NHTSA downgrades 2021 Lexus RX 350 crash-test rating

The 2021 Lexus RX 350 luxury crossover SUV lost a star and lost some of its safety luster, based on recent crash testing conducted by the NHTSA and announced in late February. 

The 2021 Lexus RX had a five-star safety rating, until Lexus tweaked the front air bags in the middle of the 2021 model year production. The NHTSA retested the crossover SUV, and downgraded it to a four-star safety rating for vehicles produced after Nov. 16, 2020. For owners of the 2021 Lexus RX made before Nov. 16, the five-star rating remains intact. 

"The reason for the two different sets of ratings for both the Lexus RX 350 and RX450 is the manufacturer made a change to the vehicles within the model year," the NHTSA said in a statement. "[The] NHTSA followed up by conducting tests on the vehicles with the change."

Adding more confusion, the 2021 Lexus RX 350 with front-wheel drive had a four-star rating prior to the change, but the all-wheel-drive version as well as the 450h hybrid version with all-wheel drive rated at five stars.

“Toyota informed NHTSA of a change to the passenger frontal and seat cushion airbags on 2021 Lexus RX models, prompting NHTSA to retest the model in a frontal impact test," Toyota spokesperson Ed Hellwig told The Car Connection.

Although Toyota didn't confirm this, it's reasonable to believe the mid-year change was made to boost that rating on the FWD model to five stars; instead, it backfired and sank both drivetrain variants, as well as the hybrid. 

The NHTSA's New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) conducts four crash tests to establish a simplified safety rating that car shoppers can use to compare vehicles in the same class. In side crash protection that simulates getting T-boned by another car going through an intersection at 38.5 mph, or by sliding into a pole on the driver's side, the 2021 Lexus RX 350 earned five stars. In rollover tests, it rated at four stars, which is common for an SUV, and did not prevent it from the five-star overall rating.

"It received the same rating for front passenger protection, but a slightly lower score for driver protection," Hellwig said. "Although the test is standardized, the results can vary as vehicles are tested at different times and at different facilities.”

The front crash test simulates a head-on collision of a similarly-sized car or impact with a fixed barrier at 35 mph, and evaluates the effect on front-seat occupants' head, neck, chest, and legs. The 2021 Lexus RX received four stars for frontal crash protection in both sets of testing, but the test conducted after the changes were made by Toyota hurt its overall ranking from five stars to four. 

Despite the nuances, the IIHS rated the 2021 Lexus RX a Top Safety Pick for withstanding its six crash tests and for standard automatic emergency braking that mitigates the impact of a crash. The IIHS conducts three front crash tests, and on each one the 2021 Lexus RX earned a top "Good" rating. 

It's an unusual position for the Lexus RX, which last earned a four-star rating from the NHTSA for 2016. 

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