will pay about 50% less for that replacement than they would if they had a BMW X3 crossover with run-flat tires.
The Lexus RX 350 uses a wide 12.3-inch display screen as well as a secondary information display in the gauge cluster. The information is easy to access in terms of menus, and the voice controls worked very well. However, we are still not fans of Lexus’ remote touch interface mouse system.
Cargo Capacity, Roof Racks
Our test vehicle did not come with its accessory roof-rack system, but we spotted an owner who had outfitted their 2015 RX 350 with a kayak carrying kit. Although the RX 350 has great ground clearance, it isn’t as high up as an old-school SUV is. That makes loading and unloading bulky items from the roof easier. The RX 350 is real-life useful when it comes to outdoor adventures.
SUVs do have great utility, but they come with compromises in fuel economy, comfort, cost, and convenience. They look great in advertisements showing them fording streams and blasting through virgin snow in the woods.
In the real world, crossovers are just as capable, and they’re much more user-friendly. Our time with the RX 350 in the woods and mountains of rural New Hampshire proved to us that this plush and comfy vehicle has all the toughness needed to handle whatever vacationers will throw at it.
Couple that with a reliability and safety record unmatched by any other brand or model, and the 2016 Lexus RX 350 is a package that is hard to top.
Looking for a new or used Lexus RX? Check out BestRide’s local search here.
2016 Lexus RX 350
Base price: $43,300
Price as tested, including $940 destination charge: $51,630
Blind Spot Monitor w/Rear Cross-Traffic Alert: $500
Matte Linear Dark Mocha Interior Trim: $400
Lexus Safety System+: $635
Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection
All-Speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control
Intelligent High Beam
Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist
Touch Free Power Rear Door: $200
Heated and Ventilated Front Seats: $640
Navigation System : $2,180
12.3-inch Multimedia Display, Lexus Enform Destinations (1-year trial subscription), Lexus Enform App Suite (Complimentary)
Intuitive Parking Assist: $500
Premium Package: $1,085
Leather Trim Seats, Power-Folding Outside Mirrors, Driver’s Seat/Steering Wheel/Mirror Memory, Rain-Sensing Wipers, Aluminum Roof Rails
Heated Leather Steering Wheel: $150
- Ride Comfort
- Engine Response
- Ground Clearance
- Remote Touch System – Infotainment Controls