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Better late than never. That is surely the aphorism that should greet the funky Lexus NX compact SUV, a Japanese contender for German market-leaders such as the Audi Q5 and BMW X3, as well as the Swedish Volvo XC60.
And not just any market leaders, but leaders of an increasingly important market segment. Both the luxury market and the general SUV markets are growing at a rapid pace, and with the NX, Lexus is at last in a better position to capitalise.
With that in mind, the NX could very well give the IS a run for its money as the company’s top-seller in Australia.
This is a car with several key roles. Lexus not only wants it to lead a bold charge into a part of the market it has never dared to tread here, but also to continue and indeed move on its rather aggressive modern styling language aimed at luring more — and younger — buyers without annoying its extremely loyal (62 per cent retention rate) clients.
As such, this production model carries over elements from the rather messy LF-NX concept from the 2013 Frankfurt motor show but tidies them up. The ‘diamond-shape’ body remains, as do the creases and big haunches, but proportions are much better-resolved.
Sure, it has stiff competition. But in its favour are a few factors that, on paper at least, make it quite alluring. It undercuts its German nemeses on price while beating them on standard equipment. It also offers a genuine alternative in the form of its hybrid drivetrain, and Lexus’ rightly-lauded customer care program.
You really have to admire Lexus’ bold and different approach, whether it floats your boat or not.
For now the range is limited to three specification levels of the NX300h, powered by a petrol-electric hybrid drivetrain used in existing Lexus models such as the ES.
A sprightly 175kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo-petrol — another brand-first the NX brings — is due about February 2015, so that review will have to wait. There will be no diesel option full stop, which is certainly a bold gambit in a segment rife with them.
So to the obvious question: does the NX300h provide a viable alternative to the Europeans in the same way the IS stacks up against its own very different contenders? Priced between $55K and $75K, it's a few grand cheaper at some spec levels, while being better-equipped.
The cabin is certainly more than competitive too. In typical Lexus style, it’s almost peerless in the quality of its surfaces, shutlines and tactility at the price point. It’s a lovely place to be, with stylish design to match the execution, and extremely cushy seats.
Small touches like the silent way the various cubby holes shut, the way the cup-holders grip the bottle and allow you to open it with one hand, the electric parking brake (not a feature on some Lexus cars even still) and the hefty doors that shut with a thud are nice touches. It makes tiny touches such as the Toyota Corolla cruise control dial stand out all the more, though.
It’s rather car-like for the class, with a protruding fascia with demarcated tiers and topped with a Germanic screen. F Sport models get a great chunky wheel and there’s a lovely colour display with driving information (though the lack of a digital speedo rankles).
The central Remote Touch touchpad marks an evolution from the mouse-like unit on the IS and GS. Instead, it is a vibrating pad that reacts to finger prodding in a vaguely touchscreen-like fashion. It takes some getting used to, but we suspect time behind the wheel might give you that. It sure syncs the Bluetooth quickly.
Unarguable is the list of standard equipment (see full specifications here). Lexus claims the additional gear for the money represents between 14 and 34 per cent extra value over the Germans and it shows.
The mid-range F Sport is our pick, with features including satellite navigation, front and rear cameras, Remote Touch, 10-speaker sound system, digital radio, adaptive suspension, an around-view monitor, blind-spot monitoring, LED headlights, cooled/heated electric seats and various sporty styling touches for $66K. Round it out to $70,000 and you can option a 14-speaker surround-sound system by Mark Levinson and a panoramic sunroof.
The Australian-first wireless inductive phone charger (you need to get your own case) in the console is also a nice modern touch.
Outward visibility is compromised by the raked window-line and fat C-pillar, though the sensors, camera and (optional on base cars) bird’s-eye view monitor alleviates this somewhat despite the large-ish 12.1m turning circle. The driving position is commanding in the way a typical SUV buyer seeks.
It also has smaller hidey-holes and door pockets than some rivals. Rear seat space is acceptable for both heads and legs in the outboard seats and moderate in the middle. The pews themselves are soft, cushy and long in the cushion. The rear windows might make kids claustrophobic.
The rear occupants get air vents. The back row folds down 60:40, but annoyingly cannot be flipped down from the cargo area — either by levers in the back or mounted on the top of the seats. That said, the Sports Luxury gets electrically-adjusting rear seats, a properly luxury touch.
The 475-litre cargo space is a little smaller than its rivals — the petrol will get 25L more space — but even the hybrid gets a space-saver spare wheel that beats a repair kit. The loading space is shallow but quite wide and flat.
On the road, the NX300h feels decidedly different to a punchy German or Swedish turbocharged petrol or diesel SUV. The hybrid system is in its element in urban surrounds, with a hushed demeanour, decent low-down punch by way of the electric motor and excellent urban economy.
Head out to the country, a highway or a twisty road and it’s less convincing. The e-CVT drones in the way the superior modern units don’t, and revs the engine out at a level seemingly out of proportion to the throttle input.
The 2.5-litre engine needs to rev to 4200rpm to reach a peak torque output of 210Nm — the system output is 147kW, and the motor has 270Nm of its own for lower-down punch — but the throttle response is somewhat sluggish and the car feels its weight (between 1740 and 1895 kilograms, depending on spec). Sometimes the gap between planting the right foot and lurching forwards takes the best part of a second, even if the CVT drops back immediately. It feels a bit detached and a 0-100km/h time of 9.2 seconds is far from quick.
At least the gearbox and throttle response can be sharpened by selecting the Sport mode in the Drive Mode Select (Eco and Normal are the other options).
As such, we imagine it would be much easier to attain the claimed sub-6.0L/100km urban fuel consumption than the similar extra-urban claim. We pushed our cars hard and managed to push it up above 10L/100km.
On a side note, the 1000kg braked towing capacity (the 2WD doesn't tow at all) is sub-par compared to an average diesel unit.
We suspect if you like dynamic driving, the NX200t with its 175kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo-petrol may get the better pick. Read our review from the international launch here.
As well as the NX300h’s uninspiring soundtrack on more challenging roads, there is some wind noise from the mirrors and moderate drone from the 18-inch wheels which are coated in 225mm, 60-aspect tyres, or 235/55s on the F Sport.
The ride, particularly in urban surrounds, is too firm to be plush but is rarely busy or overly choppy in the way a RAV4 is, though at higher speeds it can pick out the odd rut or divot.
Throw the NX300h into a corner and is doesn’t sit flat like an X3, the body has some lurch and top-heaviness, but the behaviour is predictable and the surprisingly meaty albeit feel-free steering does well. The very grabby stability control keeps the car in check with all the force of a high-school principal.
The regenerative brakes also have a more linear travel than is typical, without the woodenness and late-travel grabbiness inherent to many hybrids. Lexus’ lengthy experience with hybrid shows here.
We’ll step back here though and make it clear: if you drive around town more often than not, with the odd freeway stint, the NX300h will be fine. We’d be inclined to wait and see how the NX200t goes before committing, ourselves.
That said, we found many things to like about the NX300h. The cabin is lavish and well-equipped, the looks are brave and distinctive, and it’s smooth and quiet around town. The Lexus Encore Privilege aftersales program also gives you four-years/100,000km of warranty, free loan cars or pick ups/drop-off come service time and a comprehensive roadside assist program.
The hybrid powertrain grates at times and the cargo capacity is smaller than some, but on first impressions the Lexus NX300h clearly has merits of its own that make it a worthy entrant to the compact SUV fraternity that will no doubt give those on the fence pause for thought.