More tech, luxury and smoothness for the revamped, hybrid-only Lexus NX – but does that boost its sales appeal?
Lexus has been ploughing its own, stubbornly non-Euro design furrow with the NX since 2014. In one sense, it’s been working: this angular SUV sitting one notch below the BMW X5 accounts for nearly one in three of all the brand’s European sales, with around three times more NXs sold than of the CT200h hatch.
We’re now on the second facelift since the NX launch four years ago, and no attempt has been made to detune the concept-car looks. Next to the considerably more staid Volvo XC60, Audi Q5 and Mercedes-Benz GLC, the NX is a head-turner to say the least, with a more in-your-face grille now surrounded by more deeply hollowed-out air intakes, tweaked bumpers and aggressively-profiled LED headlights that build in Lexus’s Adaptive High-beam System.
Engine: 2.5-litre, four-cylinder, petrol plus two electric motors
Torque: 152lb ft
Kerb weight: 1785kg
Top speed: 112mph
Fuel economy: 55.4mpg
You also get sequential-illuminating indicators (as previously found on optioned-up Audis) and Lexus’s Safety System Plus technology, which packages up a pre-collision warning and emergency braking system with adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, road-sign assist, and adaptive high-beam headlights that will light up the road without dazzling other drivers.
The 194bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged NX200t version has been dropped from the 2018 range, leaving the hybrid 300h as the sole model with a five-grade spec structure: SE, Luxury, F sport, F Sport Premier Pack (with a head-up display and Mark Levinson 14-speaker sound system) and Premier.
The instrument dials are oddly low and the bigger 10.3-inch infotainment screen oddly high, but the overall interior ambience is nevertheless one of the NX’s best features. As usual, Lexus style is quite different to German style, the NX swathed in switchgear and unusual materials flagging up angular rather than organic lines, but there’s no quibbling about the standard of build or the highly adjustable and well padded driving position.
The effortlessness of the NX proposition is reflected in the easy drive, but there are frustrations, principally in the ride which is only really OK on good roads. Everywhere else, it’s nibbly and unsettled. Similarly, the refinement of the mechanicals is only felt on cruising. Getting to your chosen cruising speed by deploying the power of the Hybrid Drive powertrain – four-cylinder petrol engine, electric drive motor and a slave motor – is a rackety experience if you’re of the carpet-mashing persuasion.
The best way to make the sort of refined progress that’s more in keeping with the NX’s projected personality is to feather the power in and then conserve your speed with minimum foot work. Get it right and you can achieve impressive cross-country times with the cooperation of a nicely-controlled body and accurate steering, if not the over-assisted and hard to finesse recuperative brakes.
The NX’s best chance to shine comes in grinding low-speed traffic, where its uncanny knack of gliding serenely away from a standstill acts as a kind of balm for the stressed urban driver’s brow. Much nicer that the stop-start systems that are forever re-firing the engines of the non-hybrid opposition.
Still, the hybrid powertrain won’t appeal much to enthusiastic traditionalists, and the synthetic nature of the steering might detract too. Alfa’s Stelvio is light years ahead in terms of driver engagement. ‘Steady as she goes’ users won’t feel short-changed on either motorway or urban rat-run: they’ll value the electric calm and refuse to be dismayed by the occasional intrusion of road thumps.
Looked at objectively, the NX300h’s sphere of ideal operation – smooth-road cruising – is pretty limited. Many cars will do that – like the Audi Q5 and, with a more dynamic flavour, the BMW X3 – and add more layers on top. That narrowness of purpose makes the Lexus a tough recommendation.
It is efficient though, with carbon dioxide emissions of only 121g/km. That beats similarly powerful diesels and keeps benefit-in-kind rates attractively affordable. Graft that onto the luxurious interior and the cool design and the case for an NX begins to brighten up.