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With the SUV market still booming, manufacturers keen to fill niches are moving from larger SUVs to smaller ones. The Lexus NX is the latest example of a brand expanding its SUV range with a mid-sized offering.
Available in three variants and with two engines — a brand-first turbocharged four-cylinder NX200t and a naturally aspirated four-cylinder hybrid NX300h — the Lexus NX delivers style and daring angles in spades.
The aforementioned, cheaper NX200t is the big news at the moment, given its more recent release earlier this month (see our review here), but the petrol-electric hybrid version that launched last October proved exceedingly popular for the brand in the interim, with month-long wait times for most variants.
With only one other hybrid mid-sized SUV in the segment — the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV — we jumped behind the wheel of the $55,000 (plus on-road costs) front-wheel drive NX300h entry-level variant to find out why demand has been so strong. The mid-range F Sport may be the biggest seller, but the entry model still tells a tale.
Despite sharing elements of its platform and its wheelbase with the Toyota RAV4, the Lexus NX is a totally different car. From the outside, it’s clear to see that Lexus has taken on a daring and angular design strategy, part of its polarising L Finesse styling language. It’s very easy to spot the NX in traffic with its oversized 'spindle' grille and tick-shaped daytime running lights.
The back of the NX is equally recognisable with its small window and wrap-around taillights adorning the rear. Pumped wheel arches with black scuff-guards helps cement the impression of ruggedness one seeks when buying this type of vehicle.
Inside is where Lexus aims to really impress buyers. The doors close with a quality thud and the fit and finish within the cabin is excellent.
The first thing worth noting is the new haptic-feedback touchpad that replaces the mouse-style joystick fitted to other Lexus vehicles. It’s Lexus’ attempt at diversifying its technology offering and simplifying the multimedia system.
Unfortunately, it strikes one off the bat as a poor implementation of technology that lacks sophistication. The pad ‘clicks’ at your fingers and at times there isn’t enough track-pad available to scroll the mouse to your desired section of the screen. The 7.0-inch colour screen is good though, and once the track-pad is mastered, it provides sufficient clarity.
The rest of the cabin suffers from button overcrowding, which has become a Lexus custom in recent times. Again, once button locations are mastered it isn’t too much of an issue.
As a value proposition, the NX is jam packed with technology. NX vehicles come with inductive phone charging — or wireless charging in layman’s terms. This feature allows users to place their phone on the Qi pad and it will inductively charge their phone without cables.
This feature requires a compatible phone case for iPhones, but some Android phones are ‘drop-ready’ and don’t require any additional hardware.
DAB+ digital radio is also standard across the range. Digital radio has become a big favourite of mine — life is so much better without being bombarded with advertisements while listening to music
While the base model tested here doesn’t benefit from Lexus’ trademark Mark Levinson 14-speaker sound system, it does feature a pretty competent 10-speaker sound system that streams audio via Bluetooth, CD and USB/auxiliary inputs.
The driver and front passenger benefit from heated and electric seats that are extremely comfortable and positioned at a height that makes getting in and out easy. While the NX looks like a big SUV from the outside, it certainly doesn’t feel that way hopping in and out, which is great for people after the benefits of a car, but the looks of an SUV.
The rear seats are also comfortable but lack the legroom one would expect of an SUV this size. The rake of the roof affords rear seat passengers with plenty of headroom, even for taller passengers.
The 60:40 split-fold rear seats boost the standard cargo capacity from 475 litres when up to an impressive 1520L when folded flat. On the topic of capacities, the entry level NX300h doesn’t have a rated towing capacity, meaning you need to jump up to the $5000 pricier all-wheel drive step-up to tow anything.
An eerie silence follows as you hit the start button to move off. The hybrid drivetrain moves the vehicle from a standing start in normal operating conditions, followed by the internal combustion engine at a certain speed.
While some people are critical of the NX’s ability to keep up with the flow of traffic on electric power only, it is crucial to remember that it’s not designed to operate like a conventional electric car. The hybrid drivetrain is designed to overcome the initial and great sum of power required to move a heavy object from a standing start.
Think of the NX as a heavy box on a smooth surface. If you try and push that heavy box, it initially requires a big huff of energy. Once moving, that big box is much easier to push. A hybrid drivetrain operates on the same principal. Instead of using petrol to move off the line, it uses stored energy (in batteries) to get the vehicle moving, at which point the petrol engine takes over.
The drivetrain then regenerates this power under braking or coasting, as the energy would otherwise be lost as heat (during braking). The shortcoming of this and any hybrid system is the added weight of the components that the petrol engine then needs to move later on.
Once moving, the NX’s 105kW/270Nm electric motor teams with a 114kW/210Nm 2.5-litre in-line four-cylinder petrol engine to produce a combined 147kW of power. Torque is delivered to the wheels thanks to a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT).
The hybrid drivetrain is capable of using just 5.6L/100km of fuel on the combined cycle. In relation to the competition, it’s roughly on par with equivalent diesel models such as the Audi Q5 and BMW X3.
The power output of the petrol engine may sound low and that’s because Lexus uses an Atkinson-cycle engine, as opposed to an Otto-cycle engine you would find in most other cars.
An Atkinson cycle engine offers better fuel efficiency and operating temperature, but produces less torque, which is part of the reason Lexus mates it to a hybrid drivetrain.
In theory, it’s a great idea, but in this particular application it doesn’t always work very well. When bursts of power are required, a lot of noise is made while the CVT picks up high revolutions, but not a lot happens. It’s exacerbated even further with a complement of passengers and cargo on board. The official 0-100km/h figure from Lexus is 9.2-seconds.
Although it’s not an issue if this car is driven in and around the city, it can become troublesome while driving on the open road or while overtaking. This, of course, is a non-issue in the newly released NX200t, which ditches the drivetrain and naturally aspirated engine for a turbocharged one.
In terms of braking, this has to be one of the worst regenerative hybrid braking systems we have tested. The brakes are incredibly sensitive and cause the car to jolt during low speeds at times. This is a characteristic of a system that alternates between regenerative braking and conventional braking. It needs a lot of work to be considered fluid and smooth.
It’s a shame, because the NX is quite a competent vehicle on the road. The suspension errs on the side of sporty in terms of firmness, but doesn’t intrude on ride quality. Equally, the NX feels fun to drive on twisty roads within its limits. The electrically assisted steering feels good both in town and on the open road.
Three drive modes are available to alter the driving experience. Eco, Normal and Sport alter the vehicle’s performance and efficiency, with the latter not really doing a great deal to help performance.
Where does that leave us with the Lexus NX300h? In terms of interior fit and finish, styling and practicality, the new Lexus NX300h ticks all the right boxes. It's also a good bet on urban roads, though on faster roads it can fail to impress. The cheaper, more powerful and faster NX200t is better in this area.
If you were committed to a fuel-efficient purchase, it could be worth considering diesel options from Lexus’ German competition. That said, the NX in either form does a lot of things well.
The lower overall rating of this vehicle may not seem on par with the higher ratings in its other rating categories. The reasoning being this is that the vehicle itself is quite impressive, but is let down by a very average driving experience — one of the key things a car needs to perform well at, regardless of the sum of its parts. That's why we recommend checking out the Lexus NX200t instead, which largely improves on the NX300h experience.
For more images by Tom Fraser, click on the Photos tab.