Compact SUVs are the big growth area right now, and Lexus will finally enter the fray with the UX later in 2018.
Its Lexus NX was also late to its respective party, the mid-sized luxury SUV segment – joining only in 2014. And after a good sales performance in 2017, the NX is making an even stronger challenge at the start of 2018 to established rivals such as the Audi Q5, BMW X3, Land Rover Discovery Sport and Mercedes-Benz GLC
An MY18 update introduced in October 2017 wouldn’t have hurt prospects.
There’s little to mention about styling changes – tweaks to the spindle grille mainly – as the revisions centred on driver-aid upgrades.
The base-grade 2018 Lexus NX300 Luxury that’s the subject of this review now features as standard autonomous emergency braking, active cruise control and lane departure warning that were available previously only on the range-topping Sport Luxury.
Every NX adopts blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic sensors, and trailer sway control, while the pre-collision safety system now inclusive with all models has been upgraded to detect humans as well as vehicles.
Pricing has nudged up, however, with the range now starting $1250 higher, from $54,800.
If you thought we had missed an ‘h’ with our earlier NX300 reference, it’s not the (lower) case. Lexus has taken a page out of Mercedes-Benz’s book and switched from the NX200t badge that perfectly represented the 2.0-litre turbo drivetrain to something marketing-driven.
If it seems like a recipe for showroom confusion, it hasn’t changed NX buyer preference for the turbo petrol over the petrol-electric hybrid. The regular drivetrain accounts for two-thirds of sales and is especially popular in the base Luxury and mid-range F Sport grades.
And the best-selling variant of Lexus’s best-selling model is this NX300 Luxury. We have the $59,300 all-wheel-drive version that costs a relatively steep $4500 over the entry-level front-drive Luxury.
A Disco Sport and Volvo XC60, however, are the only other key competitors to be available from below $60,000.
The big question is whether the NX300 Luxury improves the Lexus medium SUV experience, after we were left severely disappointed by the ride, handling and refinement of the NX300h F Sport in a recent review.
It doesn’t take long behind the wheel of the NX300 to remind ourselves why the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder is as much our preference as that of buyers.
While it doesn’t feel quite as alert as the hybrid when moving off from a stationary position, the NX300 quickly establishes itself as the punchier drivetrain. And the turbo AWD variant reaches 100km/h from standstill 2.1 seconds before the hybrid: 7.1 v 9.2 seconds. (The FWD NX300 is quoted at 7.3 seconds.)
If that already makes a mockery of its status in the Lexus camp as the lesser/cheaper drivetrain, the smooth 2.0-litre is more powerful – 175kW versus the hybrid’s 147kW total – and provides an enjoyably edgy growl during hard acceleration. That contrasts with the hybrid’s strained noises at higher revs.
The turbo petrol certainly encourages the use of the paddle-shift levers. In everyday driving, the six-speed auto could be a tad quicker to realise a downshift would aid momentum, but is generally a smooth and effective transmission.
Fuel consumption isn’t terrible, but it is a bit below average. Beyond the fact it’s invariably thirstier than the hybrid – 7.9 versus 5.7 litres per 100km – the NX300 is also less efficient than most rival 2.0-litre turbo fours, which are between 7.1 (Audi Q5) and 7.6L/100km (BMW X3).
The engine also can’t resolve the NX’s inherent suspension issues. While the NX300 Luxury’s ride is less hyperactive compared with the NX300h F Sport and a sense of extra cushioning is felt from the 18-inch tyres’ chubby sidewalls, fidgeting and impact harshness are the norm when navigating commonly disfigured urban and suburban roads.
The suspension is at least capable of settling more at higher speeds on country roads, where tyre noise is also pleasingly muted.
Ironically, the Luxury variant’s body control is also more successful than the hybrid F Sport’s efforts across bumpy bitumen. Combined with a stability-control system that is less intrusive than the hybrid’s electronic safety net, the NX300 offers a modicum of interest for keener drivers.
There’s plenty of understeer, not helped by the so-so grip of the Bridgestone Dueler H/L tyres, though it’s all very predictable handling.
Less expected from a luxury SUV are the large quantities of hard plastics throughout the cabin. In terms of perception of quality, the Luxury feels a notable step down from the F Sport grade.
Only the upper-third of the door trim, for example, has a quality feel to it, with hard, scratchy surfacing all below. Many sections of the dash are also hard, and there’s a less-than-premium look to some of the centre console and centre stack plastics.
There are saving graces in the form of new, tactile and expensive-looking switches – including the heating/ventilation toggles and audio dials – as well as new straight stitching for parts of the dash and console, and satin-metallic trim inserts.
MY18 also brings a larger (10.3-inch) display for the Lexus Enform infotainment system. The square, console-based touchpad controller is also slightly bigger and more resistant to finger smudges. The oversensitive nature of the touchpad remains, though – despite haptic feedback, it’s still too easy to scroll past the desired function icon, especially when driving.
The Luxury misses out on the wireless charging tray available in F Sport and Sport Luxury grades. A head-up display and Mark Levinson audio are available as part of a $6000 option pack that also includes sunroof and smart-key card.
Storage remains a strong point. While the door bins are on the small, narrow side, the console bin and glovebox are generously sized (with the former including jack point, USB ports and 12-volt socket), and the centre console features two cupholders and a handy, pull-out mirror.
Practicality extends to the rear cabin with big, bottle-shaped door bins, map pockets, and an armrest with click-out cupholders. There are also central rear vents.
The near-flat floor, covered with a posh-looking carpet, makes the tight middle seat only marginally more comfortable for adults, though those in the outer seats enjoy good knee space and head room. The soft-leathered bench is a touch flat, however, and the plastic section below it feels flimsy, even if most won’t notice it.
The cushions feature levers for adjusting the rake of the backrests, as well as folding them (60-40) in the absence of release levers in the boot.
With the automatic tailgate raised, the boot presents 500 litres of luggage space – 25 litres more than the hybrid. The space is wide but neither long nor deep, and the height of luggage is limited if the cargo shelf is in place.
There’s a temporary spare wheel under the cargo floor, and the boot features six tie-down points and a 12-volt socket.
Most rivals offer a bigger boot space, though none a longer warranty. Lexus offers an extra year (four years) than the industry average, while its customer service remains unrivalled – continually winning JD Power ownership surveys.
We said in our NX300h F Sport review that the NX300 Luxury would be our pick for buyers who wanted a mid-sized Lexus SUV regardless of how more polished rivals are. And that view is simply reinforced with this test of the model in MY18 guise.
We would also forgo the expensive AWD system unless you’re genuinely going to partake in plenty of trail driving. At a sub-$55K price point, the FWD NX300 emphasises the SUV’s value like no other variant.
If Lexus could vastly improve the NX’s suspension and infotainment for future updates, it’s possible the SUV’s popularity could reach even greater heights.