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We drive a carload of kids in Lexus’ new 3-row RX


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The mid-size premium crossover utility market – try saying that after five rounds of sake — is up by around five percent or so, and the biggest seller in that market, by far the biggest seller, is the Lexus RX. Its 108,307 sales last year were more than the Mercedes GLS and GLE combined, more than the Acura MDX and RDX combined, more than the BMW X3, X4 and X5 combined, more than the Audi Q5 and Q7 combined, and more than everything Land Rover/Ranger Rover sells (that’s right) combined.

So what is Lexus doing about this segment dominance? Adding another model! At last November’s Los Angeles auto show Lexus introduced a stretched, three-row version of the RX that will be called the RX 350L, or RX 450hL if you get the hybrid. All the RXs before this had only two rows, with seating for no more than five. Carpools are getting bigger, it seems. Lexus figured that not having a three-row option was costing it around 30,000 sales a year and that just would not do if its plans for world domination through luxury SUV sales was to stay on track.

To get the word out about this new development, they called me, lowly me, and offered a three-row RX 350L. Perhaps they read about my carpool woes, wherein I was now driving five kids to school, which, if you count me, you can’t legally or safely do in a two-row anything. So at this point in life, at least until summer vacation comes around, I appreciate three rows and, it further seems, so does America. Unless I have a three-row vehicle, I must haul the old Volkswagen Eurovan out of its parking spot at the top of the driveway and rattle to school in that. It seats seven, two of them facing backwards in the carsickness positions or, as the Germans call it, Das Upchukinsitz. So I told Lexus that yes, I would love to try out its RX 350L. 

To fit a third row of seats, Lexus had to add 4.3 inches to the back end of the RX aft of the rear axle. The wheelbase remains the same. The rear end is a little more upright than the standard RX, too, which allows more headroom for the third-seaters. That third row gets its own climate zone, its own vents and its own set of cupholders. Kids back there might not want to leave the car.

The third row looks claustrophobic at first, and reiterates my own personal belief in the true value of the minivan. Minivans seat seven people and all their backpacks. Minivans are the ultimate utility vehicle. But there are still millions of young, angry mothers (and fathers, but mostly mothers) who cling desperately to image, and for them the image of a minivan means that they are no longer young and exciting, or something, whereas the image of a crossover utility vehicle tells the world, “Hey! I still go skiing! Really! It’s true! Or I could, if I wanted to, really! Hey!” I’ll never understand marketing.

So into the third row went the shortest kid, and I felt kind of bad sending him there. But the middle row slides up fairly easily and the middle seatback flips forward, so access to that cramped rear is not too difficult. Then you slide the middle row back until you hear a squeaking sound from the kid in the third row, and at that point you lock the second row in place by flipping the seatback to vertical again. He had his own climate control and cup holders so I guess he was okay. The rest of the kids then filled in like high tide. Everyone seemed happy, but no one heard a peep from the kid in the way back. Poor kid. Good thing I remembered he was there or he would have gone to work with me. That might have done him some good, learn to type, at least.

Once it’s emptied, the third row has a power-folding feature that about doubles cargo space. This is good since you give up about half the cargo space if you go with the third row option.

The rest of the RX 350L is just like the RX 350: a 295-hp 3.5-liter V6 with an eight-speed automatic powering the front wheels (AWD is a $1400 option). It’s comfortable and cushy around town. I had the $2120 Navigation package, which allowed me to play around with that Lexus mouse controller. It didn’t drive me nuts like some other systems (cough-Cadillac-cough).

Would I rather have this or an MDX, Q5 or GLE? As I said, I’d rather have a minivan, but I don’t care who thinks I still ski. 

On Sale: Now

Base Price: $48,645

As Tested Price: $52,980

Powertrain: 3.5-liter V6, 8-speed automatic, FWD

Output: 295 hp at 6300 rpm; 267 lb-ft at 4700 rpm

Curb Weight: 4,222 (RX 350)

0-60 MPH: 7.7 sec. (RX 350)

Fuel Economy: 20/28/23 (RX 350)(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)

Options: Blind spot monitoring w/ cross-traffic alert ($1385); heated/ventilated front seats ($640); Touch-free power rear door ($200); NAV/Audio ($2120)

Pros: An entirely practical, comfortable conveyance

Cons: If you’re going to go boring, go minivan!

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