Lexus’ Australian arm this week released a range of upgrades to its biggest-selling vehicle, the NX mid-sized crossover. This model accounts for 37 per cent of the brand’s sales in Australia, and competes in the market segment that is growing the fastest.
Still, on the surface the Lexus looks appealing. Yes, the prices are slightly up, but the company had the good sense to add a stack of new features. And with a starting price of $54,800 before on-road costs, it remains attainable luxury – within sight of 'mainstream' offerings such as the Mazda CX-5 Akera and Volkswagen Tiguan Highline.
So what’s changed for MY18? Well it doesn’t look much different, aside from a new shark fin antenna, new alloy wheel designs, small tweaks to the polarising ‘spindle’ grille and the fitment of crisper and more illuminating LED headlights. We reckon it looks bold and interesting from most angles.
Lexus has also made a range of camera/radar-based preventative safety features standard across all models including adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane assist, AEB with pedestrian detection and auto high beam. That's a big plus.
Inside there are a range of new colour themes to choose from such as Dark Rose, Ochre, Rich Cream and Black/Alabaster, a huge new 10.3-inch horizontal screen that really spruces up the cabin, a new analogue clock with GPS, the latest remote touch controller pad (Lexus’ still-fiddly version of BMW iDrive) and a few new switches such as knurled climate control toggles covered in tiny ‘L’ for Lexus motifs.
Yet the cabin largely remains a bit of a grab-bag of ideas. The material quality is excellent as you’d expect, though the way the fascia protrudes is a little unusual, as are the exposed screw heads along the transmission tunnel.
And we’re sure you’ll acclimatise to the adjustable laptop-style infotainment touchpad, but we’re not sure it’s a better solution than the rotary dial used by many rivals, or a big touchscreen, or even Lexus’ old square toggle device. Ten points for ideas, but five for execution.
In typical Lexus style, the NX comes absolutely brimming with features. The top-selling 'base' NX Luxury gets the just-mentioned active safety stuff plus sat-nav, a power tailgate, proximity key, 10-speaker audio system, leather seats and DAB+.
A $6000 jump to the F Sport derivative nets you extras including a 360-degree camera, wireless smartphone charging pad, paddle-shifters, 10-way powered seats heated and cooled for front occupants, 'performance' dampers, four driving modes and rejigged adaptive variable suspension.
It also looks the part thanks to various F Sport interior and exterior styling add-ons.
The $8500 extra to the flagship Sports Luxury variant adds a 14-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, colour head-up display, a sunroof, higher-quality leather seats, and woodgrain cabin trim. Most of these extras can be optioned onto the F Sport and Luxury grades, too, as part of a $6000 package – which is why we wonder about the value here.
The rear seats are okay, comfortable enough for two adults, while the 500-litre boot is likewise only moderate, and there's no full-size spare.
Lexus has also fettled the suspension (which remains a MacPherson strut front/double-wishbone with trailing arm rear setup), stiffening the rear stabiliser bar, changing the bushings, and fitting brand new lower-friction front dampers on all versions.
The goal was to improve ride comfort and stability, as well as ride comfort – no easy task.
The base Luxury model we drove commendably did a relatively convincing job on our launch route. The ride should still be plusher, but there's plenty of rubber (18-inch wheels) to take the edge off, the noise suppression is relatively good, and body roll is controlled. We also don't mind the steering resistance.
The issue is that, decent as this version is, a Volkswagen Tiguan or Hyundai Tucson – let along a BMW X3 – is a better SUV to drive, both more comfortable and dynamic through corners.
Meanwhile the F Sport and Sports Luxury variants' Adaptive Variable suspension system comes from the new LC coupe, which you can adjust yourself through modes, but which also continuously cycle through 650 switching levels controlled by new linear-solenoid actuators.
Unfortunately even in the softest comfort-focused mode the ride feels a little unsettled and brittle over sharp hits, while the body control is unresolved on the straight-ahead, let alone through corners. There's no escaping the feeling that the fancy suspension actually made the NX feel worse to drive, and clearly the calibration needs work. Great concept, primed for a tweak. That's all.
We don't expect the Lexus NX to be a sporty SUV, believe us there. The issue is that it's not exceptionally cushy or plush either, and therein lies the big problem.
This issue is most obvious on the 45kg heavier NX300h hybrid models, with the familiar petrol-electric drivetrain comprising a 2.5-litre petrol four matched to an electric motor (or two on the all-wheel drive versions, to be detailed in a sec) and nickel-metal hydride batteries, making a combined 147kW of power and using a claimed 5.6L/100km of fuel – a claim hard to match.
Matched to this is a slack CVT gearbox with six stepped ratios, which shows customary flaring and noise intrusion under moderate throttle, and dulls the already unresponsive drivetrain.
We'd instead opt for the $2500 cheaper NX300 (renamed from NX200t) with its familiar 175kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine and six-speed auto. The fuel use penalty is about 30-40 per cent, but in return you get a far more spirited drive that allows you to punch into gaps and overtake more easily, and with more refinement. Plus, a 7.1sec 0-100km/h time is nothing to laugh at.
The standard setup for the Luxury variant remains front-wheel drive, which is now also available for the first time on the F Sport. For $4500 you can add an AWD system that adds an extra 50kW electric motor, and an electronically controlled rear diff coupling that can channel up to half the drivetrain's torque to the rear axle when slip is detected.
This setup is standard on the Sports Luxury, which in hybrid guise rounds out the range at $76,300. And unlike the Germans, that's inclusive of damned near everything. No long options lists here.
The be blunt, we see little reason to go beyond the NX300 petrol with front-wheel drive in Luxury or F Sport guise, because here you're looking at a decent enough SUV that brings some real badge cred, a plush cabin with tons of features, and solid performance to the table at a price point that almost comes down to something with equal or more substance, but clearly less style – like the mentioned Tiguan or CX-5 range-toppers.
Throw into that Lexus' four-year warranty and deservedly famous aftersales care – it'll even extend your roadside assist to rescue your partner if they break-down in another brand's car once a year – and you can see the appeal. Yet the more the price climbs, the greater breadth of superior rivals jump out at you.
Don't get us wrong, the Lexus NX has a lot of positive attributes, but this mid-cycle update hasn't pushed the dial beyond where it was before, and that means this Japanese luxury contender is middle-of-the-road at best.
Good for some, but make sure to cross-shop. A clear 7/10 for the range, with half a point more for the NX300 in lower grades, and a reduction for the higher-end hybrid.