The Japanese company's new BMW X3 rival has plenty going for it, but frustratingly it looks better than it drives

What is it?

The new Lexus NX is that rare, maybe even unique thing: a production car that looks better than the concept that inspired it.

The new NX was born out of last September’s LF-NX concept, a BMW X3-sized mid-size SUV that looked like Edward Scissorhands had led the exterior design team.

Pretty it was not, but no one questioned the idea of Lexus making a premium SUV. After all, Toyota’s luxury arm is still looking to gain real traction in Europe after more than two decades of competing against increasingly bigger and stronger German opposition.

Indeed, if the NX ticks enough boxes, it could even prove a breakthrough model for the firm, such is the growing size and significance of SUVs in the premium market. Lexus already expects it to add a third to its European sales and become its best-selling model in Europe.

The handsome – yet still striking – production car we’re testing for the first time here thankfully does without Scissorhands’s input. Lexus says the concept car still inspired the look of the final NX, an edgy, eye-catching design that manages to be anything but conservative while still retaining everyman appeal.

Not just another German bland box, in other words, and a notable achievement from a car loosely derived from the hardly inspiring-looking Toyota RAV4.

The pleasing styling is not the only headline in the new NX, for the new SUV gets the first airing of Lexus’s new turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine as one of two powertrain options, an efficient petrol-electric hybrid being the other choice and likely best seller in the continued absence of diesel from Lexus’s range.

The NX300h hybrid comes with standard front- or optional four-wheel drive and reaches the UK from October priced from £29,495. The NX200t petrol model due next March is exclusively available in four-wheel drive and F Sport trim. It will cost around £35,000 and it’s this model we’ll deal with in detail here.

What's it like?

Enter the NX’s cabin – entry for which is notable for being a claimed industry first in doing without visible key barrels in the doors – and you’re met with another eye-catching design. Toyota and Lexus cabins are known for being high on perceived quality, but not on design and sometimes ease of use.

The NX’s cabin looks and feels plush and of a high quality, and has a clear hierarchy to the controls on the centre console, many of which have been pared back from previous Lexus cabins and are now controlled using a touchpad linked to the infotainment screen in the dash.

The touchpad, called Remote Touch Interface, lacks the overall finesse of a smartphone screen, but is intuitive enough and not too sensitive. Consequently options are easy to select. It’s all largely positive before pushing the engine starter button, then.

First impressions on the road are more mixed, however. The engine is pleasing enough; the 2.0-litre turbo unit is potent with 235bhp and a hefty 258lb ft of torque available from just 1650rpm. It’s hooked up to a new six-speed automatic gearbox, driving all four wheels.

Performance is brisk without having passengers reaching for the grab handles, the claimed 7.1sec 0-62mph figure feeling perfectly believable, and the 50-75mph time of 6.0sec also indicating plenty of mid-range shove, before it trails away at the top end. 

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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. 

Lexus makes a big thing of the lightness and rigidity of the NX’s body, and sophistication of the MacPherson strut front, double wishbone rear suspension in creating a smooth ride quality yet engaging drive.

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).

As with the drivetrain, the dynamic performance is a mixed bag. At town speeds, the NX 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.

The NX handles better than it rides, cornering competently and flatly with decent body control and plenty of grip. We’d like greater communication between car and driver though, particularly from the somewhat lifeless steering, which adds extra weight but no extra feel when the Sport mode is opted for in Drive Mode Select.

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Should I buy one?

On first acquaintance, the NX is a car with so much going for it, which is ultimately why we’re frustrated with how Lexus has limited its appeal in the way it drives.

It looks great inside and out, is of a high quality, has a spacious cabin with a good driving position, big boot and plenty of useful technology and thoughtful touches, like a wireless charging mat for your smartphone.

For many, those strong selling points may well be enough, and by all means try the NX to see if you can live with its dynamic shortcomings. But there is no getting away from the fact the NX is only okay to drive and certainly no match for the class-leading BMW X3. Shame. 

Lexus NX200t F Sport

Price £38,095; 0-62mph 7.1sec; Top speed 124mph; Economy 34mpg; CO2 189g/km; Kerb weight 1735kg; Engine 4cyls in line, 1998cc, turbocharged petrol; Power 235bhp at 4800-5600rpm; Torque 258lb ft at 1650-4000rpm; Gearbox 6-spd automatic

Mark Tisshaw

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.

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jamesf1 18 July 2014

alternate view

The looks, I have to be honest, are growing on me (hated it at first). And, it has an appeal for me in that it looks like nothing else. Put this next to an x3 or Q5 and i would agree it wouldnt necessarily be the best looking, but would absolutly be the most intresting looking. The Q5 in particular is very dull.
gazza5 17 July 2014

Put the 2.0t in the IS

Please please please lexus put the 2.0t in the IS saloon!
John O'Groats 17 July 2014

Simply not up to snuff

A very disappointing piece of kit.

I don't understand the appeal of vehicles with cow-catcher front ends, reminiscent of steam trains of yore one saw in Western movies.

The poor ride is simply not acceptable in a vehicle like this from my perspective - after all, this is not a vehicle for track days.

The 6-speed gearbox drivability issues cited in this review are consistent with other reviews I have read for this vehicle.

I had been potentially interested in considering this as a future purchase, however unless a revamp to address significant issues at the next update takes place, there clearly I won't be forking over my cold hard cash for this vehicle.

Lexus with this vehicle seemingly has gone backwards from the days of its first SUV, the RX300.

How can it all have gone so wrong?