In the mid-1990s the original Lexus RX kicked off the wave of luxury utility vehicles that has now infected pretty much every premium brand short of Ferrari and McLaren. In time, Lexus added rebadged versions of the Toyota Sequoia and Land Cruiser large SUVs and has now fleshed out the lineup with the compact NX crossover. The addition of the NX has inflated Lexus utility sales to the point where they have nearly overtaken car sales, a promise that will likely be completed when the new RX hits the streets this fall. While we wait on the 2016 RX, I got to spend a week driving it’s little brother, the hybrid electric NX300h.
For both mainstream and premium brands, smaller crossovers have been among the fastest growing segments in the American market for the better part of a decade. While it might seem somewhat surprising that the pioneer in the premium crossover segment, has waited until now to launch a compact, the NX is actually something of a return to form. As is so often the case, the RX has grown with each subsequent generation to the point that today’s “compact” NX is actually slightly larger than the original RX.
Until recently, Lexus design mostly veered toward the bland, but that’s certainly not a description that applies to the NX. This is easily the most aggressive looking Lexus to date with surprisingly low greenhouse to body ratio, bulging wheel arches and the now ubiquitous Lexus spindle grille. The optional 18-inch alloy wheels and high beltline create the impression that the NX is smaller than it actually is. The impression of a Dakar rally special isn’t quite as extreme as the defunct Acura ZDX, but the chopped greenhouse certainly contributes to this feel. Unlike the ZDX, the Lexus actually has a back seat that is quite usable with reasonable leg and head room. I was certainly in the minority in liking the look of the ZDX, but judging from strong early sales of the NX, it looks set to be far more popular than the Acura.
Overall, I find nose treatment to be the weakest part of the design, especially from a more side-on, front three-quarter view. At that angle, it appears to protrude more from the surrounding bodywork, an impression that seems less pronounced from a more straight-on view or in profile.
Lexus offers the NX with two powertrain options. The NX200t is the first North American market Lexus with a turbocharged engine, in this case a 2.0-liter four-cylinder generating 235-horsepower. My tester was the more fuel efficient NX300h hybrid with the optional E-Four, electric all-wheel-drive. Despite hauling around an extra 130 pounds with 41 fewer horsepower, compared to its gasoline-only sibling, the ample 258 lb.-ft. of instant-on torque from the electric motors, makes it feel more spritely off the line. Like other hybrids, the quick launch feel is largely an illusion when it comes to all-around acceleration which is more than two seconds slower to 60 mph, but it works for day to day driveability.
In the cabin, the NX has clearly taken inspiration from the performance-oriented RC coupe with a prominent center console, thick-rimmed steering wheel and surprisingly well-bolstered front seats. A drive mode selector knob to the left of the shifter allows the driver to choose between the typical normal and eco modes of a Toyota hybrid and sport mode. A twist to the right causes the graphics of the left-hand dial in the cluster to switch from the usual power/regen gauge to a proper tachometer. Pulling the shifter left from drive enables tap shifting through eight fixed gear ratios with the electronic CVT. While the 9.1 second 0-60 time of the NX300h doesn’t really live up to the sporty pretension promised by the exterior design and interior appointments, the rest of the driving dynamics are actually surprisingly good.
Toyota and Lexus hybrids generally feel rather leaden and devoid of feedback about what is happening at the road surface. You’re certainly never going to mistake this for an LF-A or even an RC, but the NX can bend into curvy roads with a surprising amount of verve. There is some feedback in the steering wheel and the suspension does its work with some adeptness. It’s not a sports car but it’s far better than any Prius I’ve ever driven.
Like the RC, the NX features Lexus’ new haptic feedback touchpad interface to the Enform infotainment system. The home screen of the central display shows three panes, with the left half dedicated to the map while the top right shows information for media playback and power flow in the lower left. Unfortunately the media display only shows what is being played without any controls. For play/pause or other controls you have to tap on that pane to get to a screen dedicated to media playback and then get to the controls. This would be fine if it would stay there, but after a minute or so, it always reverts back to the home screen, even if you aren’t actively using navigation. As a result, you always have an extra tap and movement of the cursor if you want to pause something during a conversation.
In addition to a pair of USB ports, the NX I drove also had a Qi-compatible wireless phone charging pad integrated into the center console just under the armrest. If you have a compatible phone, you can just drop it into the bay and close the armrest without fiddling with any cables.
In distinct contrast to the ZDX, the NX offers plenty of room in the second row for my six-foot-one-inch son. The rear seat backs even have a power recline feature if you want chill out a bit. If you want to carry longer cargo, in the rear, the seat backs fold forward as well, but you have to use the same power switches mounted on the side just below the seat cushions. This works fine, albeit quite slowly and if you need both sides down, you need to walk around to the other side to get the switch on that side.
The front wheel drive NX300h is EPA rated at 35 mpg city, 31 mpg highway and 33 combined. Adding the optional rear electric motor for on-demand all-wheel-drive drops those figures to 33, 30 and 32 mpg respectively. I saw a very respectable 30 mpg combined during a week of mixed driving, far better than the 18 mpg I got last fall with the 2.3-liter EcoBoost-powered Lincoln MKC. As tested with most of the available options, the NX300h stickered out at $52,013 including delivery although an entry front-drive model can be had for as little $40,645. If the looks don’t put you off, the NX is definitely worth checking out, especially if you want a fuel-efficient compact luxury crossover with surprisingly good dynamics.