Long car journeys have probably changed somewhat since I was a child in the 1980s. I remember countless six-hour car trips from my Australian birthplace, Wagga Wagga (Aboriginal for "place of many crows") to Sydney with Dad, and occasionally Mum, driving a 1980 Volvo 240 GL in yellow. Special features included a brown interior, no AC and a guaranteed bout of motion sickness on winding roads. We had the radio and the tape player for entertainment, along with games of I Spy, where my younger sister used to come up with such surreal gems as "I spy with my little eye something beginning with 'A'"; the answer would be "atmosphere".
Yes, good times indeed. Kids today, however, probably don't know the joys of I Spy or listening to Rod Stewart as the miles roll by. Not when you spy with your little eye a pop-down TV screen whenever you pull up behind an SUV at the lights. There's Hannah Montana or Kung Fu Panda or whatever the kids are into dancing away and all I can do is shake my head and hope that the screen is not distracting the driver.
The Lexus RX 350 crossover SUV goes a step further with separate screens with separate DVD players on the back of the two front seats. Marvellous. With such technology in Dad's old Volvo, I could have watched Grease another 200 times and my sister could have engrossed herself in Play School. We would have each been plugged into our own set of headphones, retreated into our own little worlds and had fewer backseat arguments.
While my mother would argue that such technology is the death of family conversation, the reality is that this is the sort of luxury feature that is fast becoming standard on family cars. The market expects it. At the luxury end of the market at which Lexus is pitching, there is also the expectation of impeccable finishings, wood panelling, leather, sat nav, adaptive cruise control and a screen in the middle of the dash that will tell you everything from fuel consumption stats to the latest news from outer Mongolia.
The exterior lines of the RX 350 follow the same trend amongst crossovers and small-to-mid-sized SUVs as the Porsche Cayenne, the BMW X6 and the Infiniti FX 50. These cars are similarly ovoid with the curves punctuated by sharp angles with the lights, windows and door handles. It makes for a sleek, streamlined look in the RX 350 as well as the competition, as opposed to the chunkier lines of the serious off-roaders such as Nissan Patrol, Toyota Landcruiser and, until the neutered design of the newest model rolled off the assembly line, the Mitsubishi Pajero.
Felix Welch, general manager for Al Futtaim, the distributor of Lexus, says the RX 350 is capable in off-road conditions and hopes to put the cars to the test in conditions more trying than the road to Oman's Zighy Bay, where the test-drive took place. While I admire his optimism, I'm not convinced the car has the ground clearance or the right gearbox for a serious dune bash. Despite the lack of a low-range option, the gearbox, a six-speed automatic with a sequential option, is incredibly smooth. As my co-driver and I crossed the border from Dibba into Oman, the road changed from sleek UAE highways to gravel, bumps and then a winding climb up a narrow path to get to lunch at a restaurant 273m above sea level. The RX 350 did not once groan in protest at being taken from tarred familiarity to a far more rugged stretch. The gear changes were perfectly timed for the speed and the steepness of the terrain.
It probably doesn't matter that this will never be a truly rugged off-road desert warrior - the car is about comfortable luxury for the whole family. As a passenger, the seats are wonderfully comfortable and the standard stereo is pretty darn good (for those who want to listen to music, old school-style, rather than watch a newfangled DVD). Not so good was the lack of an iPod connection, which alarmed some of my fellow drivers on the road trip. That may be something Lexus might want to consider for the next model seeing as it can be found on far less plush vehicles.
As a passenger in the vehicle, as I was for the first leg of the drive, I was struck by the quietness of the ride but didn't really appreciate the power of this car. Like many luxurious cars, you don't realise how fast you are going until you are behind the wheel. But when I got behind the wheel, I found that not only is it a good hill-climber and a stable hill descender, but on the open road, it has terrific pick-up and holds its own amongst the fast- moving highway traffic.
Another nice feature is the head-up display that keeps your speed projected onto the windscreen. It takes a wee bit of getting used to, but once it becomes part of your overall view from the cockpit it is amazing how safer you feel by being able to quickly check the speed without even the slightest downward head movement to look at the regular speedometer. It is these little touches, along with the great Lexus quality control and commitment to creating a luxurious and comfortable family car that will make the RX 350 a success in the UAE. It won't necessarily stir the passions of luxury car lovers in the same way that a Bentley or a Rolls-Royce might, but in these downsized, cost-cutting times, the RX 350 offers a comfortable, more affordable alternative.