In this freelancing game I wear a few different hats, and the latest one comes with the label: "Stand-in Guy". This is brilliant because it allows me to go on launches for well-known magazines and websites when their usual representatives can't make it for whatever reason. Selfishly, I'm not too bothered about their reasons because launches are always good fun and I get to travel and see things I normally wouldn't, not to mention the cars of course. For this stand-in session I was to attend the launch of the new Lexus RX model in SA, the 4th generation of this Japanese premium brand's luxury SUV.
The launch took place in Nelspruit which meant there was a short flight to the biggest thatch structure I've ever seen. Yup, the airport in Nelspruit is a thatch building, the surprises never end. Nelspruit is up near Kruger Park so we soon figured out that we'd have an awesome route to drive, and with the Lexus RX being an SUV, the route would be made up of great tar roads and some even better sand roads. The older Lexus is a big thing and it looks good, but seeing the new ones lined up at the airport revealed a much better, meaner looking SUV, angles everywhere as well as a 'floating roof' design created with a blacked out C-pillar. The new Lexus RX falls in line with the rest of the Lexus range thanks to the inclusion of the spindle design front and rear. This new RX is 120mm longer and 10mm wider with a 20mm lower height that makes the body look a fair bit larger. Coupled to an increased wheelbase and track, the Lexus interior now features more usable space too. Adding to the fresh new looks, the RX350 rolls on 20-inch wheels (featuring a Sonic Titanium colour inserts - a world first).
The interior of the RX350 was finished in Ivory (or cappuccino if you try name it yourself), a combination of cream and brown leather that it looks good but may not be very kiddie proof. Japanese styling cues are different to what you find in the German competitors, and with lots of input from Yamaha, it's something quite special. The RX has an abundance of features, too many to rattle off here without sounding like a press release, but if I'm lucky enough to get one of these SUVs to review, I'll delve a little deeper into all the tech. One bit worth a mention is the wireless charging for the Samsung S6, which I happen to use. You slide your phone to the front of the centre console and touch the power button and you're good to go, eliminating unsightly wires strung across the cabin,
So what powers the new Lexus RX models? Nice and revvy (that is a word, ok!) V6 lumps, but they differ vastly between the two versions. In the RX350 we find a powerful and responsive normally aspirated V6 that pushes out 221kW and 370Nm. Coupled to a great 8-speed sequential shift transmission, the RX350 is a pleasure to drive in any of the three drive modes (Normal, Eco and Sport). There's new software in the gearbox called Linear Drive-force Management that monitors throttle input and driving style. The system is now capable of initiating fast, seamless downshifts to keep momentum coming out of corners and bends. The RX350 isn't slow by any means, it's spot on for what an SUV should be able to do, but these days premium SUVs also have supercar performance, and for that the RX would need more power with maybe some form of forced induction. RX350 performed flawlessly on the twisty tar roads and it smoothed out the bumpy and corrugated sand roads.
The hybrid RX450h was day two's transportation, although from the outside if you're not paying attention only the badge is an indication of the different model. A closer look shows that the 450h rolls on a different style wheel and features tri-LED headlights and sequential LED indicators that work together with the DRLs. The interior was black, which I much prefer to the Ivory of the 350. There's also a V6 in play that produces 193kW and 335Nm, but it's combined with a front electric motor with 123kW on tap as well as another 50kW motor found in the E-Four AWD system. The drive is just as smooth as in the RX350, possibly even more so thanks to the CVT transmission. I'm not a fan of this setup, the 8-speed auto would have made the 450h that much better. The EV mode seems to not work above 20km/h though, but more driving and testing is needed to properly report on how it works and the benefits it offers.The interior is mostly the same as the 350 apart from some screens and settings relating to the hybrid system. There is the addition of an awesome Mark Levinson sound system that's crystal clear and loud enough so you have to shout at your passengers when you want to chat.
The new Lexus RX is a definite step up on the previous model in every respect (which is a little obvious actually otherwise what's the point of a new model?), but especially the looks department. If I were to choose, my money would go to the RX350 based on a combination of not having a CVT gearbox and keeping R200k in the bank, but there are many out there who want the premium model of the premium brand and the hybrid 450h will tick all the boxes for them. The Lexus RX350 is set to retail at R799 000-00 and RX450h comes in a R999 000-00 - all options included.
On pricing the RX models are definitely set to compete with the other premium brands, but they do have a tough fight on their hands in SA where people are quite set in their ways. I think the fact that Lexus doesn't shift numbers like it does in the States plays into the brand's favour, it makes them a little more exclusive, and in this segment that means a lot to many people.
On the launch I drove with my usual partner in crime, Justin Jacobs from Autodealer (catch him on Instagram) and he set up his GoPro to record our drive and our immediate views on the cars. If you have some free time to spare, check it out. It's a bit long and we do ramble on a bit here and there, but it's pretty cool. It's pretty much how we chat about the cars when there's no camera recording us. I think more videos like this are in order.
Ulusaba - Sir Richard Branson's Private Game Reserve
A premium brand launch is always cool because they usually match the venues and accommodation to the product, they book us into digs that someone who'd buy their product would probably choose. On the Lexus RX launch it was to be at Ulusaba - Sir Richard Branson's private game lodge. You can imagine what a place called Ulusaba would be like, but when you take note of the Branson part, you know it's a venue that's slightly out of the holiday budget of a freelance motoring journalist. The place is phenomenal, it's like 5-star plus VAT.
There are two lodges to stay at in Ulusaba; Rock Lodge and Safari Lodge sharing 21 rooms between them. Rock Lodge is for the CEO-type chaps, it's built on a koppie that offers the most amazing views of sunrise and sunset and the South African bush. There are 8 suites to stay in at Rock Lodge and they range from amazing to awesome. One of the rooms that you can stay in is actually Branson's room for when he stays at the lodge. I made sure to check it out and yeah, it's pretty damn cool, I now have a collection of selfies of me in that room, you know, because I like to be creepy.
I stayed in Safari Lodge where there are 11 awesome (TV-less) rooms. They back onto a river and the balcony offers brilliant views of the river and of course, wildlife. I saw some buck things headbutting each other, other buck things with really long horns, buck things with short horns and even elephant. The river is dry, I can only imagine how amazing would be to see it flowing - if that's possible. They did have 80mm of rain just before we arrived, it didn't get the river going but did fill the dams, much to the delight of the crocs and hippos.
Our dinner was in the African bush, an awesome experience with awesome food (unless you're a vegan). I don't really eat red meat but I made an exception here, when in Rome and all that. It's mad to think that just a few meters away in the pitch darkness there were countless animals that could kill you quicker than it would take you to scream - it adds a certain level of excitement to things. It was just brilliant!
The next morning we had the option of going on an early morning game drive, and for a city boy that's an opportunity that simply cannot be passed up. So I was up at sparrow's fart so we could kick off at 5:30 and it was already light and quite warm. We spent almost two hours driving around the 13 500 hectare reserve and while that sounds long, I could quite easily have stayed in the open top Landy until sunset. Ulusaba has the Big 5 roaming around along with loads of other animals. Our guide, Ryan Johnston, was brilliant, the man is a wealth of knowledge on all things related to the wild. I reckon he'd give Gear Grylls a run for his money too. We didn't manage to see the Big 5, all the cats decided it was one of those stay in bed days, but we did see some hippo (well their ears and noses), a croc (well it's nose and eyes), countless buck things and my favourite, some elephant. We managed to get so close to one of the elephants that I could feel my butt clench the seat. It was literally close enough to slap my camera out of my hand, but it was too busy eating about 400kg of morula fruit (which DOES NOT get the animals drunk as per that 1974 Jamie Uys movie, Beautiful People). Once the big fella had eaten all the fruit he showed off a little by shaking the tree to make more fruit fall to the ground. The power of an elephant is incredible, if he really wanted he could have uprooted the tree. Day made!
The Lexus RX launch was definitely one to remember, the cars, the people and of course, the venue and animals. I must send a huge thanks to Clynton, Kerry, Jeanette, Riaan and the rest of the Lexus SA crew for the most amazing launch and having me there (albeit by proxy). You guys rock, I cannot thank you enough. If there's ever a spot open on another launch, I'll be more than happy to fill it for you, just putting it out there... Awesomeness!
I hope you enjoy the pics as much as I did taking them. For some reason an elephant pic looks amazing in black & white, well I think so anyway, which is why lots of them are colourless.