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RX is now a prescription for fun

A blast through the Japanese alps in the revamped Lexus RX reveals its fun side.

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Kusatsu, Japan

IF the new RX 300 is anything to go by, the Lexus factory must be a wondrous place. For a start, it's full of lasers.

The RX's body is now put together with heavy use of laser screw welding, which sounds like something robots get up to on their wedding night, but is really a way of joining metals with terrific strength and precision.

Then there are the focused light beams that slice wood for the cabin trim, probably with the sort of fineness with which Goldfinger expected to divide James Bond in two.

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Along with that cutting edge (sorry) technology, you'll find a handful of takumi - craftsmen who put a human touch to manufacturing quality. Of the 7,700 people who work in Lexus's Japan factory, only 19 qualify for the title, and even while wearing white gloves a takumi can apparently feel if something is off on a given surface by a single millimetre.

Come to think of it, working in a car plant where your quality-obsessed team leaders have eerie X-Men fingers might not be so hot. But buying a car from such a place could be a good idea, which brings us back to the new RX.

Lexus has facelifted its big sport utility vehicle (SUV) to keep it fresh, and it's now in Singapore in three versions. This RX 300 forms the first rung on the pricing ladder, at S$253,800 with certificate of entitlement.

As is so often with these mid-life revamps, there are new lamps, a subtly revised grille and lightly restyled bumpers.

But the meaningful stuff involves a stiffer shell (courtesy of the abovementioned laser screw method, along with more liberal use of body adhesives) and changes to the infotainment system.

The latter's 12.3-inch freestanding display is now a touchscreen, so you no longer have to fiddle with a tiny joystick and hunt for the virtual buttons you want. Even better, it now comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, so you can merrily plug your smartphone in and have it do all the hard work of entertaining you while the beautiful Lexus interface retreats into the background, like a neglected but stoic digital servant.

There's also a handy new slot for your smartphone, assuming you can part with it for the length of time it takes you to drive to work without getting separation anxiety.

But the new RX has plenty for driving enthusiasts, too. The stiffer bodyshell and new suspension settings transform the way the big Lexus drives, giving it noticeably sharper handling. In fact, the RX 300 is up there with Germany's finest in terms of its ability to carve a tight line through demanding corners. It feels a smidgen tighter than hefty machines like the Volkswagen Touareg, and though it isn't hard to make the tyres squeal, it also isn't unpleasant. If anything, it's quite the hoot. Who knew that threading an SUV that's enormous by Japanese standards through narrow mountain roads at a hot pace could be so much fun?

That said, the RX 350 model, with its smooth V6 engine, feels more refined in a classically Lexus sort of way, although it ought to for a $39,000 premium over the least expensive RX 300 model in Singapore, the Executive. Meanwhile the third member of the RX lineup is even more family-oriented, the RX 350 L, which packs two extra seats for the same cost as the RX 350.

The RX 300's 2.0-litre turbo engine is probably the weakest part of the package. It's vocal when revved hard, the one in our test car vibrated noticeably at idle, and it proved fairly thirsty hauling the Lexus up and down the Japanese alps. On the plus side, it's a decently punchy engine that delivers enough pace to match the improved chassis.

Whichever engine you choose, the RX is still lovingly assembled, roomy inside and striking to look at, but now it clearly aims to leave the driver satisfied as much as soothed. It is if the car's engineers, with help from lasers, have finally seen the light.


LEXUS RX 300

Engine 1,898cc, inline 4, turbocharged
Power 238hp at 4800rpm
Torque 350Nm at 1650-4000rpm
Gearbox 6-speed automatic
Top Speed 200km/h
0-100kmh 9.2 seconds

Fuel efficiency 8.1L/100km
Price From S$253,800 with COE
Agent Borneo Motors