Car reviews - Lexus - NX - 300h
Supple ride, well-balanced electric steering, high equipment levels, edgy styling, new touch-pad controller, cabin comfort and legroom
Room for improvement
Busy cockpit design, lack of get up and go from the hybrid powertrain, indifferent fuel savings in country road driving
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12 Nov 2014
LEXUS buyers have a number of things in mind when they sign on the dotted line for a new car: jewel-like build quality, carved-from steel durability, high levels of standard equipment and slavish customer care.
This no-worries ownership has a loyal following of rusted-on Lexus fans, who also happen to appreciate the green-tinged hybrid powertrain technology that usually comes with the package.
The problem for Lexus is that while its customers more often than not come back for more, it has trouble attracting expanding its owner pool against the relentless drive of its German rivals.
Enter the new Lexus NX, the brand’s first compact luxury SUV and new weapon in the drive to attract a new generation of fans from mainstream car brands.
This vehicle carries the Lexus torch in the fast-growing luxury medium SUV segment, in effect sitting above parent company Toyota’s RAV4, to which it owes about 10 per cent of its lineage.
The good news is that the Japanese-built NX has all the traditional Lexus hallmarks, but at a respectable $55,000 starting price, paving the way for a new wave of buyers that Lexus managers hope will hang around for years.
At the NX 300h media launch held in Adelaide and the sinuous roads of the nearby Barossa valley, a question that keeps arising was: shame we can’t drive the new turbo four-cylinder variant, to be called NX 200t, to see how it compares.
The petrol-only model will not be available in Australia until stock arrives about February next year, but armed with more power (175kW versus 147kW) and less weight, it should be quite a lively performer.
And we mention this because the hybrid 300h is not exactly a neck snapper, hauling some 1800kg up hill and down dale with no obvious venom.
In our haste to get a move on, we probably pressed the throttle a bit too much on a few too many occasions, because we were surprised to see that the variants we drove – the mid-range F Sport and flagship Sport Luxury – both returned fuel economy north of 10 litres per 100km.
That is a good deal short of the 5.7 litres per 100km promised in the NX press kit, not to mention the fuel-sipping qualities of diesel rivals from the likes of Audi and Volvo.
To be fair, hybrid powertrains do their best work in stop-start city commuting when the battery and electric motors can be pressed into service to propel the vehicle away from the traffic lights.
Under country running, these items are just more weight to be carried around.
Hence our thought: how would the NX 200t compare?We will have to wait a few months for that, but we confidently predict that the petrol version will have many of the qualities of the 300h that rides superbly on supple suspension befitting a luxury car.
Also evident is the care and attention that has gone into engineering a vault-like body that not only resists noise and vibration but provides a rigid platform for taut handling.
Arguably the most impressive feature of the NX is the steering, which is one of the better electric assisted systems around, full of feel and – when the need is there – feistiness.
As the NX is a high-rider in the SUV tradition, a little body roll and cornering understeer is evident, but no worse than rivals.
The new body design is edgy and out there, and we suspect some people will love it and others will like it not so much. We are in the love camp, especially for the black “Darth Vader” grille treatment of the F Sport variant that gives NX a full-bore version of the distinctive Lexus styling language.
Inside, opinion is again divided, with some people loving the cockpit-like interior layout with its protruding centre console.
The big advantage of the design is that it brings many of the controls closer to hand.
On the other hand, it looks fussy and busy, with layer upon layer of texture changes and odd angles that could not be further from the simple and elegant designs of the like of Audi’s Q5.
Thankfully, Lexus has exchanged its console-mounted, fiddly mouse-style controller for the in-dash screen – a challenge for right-handed drivers – with a much more intuitive touch pad in the same spot.
Like a smart phone screen, the touch pad can cause the screen image to zoom in or out with a pinching movement of the fingers. Nice.
Ergonomically, the NX is a treat, especially the Sport Luxury flagship with its cossetting sports seats with their part-leather upholstery.
Most of the controls are right where you would expect them to be – this is a Toyota branch after all – although there are quite a lot of them compared with some rival brands.
The NX has plentiful legroom and headroom in the back seat, but the shoulder width is a little on the tight side for three adults across the back seat.
Luggage space is plentiful compared with most in this category, in which a sawn-off backside is a style necessity, it seems. The NX at least affords more than 400 litres of space in the boot with the (electrically operated) hatch down and the (electrically adjustable) rear seats up.
Those rear seats also split-fold 60:40, which is surprisingly rare in this segment for some reason.
Like all Lexus models, the NX comes with a high level of standard equipment, with sat-nav and heated seats headlining the list.
Stepping up to the F Sport not only adds a layer of sportiness, with firmed suspension and that raunchy styling, but a pile of other niceties such as a handy 360-degree parking view monitor – don’t knock it until you have tried it – and even a wireless mobile phone charger that, for now, works on few current phones (they are coming, Lexus says).
Each step up the NX food chain also adds more safety items, with the Sport Luxury getting the ultimate gadgets such active cruise control with autonomous braking and lane departure warning.
Pound for pound, the NX is good value against its German rivals that ask extra for many of these items.
Should you buy one over, say, a diesel Audi Q5 or BMW X3? That’s a good question that we would prefer to answer once we have the full picture in February with the arrival of the petrol NX 200t.
The price and performance of that model might well swing us to give the new Lexus NX the full thumbs up after all, instead of a qualified one for now.
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