In truth, price is the least of the Lexus’s problems. The NX has always been a compromised car, not least because its low-speed ride often feels brittle enough to undermine the coupé-like snugness of the cabin ambience. The once advanced but now limp-feeling powertrain – a 2.5-litre Atkinson-cycle petrol engine operating in tandem with an electric motor via a CVT, with an additional and entirely separate electric motor driving the rear wheels – also at times exemplifies the dissonance we’ve come to dislike about hybrid technology. That is an engine speed bearing no relation whatsoever to what’s happening down at road level as crankshaft revolutions are kept at optimal efficiency while the CVT modulates wheel speed. I’ll accept that enthusiasts feel this more keenly than most, and the average NX owner will rarely use more than half-throttle – the point after which the undesirable effects become most noticeable – but an engine conspicuously straining at high revs hardly whispers ‘premium’.
In this company it gets worse for the poor old Lexus, although the deeply bolstered seats are the most comfortable here and the cabin is not only richly upholstered but also solidly built – typical Lexus strong points. Beyond the ageing powertrain, the next issue is space, or lack thereof. As with the Honda and the Toyota, the rear seats recline, but the boot is the smallest and it has the highest lip. In terms of capacity, its 475 litres play 497 for the Honda, 520 for the Subaru and a deep but shallow 580 litres for the Toyota. Factor in the least intuitive infotainment system in an already weak field and mediocre fuel economy (more on which shortly), and the Lexus seems a true case of style over substance. Today’s prospective hybrid crossover shopper might even sample the NX and conclude that, on the basis of its most attractive and expensive member, nothing else in this niche class would be worth consideration.
But it takes only minutes behind the wheel of the CR-V Hybrid to appreciate how big a mistake that would be. The fifth generation of the world’s best-selling crossover is the first of its line to feature a hybrid powertrain, and the car feels made for it. Compared with the arrangement in the Lexus, Honda’s 2.0-litre VTEC petrol engine is less directly involved, being positioned upstream of an 181bhp electric drive motor and tasked chiefly with feeding the car’s generator motor, which in turn charges a small lithium ion battery. It sounds like a complicated solution but the result is a surprisingly natural driving experience reinforced by the calming ambience of an airy cabin.
Honda uses a single-speed gearbox so you get a good dose of EV-style responsiveness at low speeds, much of the time without any combustion activity at all. Ask for extra power and the system remains mild-mannered, resisting any intrusive engine flare-ups better than any other car here. At higher speeds a lock-up clutch then allows the engine to drive the wheels directly, but again this feels decently natural, and at all times you can use the paddle shifters to usefully vary the level of regenerative braking.
Overall, it’s the normality of the CR-V that makes it such a strong proposition. You don’t notice its objective flaws because, beyond the awful touchscreen display, it has so few. Inside, there isn’t the expansive dash or the serious, perched-up driving position recognisable from larger SUVs (the RAV4 offers both), but perceived quality is high, the ergonomics are generous given the neat footprint and rolling refinement is excellent. Were you to conduct a test with blindfolded passengers chauffeured in the CR-V then afterwards in, say, an Audi A4, they would struggle to tell the difference.