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2009 LEXUS RX 350 REVIEW -TOURING NORTHERN ARIZONA


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From a Shunpiker’s Journal -We Introduce Our Friends to Some Favorite Places
By Steve Purdy
The Auto Channel
Detroit Bureau

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It is great fun to introduce friends to a place we’ve visited often, a place for which we feel a special affinity - in this case Northern Arizona. Sedona, Flagstaff, Grand Canyon, Jerome, The Painted Desert, The Petrified Forrest are all wonderful places to explore over and over again particularly for us Midwestern flatlanders.

Our ride for this junket is the luxurious 2009 Lexus RX 350, the newest iteration of this 5-passenger, car-based SUV, now more commonly referred to as a CUV (cross-over utility vehicle), that was one of the first of its genre.

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The engineers and business people at Toyota/Lexus realized early that it is relatively easy to put an SUV-type body onto an existing sedan platform. With a minimum of development costs they get an entirely new vehicle in the lineup. My pretty blonde and I tested the first generation RX300 when it was new in about 1999 and she fell in love with it. Being a Lexus, though, it was a bit pricey and the used ones held their value so well that we could never find one we could afford.

Our companions and desert neophytes on this tour are my pretty blonde’s little brother Rick and his wife Kim. They haven’t had as much opportunity to travel as have we, so it’s a pleasure to share the trip with them and show them some of our favorite places. They are great traveling companions. Both are curious and up for anything. Kim, who emigrated from Korea in her 20s, speaks a charming, entertaining Pigeon English and has a great sense of humor. Rick, a machine repair guy, likes history and science, so this area will entertain him well.

GETTING TO FLAGSTAFF

We picked up the shinny Classic Silver Metallic Lexus at the Phoenix airport. This is essentially the third generation of what was once – and may still be – Lexus’ best selling vehicle - a 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive (all-wheel drive optional) CUV. The styling was updated significantly in 2004 when the power was upped with a 3.3-liter V6. This current 3.5-liter upgrade came in 2008. While the RX 350 is less sporty than many of its competitors – Acura MDX, BMW X-5, Infinity FX25 – it fits a major niche for an attractive (though certainly conservative), competent, luxury people and cargo hauler. I think of it primarily as a suburban niche but it is certainly useful in most any environment.

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A push of the button on the key fob activated the standard power rear hatch. Our four huge suitcases fit easily into the 38.3-cubic-foot boot with space to spare. (Without passengers and with the rear seats folded we would have an admirable 85 cubic-feet of volume.) We had to take the retractable luggage cover out which was a bit awkward – not the simplest design, to be sure. Once out on the road our rear seat passengers first comments were about its quietness and luxury. We had no problem conversing at a normal tone while dicing with Phoenix traffic at 70-mph.

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The interior is very nicely appointed with leather seats and trim, classy wood (real wood) accents and excellent fit and finish. Controls are positioned reasonably well and mostly intuitive. The navigation screen has lots of functions built in. Some took a bit of searching, but over all the systems make sense. The trip computer calculates fuel mileage and automatically resets itself with each fill. I prefer one that I can reset whenever I want.

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A fun side job was on our agenda on the way out of Phoenix. We stopped by the modest, desert home of a fellow I encountered a few years ago out here. He has a rare, old, military vehicle – a 1943 Ford Burma Jeep, produced during WWII specifically designed to haul cargo along the famed Burma Road. You’ll find that story here on theautochannel.com as well. You’ll see that Jeff Jones is as interesting as his old military truck.

We found his place in the desert with a little help from Lexus’ Generation 5 Navigation system – a $2,650 option which includes Bluetooth/Voice Activation, compass and backup camera. When we tried to put in the address the system indicated there was no such address in the appropriate jurisdiction. The map was remarkably accurate, however and with some good directions we were only off course once.

THE PETRIFIED FOREST

A special breakfast place well off the main drag in Flagstaff called Brandy’s was recommended by the resort staff so we fueled ourselves up for a long day. The bakery case just inside the front door was filled with gooey, nutty, decadent pastries. What made it special for me, though, was an unusual offering on the menu – trout and eggs. I’m a big fan of fish and eggs for breakfast ever since the days I spent in the wilds of Northern Michigan with the National Guard eating brook trout and eggs fried together in butter on a mess hall griddle. Yum.

Our day trip to the Petrified Forest National Park gave us a chance to experience the Lexus’ rough-weather handling. The RX 350 shares a platform with the last generation Camry so the suspension is of that conventional design - McPherson struts in front, multi-link independent in the rear - and tuned for a not-to-firm, luxurious ride. We found the ride stable and pleasant on yesterday’s way up to Flagstaff, but the adverse conditions today made for a different story.

Heading west on I-40, dicing among moderately heavy truck traffic, 50-mph, gusty winds from the southwest pushed us around, often rather violently. Sand was blowing across the road like a Northern Michigan ground blizzard. I was worried about the paint being sandblasted off the Lexus. Passing an 18-wheeler I was sawing at the steering wheel like a 1950s race car driver. While we never felt critically unstable we had to pay mighty close attention, particularly when passing the big rigs. In that 270 miles of freeway driving (round trip) we saw one 5th-wheel travel trailer on its side in the median and two big rigs slid sideways into the right embankment, one showing us its underbelly.

The Petrified Forest, by the way, is a great place to spend an afternoon in spite of the wind trying to knock us over each time we exited the Lexus to explore this geologically fascinating park. We learned a great deal about the days before dinosaurs when the tropical forests here were lush, green and wet filled with huge trees and early reptiles. The relics of the Triassic era featured by Mother Nature here in the park and for miles around are the trees that fell into the swamp and morphed from wood to beautiful hunks of colorful stone. Some of those hunks are nearly as big as a bus.

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The park is part of the Painted Desert and is also characterized by amazingly complex erosion patterns exposing colorful strata of sand, clay, rocks and minerals. Near the center of the park a loop road circles around a dramatic ridge called Blue Mesa where these erosions have exposed huge chunks of the petrified trees some perched gracefully atop hills of washed-away soft material. The soft material is composed of multiple strata of different colored sediments giving the entire scene a painterly image.

Kim, the consummate animal lover, got caught up in feeding a gathering of ravens at the Blue Mesa parking lot. Those instinctive birds somehow knew there were treats to be had. They kept coming back for more. Those huge black birds have an intelligence about them that we can see in their eyes. Somehow they knew that a critter lover had come to treat them to a snack.

On the return trip with that stiff wind pushing back against our progress the Lexus’ 5-speed automatic transmission easily downshifted to compensate for the extra resistance. The RX350’s 3.5-liter V6 had plenty of power – 270 horsepower and 251 pound-feet of torque – to manage both the steep inclines and the horrendous headwinds. That engine is remarkably smooth and indicates no reluctance at higher rpms. The 19.2-gallon fuel tank means we have a range of over 400 miles under most conditions.

OAK CREEK CANYON AND SEDONA

Unseasonably cold weather greeted us the next morning – 16-degrees. We needed our seat heaters which come with a $660 option package including rain-sensing wipers and headlamp washers. The seat heaters are not nearly as intense as some. VW’s system, for example, will burn your biscuits if you leave them on too long. This system’s heat is barely noticeable.

Sunday is not the best day to visit Sedona we found out. We planned to hike the West Fork trail just below the escarpment where a fairly large parking area was overflowing with a couple dozen cars just waiting to get in as we arrived mid morning. No roadside parking is allowed on that narrow canyon road so we just continued on into Sedona where tourists and day-trippers swarmed the town on this mid October weekend.

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Out on the west edge of town, just off Upper Red Rock Circle Drive, along Oak Creek, where mostly locals know how to find it, Crescent Moon Park is site of the most photographed view of Cathedral Rock, the iconic Sedona image. So we shot it too. We hiked upstream about three-quarters of a mile to a bend in the river just at the base of Cathedral Rock, one of the strongest of the famous spiritual vortexes. A half dozen folks meditated there in the fall sunshine surrounded by hundreds of cairns built by other people who had spiritual experiences there.

Sedona is one of the most spiritual places in the southwest. Masses of visitors have disturbed the serenity just a bit, but most of the great hiking trails out in the canyons are not crowded even at these busy times. Mostly the popular and easy-to-find trails get congested.

SUNSET CRATER AND THE GRAND CANYON

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On previous visits to the Flagstaff area we noted a National Monument just north of town but had not taken time to explore. We’re sure pleased we took the time this trip. Sunset Crater, particularly, was a surprise and a thrill. This volcano erupted in about the 11th century AD and the remains look fresh today. As we drove into the loop road we encountered one of the main lava flows out of the exploding fissure that looks to have happened so recently. (I suppose a few hundred years is recent, in geological terms.) The tumbled, broken black and dark brown rivers of rock look otherworldly. The side of the cone itself, as well as many of the surrounding hills appeared to be powdered black rock much like the black sand beaches in Hawaii. That was the ash, I guess. We hiked up a half-mile, very steep trail to get a view of the surrounding terrain. It was a struggle for this big guy, but well worth the effort to enjoy a sense of the geology here.

At the other end of the park are ruins of pueblos, or villages left behind by Hopi and Zuni Indians. The amazing stone masonry is a testament to the accomplishments of these early native people. We could stand on the precipice of the Wupatki pueblo and imagine living in this dry wash when it wasn’t quite as dry. These Indians reportedly gathered rain water as well as depended partly on a nearby spring for their water. This whole area is a treasure for anyone interested in history, geology or anthropology.

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There are not enough superlatives in the English language (or any language, I’ll wager) to accurately describe the scale and majesty of the Grand Canyon. Rick and Kim had not been there before so it was a treat to enjoy their reaction. The sun lit the canyon dramatically by mid afternoon as we pulled off at every overlook for a new view each time of the vast, colorful, stratified gorges before us. We hiked for an hour along the rim trail that curves along for miles hugging the south rim of the canyon. No guardrails along the rim mean that brave (or stupid) folks all along the route climb out to the edge of promontories risking their lives for silly photos.

JEROME

Another of our favorite places is across the Verde Valley west of Sedona at 2,000 feet above the rustic town of Clarkdale. I’m referring, of course, to the old copper mining town of Jerome, perched on the 30-degree slope half way up Mingus Mountain. The town is now just a tourist draw with galleries, antiques shops and eateries, but in its day it was a booming town with 15,000 inhabitants, many of whom were ladies of ill repute. It is hard to imagine so many people living in this little town.

Highway Alt 89, also known as Mingus Mountian Road, passes through Jerome on the way to Prescott and is well known by serious motorcyclists, sports car people and ad agencies as one of the most spectacular windy roads anywhere. And, for you photographers out there who appreciate junk yard opportunities, just take the paved road behind the Jerome firehouse to the Gold Creek Mine and Ghost Town where about 20 acres of old trucks, mostly Internationals, along with other interesting old equipment, fill a desert swale.

HIKING IN SEDONA

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Schnebly Hill Road crosses the ridge west from I-17 directly into Sedona, coming out right where Oak Creek Meets Highway 179. The first 8 miles cross the heavily wooded plateau where we were looking for wild life but found only a few free-range cattle. The final 5 miles creeps roughly down the side of Schnebly Wall offering many dramatic views of the red rock formations and the sprawling town of Sedona from above. The road goes from rough county dirt and rocks to such a rough rocky track that I held the Lexus in first gear and crept along the boulders sticking out of the road. We needed most of our 8 inches of ground clearance for this road.

After brief stops at Bell Rock, the southernmost red rock formation and the first formation to greet visitors who come from the south, and the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a shrine built right into the red rocks, we hooked around behind Battlement Mountain to the end of Morgan Road where we picked up the Broken Arrow trailhead. Just about 2 miles each way and gently sloping up all the way in, the trail generally follows one of the popular Jeep trails along the back of Twin Buttes ending up at a massive, flat promontory of red rock sticking out into a small valley, with views of Bell Rock and Cathedral Rocks, called Chicken Point. All along the trail we found a tremendous variety of desert flora much of which was in bloom the last time we were here. That was spring. This is fall, so nothing was in bloom but the variety of flora still fascinated this curious bunch of Midwesterners.

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Our farewell hike was along the West Fork Trail. Yes, we finally got into that parking area. The trail starts out through thick meadows of tall grasses and old, barren-but-still-green apple trees. The carcass of an old farm house and a stone shed guard the trailhead. The West Fork Trail winds for about three miles in along the West Fork of Oak Creek. With only a 100-foot elevation change it’s an easy hike through a verdant, riparian environment – very unlike most other hikes in the area which tend to be desert environments. Many stops along the way to listen to the birds and noisy insects, to take in the sweet fall smells of the flora (partially due to the respiration of the huge Ponderosa pines, I’ll bet) and photograph the natural phenomena that jumped out along the way put me way behind the others. They seemed more interested in the exercise. My priority was the aesthetic experience.

BACK TO PHOENIX

We’re finding the navigation system a bit troublesome. While trying to enter a new destination – our hotel for the final night – the system balked. When selecting “Destination” it would allow only the “Emergency” button to operate. The “New Destination” and other functions were not available. Even searching the manual was no help. I still have no idea whether it was a problem with our operation of the system or a malfunction. Repeated tries were of no avail.

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Having just one day in Phoenix we chose to share with Rick and Kim our favorite attraction here – the Desert Botanical Gardens. As usual it was mighty hot while we strolled the circular path leading to a series of themed displays describing the flora of the Sonoran Desert and the native cultures that adapted to it over the millennia. The variety of cactus and other succulents along with other unusual plants could have entertained us for many more hours were it not so hot.

We were pleased with the speed and efficiency of the Lexus’s AC system by the time we returned to the car. The controls are mostly within the touch screen. I would prefer they be simpler and controlled with other functions on the center stack.

SUMMARY

Our 2009 Lexus RX 350 costs just about 47-grand, including the options referenced earlier plus the $3,880 Pebble Beach Edition package that includes 18-inch wheels, HID headlights, rear spoiler, power moonroof, leather trimmed interior, and a bunch of other special trim and convenience stuff.

Fuel economy estimates (regular fuel) are listed at 17-mpg in the city and 22-mpg on the highway. We managed 20.5-mpg on the first tank that included a high-speed run up I-17 from Phoenix to Flagstaff – a elevation change of about 5,000 feet – and that horrendous windy run out to the Petrified Forest. The next tank included leisurely driving through the Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments, the Grand Canyon and some easy exploration. With that tank we managed 23.9-mpg.

Fortunately, we didn’t need to access the Lexus’ multitude of standard safety systems: 7 smart airbags, stability control, crumple zones, ABS, and all the other stuff we might expect. The RX has earned Five-Star (maximum) ratings from NHTSA for front and side crash risk and a Four-Star rating for rollover protection.

We found the Lexus RX 350 an ideal vehicle for this use – four adults touring the scenic southwest on mostly good roads. It has enough ground clearance for some modestly challenging conditions but you wouldn’t want to challenge it too much. Its forte is being a solid, comfortable, quiet, luxurious, efficient transport.

© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved