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Auto review: Stretched 2018 Lexus RX 350L SUV comes up short

The 2018 Lexus RX 350L six- or seven-passenger SUV is an uncharacteristically halfhearted effort from Toyota’s normally buttoned-down luxury brand.

Lexus’ sterling reputation rests on a savage attention to detail. The brand’s slogan was once “the relentless pursuit of perfection,” but the stretched, three-row version of the brand’s best-selling SUV feels more like the relentless pursuit of “meh.”

Lexus dealers have been begging for a family-hauling SUV with three rows of seats for years. The lack of one ceded a significant piece of the luxury market to vehicles like the Acura MDX, Audi Q7, Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, Infiniti QX60 and Volvo XC90.

For reasons we may never know, Toyota’s usually sharp product-planning department declined to develop an SUV to compete with these profitable models, leaving its dealers in the unenviable position of trying to talk buyers who wanted a sleek and carlike family wagon to buy the bigger, less fuel efficient and more expensive truck-based LX 570.

When that failed, Lexus brass decided to add 4.3 inches of length and about 230 pounds and a row of seats to create the RX 350L.

If that were the best solution, other automakers would not go to the trouble and expense of developing all-new vehicles for their three-row SUVs. The result: Lexus got a compromised vehicle, but an attractive price.

Toyota engineers added four inches to the rear of the regular model, RX 350, to create room for a small third row, and changed the roof and tailgate to increase cargo space. The lengthened 350L is new for the 2018 model year.

The drive train is unchanged, except for being slightly less powerful than the smaller, lighter 350. A 3.5-liter V6 produces 290 hp and 263 pound-feet of torque in the L versus 295 and 267 in the five-seater. Gasoline-powered RXs get an eight-speed automatic transmission. Hybrids use a continuously variable transmission and a pair of electric motors to boost system power to 308 hp. The six- or seven-passenger 350L starts at $47,670 (front-wheel drive), $49,070 (all-wheel drive) and $50,620 (hybrid).

I tested a well-equipped 350L Premium AWD. Features included heated and cooled front seats, adaptive cruise control, navigation, blind spot and cross traffic alerts and more. 

The RX 350L’s greatest strength is its cost, which is lower than many of its larger and roomier competitors. Modifying an existing vehicle costs less than developing an all new SUV with three rows, as all the competitors did. It also has Lexus’ usual premium materials and good interior fit and finish.

The RX is a quiet, comfortable vehicle for long trips or quick jaunts about town, as long as nobody’s in the third row of seats. Those rear seats were raised and lowered by electric motors in my test car. The middle row slides fore and aft, increasing third-row legroom at the middle row’s expense.

The RX’s driver assistance features include adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, blind spot alert, collision alert with pedestrian detection and autonomous emergency braking. The RX 350L AWD scored 18 mpg in city driving, 25 on the highway and 21 combined in EPA tests.

The third row of seats is the 350L’s whole reason for existing, but legroom and headroom are severely limited. It’s best reserved for small children or “maybe a 10-minute ride,” to quote my 15-year-old and 5-foot-7-inch assistant Owen.

The L’s controls are outdated, with slow voice recognition for navigation and other features and a joy stick that’s no picnic to use in a moving vehicle.

Lexus dealers wanted a three-row SUV to keep loyal customers in the fold, but they’d better hope those customers are very loyal. Shoppers who compare the RX 350L’s accommodations with vehicles engineered from the start to carry six or seven people are likely to go elsewhere.

2018 Lexus RX 350L Premium AWD

Price:  $49,070

Price as tested: $52,080 (excluding destination charge)

Engine: 3.5L 24-valve V6

EPA fuel estimates:18 mpg city, 25 highway using regular gasoline

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Length: 196.9 inches

Width: 74.5 inches

Height: 67.3 inches

Curb weight: 4,619 pounds

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