When Lexus introduced the RX in 1998, it created what would become one of the hottest segments in the automotive industry: the luxury crossover SUV. Hard to believe as it may be now, this was quite the risk back then. Would buyers go for a utility vehicle based not on a truck chassis but rather a sedan? Would they be willing to trade the ability to haul heavier loads and tackle off-road terrain for a plusher ride and better fuel economy? 

The answer was a resounding yes. That original RX 300 became an immediate hit. In the years to come the Lexus RX became the luxury brand’s best-selling vehicle, and would be replicated by almost every other brand. The Lexus RX is now in its fourth generation and earns some of the highest marks among midsize luxury crossovers. The latest version of this 2-row/5-passenger SUV debuted for 2016 with more technology, enhanced safety features, aggressive design, and the choice of a standard V6 or a hybrid powertrain that pairs a V6 and two electric motors.

But for all the things the RX offered in the Lexus lineup, there was one glaring omission: seating for more than five people. Yes, Lexus offers 3-row SUVs in the GX and LX, but both are pricier and more akin to the RX’s predecessors: big, rougher-riding, body-on-frame SUVs better suited for tackling trails and towing than for shuttling kids and running errands. In the 20 years since the Lexus RX launched, it has seen rivals like the Acura MDX, Audi Q7, Infiniti QX60 and even its own downmarket cousin, the Toyota Highlander, meet the needs of families seeking a 3-row luxury crossover.

Bigger yet similar

Now, finally – finally! – the Lexus RX is available as a 3-row crossover, dubbed the Lexus RX L. Two variants are available, the standard, gasoline-powered RX 350L, or the hybrid RX 450hL. The RX 350L comes with a 3-across bench in the second row and seating for seven. Optional on the 350L and standard for the RX 450hL hybrid are captain’s chairs in the second row, which means seating for six passengers total.

Both extended-length variants use the same powertrains as the standard models – a V6 for the RX 350L, and the hybrid setup for the RX 450hL. Like the standard RX, V6 RX L models are front-wheel drive (FWD), with all-wheel drive (AWD) optional for those needing enhanced traction for slippery roads and winter driving. All hybrid variants remain all-wheel drive. The only powertrain difference is minor: The RX 350L is down 5 horsepower, at 290, vs. the regular model. Lexus reps say this is because the RX L uses a single exhaust outlet vs. two for the regular RX.

On the fuel economy front, the longer Lexus RX is only 1 mpg behind the standard model, with a front-drive Lexus RX 350L at 19 mpg city/26 highway and AWD variants showing 18/25 mpg (hybrid RX L variants have yet to be scored).

Beyond powertrains, there are numerous other similarities between the standard 2-row Lexus RX and the new 3-row RX L. Even the wheelbase of the two is the same. Lexus was able to squeeze in the third row by lengthening the body 4.3 inches in the rear. Even with the added length, the new Lexus RX L looks well-proportioned.  It will take a keen eye to spot the RX L, which has a slightly less tapered rear roof and marginally longer C-pillar. Like the 2-row model, the C-pillar behind the rear doors flows down to the tailgate window and is blacked out to make it appear as if the roof is “floating.”

Driving impressions

As we mentioned, under the metal the Lexus RX L has the same powertrain components as the standard model. So in theory, this lengthened Lexus RX shouldn’t feel vastly different. After testing a 2018 RX 350L over several days, we found this to be mostly the case. Mostly. 

While the V6 engine, 8-speed transmission and other hardware are taken from the regular RX 350, there is the matter of weight difference. With its extra capacity, this RX L has a base curb weight of 4,464 pounds for a front-drive version. That’s a 242-pound gain over the standard model. 

On the road, it translates to the feeling of extra heft and slightly more body roll. The standard Lexus RX isn’t all that athletic to begin with, nor is it intended to be. Lexus’ crossover SUV has always prioritized comfort over nimbleness, and that remains so. This larger version consequently feels more bloated when attempting to carve corners or otherwise wring it out, something most owners admittedly won’t be doing. For the rare times you might want a little more spice, you can rotate the driver-setting dial to Sport, which firms the steering feel and tailors shifting to be more aggressive.

Power output from the V6 remains impressive. In fact, in front-wheel-drive versions, don’t be surprised to feel torque steer coming through the steering wheel if you gun it, as we did several times. The Lexus RX L’s 0-60 mph acceleration is pegged at 7.9 seconds, just a tick behind the 7.7 mark for the standard model. Towing capacity remains at 3,500 pounds.

Inside – where it matters most

While this is a First Drive Review, the differentiator for the new Lexus RX L is on the inside. Maybe we should call it a First Sit Review. 

So while we drove this new Lexus crossover ample miles, we gave it plenty of seat time in the most literal sense. The third row is, after all, the big deal about the new Lexus RX L. Unfortunately, though, it’s a letdown. It’s taken Lexus two decades to make a 3-row crossover, and now that it’s here, the interior seating comes up short.

We found this the case both subjectively and objectively. Let’s refer to the former, presented below. The numbers don’t lie.  With just 23.5 inches of legroom for the third row, the RX L has the least amount of space compared to rivals, and suffers from decreased 2nd row legroom, too (not so with the standard RX model, whose second row has a generous 38 inches of legroom). Though not in the luxury realm, we’ve also thrown in the stats for the Lexus’ downmarket cousin, the Toyota Highlander, which also squarely beats the Lexus in space. Here’s the tale of the tape, taken from manufacturers’ official stats.

 

1st-row legroom (inches)  

2nd-row legroom (inches) 

3rd-row legroom (inches) 

Lexus RX L  

41.4  

30.9 

23.5 

Acura MDX 

41.4 

36.6-38.5 (slideable)  

28.1-30.9 (slideable) 

Audi Q7 

41.7 

38.8 

29.2 

Infiniti QX60 

42.2 

41.7 

30.8 

Buick Enclave 

41.2 

38.9 

33.5  

Volvo XC90 

40.9 

37.0 

31.9 

Mercedes-Benz GLS 

40.3 

38.5 

35.0 

Lexus GX 

41.7 

34.1 

29.3 

Toyota Highlander 

44.2 

38.4 

27.7 

 

Telling the story further, this isn’t a case where the numbers deceive. Subjectively, too, our editors found the Lexus’ 3rd row a very, very tight squeeze. If you intend to use the RX L’s third-row only occasionally, and only for children, it might work. But putting adults back there could be cause for litigation.

None of our adult staffers was comfortable in the third row, even when the second row slid forward. Even those under 5-foot-8 could barely fit, and those who managed to squeeze in had their head pressed against the ceiling and their knees touching the seatback of the middle row. Speaking of that second row, that, too, has less space than that of the standard RX, but it’s still usable for adults. If you want a 3-row luxury SUV that can actually accommodate adults or growing children in the last row, look to one of the RX L’s rivals.

Some upshots

While the 3-row Lexus RX is a disappointment in terms of third-row space, there are some benefits to this extended-length RX over the standard model. First, you’ll get a little more cargo space. Folding the third row yields over 23 cubic feet of space, vs. 18.4 behind the second row of the standard RX. Folding both rear rows opens up nearly 58.5 cubic feet of space, vs. 56.3 in the standard RX with the rear seat folded. 

Folding that third row is easy thanks to standard power folding and unfolding, operated by a pair of switches in the rear cargo area. The second-row seats fold easily enough once you find the right lever to pull (it’s near the bottom).

Other niceties include a subfloor behind the third row where you can store the tonneau cover, independent climate controls for 3rd-row passengers, and two powered USB inputs for second-row passengers (rear bench setup only).

Pricing and availability

Including the $995 destination fee, the 2018 Lexus RX 350L starts at $48,665 for a front-wheel drive version, while all-wheel-drive models begin at $50,065. That equals a $4,400 premium over the prices of the standard 2-row Lexus RX 350. The hybrid RX 450hL, which comes with all-wheel drive and is only available with seating for six, begins at $51,615, a $4,925 increases over the standard hybrid RX. The 2018 RX 350L is on sale now, and the RX 450hL is set to hit dealerships in April. If you decide on a test drive, we recommend also doing a test-sit of the rear rows to determine if there’s enough space for your needs in this new Lexus 3-row crossover.

Build and price your own 2018 Lexus RX L to see this week's Fair Purchase Price, 5-Year Cost to Own and more. 

 

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