The stakes could not be higher for the all-new version of the venerable Lexus RX sport utility vehicle being unveiled at the New York International Auto Show (NYIAS) this week. The nameplate is the best-seller in the brand’s 26-year history, with global sales of more than 2.1 million units representing three out of 10 vehicles ever sold by Lexus.
Introduced in 1998, RX blazed a trail that other mid-sized luxury SUVs tried to follow—but rivals are still playing catch up. Even as competition in the segment has proliferated, the stylish RX still enjoys a 25 percent share of the premium SUV market that it essentially created.
The new, fourth-generation RX tries to live up to this formidable legacy with new styling (an attribute that was crucial to the success of the first RX 17 years ago), an upgraded V6 4engine, enhanced handling and the first installation for the Lexus brand of the innovative Lexus Safety System+.
A press release notes that the new RX has “emboldened spindle grille, more aggressive front bumper and available triple L-shaped LED headlamps.” It further describes the new styling as “a more sophisticated and advanced look. Muscular front fender flares add to the vehicle’s sporty attitude.”
Lexus Safety System+ pushes the brand further down the road toward autonomous driving by integrating several existing active-safety technologies, including a pre-collision system that detects sudden stops by the vehicle ahead, engaging automatic braking in some circumstances. There’s also a lane departure alert that issues an audible signal if RX strays out of its intended lane.
“Our ambition has been to make a bold and completely new statement in this segment while building on and staying true to the pioneering values of previous RX generations,” Takayuki Katsuda, chief engineer of the new RX, said in a press release.
The car won’t go on sale until the fourth quarter, but initial reviews by automotive cognoscenti attending NYIAS were positive.
“For many shoppers, the RX is simply the go-to vehicle when looking for a luxury SUV,” said Brian Moody, site editor for Autotrader. “I expect this will continue and the new look should attract a distinctly younger audience.”
Added Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book: “Lexus is stepping beyond its comfort zone with the new RX’s styling. The redesigned crossover reflects a desire to inject more personality and passion across the Lexus model line, and the new RX certainly conveys both.”
brandchannel spoke with Jeff Bracken, group vice president and general manager for Lexus, about the new RX and its place in the market.
brandchannel: Given the RX’s market-leading position, its importance for Lexus and Toyota, and its history of leadership, were you concerned about restyling such an iconic vehicle?
Jeff Bracken:. When RX was introduced 17 years ago, it was an immediate home run. So the idea of taking the No. 1-selling vehicle for the brand and applying aggressively re-imagined styling is a big deal for us—like playing with fire.
But Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda is always pushing us to come up with the next “wow” design. That’s why the fourth-generation RX has been engineered in a manner we call “sophistication with an edge.”
bc: What’s the significance of Lexus Safety System+?
Bracken: The significance is that, historically, adding these features and systems as options might have cost thousands of dollars. Now, we have bundled them at a price of under $650—that’s a great value. Our strategy is to make that kind of package available on almost all of our models by the end of 2017.
bc: Is this also Lexus making a statement about the future of autonomous driving?
Bracken: We understand the interest, but we’d rather keep the driver coupled to the car and to surround him with the latest safety features. Autonomous driving is several years away.
bc: How has the market evolved for the RX from the one it created?
Bracken: Seventeen years ago, we were about the only one. Now we have 16 competitors in the mid-size luxury SUV segment. Yet RX continues to be not only the No. 1 volume vehicle but also to have a 25 percent market share. And this is still one of the biggest premium segments.
This also is the most loyal segment we deal with: 60 percent of RX owners return to the Lexus brand. So the new RX is very important not only from a volume point of view but also a return-to-market standpoint.
Bc: How are you aligning the RX’s edgier design with the related marketing and messaging?
Bracken: We’re delivering a combination punch: It starts with product. We’re bringing in younger customers to vehicles like the RX. From a styling standpoint, it’s opening their eyes to Lexus. So the ads need to be edgier to attract folks who previously considered Lexus too traditional for them.