Even the best players have an off day. Lexus has leveraged Toyota’s expertise with hybrids in many of its vehicles, and some of them are very good, but the all-new NX 300h isn’t necessarily one of them.
The sharply-styled NX is an all-new model for Lexus and the company says it’s its first luxury compact SUV, slotting in under the RX family. It starts at $41,450 for the non-hybrid NX 200t, which uses a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine and which travels through several trim packages before topping out at $53,550.
In contrast, the hybrid NX 300h comes only in a single, fully-loaded model for $59,450. It has all-wheel drive, running primarily in front-wheel but using an electric traction motor to provide power to the rear wheels when necessary.
The engine is a 2.5-L four-cylinder, mated to the hybrid electric system and using a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The engine produces 154 horsepower by itself, but when combined with the electric motor, there’s a maximum of 194 horses.
It’s the first Lexus hybrid with a kick-down function for a burst of extra acceleration when desired, and the battery is divided into a space-saving two-pack design for better weight balance. So naturally, along with the NX’s compact footprint, I was expecting something that would be at least a little lithe and sporty.
Instead, it feels heavy, and while it’s not cumbersome, there’s no nimbleness to it. The steering is vague and the brakes have that unpleasantly grabby feel that most hybrids used to have but have long since overcome.
The hybrid system works as it should, automatically and seamlessly switching between gasoline, electricity, or a combination of the two as needed. But when you turn the engine mode dial into fuel-saving Eco, the NX tends to drone. Pop it into Sport, and it just puts the revs up and gets noisier without adding much fun. I’ve always held up the larger Lexus RX 450h as the gold standard for hybrid SUVs, but the smaller NX seems sluggish by comparison.
All that said, the NX 300h did return impressive fuel consumption for me: 6.6 L/100 km in combined driving, which is lower than the published fuel figures, and it does it on regular-grade gasoline.
The cabin is beautifully finished, with handsomely stitched leather everywhere. But there are some issues here too, starting with a strange leather patch on the dash above the instrument cluster that looks like someone left a mouse pad behind.
Perhaps it’s meant to carry over the laptop theme of the Remote Touch Interface, as Lexus calls the computer-style touchpad that operates the infotainment and navigation screen. With your wrist on the console-mounted padded leather support, you can scroll or tap to hit the icons on the screen. It’s very intuitive, but actually hitting the right spot when you’re driving over uneven pavement is the other half of the equation. At times, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.
Placing the wrist support on the console gave the designers an empty cubby behind it that’s now designated for eyeglasses storage. Its cover lifts off entirely and when you turn it over, there’s a mirror on the back. My thoughts are that if it doesn’t get lost, it’s going to get broken; and if it doesn’t get broken, we’re going to have drivers adjusting their makeup or checking their smiles instead of looking at the road.
So after all my complaints, what’s right about the NX 300h? It’s roomy and comfortable, including in the rear seats, which fold electrically for more cargo space when needed. That fully-loaded trim line includes a whack of features, such as heated and ventilated front seats, windshield head-up display, power liftgate, auto-dimming mirrors, rain-sensing wipers and LED headlights. Its adaptive cruise control keeps a pre-set distance from vehicles in front, its lane-keeping assist will keep it between the lines, and it’ll warn you if traffic is coming when you’re backing out of a parking space.
If you’re in the market for a premium-brand compact hybrid SUV, there isn’t a wide selection. The only other comparable choice is Infiniti’s QX60 hybrid, which starts at $54,900, but rises to $63,900 if you add an option package that brings it closer to the NX 300h’s features list. And while I still prefer the Lexus RX 450h, it is a larger vehicle than its compact sibling, and its entry-level trim is $3,800 more than the loaded NX 300h.
You can’t really beat the NX 300h on price if you want to get all of its features, but behind the wheel, the driving performance doesn’t feel like you’ve spent almost $60,000. Even the best have their off days, but I find it surprising that the company that normally leads the way on hybrids has missed the mark on this one.
2015 Lexus NX 300h
PRICE: $59,450 (as-tested)
ENGINE: 2.5-L four-cylinder with hybrid system
POWER: 154 hp (gas only); 194 hp (gas and electric); 152 torque
FUEL CONSUMPTION (regular): City 7.1, hwy. 7.7, as-tested 6.6
COMPETITION: Infiniti QX60 Hybrid
WHAT’S BEST: Sharp styling, nice interior, fuel consumption
WHAT’S WORST: Steering feel, grabby brakes, too-sensitive touch pad
WHAT’S INTERESTING: It was initially launched at the Beijing Motor Show