The Lexus NX SUV targets BMW's X3 and Audi's Q5 and has become one of the company's biggest sellers. Jonathan Crouch reports on the latest range.
Here, Lexus throws the kitchen sink at the mid-size luxury SUV sector, its improved NX zeroing in more closely on the Audi Q5 and BMW X3. The range now includes only the 2.5-litre NX 300h hybrid powertrain and is offered in front-driven or AWD guises. The sharp looks and beautiful interior are sure to secure no shortage of orders and the comprehensive 'Lexus Safety System+' package is a welcome inclusion.
If there was one word that could best be used to describe Lexus, it's probably 'audacious'. This is a car manufacturer that doesn't recognise boundaries as many do. Its very first car was a tilt at the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, widely renowned at the time as the best car in the world. It built the world's first luxury hybrid and even built a supercar that even today feels more special and exotic than an equivalent Lamborghini or Ferrari. For all its chutzpah and ambition, Lexus' footprint has tended to be narrow. Yes, the company has a luxury remit, but it's still been absent from many potentially lucrative market sectors where it ought to have been upsetting applecarts. In short, the brand could do with more models like this NX, a premium mid-sized SUV that targets models like the BMW X3 and the Audi Q5. On recent times, the range has been updated with more equipment and stronger standards of safety.
Lexus NX buyers are restricted to hybrid power, a proven Lexus 2.5-litre petrol engine, generator, motor and battery package with a total system output of 195bhp. There's an entry-level front-driven version but most NX models are ordered in AWD form, where the NX 300h is equipped with two electric motors, one on each axle, to produce the all-wheel drive traction. It also gets sprung-weight damping control to increase ride comfort and handling stability by reducing pitching when driving on uneven surfaces. The whole set-up is mated to a E-CVT auto gearbox. For town use, it's an almost perfect combination. In fact, there's really no other Crossover of this size that even comes close to the seamless waft of propulsion this car provides, so if you're looking for the most relaxing and refined mid-sized SUV you can buy for shopping and school run duties, you can end your search right here. This is it. Unfortunately, out of town, the belt-driven transmission is far less accommodating. The gearshift that was so sweet and smooth when you were ambling about rather loses its way when more rapid progress is called for. You press the throttle hard, the revs roar and not a huge amount of forward motion is delivered. A lot of attention has gone into improving body rigidity, with extensive reinforcement of the underbody, additional bulkheads and weld points, and extra suspension braces. An Adaptive Variable Suspension system is offered, which talks to the car's Drive Mode Select system, to alter the level of damping force to improve ride comfort and improve body control.
Remember when Lexus tried to look like their competitors? Seems a bit quaint now doesn't it? These days there's no mistaking a Lexus for anything else and this NX remains distinctive and stylish. The signature spindle grille has a smart look that aligns it more closely with the brand's RX luxury SUV and the upper part of the front bumper has been shaped so that it blends fluidly into the bonnet. The headlamps accommodate an Adaptive High-beam system, plus there are smart sequential turn indicators, front and rear. There's a stylised bumper at the back too, and eye-catching tail lamp clusters with L-shaped lenses. Inside, you'll get an 8-inch central infotainment screen for the base Lexus Display Audio set-up - or a bigger 10.3-inch monitor for the ritzier Lexus Premium Navigation system. A large central analogue clock also catches the eye, as does the smart climate control panel and the touchpad for the infotainment monitor. We think that the interior owes little to the premium German brands in its design ethos. Lexus aimed to combine the purpose of a high-performance vehicle with the materials quality of a luxury model. The centrepiece of the dash is a curvaceous H-shaped metal frame that's a world away from a typically slab-fronted SUV fascia panel. Details like drilled pedals and quilted leather seats differentiate the cabin from the usual suburban Crossover norm. Practicality certainly hasn't been overlooked though and the NX offers decent headroom, a generous front-to-rear hip point distance and the longest luggage area load length in its class.
Lexus offers three trim level options - base 'NX', then 'F Sport' and top 'Takumi'. Prices sit in the £36,000-£47,000 bracket. This being Lexus, even the humblest trim comes with the sort of gear you'd have to tick a depressing amount of options boxes for in many rivals. At the entry point to the range, the base NX version is equipped with 18-inch alloy wheels, the Lexus Safety System+ package, heated front seats with Tahara upholstery and an eight-inch Lexus Navigation screen. Options include the 10-inch Lexus Navigation package, with larger display and enhanced functionality, and a Sport Pack, adding wheels with a bronze/machined finish, a black spindle grille and black door mirror casings. The NX F Sport adds bespoke 18-inch alloy wheels, exterior styling details, a heated steering wheel and leather upholstery. The model also comes with a power tailgate, a wireless charging tray and triple-beam LED headlights. The top NX Takumi includes a panoramic roof, plus heated and ventilated front seats, a 360-degree panoramic view camera, a head-up display, card key leather upholstery, a 14-speaker Mark Levinson Surround Sound system, a Blind Spot Monitor and Rear Cross Traffic Alert. A sunroof can be added as an option.
Around town, the NX 300h hybrid variant brings the full benefits of its petrol/electric powertrain to bear. At first glance, the one mile limit for progression under all-electric propulsion seems a bit feeble but in practice, you use that allocation only in very small chunks between which the battery resource is constantly being replenished by brake energy regeneration. As a result, in built-up areas and stop-start traffic, the engine's nearly always ready to function in silent all-electric milk float-mode. Which explains why the petrol AWD model can deliver WLTP running cost figures that better those of rival diesels, specifically 37.1mpg on the combined cycle and 171g/km of CO2. The front-driven variant manages 161g/km and 39.7mpg on the combined cycle. Where VED is concerned, the annual saving you'd get through opting for the front driven rather than the AWD version is £330. For company car tax-payers, the benefit-in-kind rating for a front driven NX is 35 per cent in the first year (2021/2022), compared to 37 per cent for the NX with all-wheel drive; this delivers a saving of £418 in the first year and £832 over three years for a business motorist paying income tax at 40 per cent.
Lexus needs the NX - and needs it to do well. For that to happen, this car will have to offer more than the traditional attributes that spring to mind when you think of this brand, things like reliability, quality, refinement, technology and great dealer back up. Of course, the company's proud of the reputation it's built upon these virtues, but it's well aware that for this model to succeed against well-established rivals like those from Range Rover, BMW and Audi, worthiness isn't enough. Lexus needs desirability. It needs design flair. It needs excitement. It needs... an X-factor. Spend time with this NX and increasingly, you find yourself agreeing that this is just what's on offer here. The NX may be a little too individual to sell in the kind of numbers its maker would really like - but then that's all part of its appeal. It's not perfect but it's never boring. And in a market sector that's getting just that little bit stale, it's a breath of fresh air.
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