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The hybrid-only mid-sized Lexus NX is challenging the likes of the new Volvo XC60, Range Rover Velar and Audi Q5 among others, but is it up to the task?

A mid-size SUV. No premium manufacturer’s range is complete without one.

The German manufacturers have the Audi Q5, BMW X3, Mercedes-Benz GLC and Porsche Macan. Britain has the Land Rover Range Rover Velar, and Sweden has the recently-launched, second-gen Volvo XC60. It should give some picture how congested the field is that the Lexus NX finds itself in. 

The NX's looks aren’t to all tastes, but it certainly isn't bland

It arrived in the UK in two forms - petrol and hybrid forms - but now is only available with Lexus’s petrol-electric hybrid powertrain. And as we’ll discover, it is, for better or worse, unafraid to look, feel and drive differently from the accepted segment norm.

Chief among those differences is that it’s the only car in the sector not offered with a diesel engine. 

Just like other Lexus models, there is a premium price tag to be had. The NX300h in flagship Premier specification costs almost £44,500, which would buy you not just the more expensive models in the BMW X3 range but even a lower-spec BMW X5.

Is the new Lexus worth such a premium? We’ll find out in this review.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Lexus NX rear

The NX had a full-throttle route from show stand to showroom. It was introduced in concept form at the 2013 Frankfurt motor show as the Lexus LF-NX concept, which then reappeared at Tokyo, and the toned-down production version was unveiled at the Geneva show in March 2014.

The NX’s bigger brother, the Lexus Lexus RX, has been in production since 1998 and is now gracing the streets in its fourth generation, NX-inspired guise, having been launched for the Japanese market as the Toyota Harrier in 1997. Lexus’s SUV line-up is completed in North America by the larger GX and LX.

The Lexus' superstructure is a hybrid aluminium and steel monocoque

Lexus may be slightly slow to this market segment, but the demand for mid-size SUVs is showing little sign of letting up. To capitalise, then, the NX follows traditional lines for the most part. It has an aluminium and steel monocoque shell, with a transversely mounted engine. You’ll find MacPherson struts at the front and double wishbones at the rear.

It’s 4.6m long and 1.85m wide, although Lexus has disguised both dimensions with intelligent chamfering around the car’s corners, making it appear more agile and lithe – smaller – than it truly is.

Nonetheless, for all the neat design touches, what really stands out is the novel nature of the powertrain. It’s Lexus’s Hybrid Drive system – at once fiendishly clever yet brilliantly simple.

Toyota and Lexus are rightly proud of the hybrid system that sits beneath the bonnet. In some markets, the bumf refers to it as a continuously variable transmission, but although it can allow any engine speed at any road speed, Lexus doesn’t call it a CVT over here.

It isn’t a CVT in the conventional cone and belted sense, anyway. It’s easier to think of it as a differential. There’s a petrol engine, a slave motor and a drive motor, all coupled together via a planetary gearset that allows each different component to spin at whatever speed each one wants to match the speed of the road wheels.

For example, the engine could be off, the drive motor at the point of peak torque and the road speed 50mph, and the slave motor spins to take up the difference. Likewise, if the engine and the drive motor are both at peak torque but the road speed is only 20mph, the slave motor drives at a totally different speed to allow that.

It’s an incredibly compact system, and one that’s extraordinarily reliable. The Toyota Prius, which uses this system, has the fewest warranty claims in Toyota’s range, and the Hybrid Drive system is the lowest warranty claimant on that car.

It’s available in two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, but in either case the total power output at any given time is 194bhp. Only 153bhp of that is accounted for by the 2.5-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine. The rest is supplied by an electric motor, which at the front is rated at 141bhp. However, it doesn’t generate its maximum power at the same time as the engine.

For the four-wheel drive system, there’s yet another electric motor, driving only the rear wheels. This can make 66bhp, but its output is capped when combined with the other motor and the engine so that no matter whether you’re in a two-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive NX, the rated 194bhp output stays the same – as does the 9.1sec 0-62mph claim.

The four-wheel-drive model weighs more, though, with a claimed 57kg premium taking it to 1905kg at the kerb. Fully fuelled, a 300h we tested actually weighed 1880kg.

Six trim levels are offered across the range – S, SE, Sport, Luxury, F Sport and Premier. All are well equipped; even the entry-level S comes with adaptive cruise control, dual-zone climate, a reversing camera, DAB radio and Bluetooth connectivity.

INTERIOR

Lexus NX interior

There are things that Lexus does extremely well with interiors, and not following the herd is one of them. No, it does not fit such soft or, seemingly, dense plastics and rubbers as, say, Audi or BMW, but it counters with novel surface finishes.

Where a German car would have a matt plastic that gives slightly to the touch and materials that are meant to look flowing and natural, the Lexus has highly technical grains and deliberately modern slashes of wood and metal. It’s like an automotive equivalent of a Casio G-Shock watch: premium in a way that no one else does it. And we rather like it for that.

The steering wheel is not short of buttons and their presence contributes to the marked thickness of the spokes

We quite like the driving position, too. It’s widely adjustable and brings with it a small, pleasingly sculpted, thick-rimmed wheel. Most of the ergonomics are good, but where German premium alternatives have sought to minimise buttons on the dashboard, Lexus has studiously ploughed on.

In general, that’s fine – and there are some sweet touches, too, such as the removable mirror on the centre console – but in places it can look and feel overly fussy.

The small parking brake button, augmented by ancillaries, is a case in point, as is the latest infotainment controller. Incorporating a touchpad, it’s an improvement on the mouse-like operation of its predecessor, but it’s still slightly clumsy compared with the best in the class.

Along with the hardware, the software has had an update. Our phones connected easily, the navigation is efficient and the audio system offers the high-quality sound that we’ve come to expect of a Lexus. There’s DAB radio and enough auxiliary sockets to float an iPod.

Generally, accommodation is fine elsewhere. Lexus claims that the NX has the longest load bay in the class with the rear seats folded, but if you occupy rather than flatten them, you’ll find rear accommodation acceptable and front passenger space good. Oddment storage is decent, too – and by popular demand, there is a spare wheel. It’s a space saver, but infinitely better than nothing.

Of the six available trim levels, opting for the entry-level S model will get you dual-zone climate control, manually adjustable front seats, a 7.0in infotainment system with DAB, and Bluetooth connectivity. Go for the step-up SE trim and you'll find heated seats, auto wipers and lights and four-wheel drive.

The mid-range Sport trimmed NX gets heated front seats, 18in black alloy wheels, a sporty bodykit and a Tahara upholstery, which is a synthetic leather material.

Luxury-spec models receive a few useful touches including keyless entry, leather upholstery and electrically adjustable front seats, while F-Sport NX's get sports seats, F-Sport interior details, body kit and alloys, and auto folding wing mirrors.

Opt for the range-topping Premier-spec model and luxuries such as ventilated front seats, a head-up display, Lexus's premium navigation system, 360 degree camera and a 14-speaker Mark Levinson audio system are included as standard.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Lexus NX200t petrol engine

Lexus bristles at some of the criticisms levelled at its hybrid powertrain and insists that the detachment and vapidity frequently highlighted by road testers simply isn’t registered by customers living with the car day to day. To some extent, we sympathise with that difference of opinion.

To drive around town, where the hybrid dividend is already at its most advantageous, the experience is uncannily quiet and smooth. Like its siblings, the NX300h’s step-off is more a cast-off – gently slipping its moorings under the waft of electric propulsion. Above a gentle, congested crawl, the petrol engine chimes in, its contribution seamlessly incorporated by the planetary gearset and its voice barely audible below 25mph.

A hybrid version we tested dispatched the 0-60mph sprint in 9.7sec; 50-70mph took 5.6sec

Driven thusly, in traffic and very modestly, the crossover tends to make even the most refined diesel rival seem gravelly and indelicate. Certainly, the intermittent reverberation of a conventional start-stop system seems impossibly invasive compared with the Lexus’s movable millpond.

However, Toyota’s hybrid system is much easier to respect than enjoy. The connection between power sources requires that the petrol engine – itself no great conveyor of character – too often plays the part of a remote generator, feeding energy into the transmission at the behest of your right foot but not strictly regulated by it in the nuanced way experienced in a conventionally powered rival.

Typically, this effect is most obvious when accelerating hard, a process that hastens the 2.5-litre unit to 6500rpm, where it remains pinned for as long as directed. It’s a shrill and artificial process made all the more irksome by the fact that it’s accompanied by no great advancement in speed. We couldn’t extract better than 9.5sec to 60mph on a dry day – well short of the sub-6.0sec best score that you’d expect from a BMW X3 xDrive30d.

The NX’s 37.5mpg touring figure is also disappointing, although you can expect that to be evened out with superior economy in an urban setting.

If you want an NX with a little more poke, the NX200t petrol exclusively available in four-wheel drive and F-Sport trim – should fit the bill. It's a pleasing enough engine; performance is brisk without having passengers reaching for the grab handles, the claimed 7.1sec 0-62mph figure feeling perfectly believable.

The 50-75mph time of 6.0sec also indicates plenty of mid-range shove, before it trails away at the top end. While it feels brisk in this application, it would feel brisker still if it was hooked up to a better gearbox. The new six-speeder is fine for most situations, but it can hesitate to kickdown when you’re looking for sudden acceleration.

It can also be tricky to drive it smoothly if you want to push on, something highlighted by the increasing smoothness of the likes of eight-speed or more autos offered by Lexus’s rivals. Still, the gearbox, along with throttle response, can be sharpened up a touch by selecting the Sport mode in the Drive Mode Select (Eco and Normal are the other options).

The performance does feel a good match for a car of the NX’s size and weight; there was never a situation where we needed more shove. At motorway cruising speeds it’s also quiet and comfortable, with no refinement issues – as you’d expect from a Lexus.

Economy is never going to be a strong point of such a unit – and a reason why volumes are expected to be so small in the UK in the face of the more economical hybrid – but the 34mpg pending combined economy figure is achievable on longer out of town runs.

RIDE & HANDLING

Lexus NX rear cornering

In an ideal world, the NX’s talent for inching down a high street would be accompanied by an isolated and pillowy ride quality. Unfortunately, the crossover’s general competence is marred by a recurrent choppiness over poor surfacing.

On 18-inch wheels, it jiggles stiff-leggedly at low speeds and then picks up the seams between the concrete on a motorway as if it were reading braille. Somewhere between the two – usually on a smooth A-road – the crossover’s restrained primary ride and effective resistance to body roll mean that it settles into the smart, muffled stride that its makers doubtless intended for it. But the secondary ride is a raised piece of street furniture away from disrupting the calm.

The Lexus NX's ride definitely needs to be softer; the brakes of the hybrid version also need to be more controllable

Coming to a stop in the hybrid is also a problem. The process of recuperating energy is typically a fine way of pilfering a progressive response from the brake pedal, and the NX300h is no exception. Subtle modulation is all but impossible. The slightest hint of a big toe instigates a noticeable drag effect – one largely unrelated to your intentions.

Push a mite harder and the stoppers are well on their way to bringing you to a complete halt, whether you want to or not. The obvious lack of subtlety only serves to increase the perception that your instructions are being endlessly filtered through a gauze of software code.

It’s possible that the NX’s dynamic remoteness is another trait that does not trouble Lexus buyers, and, again, driven with down-tempo disinterest, its effect is largely mitigated. But that’s not the way we prefer to interact with a car – and probably not the way you do, either.

Vexing hybrid braking aside, the NX need not approach corners with fear. In fact, thanks to the limiting effect of a particularly vigorous stability control system, the crossover is virtually uncrashable.

Enter a bend with what the car considers to be a precarious mix of speed and steering lock and the omnipresent overseer (unswitchable above walking pace) will immediately fire the brakes and reduce power in conspicuous, nose-dipping jolts. This will continue until the wheels are returned to the straight-ahead or you give up entirely.

The level of intrusiveness is astonishing, yet it doesn’t seem entirely incongruous in a car more obviously indebted to its sensors and CPUs than its chassis or tyres. It’s a shame, though, because through the murk of assistance, the car that it might have been is dimly apparent.

Feedback isn’t in the steering’s remit, but it’s direct, accurate and well weighted — and, one suspects, it isn’t for want of lateral grip or balance that the stability control is called into action so decisively. That’s a decision for Lexus — and clearly the idiot-proof rounding of bends is good enough.

The F Sport trim adds firmer performance dampers to the so-called Adaptive Variable Suspension system in addition to 225/60 R18-shod 18in alloys (and a host of sporty cosmetic upgrades inside and out).

At town speeds, the NX F Sport does not ride well. It is too firm and cannot be considered comfortable or soothing. Although Lexus has stated its desire to make its cars more dynamic and involving, this should not be to the detriment of a liveable ride quality. The ride quality does improve at speed, but it still never fully settles in the way it should.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Lexus NX

Alternative premium-brand appeal will play a part in the argument for convinced NX customers, as will the promise of excellent customer service from the dealer. The NX’s apparent high material quality and finish should likewise impress.

But none of the above is likely to sell the NX300h to company car drivers quite like its carbon emissions. With an entry-level S model qualifying for benefit-in-kind (company car tax) at just 16 percent of list price at the time of review, the car could save a 40 percent income tax payer almost £1000 a year compared with an equivalent BMW X3. Thus, Lexus’s familiar hybrid trump card serves as a solid launch pad for its new compact SUV, just as it did for the Lexus CT hatchback.

An Audi Q5 might be as dull to drive but its ownership proposition is much stronger than the Lexus'

Residual values are good across the range, but not outstanding – and real-world fuel economy likewise. Luxury specification is expected to be the most popular and with good reason. Add to that the factory navigation and powered tailgate and try to negotiate your dealer down to a nice round number.

VERDICT

Lexus NX rear quarter

Lexus should have been finding the fairway with the NX, no doubt about it. Between the current crop of usual diesel suspects and the near-future prospect of plug-in electric runners, there was an opportunity for Lexus to present its tried and tested hybrid tech as a desirable and common-sense source of power for a compact SUV.

In practice swings, many of the constituent parts are still there, it being supremely quiet, strikingly handsome, nicely appointed, typically well equipped and – in hybrid form – efficient, especially in regard to the rising concern about NOx emissions.

The new Lexus NX is not without merit but the Volvo XC60, Audi Q5 and BMW X3 remain the more appealing choices

But elsewhere, Lexus has failed to make a sufficiently strong case. Its crossover is too aloof to pedal, too tempestuous to sit in and, in this trim, too expensive to seriously consider, given its rivals.

Lexus fans will continue to celebrate the brand’s short game, played considerately, smoothly and in a veiled hush. To crossover buyers at large, it’s predictably one-dimensional.

However, the emergence of the NX led to Lexus refining the formula for its latest generation Lexus RX which has proven to be a hit with customers in the large SUV category.

Mark Tisshaw

mark-tisshaw-autocar
Title: Editor

Mark is a journalist with more than a decade of top-level experience in the automotive industry. He first joined Autocar in 2009, having previously worked in local newspapers. He has held several roles at Autocar, including news editor, deputy editor, digital editor and his current position of editor, one he has held since 2017.

From this position he oversees all of Autocar’s content across the print magazine, autocar.co.uk website, social media, video, and podcast channels, as well as our recent launch, Autocar Business. Mark regularly interviews the very top global executives in the automotive industry, telling their stories and holding them to account, meeting them at shows and events around the world.

Mark is a Car of the Year juror, a prestigious annual award that Autocar is one of the main sponsors of. He has made media appearances on the likes of the BBC, and contributed to titles including What Car?Move Electric and Pistonheads, and has written a column for The Sun.

Lexus NX 2014-2021 First drives