Car reviews - Lexus - NX - 300h Sports Luxury
Silky drivetrain, high build quality, sophisticated features, impressive economy
Room for improvement
Technology overkill, very sensitive touchpad, over-assisted steering
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15 Jan 2015
By NEIL DOWLING
Price and Equipment
LEXUS habitually sticks to its three-prong specification approach with its hybrid NX300h, starting out the mid-size SUV with the Luxury level ($59,500), then F Sport ($66,000) and Sports Luxury ($75,000).
All have all-wheel drive but Lexus throws in a more wallet-friendly, single Luxury-spec front-wheel drive model at $55,000. The $4500 saving dispenses with the NX300h’s second electric motor that drives the rear wheels but keeps the upmarket Luxury-level equipment list.
For its $75,000, plus on-road costs, the Sports Luxury raids the Lexus parts shelves, accumulating a rich mix of convenience, comfort and safety inventories.
Standard kit includes perforated leather trim with heated and vented front seats, four-way camera bled through a central processor to project a bird’s eye view of the wagon and its surrounds, adaptive-variable suspension, Mark Levinson audio, electric tailgate, electric fold-down (and up) rear seats, sunroof and satellite navigation – amongst a seemingly exhaustive list of other highlights.
On paper, the top-spec Lexus SUV comes up against fresh stock in the form of BMW’s X4 and more elderly counterparts, the Range Rover Evoque and Volvo XC60.
But the Lexus’ equipment list in the Sports Luxury variant puts its Euro rivals on the back foot. This price-led comparison is exacerbated by the Lexus’ sharp-edged technology and its promise of miserly fuel consumption and green-tinged emission levels.
First-time drivers may need some initial guidance to navigate around the edgy, multi-tiered design of the NX300h dashboard. There are a lot of hidden or offside switches – notably the infrequently-used fold-down rear seat buttons and the switch to give the bird’s eye camera view that are lower right – and a trigger-happy touchpad for the central monitor that confirms its actions with a combination of muted audio chimes and finger-tip buzzing.
But the instrument panel is clear and backlit for sharpness, offering alternative colours and shapes depending on the driver’s selection from the “drive select mode’’ – an across-the-model, three mode (four for the tested version) electronic system that tweaks suspension, steering, engine and transmission.
It switches via a console-mounted rotary dial through Eco (to dull power output), normal, sport (which sharpens all features except suspension) and sport+ that is standard in the Sports Luxury and introduces automatic adjustment to the dampers. There’s also an EV-only button.
The large, bright and comprehensive central monitor and its touchpad controller are the catalysts for the broad customisation of the wagon’s features. This covers everything from audio functions to the standard sat-nav, exacting variations to the air-conditioner and an elaborate guide to the workings of the hybrid system complete with colourful bar graphs of fuel use and the remaining storage in the batteries.
Connectivity is held under the Bluetooth umbrella with audio streaming, app accessibility and voice recognition. Pleasingly, the Lexus system is intuitive and efficient.
Part of the high-end equipment list are a pair of heated and ventilated front seats, each with electric-motor adjustment, scalloped from perforated leather.
The rear seats, which are split and fold almost perfectly flat thanks (again) to electric motors, are similarly upholstered.
Access to the cargo area is via an electric (yes, again) tailgate. The floor level is higher than many rivals, attributed to the large nickel-metal hydride batteries (which are significantly bigger and heavier than the more popular lithium-ion packs) and the rear axle’s centre-mounted electric motor.
The boot stores 475 litres with the split rear seats upright and 1520 litres when laid flat. Surprisingly, it’s the smallest capacity (rear seats up) compared with its rivals (see below) but it’s almost the longest wagon. It’s 14mm shorter than the longest of the four, the Volvo XC60.
Cabin room is expansive, rivalling its big-sister RX model (which is up for replacement later this year) with three-adult rear seating and plenty of leg and headroom. Driver visibility is generally good though the slim-line side glass and equally narrow rear window place increased reliance on electronic eyes such as the blind-spot monitor, lane-departure warning device and the multiple cameras.
The Sports Luxury gets a novel wireless charging tray for smartphones. This tray lives beneath the centre-console’s lid and – the immediate advantages to smartphone owners aside – crimps some of the large bin’s capacity.
Textures and material mixes are first class, complimenting the leather upholstery and trim with soft-touch plastics, subtle satin-finished alloy-look switches and tightly-clipped carpet that combines durability with a plush feel.
The choice of top-end materials used by Lexus is rivaled only by its reputation for build quality and an obsession with new technology.
Engine and transmission
Lexus watchers will know the NX300h’s drivetrain as borrowed from the ES300h sedan and using the base 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine shared with the locally-made Toyota Camry Hybrid.
It’s the only engine offered in the four-model NX range until the non-hybrid 2.0-litre turbo-petrol version is launched next month and indicative of the dedication the company has with petrol-electric power.
The combined output of the NX300h is 147kW/270Nm but the AWD versions get a 50kW helping hand from the rear-mounted electric motor. In fact there are three electric motors onboard – two within the front transaxle with one as a primary motor and the second as a generator with some ability to also act as a motor when required.
The combination of the front-mounted powerplant drives through a continuously variable transmission (CVT) to the front wheels. The CVT has six preset ratios – controlled by the gearshifter or steering-column paddles – for manual control of the transmission potentially useful in low-traction or towing applications.
Though sounding complex and a mish-mash of technologies, this drivetrain marriage works smoothly, seamlessly and with an ability to seek fuel efficiencies while poised to deliver some degree of sparkling performance – all without the driver doing pretty much anything but pressing the accelerator.
In comparison to most rivals, the NX300h isn’t a performance SUV. Its acceleration time to 100km/h is a relatively modest 9.2 seconds, up against the Audi Q5 diesel at 7.1 seconds and the Volvo T6 at 6.9 seconds.
But perhaps the adage “it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it’’ applies here. The silkiness of the powertrain and the high level of ride comfort are ideally suited to the luxury-car buyer. The fact that the NX300h is an SUV doesn’t appear relevant to many buyers.
Lexus claims 5.7 litres per 100km from a 56 litre petrol tank, good for about 1000km of range on a budget diet of 91RON fuel. On test – a variation of unsealed roads and tracks, freeways and suburbia – it achieved a worst of 9L/100km and a best of 8L/100km.
The NX300h is able to travel up to 37km on battery power alone reflecting that a city-bound motorist with a full battery charge could probably do a large slice of the morning commute on electricity alone. But that distance wasn’t able to be repeated on test, mostly the engine cutting in within three or four kilometres.
Ride and handling
The fact that the initial part of any journey, including reverse manouevres, is completed in electric-only drive ensures this is one quiet wagon. Even when the petrol engine starts and engages the drive wheels, it’s a smooth and almost imperceptible transition.
Once underway, the petrol engine’s contribution to vehicle noise is swept away in the wind, creating a quietness that maximises occupant comfort, enhances the clarity of the audio system and perfectly suits the wagon’s targeted luxury market.
There is, however, a distinct difference between the perception of driving “feel’‘ of Lexus compared with its Euro rivals, particularly the firmer controls of the BMW and Audi. The Europeans have a deliberate focus on on-road solidity, firm suspension and an overwhelming desire to make the driver feel melded to every aspect of the vehicle‘s momentum.
Lexus – and many Japanese and Americans are in the same boat – place driver and passenger comfort above creating a human interface with the vehicle.
Comments that the Lexus, for example, has over-assisted or light steering and controls are accurate, but designed to lessen driver effort.
The Drive Select Mode does change the nature of some of the electrically-operated components - steering among them - but it’s never up to the sharpness and firmness of a BMW.
Physically, it’s an easy car to park – with the mandate that the sensors and cameras are vital – and to punt through city traffic. On the open road, it’s quiet – Lexus claims that its aerodynamic drag factor of 0.33 is one of the lowest of any SUV – and smooth and that steering lightness disappears as the electric-assistance alters its artificial weighting.
There is also little to whinge about with its handling, though the steering is still a tad vague. Lexus says it has worked on improving steering feel when cornering and there’s an improvement. But don’t expect that pin sharp firmness of the Euros, and their ability to read the driver through the bends.
While becoming familiar with the steering, take some time out to get used to the “soft’’ feel of the brake pedal – a byproduct of the dual hydraulic and electric brake systems and the interplay of the generators.
Practice ensures predictable braking distances can be shortened and the driver using coasting (where the regenerative system also comes into play) to begin to slow the car.
Safety and servicing
Lexus endows the four NX300h variants with the same degree of safety kit, expanding that at the top end with the Sports Luxury having a suite of extra equipment under the “enhancement 2’’ package.
For lesser variants, it’s a $7500 and highly recommended option, containing the full anti-collision radar and cruise control, head-up display, blind spot monitor and so on.
This is in addition to the five-star ANCAP crash safety rating, eight airbags, LED daytime running lights and headlights, auto high beam, tyre pressure monitor and cameras with cross-traffic alert. The spare is a space-saver.
There is no capped-price service program but Lexus prides itself on customer service. It can show owners a menu of expected charges for the maintenance.
Among its customer offerings are loan cars or a pick-up and drop-off facility when servicing, valet at airports and a culture-themed club offering invites and discounts for entertainment. The warranty is four years or 100,000km with four-year roadside assistance. Servicing is annual.
The resale value after three years is estimated (Glass’s Guide) at 55 per cent, below that of the Volvo XC60 (56%), BMW X4 (58%) and Audi Q5 (63%). That may change once the model has settled into the market.
The latest Lexus SUV’s aggressive styling is, more than the hybrid drivetrain, the clincher. Prospective buyers will shop this to the more conservative silhouettes of the Audi, BMW and even the Mercedes-Benz GLA. How distinctive they want their car to look will be a sizable factor.
More tech-savvy buyers will recognise that the Lexus is a tour de force, particularly the AWD version, and may easily embrace the state-of-art electronic party going on behind the dashboard.
But even if you feel affronted by the styling, the ride is first class. It is a sumptuous SUV where previously the genre has leant towards providing a durable, city-focused vehicle that is essentially a dumbed down 4WD.
This NX is no 4WD. It’s a sedan with a boxy restyle. It’s priced right – so much so that it may cannibalise sales of the fleet’s ES300h and even GS models.
Further, it is clearly streets ahead of its big sister, the RX, and in an era of downsizing, almost makes the RX overweight for suburban and city duties.
Ultimately, the NX feeds the adventurer in us. It’s versatile and has a more useable boot space that suits the “what if?’’ factor. “What if we needed some room for prams/bicycles/gardening products’’ and so on.
SUVs answer the question even if no-one follows through on the answer. For those who don’t get the solution, the luxury, efficiency and features of the NX are as good as any sedan. But do you need AWD?
Audi Q5 3.0TSFI $75,000
One of the Europeans taken on by Lexus. The Q5 matches the price – but not equipment list – with emphasis on top-end engineering. It’s more powerful, quicker and more effective off the road than the Lexus, but can’t match the hybrid’s miserly fuel thirst.
Volvo XC60 T6 Luxury $74,590
Popular Swede is in one of its most expensive versions, with a turbo-petrol engine for brisk performance but a heavy 10.5 L/100km fuel consumption. The T6 is well equipped, roomy and smart-looking with an accent on safety.
Range Rover Evoque Si4 Dynamic AWD $74,570
Head-turning wedge shape on a high-riding platform have made this model an absolute winner for Land Rover. It has 36 model derivatives to indicate it’s broad-brush marketing. Despite its small 2.0-litre engine, performance and economy are very good. It is the best off-road vehicle here.
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