The 2018 Lexus NX brings a styling and equipment update for the new year, but is it enough to compete with impressive all-new competitors such as the Audi Q5, BMW X3 and Volvo XC60?
The Lexus NX took a surprisingly long time to follow the popular RX as a smaller SUV offering, and three years after its release it has comfortably established itself as the Japanese luxury brand’s best-seller in Australia.
That doesn’t mean an MY18 update isn’t needed for a model that must confront a minefield of heavy-hitting rivals that have exploded onto the market recently in next-generation form. They include the Audi Q5, BMW X3 and Volvo XC60.
Exterior changes are barely noteworthy, so the NX’s heavily creased, polarising styling remains. MY18 changes aren’t minor, though. Lexus’s Safety System + driver-aid suite expands and broadens its reach across the range.
Pre-collision Safety can now detect pedestrians as well as vehicles, and is now standard on all models – along with autonomous emergency braking, active cruise control and lane departure warning that were previously featured only on the flagship Sport Luxury variant. All NX models also adopt blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and trailer sway control as standard.
The Lexus NX300h F Sport model we’re testing specifically here is also new – the first time the F Sport grade has been offered with front-wheel drive in addition to AWD.
It brings entry to an NX F Sport down by a few grand to $60,800 for the NX300 – a confusing rebadging of the 200t petrol turbo variant – or $63,300 for the model adding the lower-case h. Ticking AWD pumps up the price by a relatively hefty $4500.
Ditching the AWD’s rear electric motor saves about 45kg and brings a minor improvement to the NX300h’s fuel consumption: 5.6L/100km compared with the all-wheeler’s 5.7L/100km.
They’re both worthy figures, though the Audi Q5 2.0 TDI quattro and BMW X3 20d are both in the ballpark with 5.5L/100km and 5.7L/100km respectively (without getting into the debate about the respective cleanliness of emissions).
There’s an obvious difference on the road between the two 300h models. Get enthusiastic with the throttle pedal and you’ll quickly experience slippage at the front wheels. That’s more a trait than a criticism, and there are greater issues.
Despite Lexus pointing to extensive suspension improvements that include a stiffened rear anti-roll bar, revised anti-roll bar bushings, and reduced-friction front dampers, the NX’s ride and handling continue to disappoint – at least on the 300h F Sport version here.
Over the base Luxury model, the F Sport features a sportier suspension tune as well as Adaptive Variable Suspension that can adjust damper force constantly through a range of 650 – yes, 650 – settings. It can do so automatically, or as determined by a specific driver mode, with the aim of providing the right firmness or softness in a given driving scenario.
Yet around town, the 300h’s suspension spasms over big bumps, becomes choppy across rougher surfaces, and is generally restless.
Matters don’t improve with speed. Take to a typical 80–100km/h country road and the Lexus bounces and seesaws, jostling occupants as it continually fails to keep the NX’s body in check.
Turn into a bend with any enthusiasm and the result confirms it’s not a case of comfort being sacrificed for great handling. The NX understeers early, the front wheels are easily overwhelmed if you accelerate out of a bend in ‘second’ gear, and the intrusive electronic stability control is either badly calibrated or Lexus engineers have little faith in the Toyota RAV4-based chassis. Perhaps a bit of both.
The hybrid’s regenerative braking system also inspires little confidence with its hard to modulate, hard-as-wood pedal feel.
In the sportiest mode available – Sport + – the steering feels artificially heavy and the four-cylinder petrol engine, not helped by the CVT auto, sounds like it’s being tortured if you rev it hard.
The loud noise isn’t commensurate with speed, either – the NX300h doesn’t make quick progress. It’s perhaps not coincidental that Lexus doesn’t publish a 0–100km/h time for the hybrid, whereas it does for the 300 (7.3 seconds for a front-drive version, for the record).
Stick to Normal mode, however, and the steering is more agreeable – smooth and tracking true, if slowly, from lock to lock. The hybrid drivetrain is also better when not hurried, and comes to the fore in city driving when lower speeds and light throttle usage allow for satisfyingly quiet, electric-only momentum.
And when that gap appears in the traffic, the petrol engine is brought seamlessly into play to plug it with a usefully quick burst of acceleration.
The lack of a digital speedo seems an oddity for a hybrid vehicle, and one is available only with a head-up display that’s part of a $6000 option pack (which also includes sunroof, Mark Levinson audio, and keyless entry). The sunroof is available separately for $2500.
Plentiful (10-way) seat adjustment makes it easy to find a comfortable driving position, and F Sport models allow you to keep your backside either heated or cooled. The cabin’s ergonomics are also sound, and there’s gratifying tactility to controls (many new for MY18) – such as the heating/ventilation toggles, audio dials (with micro detents), and the large Eco/Normal/Sport/Sport+ driving-mode dial.
The physical instrument dials look classy, the silver plastic trim inserts on the dash and doors of the F Sport gel nicely, and the interior is undoubtedly well constructed.
Those models also join the German luxury SUVs in offering better infotainment systems than the NX.
While the wider, 10.3-inch screen is welcome, the graphics aren’t particularly inspiring visually and the touchpad controller, while slightly larger and more resistant to fingerprints, remains too sensitive. It’s easy to skip the function you want, especially if you’re trying to focus on driving.
Back in the positives column, F-Sport versions come with wireless smartphone charging (via an enlarged tray in the console bin), a 360-degree bird’s-eye-view camera, and auto high beam.
The rear seat also accommodates two adults in adequate comfort (forget the narrow middle seat), including centre armrest and vents.
Boot space isn’t too badly compromised by the hybrid system’s battery pack, either. The NX300h’s 500-litre capacity is only 50 litres down on the turbo petrol 300’s cargo space, though it means you’ll find bigger boots in the X3 and Q5, as well as Mercedes’s GLC.
With a segment-leading four-year warranty, strong resale values, and unrivalled customer service – attested by yet another No.1 position in the JD Power Customer Service Index rankings – there are many reasons to recommend a Lexus.
The Lexus NX also continues to be generously equipped (with a refreshing dearth of options) and well priced compared with key luxury rivals, even if comparing all-wheel-drive variants. And the multi-creased-metal styling has grown on this author (though the rear stance is still too narrow).
The Lexus NX’s 2018 updates, however, fail to improve the Japanese contender’s driving experience – leaving it some distance behind not just the Q5 and X3, but also leading mainstream medium SUVs such as the aforementioned CX-5 and Tiguan.
As for the F-Sport specifically, severe dynamic limitations betray the variant badge, while the ride quality would be unacceptable for a sports car let alone a luxury SUV.
If the Lexus NX package appeals strongly, we’d recommend opting for the very cheapest variant: the NX300 Luxury that saves $8500 over the 300h F-Sport yet brings the better (turbo petrol) drivetrain, a bigger boot, and based on our launch drive of the MY18 models, the better ride.
Click on the Gallery tab for more photos by Sam Venn.