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Third seating row to expand capacity – and appeal – of 2018 Lexus RX midsize luxury crossover

2018 Lexus RX

2018 Lexus RX

What changes make the 2018 Lexus RX different?

A third seating row to create the first seven-passenger version of America’s best-selling premium SUV. Increasing capacity from five gives Toyota’s luxury division its first direct competitor to the Acura RDX, Infiniti QX60, and Volvo XC90 — the only other upscale midsize three-row crossovers currently available. The seven-seat RX will be sold alongside the five-seat model, which is expected to carry over for 2018 with few changes. It’ll borrow the five-seater’s styling and likely offer both its gas and gas-electric hybrid powertrains.

Why should I wait for the 2018?

To evaluate the three-row model. It should boast the same outstanding quality, comfort, and customer service that have been among keys to the success of the current RX models. It’ll be attractive to upscale family buyers sold on the Lexus experience. Toyota’s Highlander crossover shares the RX’s basic engineering and can accommodate up to eight passengers on three seating rows. But it lacks Lexus’s premium imprimatur. And while the Lexus GX and LX can seat seven, they’re traditional truck-based sport-utilities with far less third-room and comfort than more carlike crossover SUVs. Lexus may well elongate the current RX350 and RX450h hybrid to accommodate the third seating row and is apt to name the seven-seaters the RX350L and RX450hL.

Should I buy a 2017 model instead?

If you’re OK with spacious seating for five and plenty of cargo volume in a package that’s highly refined and extravagantly styled, if rather unexciting to drive. The 2017 RX350 and RX450h won’t differ materially from the ’18s, so you’d be getting virtually the same crossover, but without the inevitable model-year price escalation. The RX is Lexus’s most popular vehicle and slots into its crossover roster above the compact-class NX. The ’17 lineup consists of the RX350 with a gas-only V-6 and the RX450h with a gas V-6 assisted by battery-powered electric propulsion. In a nod to drivers seeking greater involvement, each is available in F Sport form, which delivers modestly upgraded handling, special exterior trim, and unique front seats and interior décor. Given their different demographic appeal, it’s uncertain whether Lexus will offer the L models in F Sport trim.

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Will the styling be different?

Probably little more than a new color choice or two. Don’t expect real appearance alterations until model-year 2019, when the RX is due a midcycle freshening. Even then, look for only modest revisions to nose and tail to carry this crossover to its next full redesign in model-year 2020 or ’21. The current styling came on line with the RX’s model-year 2016 redesign. Its jangle of angles, medieval-faceplate grille, and blacked-out “floating” rear-roof pillar has proved less polarizing with time. They’ll continue for the 2018 seven-seat models. It’s interesting to note, however, that engineers fit a fairly adult-friendly third row into a Highlander body that’s no longer than that of today’s five-seat RX. The corporate cousins also share the same wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear axles). So it is conceivable the seven-seat RX won’t actually be any longer overall than the five-seater — although Lexus’s apparent intent to put “L” in their names suggests otherwise.

Regardless, all 2018 RX models should again come standard with 18-inch alloy wheels; 20s should be optional and, with a darker finish, again part of the F-Sport package. F Sports will return with their more aggressive-looking front fascia, black-mesh grille, and black instead of body-colored mirrors. Inside, the ’18 RX should remain comparatively conservative in design. It’ll carryover clear, logically arrayed controls and will swathe most every surface in soft-touch padding or quality-finish plastic. A convincing faux-leather material Lexus calls NuLuxe should again be standard on the RX350. Leather will likely continue as part of the RX350 Luxury Package and on the front seats of F Sport versions. Expect it to again be standard, along with wood trim, on the RX450h. Wood appliques and ambient lighting should return as part of the RX350 Luxury Package, which should also include aluminum trim similar to the metal in the F Sport.

Any mechanical changes?

None likely. The RX350 (and RX350L) should continue with one of the competitive set’s least powerful standard engines: a 3.5-liter V-6 of 295 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque. Nevertheless, they should continue to work splendidly with an 8-speed automatic transmission to furnish smooth, prompt throttle response and acceleration that’s more than adequate, if not heart-pounding.

The 2018 RX450h (and RX450hL) will return with a 3.5-liter V-6 teamed with an electric motor for a net 308 horsepower (Lexus doesn’t specify torque output). The system uses a continuously variable automatic transmission. This hybrid isn’t designed to run on electricity alone and isn’t a plug-in, relying instead on regenerative braking to recharge the nickel-metal-hydride battery pack. It’s 350 pounds heavier than the gas-only RX and isn’t as fast overall, but the RX450h is satisfyingly quick off the line and strong during merging and passing.

Expect all gas-only models to again come with a choice of front-wheel drive or an all-wheel-drive (AWD) system intended as a traction enhancer on snowy roads or gravely surfaces. The hybrid RXs should continue standard with an AWD setup that uses a second electric motor to drive the rear wheels. As does the AWD system in the RX350, it operates primarily in front-wheel drive and shuffles power rearward when sensors detect front-tire slip. No RX – not even an F Sport – entices you to race down a twisty road. Leave that to rivals like the Jaguar F Pace and Porsche Cayenne. But each handles with impressive equanimity, excelling at relaxed cruising and composed in city/suburban duty.

Will fuel economy improve?

EPA ratings won’t change for the five-seaters, with L models likely suffering slightly compromised fuel economy due to their additional weight. Overall, RX350 and RX450h fuel economy should remain among the best in a class where, admittedly, high mileage generally takes a backseat to luxury, performance, and prestige.

Expect 2018 RX350s to again rate 20/27/23 mpg city/highway/combined with front-drive and 19/26/22 with AWD. The RX450h, available only with AWD, should again rate 31/28/30 mpg. A 1-2-mpg penalty for the L models would not be unexpected. Lexus recommends 87-octane gas for the RX350 but says the RX450h achieves top performance and mileage with premium-grade 91-octaine gas.

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Will it have new features?

Probably not — other than amenities introduced with the L models, such as a power-folding third-row seat. Otherwise, the ’18 RX line should offer most anything a premium-midsize-crossover buyer could want, short of high-performance horsepower or automatic parallel parking. Safety will be well-covered, with every RX coming equipped with the Lexus Safety System+. This bundle of driver aids includes radar cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead, lane-departure waring with automatic steering correction, and high-beam headlamps that automatically dim for oncoming traffic. Its key feature is pre-crash warning and autonomous emergency braking to mitigate a collision with another vehicle or a pedestrian. That ability to automatically come to a full emergency stop is a prerequisite for the industry’s most coveted safety rating, the Top Safety Pick+ award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Among other returning standard features on every RX will be heated mirrors, a power liftgate, keyless entry with pushbutton start, power front seats with power lumbar, power tilt-and-telescope steering column, dual-zone automatic climate control, a 40/20/40 split-folding rear seat, and a rearview monitor. An infotainment system with Siri Eyes Free connectivity and an 8-inch dashboard screen will also be included. So will the Scout GPS Link to provide cellphone-based turn-by-turn navigation with voice guidance on the RX’s dashboard screen via Bluetooth. The app is available at the Apple App store and through Google Play for Android devices. An outstanding imbedded navigation system should again be optional and available with a 12.3-inch screen with 3D representations of key buildings and landmarks. Returning as standard or optional depending on the model will be such features as steering-linked headlamps with triple-beam LED headlights; a heated leather steering wheel; three-setting memory for the power driver’s seat, mirrors, and steering column; an easy-exit driver’s seat; and rain-sensing windshield wipers.

How will 2018 prices be different?

They’ll likely increase for the five-seaters and reflect the additional cost of third-seat accommodations in the L models. Transaction prices should again average around $50,000, so while the ’18 RX will remain premium-priced, it’ll still be at the low end of a category in which the most affordable versions of crossovers such as the Mercedes-Benz GLE and BMW X5 start above $50,000.

Estimated base prices here include the manufacturer’s destination fee; it was $975 for the 2017 RX. Expect the 2018 RX350 to start around $44,300 with front-wheel drive and at $45,800 with AWD. Look for F Sport versions to be priced from around $50,300 and $51,700 with AWD. Estimated base price for the ’18 RX450h is $54,400, or about $57,650 in F Sport guise. The L versions should add around $1,500-$2,000 to those base prices, but the charge for popular options should be about the same. Among those would be the Luxury Package (around $4,500), with aluminum and wood cabin trim and ambient lighting, enhanced power lumbar adjustments, and 20-inch alloy wheels. Expect the return of a panoramic moonroof ($1,100); a wide-angle rearview monitor ($1,865 including a blind-spot monitor with rear-cross-traffic alert); a head-up instrument display ($600); a rear-seat DVD entertainment system ($2,095, including 11.6-inch dual screens, wireless headphones and remote control, and HDMI connection); and power-folding heated second-row seats ($1,480, including heated front seats).

When will it come out?

Expect a release date for the 2018 Lexus RX in the first half of 2017.

What are the top competitors?

Acura MDX, BMW X5, Buick Enclave, Infiniti QX60, Lincoln MKX, Mercedes-Benz GLE, Volvo XC90.

What changes would make it better?

You could argue for tamer styling, but strong sales suggest buyers have responded to Lexus’s efforts to visually enliven its staid image. Same for tauter road manners; owner seem just fine with the RX’s comfort-oriented road manners. Lexus dealers have been clamoring for a seven-seat version, and with the automaker poised to deliver one, it seems the ’18 RX has its bases covered.

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]