We like the Lexus NX, it ticks plenty of boxes, but the petrol/electric hybrid is definitely not the sweet spot in the range.
Not everyone is a fan of Lexus’ latest corporate face, but there’s no denying the presence of the Lexus NX 300h or its luxurious cabin and fuel efficient hybrid powertrain.
It’s a polarising design that either wins hearts for its on-road presence and edgy styling or is dismissed by naysayers as an example of a design language more akin to a life-size origami creation.
Personally, I applaud the design for its distinctiveness amongst a plethora of similarly styled SUVs, many of which simply lack imagination and character.
But the problem with hybrids, at least in the luxury segment, is they’re expensive, heavy, and generally less powerful and less refined than their turbo-petrol siblings. And it’s no different in the Lexus stable.
Take the NX. You can get a 200t F-Sport with a four-cylinder turbo petrol engine for just under $64,400 plus on-roads. Performance is pretty decent too. With its 2.0-litre displacement, it makes a respectable 175kW and 350Nm of torque – good enough for this Lexus SUV to scoot from 0-100 in a zippy 7.1 seconds.
That’s also better performance than a couple of rival prestige models including the performance-skewed Range Rover Evoque Si4 SE (by five-tenths), which is priced from $67,995, and three-tenths quicker than the more powerful Audi Q5, priced from $63,966, both of which rely on similarly-powered turbo-fours.
By way of comparison, our NX300h F-Sport costs $67,320 and only makes 147kW and 210Nm of torque from its petrol/electric 2.5-litre four-cylinder hybrid powertrain. Meaning, it's substantially slower out of the gate (8.9 sec) than the equivalent petrol variant, despite the dual power sources.
And it feels that way, too, unless you’re prepared to hammer the throttle remorselessly to build the kind of momentum that comes with 1800kg of heft, otherwise it's best to live life in the left lane.
Dialling up Sport or Sport+ definitely improves the experience, by heightening throttle and transmission responses, but that also makes it a bit too jumpy to drive when traffic slows to a crawl.
And whereas the NX200t gets a smooth shifting six-speed auto and relatively refined four-cylinder engine with plenty of pep, the NX300h goes from dead silence (after hitting the Power button) to a blender-rivalling racket in the spate of a few seconds – all in the interests of saving a litre or two of fuel and lower emissions.
We would argue the marriage between this harsh-sounding engine and truly unrewarding CVT transmission is all a bit off-brand, given Lexus’ well-known pursuit of perfection.
It’s also enough to make you forget about any notion of its rather flimsy eco credentials and those rare moments of dead-silent running, before even a moderate stab of the throttle is enough to shatter any dreams of green you may have had of your Lexus hybrid.
Lexus claims 5.7 litres per 100 kilometres’ fuel consumption, but with an extra 45-50kg of old-school nickel-hydride batteries on board as well as two electric motors, the best we could manage over the week was a less-than-satisfactory 9.3 litres per 100 kilometres.
And all that extra weight also has a rather negative effect of the everyday drivability of the NX, too. Right from the get-go you can feel those extra kilos, even during normal cornering. It all feels a bit lethargic and unresponsive – quite the opposite of the petrol version.
It’s the same story with the regenerative braking system. There’s more than adequate stopping power available, but brake pedal feel isn’t progressive, so you tend to use more brake force than necessary, which means sudden stops tend to be the norm with this vehicle. And it’s not something you ever seem to get used to.
Ride comfort is another NX300h F-Sport trait that is simply not on brand, despite the F-Sport’s adaptive suspension. It can be fidgety at times, firmer than you might expect of a luxury SUV and, worse still, if you happen to strike some sharp edges, then you feel the hit through the entire chassis.
It’s not all bad, though. The firmer-than-expected ride gives way to sound body control during cornering and the rear-mounted electric motor means you’ve got rear wheels turning on-demand when traction is lost in slippery conditions.
What’s not questionable, though, is Lexus’ comfort, build quality and general equipment levels – all of which are typically top notch.
Inside, the cabin oozes quality with first-class materials, as well as its own unique approach to design. It’s got character for sure, though it’s not quite as contemporary as the latest interior treatments adopted by all three luxury German marques.
Instantly satisfying, though, are the seats. While they don’t look particularly plush, I’m not the only CarAdvice tester who heaped praise on these leather upholstered pews, calling them out as the most comfortable in the business, outside of a Rolls-Royce Phantom or a Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
And even though you tend to sink deep into the driver’s chair, the driving position itself is high enough to provide good all-round vision. But if that’s still not enough, there’s also plenty of electronic assistance to help out.
Tap the little camera button, and up pops an aerial eye view of the vehicle displayed on the large centrally-mounted infotainment screen.
Neater, still, is a 360-degree rotation of an animated image of the NX, which allows the driver to pick up any obstacle hidden from view before driving off. It’s a useful feature if you’ve got kids and pets around the place.
The system also provides multiple camera angles that make close-kerb parking a breeze, while front and rear parking sensors are there as a failsafe.
It also gets blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, rain-sensing wipers and all-LED headlamps standard.
Buyers can beef up safety further by optioning one of two enhancement packs, the second of which includes pre-collision safety system, active cruise control, lane departure warning and full-colour head-up display.
In typical Lexus fashion, there’s long list of creature comforts on board the NX 300h, the highlights of which, include satellite navigation, power tailgate (it’s painstakingly slow), heated and cooled electrically-operated seats, power steering wheel adjustment, wireless induction charging for smartphones and a high-end Mark Levinson 14-speaker sound system.
We particularly like the NX’s keyless and gapless door handle design that slowly illuminates as the driver approaches. Great feature for those dark winter trips to and from the office.
It’s a full suite bar Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, neither of which are available throughout the entire Lexus range. And we still haven’t warmed (after several years, mind) to the impossible-to-master Lexus Remote Touch Controller – a touchpad device used to access the myriad of functions in the infotainment functions.
It’s a particularly challenging piece of tech to use on the move, as several times I inadvertently dialled folks I no longer wish to speak with, and struggled even harder to hit the ‘hang-up’ button before they answered.
Space-wise, though, the NX 300h still holds up well when it comes to its regular SUV duties, offering plenty of practical load space, along with decent legroom in the rear. But for extra carrying capacity, the split-fold second row seats fold almost dead-flat.
Not only does the NX still pop after three years, it’s still one the best value propositions in the segment. It also comes with the Lexus’ enviable build quality and long-term reliability – a big plus for many.
However, if we’re going to recommend the sweet spot in the model range, it’s definitely not the hybrid.
It just doesn’t make a strong enough case (clean, green or otherwise) to warrant spending any more than the $64,390 NX 200t turbo petrol variant, which is by far the better drive of the two.