The Lexus RX Redesign History Is Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary

The Lexus RX is heading into its 30th year, and its fifth generation. It’s hard for some of us to believe that all of those bronze or white colored (and lets, face it they’re nearly all bronze or white) first generation Lexus RX350s are still on the road. But this car-based SUV is known as a reliable and solid performer that can easily go 200,000 miles. While Lexus has consistently updated the RX, it’s never broken that mold through the five generations of RX.

Is the Lexus RX reliable?

A silver 2016 Lexus RX in a parking garage. It's known as a reliable SUV.
2016 Lexus RX | Lexus

The original RX was based on the Toyota Camry platform. Thirty years ago the company jumped on the then-new SUV craze and decided to build a tall wagon, instead of a tough off-roader. It stood out as a comfortable luxury SUV with a ride that was, indeed, more like car’s. Compared the Chevy Blazers and Ford Explorers of the day, that were based on trucks, it drove and handled much better.

Thanks to its Toyota Camry platform, which included Toyota’s 3.0-liter V6, these original Lexus RX300 SUVs are known to be reliable.  J.D. Power started rating the RX in 2007, and it earned a “great” score for reliability of 88, a score that’s basically remained unchanged ever since. At RepairPal, which tracks vehicle reliability, the RX350 version gets four out five stars, which ranks it third in the list of 14 luxury midsize SUVs.

But of course, that’s for the RX350, not the original RX. So what are the differences in the five generations of Lexus RX?

The first generation was one of the first car-based SUVs

1999 Lexus RX300 was built on the Toyota Camry platform.
The first Lexus RX 300 was one of the first car-based SUVs | MercurySable99 Wikimedia Commons

When Lexus launched the first RX 300 in 1999 on a car platform, SUV purists were aghast. SUVs were for getting dirty, hauling trailers, and exploring mountain roads. The RX, while it could get all-wheel drive, it didn’t tackle the great outdoors. Instead, it became a sales success because it looked like an SUV but drove like a tall car. It held a still-respectable 75 cubic feet of luggage, and held five people. The RX had innovative rear seats that could slide, allowing you to take advantage of the 30 cubic feet of storage behind the rear seats.

It came with the 220-horespower 3.0-liter V6 that was the upgrade motor in the Camry. It lasted until 2003 and many of these are still on the road.

The second generation added more power and luxury (and a hybrid)

2004 lexus RX 300
front shot of a 2004 lexus RX 300

Lexus didn’t want to mess with a good thing for the 2004 to 2009 second generation of the Lexus RX. It had slightly more power, with 230 horsepower from a 3.3-liter V6, and about 85 cubic feet of storage. U.S. News and World Report said that the RX 350 earned “wide praise for its stylish exterior, class-leading safety features and ratings, comfortable interior space, good cabin tech features, and capable driving dynamics.”

But, the big news from the second gen was the addition of hybrid power in the RX4 400h. It was the first luxury hybrid SUV, and it boosted the fuel economy by about 25%. At the time, many celebrities were seen driving RX 400h SUVs because they were stylish and environmentally friendly SUVs.

The third generation of Lexus RX earned a safe reputation

The second-generation of the Lexus RX updated the styling but kept its core attributes.
2014 Lexus RX 350 | Lexus

Lexus produced the third generation from 2010 to 2015, and again the styling was an update on the classic RX look. But, it was one of just nine 2011 model vehicles that reported no driver deaths in 2012, earning it one of the top spots that year from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or IIHS. Inside, though, Lexus significantly updated the RX with a new dual-zone cockpit that split the display and operation zones.

For the third generation, the hybrid’s power increased to 295 total horsepower, which made it one of the quickest SUVs in its class.

The fourth generation saw the biggest styling divergence

For 2016, the RX grew by nearly five inches in length and that added a lot of room to its new, crisp, sheet metal. And, for the first time, you could order an L, or “long” version of the RX that added a power-folding and reclining third row. Again, the RX 450 and RX 450h added power.

The fourth generation is quick on its feet, and when you drive one it doesn’t feel as large as its exterior dimensions would make it seem. It also got a larger 12.3-inch touchscreen with a remote touchpad that some love and some hate. While other SUVs may have gained more technology or features before this model was retired in 2022, the RX gained fans for reliability and the stealthy way that it cut through traffic. It’s regarded as one of the best generations of RX to buy used.

The fifth generation is hitting dealers now

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The fifth generation of Lexus RX took the angular styling of the previous version and added even more creases and a bigger grille to make a real fashion statement. But the new 2203 version has more powertrain options than any RX before. You can order it in a gasoline version, and in three different hybrid trims, including a plug-in version.

Lead-shoes will like the RX 500h F SPORT Performance AWD version which, while a mouthful, should be a beast. It comes with a 2.4-liter turbocharged engine, but this top-of-the-line version makes a combined 367 horsepower with its hybrid boosters, making it the most powerful RX ever. Instead of the standard version’s 8-speed automatic, or the hybrid’s CVT, it gets a new six-speed direct automatic transmission.