For automakers, the introduction of a new product is usually an exciting time. New cars are meant to innovate upon a brand's technology and capture the consumer's attention. Lexus, this time around, is not any different; however, the stakes are much bigger with the new RX.

The Lexus RX has been an iconic vehicle to the brand since its introduction in 1998. Back then, a mid-size luxury sport utility vehicle was not as common place as it is today. Over the years, sales of the RX have blossomed into a major component of the company's U.S. success with "more than 780,000 RX units in operation," according to Mark Templin, Lexus Group vice president and general manager.

With this knowledge, Lexus' engineers were faced with a dilemma. How do you improve a crucial vehicle in a brand's lineup while up against an economic contraction, concerns over alienating loyal customers and innovative competitors? Easy, stick to what you do best. Lexus has done just that.

The all-new RX features a new, longer and wider stance. On top of this, designers have injected more testosterone into the SUV with edgier styling cues, albeit, they will most likely go unnoticed. This is because although the auto has been revamped, the changes remain under the shadow of the old RX's shape. While I piloted a 2010 prototype in and around town, the car received no double takes or stares; it remains just another Lexus.

The new Lexus RX is adorned with edgier, more masculine styling cues.

The quiet transition was made intentionally as Templin said "current owners have proven to be some of our most loyal, so we expect many RX buyers will replace their current vehicle with the new generation model."

With significant brand loyalty, Lexus faced the difficult decision to risk losing current customers or play it safe. It chose the latter. However, this is good news as the newest generation improves upon the old RX by adjusting crucial lines and keeping the rear tail lights from looking "bug-eyed," with LEDs.

Under the hood, the RX350 is powered by a 275-hp motor good for 257 lb-ft of torque. This translates into city/highway miles per gallon of 18/24. The RX450 hybrid is powered by a 295-hp motor good for city/highway consumption of 28/26 -- obviously, this is a substantial increase over the nonhybrid.

Mated to the motor is a brand-spanking new, automatic six-speed transmission. This new transmission helps with better launches, improving MPG and faster, smoother shifting. No more inefficient five-speeds for the RX.

Hopping into the new RX reveals the heart of the new generation's differences. Instead of a passive, vertical center stack, Lexus has tried something different. The end result is a curved center stack and the optional Remote Touch system, which controls the vehicles functions.

Lexus' Remote Touch is the firm's answer to BMW's iDrive and Audi's MMI control units. Instead of utilizing a touch-screen navigation unit, drivers will now utilize a mouse-like joystick equipped with several buttons to navigate menus. At first it is difficult to get use to; however, after some practice and adjusting sensitivity to your liking it becomes a cinch. This system allows for the navigation unit to be placed further away and higher so drivers can pay closer attention to the road -- a huge plus.

Speaking of the interior, Takayuki Katsuda, Lexus RX's chief engineer, says "it is important to note that so many of the new systems and features were driver inspired."

Of course this is a positive element because now the RX will utilize technology for the driver's sake as opposed to innovation's sake -- the IS-F's eight-speed transmission is a good example of overdoing it.

In the hybrid variants, there is a gauge, which shows in RPM fashion, where the electric motor is charging, in use and not in use. By displaying this clearly, the driver has a clear idea as to how to drive the vehicle the most efficiently. This is a tremendous plus over other hybrid vehicles that may have a simple on/off light.

Seating has been redesigned and it shows. Instead in the previous generation RX where you sat on the seat, you sit in the new generation's seats; this makes a substantial difference in cornering and comfort.

Thanks to a newly designed double-wishbone independent rear suspension, rear storage space is maximized from limited intrusion into the cabin. Thus, this creates a flatter, wider rear storage area.

Hybrid models are supplied with this helpful gauge to aid the driver obtain maximum efficiency.

Most importantly, the new RX drives as though it is not even related to its older sibling. The last generation RX was not an impressive drive. Yes, it was smooth, and, yes, it was quiet; however, its handling was appalling. Prior to taking a spin in the 2010 prototypes, I drove a 2009 RX and was surprised at how many degrees I could turn the wheel before getting the car to move. The outgoing RX is essentially a cruising sofa.

The 2010 RX is a much tighter vehicle all around. The steering and suspension has been tuned so it is more direct and does not float; however, body lean is noticeable and a constant reminder this SUV is not going to double as a weekend track car. Taking the vehicle into twisty roads reveals the relative heft that accompanies the new RX. On the positive side, the ride remains similar to that of a magic carpet ride, which absorbs bumps with little drama.

At the end of the day it is clear: the RX is tremendously superior over the outgoing model by fulfilling its roll as a luxury-inspired mid-size SUV. Unlike the

Infiniti FX

, which attempts to fulfill multiple roles, the Lexus sticks to the script and continues to do what it does best. It delivers easy-to-use technology, a luxury ride and convenience to the driver all in a conservative package.

For Lexus, a division of

Toyota Motor

(TM) - Get Report

, the most significant challenge will not be the development of the vehicle but weathering the storm with the current economic environment. Although brand loyalty is huge and the new RX is a major step-up from the previous generation, how many individuals will be willing to put out $40,000 to $50,000 for a new luxury vehicle in tough fiscal times?

With the RX350 set to arrive at dealerships in late February and the hybrid to debut shortly thereafter, the RX is going to play a vital role in Lexus' sales numbers going forward.

Perhaps the new RX is the jumpstart the manufacturer needs for a successful 2009 after a dismal 2008.

At the time of publication, Posluszny had no positions in the stocks mentioned.

Richard Posluszny is a finance and information technology management double-major at Seton Hall University. He is an outside contributor, focusing predominantly on the automotive industry. He publishes a blog,

Automotive Times