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Old but still gold? 2021 Lexus RX aims to hold

What changes will make the 2021 Lexus RX different?

Little more than a new paint color or two on the heels of a model-year-2020 refresh for America’s top-selling premium midsize crossover. The 2021 RX will return in five-passenger form and as slightly longer models with three seating rows and accommodations for up to seven. Each will again be available with a gas or a gas-electric-hybrid powertrain.

Comfort, reliability, and the red-carpet service associated with the Lexus brand will remain ’21 RX highlights. So will prices that undercut those of European competitors such as the BMW X5, Audi Q7, and Mercedes-Benz GLE. The ’20 freshening included subtle styling tweaks that hardly altered this crossover’s extravagant appearance, so the ’21 will again feature a gaping grille, slashing body lines, and a “floating” rear roof pillar.

Should I wait for the 2021 model or buy a 2020?

Buy a 2020. Its updates will carry over to the ’21, for which the most notable change will be higher prices. The model lineup won’t change. Both the two- and three-row versions will return in gas-only RX 350 form and in hybrid RX 450h guise. The three-row models will again wear an “L” suffix.

The 2021 RX 350 and RX 350L will continue with a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive (AWD). The ’21 RX 450h and RX 450hL will remain AWD only. So will F Sport versions available exclusively in five-seat form; these will again feature unique appearance touches and handling-tuned suspensions.

Waiting for the ’21 would also net you an RX nearer the end of this design generation; for styling and features, the 2020 RX would have a longer shelf life. Precisely when the next all-new RX will launch, however, only Lexus and parent company Toyota know.

Today’s RX iteration debuted for model-year 2016. The three-row version was added for 2018. The RX traditionally shares its underskin engineering with Toyota’s Highlander crossover and will likely continue to do so. A redesigned RX has historically followed a redesigned Highlander by two model years. With the Toyota all new for model-year 2020, the next RX redesign is presumably cued up for model-year 2022, although some sources peg it for model-year 2023.

Either way, Lexus is prepping a next-gen RX aimed at maintaining sales leadership in one of America’s most competitive automotive classes. The original RX in fact helped create the premium midsize crossover back in 1999. It’s been the segment’s perennial sales champ – and the best-selling Lexus – as the class has expanded to more than two-dozen entries, even attracting the likes of Ferrari, Bentley Lamborghini, and Aston Martin. Though RX demand slipped 4 percent during the first half of 2019, it remained dominant in a segment that was up 4.5 percent. It outsold the No. 2 Buick Enclave nearly 2-1 and maintained an even wider margin over the rest of the top 10 (respectively, the X5, Infiniti QX60, Acura MDX, GLE, Volvo XC90, Q7, Lincoln MKX, and Range Rover Sport).

Will the styling be different?

No, not until the next full redesign. The ’21 RX will carry over the minor revisions that came with the 2020 refresh. These included reshaped front and rear fasciae, a different pattern for the grille’s plastic inserts, thinner headlamps, and new wheel designs. Dimensions were unchanged, so the ’21 RX’s most important measurement, its wheelbase, will remain below average for the class. On newer rivals, this distance between the front and rear axles averages about 114 inches; on the RX, it’s 109.8 inches.

Wheelbase is critical to legroom. Both the two-row RX and the three-row L models share the same span and provide first- and second-row occupants with clearance sufficient to avoid feeling cramped. The relatively short wheelbase, however, saddles L models with a sparsely padded third row severely confining even for youngsters. In all models, first- and second-row seats are supple and supportive and can be heated and ventilated as an option at around $640. Optional again at around $400 for L models will be captain’s chairs in place of the second-row bench, creating a six-passenger configuration.

Frankly, nothing in this segment has a truly roomy third row, but you could look to the XC90, Tesla Model X, and the new Lincoln Aviator as rivals that at least treat theirs as something more than a marketing afterthought.

Lexus does stretch the body of the RX 350L and RX 450hL 4.3 inches, but that translates mostly into about four cubic feet of additional cargo volume. Still, the L models have room for little more than a row of grocery bags behind their rearmost seat. Hands-free operation for the standard power liftgate has been a $200 option; we’d suggest Lexus make it standard for 2021.

All ’21 RX models will again have brightly lit instrumentation and a user-friendly dashboard. Less sociable is the center-console mouse-like controller for the infotainment system. The 2020 refresh reduced reliance on the finicky interface by furnishing both the standard 8-inch and optional 12.3-inch dashboard screens with touch-sensitive icons. Many functions can also be governed via voice command and steering-wheel controls.

The cabin will again brim with solid-feeling panels and present richly padded surfaces most everywhere you’ll touch. Lexus’s convincing faux-leather NuLuxe upholstery is likely to remain standard on every ’21 RX, with F Sports boasting extra bolstering and handsome contrasting stitching. Leather upholstery, along with genuine wood and aluminum trim, should remain optional.

Any mechanical changes?

Very unlikely. Lexus enhanced some mechanical features for 2020, and the ’21 RX will repeat those, including torque vectoring that sharpens handling by applying a touch of braking to the inside wheels during cornering. But major changes won’t occur until the redesign.

The 2021 RX will return with Toyota-derived drivetrains that have proven quite satisfying in this role. The RX 350, RX 350 F Sport, and RX 350L use the corporate 3.5-liter V-6 engine, here with 295 horsepower and 268 pound-feet of torque. Abetted by a responsive eight-speed automatic transmission, acceleration is strong and smooth, merging and passing are fuss-free. Zero-60 mph takes 7 seconds or so and that’s comparable to direct rivals with similar power and three rows of seats.

The 2021 RX 450h, RX 450h F Sport, and RX 450hL will again pair a 3.5-liter gasoline V-6 with a battery-powered electric motor for a net 308 horsepower (Lexus quotes no torque figure). The hybrids use a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Like the eight-speed automatic, it comes with steering-wheel paddle shifters to simulate manual-gear control, even though CVTs don’t have stepped gear ratios.

The ’21 RX 450h and 450hL are not plug-in hybrids. They rely instead on energy captured during coasting and braking to recharge their onboard battery pack. Their electric-motor assist contributes to acceleration, helping offset their roughly 150 pounds of additional mass, so throttle response is satisfying, even if they are roughly a half-second slower to 60 mph than the gas-only RXs.

The 2020 refresh added structural rigidity and retuned suspension components to help erase some impact harshness that occasionally sullied the RX experience. Still, stick with the 18-inch wheels and tires standard on non-F Sport versions for the kind of rough-road absorbency you expect from a Lexus. Twenty-inch wheels and tires are optional and are standard on F Sports. They don’t filter bumps and ruts nearly as well, and roar more on coarse pavement, too.

Nothing Lexus has done or will do to this RX generation will elevate its handling to challenge the likes of the Q7, X5, or Porsche Cayenne. Still, road manners are perfectly compatible with this crossover’s mission. Steering is light and linear, and the RX remains composed and predictable in changes of direction.

Stiffer underpinnings along with Lexus’s Active Variable Suspension system contribute to the F Sport’s firmer ride, as well as its slim but noticeably margin of handling prowess over the mainstream RXs. For 2020, Lexus added to the basic F Sport package a second version upgraded with specially tuned steering, enhanced engine air intake, a heated steering wheel, and a system that lets the driver select a throatier engine note.

Will fuel economy improve?

Only by virtue of an alteration to EPA test formulas, not because of changes to the vehicle. That means you can expect the 2021 RX 350 to remain among the most fuel-efficient crossovers in its competitive set.

Look for the ’21 RX 350 to rate 20/27/23 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 19/26/22 with AWD. The RX 350L should match the five-seater’s front-drive rating but slip to 18/25/21 mpg with AWD. With AWD standard, anticipate the 2021 RX 450h and RX 450hL to rate 29/28/29 mpg city/highway/combined.

F Sport versions will carry the same ratings as the models upon which they are based. Gas-on RXs will continue to use regular-grade 87-octane gasoline while Lexus recommends premium-grade 91-octane for the RX 450h and RX 450hL.

Will there be new features?

Not likely, as the 2021 RX carries over the minor feature changes that came with the 2020 refresh. Most important, every ’21 RX model will come standard with Lexus Safety System+ 2.0. This includes forward-collision warning, autonomous emergency braking designed to slow or stop the crossover to mitigate a frontal collision, automatic high-beam headlight control, lane-departure warning and automatic steering correction, and adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead.

The autonomous braking feature already included pedestrian detection; added for 2020 and continuing for ’21 is bicyclist detection and increased sensitivity to detect pedestrians in low-light conditions. Also added was driver-monitored semi-autonomous steering designed to place the RX between lane markings and, where markings are not detected, to follow the vehicle ahead. Blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic detection with automatic braking has been optional, at around $1,100, and we’d urge Lexus to make this important driver assist standard for 2021; it is on many less expensive vehicles.

Overall, two- and three-row versions of the 2021 RX 350 and 450h will largely mirror one another for standard and optional equipment. All will come with keyless access and pushbutton engine start, power front seats with 10-way adjustment for the driver and 8-way for the passenger, power tilt and telescopic steering wheel, and dual- (RX) or tri-zone (RX L) automatic climate control. LED daytime running lights and fog lights, along with LED low- and high-beam headlamps will again be standard, with triple-beam LED headlamps returning as an option at around $1,600.

F Sport grades of the 2021 RX 350 and 450h will again add unique wheels, instrument cluster, and an aero body kit, heated and ventilated sport bucket front seats with driver-side memory function, ambient interior lighting, and auto-dimming exterior mirrors.

Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and six USB ports will return as standard across the board. The 2020 refresh added a dedicated space to store smartphones, but lack of wireless charging belies the RX’s advancing age; Lexus would do well to find a way to offer it for 2021.

Imbedded navigation will again be available via the Navigation Package (about $2,200), and will include the 12.3-inch widescreen, 12-speaker audio system, climate-control smog sensor, and Lexus Enform Remote, which allows users to control certain vehicle features, such as remote engine start, with a smartwatch or Amazon Alexa. It also comes the automaker’s Dynamic Voice Command, which responds brilliantly to even the most casually spoken requests and orders.

Will 2021 prices be different?

Expect 2021 RX base prices to continue track a bit higher than those of its Japanese-and American-brand rivals but to generally undercut those of European competitors. Estimated base prices here include Lexus’s destination fee of around $1,100.

Expect the 2021 RX 350 with front-wheel drive to start around $45,500 and the RX 350L to be priced from around $49,500. Look for a base price of around $51,000 for the front-drive RX 350 F Sport. All-wheel drive will again add about $1,400 to these models.

The 2021 RX 450h and 450hL will again come standard with AWD. Estimated base prices are $47,9950 and $52,500, respectively. Expect the 2021 RX 450h F Sport to start around $53,000.

Key options will again come mostly in packages. A Premium Package available for the non-F Sport models should again include genuine wood interior trim, leather upholstery, auto-dimming exterior mirrors, driver-seat memory, power sunroof, and a storage compartment in the rear armrest. Expect it to cost a reasonable $1,200 or so on five-passenger RSs and $850 on L versions.

Expect a Luxury Package to return at around $4,300 on the RX 350/450h and $5,100 on the 350L/450hL and to again include everything in the Premium Package plus 20-inch wheels, power-adjustable thigh support for the front seats, upgraded leather upholstery, Sapele wood and aluminum interior trim, rear-window sunshades, and a heated wood/leather steering wheel.

All 2021 RX models should again offer the $315 Cold Weather Package that includes a windshield wiper de-icer, auto-leveling headlights, and a special heater designed to warm the cabin more quickly. The $265 Towing Prep Package adds a heavy-duty radiator and coolers for the engine and transmission oil systems, for a maximum towing capacity of 3,500 pounds.

Expect a Navigation/Mark Levinson Audio Package (estimated price, $3,225) to include everything in the aforementioned Navigation Package, plus a 15-speaker, 835-watt Mark Levinson audio system.

When does it come out?

Look for a 2021 Lexus RX release date in the third quarter of 2020.

Best competitors

Acura MDX, Audi Q7, BMW X5, Buick Enclave, Cadillac XT6, Infiniti QX60, Lincoln Aviator, Mercedes-Benz GLE, Porsche Cayenne, Volvo XC90

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]