Nelspruit - Lexus has gone from serious-and-sensible to love-me-if-you-dare in just a few short years and the new RX SUV, launched in South Africa this week, proves that the party is only getting started.

The new premium crossover's design, which Lexus claims was inspired by Origami, takes the next step along the bold design path forged by its smaller siblings, the IS, RC and NX. The end result is a head-turning exterior that's undeniably sporty and athletic, to the point where you might mistake it for a concept car that went AWOL from a major motor show. That said, if you're a fan of neat designs with classically geometric proportions then this Lexus, with its orgy of creases and slashes, will probably seem too 'busy' for your liking.

COSY DRIVE

Yet if you thought the 'let's be sporty memo' was also sent to the chassis and drivetrain engineers you'd be wrong, and that's a good thing as far as I'm concerned. Here Lexus has stuck to what it's really good at and as a result the RX is an incredibly silent and comfortable mile-gobbler. The ride quality is exceptional, especially considering it's not air-sprung, and it even wafted cosily over the wonky dirt roads that my co-pilot and I subjected it to on the launch in the vicinity of the Kruger Park, mostly because we ditched the route guide to put our faith in an overly-ambitious satnav.

HYBRID AND PETROL POWER

The RX is available in two versions, both fitted with a normally aspirated 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine, the difference being that one of them is mated to an electric motor. Your choice, then, lies between the RX350, priced at R799 000, and the RX450h hybrid, yours for R999 000.

The RX350's VVT-iW (Wide) direct injection motor produces 221kW and 370Nm (up by 17kW and 24Nm), while the hybrid model mates a 193kW/335Nm Atkinson cycle V6 to two electric motors for a combined system output of 230kW. The greener RX, which gets a CVT gearbox instead of the 350's new eight-speed auto, is naturally a lot more efficient than its sibling, with a claimed combined (laboratory cycle) fuel figure of 5.7 litres per 100km, versus 9.6 l/100km in the case of the RX350.

While the latter has a conventional permanent all-wheel drive system, the hybrid has the Lexus E-Four AWD design, whereby the rear-mounted electric motor provides propulsion to the rear wheels when needed.

On our launch route the RX350 proved to be smooth and silent but it's not the most responsive powertrain combination around, although performance is certainly decent within its context. The RX450h has that extra responsive edge and, of course, it's even more whisper silent.

FEATURE-PACKED CABIN

The other essential element of luxury motoring is the furniture inside and here Lexus has emulated the sporty persona of the exterior while still exuding the kind of premium vibes expected at this price level, thanks to high-quality materials, some classy stitching in strategic places and even some laser-cut inlays. Cabin colour choices, however, are limited to black and ivory.

With a 50mm-longer wheelbase the new RX offers more rear legroom and boot space than its predecessor and it retains its five-seat layout.

The driver's main interface is a 31.2cm screen perched on top of the dash where it's close to the field of road vision, but being out of the way also means that you need a joystick-like 'mouse' controller on the centre console.

Among the long list of gadgets fitted to the new RX is a wireless smartphone charging pad. This is standard on both models, along with leather seats (10-way power adjustable and heated up front), powered tailgate, reverse camera, blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, electrically-adjustable steering wheel, powered sliding roof and keyless start.

“The options are standard” as Lexus puts it and while the base model shouldn't leave you feeling deprived in any way, the 450h adds even more to the mix, including a 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio system (replacing the 12-speaker Lexus unit in the 350), heated steering wheel, unique petal-style alloy wheels, Tri-LED headlights and sequential LED indicators that perform something of a Mexican wave in the front and rear light clusters.

VERDICT

The RX offers a unique combination of radical, daring style with a chassis set up for comfort and smooth normally aspirated V6 power. While not as sporty to drive as its X5 rival from BMW, buyers in this segment are likely to appreciate the comfort and luxury offered by this Japanese crossover.

PRICES

RX 350 EX - R799 000

RX 450h SE - R999 000

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