THOUGH the Lexus is a niche brand in South Africa, it has every intention of growing bigger once the recession is over.

THOUGH the Lexus is a niche brand in South Africa, it has every intention of growing bigger once the recession is over.

"For now we are doing everything we can to stay in business and survive this period," said Lexus SA general manager Kevin Flynn.

He was speaking at the launch of the new RX450h and RX350. The two were introduced in Mpumalanga last week.

The Lexus has undergone engineering improvements in comfort, stability, image, quality and, most importantly, efficiency. That has resulted in a tangible improvement in performance.

But I still think the RX lags behind its main rival when it comes to looks.

Don't get me wrong, the RX is a solid car on the road and is well equipped. All it needs is a tweak on the design front to enable it to fight back in this tough SUV segment.

The RX competes in the same league as the BMW X5, Audi Q7 and Range Rover Sport.

On the bright side the RX doesnot disappoint in road handling and general performance.

The two derivatives will be available in two high levels of specification offering a package of features as standard. As a result, the line-up will include RX350 SX and RX350 XE, while the PERFORMANCEHYBRID models will be known as RX450h SX and RX450h LXE, the latter defining the ultimate level of luxury for a premium SUV.

The RX350 features a refined 3,5-litre, V6 petrol engine with dual VVT-i. Maximum power is 204kW at 6 200 rpm, while torque stands at 346Nm. Driving is through a new six-speed automatic transmission with Active Torque Control All-Wheel Drive.

Safety is taken care of by Lexus' acclaimed Vehicle Dynamic Integrated Management (VDIM) that combines all safety systems holistically, including the new part-time all-wheel drive system. Ten airbags are standard, including dual knee airbags for front seat occupants and side airbags, front and rear.

According to the manufacturer both the RX350 and RX450h derivatives have an important role to play in the Lexus SA business. They are intended to account for the second largest volume of sales after the IS250 and are the biggest business injection for the brand this year.

The new RX positions Lexus competitively in the premium SUV segment, the range of four models allowing the luxury brand to compete in the petrol V6 portion of the market as well as the petrol V8 and largest turbo diesel segment of the class, thanks to the line-up including RX350 and second-generation Lexus Hybrid Drive technology.

South Africa had its first experience of premium hybrid technology with the launch last year of the RX400h, a model that would go on to account for 37 percent of RX sales locally.

The high-spec models are differentiated slightly between RX350 XE and RX450h. The RX350 and RX450h are backed by a four year-100-000km full maintenance plan and a three year-100 000km Lexus warranty.