The Lexus NX300h looks like a dramatically designed 4×4 for the Dakar rally, but after a week of driving through snow, rivers and mud, does the driving experience live up to its appearance?
Everyone wants an SUV, whether it’s compact, medium or large – so Lexus had to get in on the act. It already has the larger RX SUV, but no offering in the lucrative medium-sized SUV sector, so enter the NX. And what an entrance – the styling is very dramatic, giving the promise of a driving experience to match the looks – so is this the case…?
The Lexus NX300h has a 4-cylinder, 2.5-litre petrol engine mated to a battery and electric motor. The aim is that these two elements of the powertrain work together in the interests of efficiency, and also provide a small degree of electric-only running. There’s also ‘Electronic – Continuously Variable Transmission’ (E-CVT). And in all NX models apart from the entry-level ‘S’ spec, there’s ‘e-Four’ all-wheel drive – thanks to a second electric motor that sends torque to the rear wheels.
We’ve touched upon the exterior already. The NX has dramatic styling, which we think looks good – but it may not be to everyone’s tastes. With big SUVs you need big wheels to make them look in proportion, and the 18-inch alloys on this NX don’t disappoint.
Whilst the exterior looks striking, the interior is luxurious. This Premier spec model has all the equipment you would want, ranging from heated seats to a top quality stereo, and a head-up display that works particularly well.
SUVs have heavy, tall bodies on high suspension, so body control is often an issue. Not so with the Lexus NX – it has excellent body control and handling. But it gets better – the steering is also direct and consistent. So far, so good – stylish looks, impressive handling and responsive steering are all important ingredients in the recipe for a successful overall package.
The NX is also a comfortable car to sit in, and the ride is generally good. However with its large wheels and suspension that obviously does a good job of keeping body roll in check, the ride can feel somewhat brittle on certain road surfaces, when some road noise can also be an issue.
A problem that can plague hybrids is their brakes – the braking sensation can feel unnatural, due to the system usually trying to combine conventional mechanical braking with regenerative braking. However the NX feels better than some other hybrids in this area.
During our week with the NX it was faced with a number of challenges – none of which were specifically engineered for this vehicle. We had to make it through a ford, which just happened to cross a road we were driving down; we had to recce a driving circuit on a farm, which happened to be very wet and muddy; and it snowed. It turned out to be fortunate that we had the Lexus NX that week, because the majority of cars that we test in a year wouldn’t have been able to make it through deep water, wouldn’t have got traction in the mud, and wouldn’t have got moving in the snow. The experience with the ford should help to banish the myth that hybrids and electric vehicles can’t drive through flooded roads.
Of course these challenges weren’t in the same league as driving up a mountain, but they were fairly typical issues that the average driver could be faced with. The Lexus NX is not marketed as a go anywhere off-roader – it has tyres with only a small amount of extra grip compared to standard car tyres, and it is primarily front-wheel drive, with a small amount of extra support, electronically, from the rear axle. But it surmounted the challenges, whereas a conventional car would have struggled – showing the benefit of a ‘soft-roader’ for people who want a vehicle that is more capable than a conventional car yet don’t want to buy a hard core off-roader. Fitted with decent all-season tyres the NX would be even more capable.
So lots of good news so far – but what about any bad points? Chief amongst the downsides in our opinion is the Continuously Variable Transmission. On the NX this is prefixed with ‘Electronic’, to result in the E-CVT abbreviation. However the revs – and the engine noise – still rise when you accelerate, without any corresponding increase in the rate of progress. Toyota and Lexus have used CVTs with hybrids for many years now, because this is seen as the best solution to mate to a hybrid system for efficiency, but companies such as BMW have used automatic transmissions in a hybrid powertrain to end up with much more of a direct response; we’d still like to see the Lexus CVT deliver such an experience.
You can select Sport via the gear selector, and also through a driving mode control dial (which offers the options of Eco, Normal and Sport), however the basic characteristic of lots of revs under acceleration still remains. You can also change through the six gears manually – using the gear selector rather than any steering wheel-mounted paddles – but again this doesn’t solve the revs issue. What does change, apart from Sport keeping the car at higher revs and providing more brake regeneration, is the left hand dial in the instrument cluster – in Sport mode this changes from showing whether the car is in Charge, Eco or Power mode to a rev counter.
There’s also an option to select EV mode, however in reality you’re never going to travel very far on battery power – just a few hundred yards in most cases in our experience.
Another feature that we feel doesn’t work as well as some rivals is the mouse pad controller for the infomedia system. Although this has been improved since it was first introduced, it’s still not as easy to control as an iDrive-style rotary dial – especially when driving. It also didn’t seem possible to enter a postcode into the satnav system. There’s also a reasonable amount of complexity involved in scrolling through the various different information screens in the instrument cluster.
The official combined fuel economy figure of the Lexus NX300h is 54.3mpg. Interestingly, the official extra-urban figure is 55.4mpg and the urban figure is 53.3mpg – so not much difference – officially – between the three. Our actual real-life average after a week of driving the NX hybrid was 31.1mpg. The best we achieved with very gently driving was 39.4mpg. It’s well publicised that hybrids are engineered to do well in the NEDC cycle, and that it’s difficult to get close to the official figures in real life driving. Even so, 31.1mpg is disappointing. The NX is a relatively large SUV with a 2.5-litre petrol engine, which also carries around the extra weight of a battery and electric motor, which don’t contribute much towards improved efficiency during driving such as long motorway journeys. Virtually all rivals offer diesels, but no diesel is available in the Lexus NX – which will certainly limit sales in the UK and Europe.
The Lexus NX300h Premier costs £42,995. This is a fairly substantial amount of money, but this is the top of the range and it comes with lots of equipment. There’s also an S, SE, Luxury and F Sport. The S costs a more competitive £29,495. All models come with the capability of all-wheel drive except the entry-level S, which only has front-wheel drive. At the time of writing you can only buy the NX with just one powertrain choice, the petrol-electric hybrid, however a petrol turbo has just been announced. But there’s no diesel, and despite increased awareness about diesel air quality issues, in the UK and Europe buyers generally want a diesel engine in this segment.
The Lexus NX300h looks very striking, it has a luxurious cabin, along with well-sorted handling and steering, and it coped with mud, rivers and snow – something which many cars would not have been able to do. On the downside the E-CVT is revvy under acceleration, and the real-life economy was disappointing. But despite the air quality advantages of petrol-electric hybrids, perhaps the key issue for the UK is that there is no diesel engine option, and most buyers for this class of car want a diesel.
So we’re left to conclude that there is a mis-match in the NX300h between its looks – which resemble a Dakar rally entrant (or perhaps a more modern version of the late 1990’s Isuzu Vehicross, one of the most futuristic yet largely unknown car designs) and the way it drives – which is the opposite of the direct responses that you’d want in a Dakar rally car. We know Toyota can do this – just look at the GT86. So the Lexus NX300h gains a Green-Car-Guide rating of 7 out of 10; we’d like to see the ‘mark 2’ gain some of the genes of a GT86 in the driving department, to help it live up to its looks.