Lexus NX 300h (hybrid) long on edgy styling, short on power
With swept-back styling the NX looks fast and agile from its sporty LED headlights to its sculpted angular sides. It stands out from most of the luxury SUV crowd, and its hybrid-ness, only adds to the appeal, if you’re looking for high-tech efficiency to match the looks.
The tested pre-production “silver lining metallic” model was the top-end NX 300h, the h signifying it’s a hybrid. Sadly, it was only the front-drive model, not all-wheel-drive, which would have helped give it grip on a couple slippery, snowy mornings.
I love the angular looks, but I couldn’t warm to the overall hybrid experience.
Oh, it’s easy to love the economy. I put on 255 miles and just used 8.5 gallons to average 29.9 mpg in a week that was heavier on highway miles than usual, about 70%. Hybrids perform most impressively in city driving, the NX being rated at 35 mpg in city driving and 31 mpg on the highway by the EPA.
But here’s the deal. I get tired of hearing the high-pitched whine of the hybrid recharging its batteries every time I let off the gas pedal or got on the regenerative brakes. Partially you notice that whine much more here because the NX is a luxury ute with good sound deadening for road noise, but that clears the way to hear the whirr of the electric motor and braking.
Certainly the NX feels solid and road worthy in every way. It handles extremely well in corners, its dual stabilizer bars keeping the body roll to an absolute minimum. You can zip around corners and feel totally in control. Steering effort is extremely light, in fact, sometimes I wondered if it were too light.
At about 40 mph on crumbling area roads the ute tended to sway back and forth a bit as the road undulated. Its quick steering, normally a great benefit when taking on winding, circuitous roads, then needed a very steady hand to avoid a seasickness style rocking of the vehicle. My 5-year-old grandson chimed in that he was feeling seasick in the back seat at one point, and I’d already noticed the motion on several other occasions.
Ride also is mediocre with more bumps and thumps coming through to the riders than I’d expect in a luxury ute. This does ride on a modest 104.7-inch wheelbase, but I expected better control in a model pushing $50 grand. I feel last week’s Hyundai Santa Fe Sport was more comfortable, yet less expensive.
Power is nearly always an issue in a hybrid. The NX features a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine mated to a hybrid system that provides electric power to the wheels, primarily at low speeds. This in turn boosts gas mileage as low city speeds heavy on stopping and starting are the least efficient for gas-powered engines.
That low-speed getaway is modest in power and when you tromp the gas pedal the kick-in of the gas engine still doesn’t make the NX feel as sporty as it looks. Plus the engine is rather noisy. Lexus tells us the combined power is 194 horses, with 154 coming from the gasoline engine. All this is hooked up to an electronic-CVT (continuously variable transmission) that shifts relatively seamlessly, but doesn’t put the power to the pavement with much enthusiasm.
All this will probably be just fine once we all move on to autonomous cars that drive themselves, but for now, we sometimes need to get a jump on traffic to move into the next lane, or avoid a fast-moving SUV or pickup that’s still got V8 power under the hood.
Braking, as you may expect, is first class with four-wheel discs, the front being vented. Stability and traction control are standard, but with the front-drive system I noticed a lot of wheel spin in uphill parking in parking lots. I’d opt for an AWD model if you live in Wisconsin, or other northern climes.
Inside, the test NX was loaded with electronic doodads galore and was both quiet, as mentioned before, and handsome. This one featured a black over saddle brown leather interior with saddle soft leather seats and saddle trim on the dash and doors. There also was a slight bit of fake carbon fiber look trim on the dash and doors and matte silver trim around the center stack, console and outbound air ducts.
The black leather steering wheel was a power tilt/telescope model with a variety of trip computer, phone and other controls on the hub. All were easy to understand and use. The power wheel and three-memory driver’s seat were part of a $285 comfort package.
Speaking of comfort, these Lexus seats were well formed and supportive, several riders commenting on the buttery softness of their texture. They certainly fulfilled the luxury promise of a Lexus. Plus there’s good room for five adults and a load of luggage in the NX.
A premium package costing $2,670 added three-level heated and cooled front seats, although no heat for the rear seats, nor the steering wheel. A heated wheel adds $150, but would be worth it. The premium package, however, did include a moonroof, electrochromic outside mirrors and 18-inch tires and wheels, vs. the standard 17-inchers.
Lexus put a $2,140 navigation system in the NX, but that includes a couple additional speakers and subwoofer for the stereo/radio system that also included satellite radio, plus the Lexus Enform telematics system and voice recognition.
While I can’t pretend to understand how it works (much like I don’t understand nuclear physics), a $220 feature offers wireless charging for your smart phones and other hand-held devices. Cool!
A $900 pre-collision system features dynamic speed control, or smart cruise control, whichever term you prefer. That slows the car on cruise whenever someone pulls in front of the vehicle. And $500 more provides intuitive park assist. There’s also a blind-spot warning system and rear-view camera and the NX comes with a power rear hatch.
The main gauges are easy to see and I like how many of the center stack’s climate control buttons protrude from the dash for easy access, while the radio on/off and tuning knobs are tucked in below that and behind the console-mounted shifter. This is something you get used to.
However, and it’s a big however, the rest of the radio and electronic screen interface is clunky and frustrating at best. To click on a new radio station, or adjust the navigation map’s zoom level, and a host of other functions, a driver must futz with a clumsy touch pad on the console.
First, you’ll need to take off your glove in winter to use this. Second, it’s awkward as anything to slide the cursor around on the screen and actually land on the item you want to select. Third, you must then push down on the touch pad, which frequently moves one notch beyond what you want and clicks that. Then you start over again. Fourth, for shorter drivers that have the driver’s seat fairly far forward, the pad is at an odd angle to reach and use. This alone could be a deal breaker for many considering this vehicle.
Not everyone will have that option though, as the NX 300h lists at $40,645, including delivery. With all the options this one jumped to $48,520. Again, this is for a front-drive model.
A base NX 200t with front-wheel-drive lists at $35,405, including delivery. The 2005 features a 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder gas-powered engine that is turbocharged. It’s rated at 235 horsepower and is said to do 0-60 mph in 7.2 seconds. It uses a six-speed automatic transmission and an AWD model is available, as it is with the 300h.
Both the 2.0-liter and 2.5-liter engines Lexus uses in the NX models use the Atkinson-cycle mechanicals that provide more power and better fuel economy. This system has been around for years but has only begun to be used more widely in the past couple years, although Mazda has used it longer in several of its engines.
Bottom line: The NX has the looks, the economy and interior comfort to be a big player in the luxury SUV market. How much a person wants, or will tolerate, a hybrid’s lackluster performance will dictate the buyers ultimate interest.
Stats: 2015 Lexus NX 300h FWD
Hits: Interesting angular styling, quick handling, good gas mileage, handsome and quiet interior with a lot of electronic goodies. Heated soft leather seats, blind-spot warning, sunroof, power hatch.
Misses: Lackluster power, mediocre ride and clunky driver/all electronics interface with clumsy touch pad on console.
Made in: Japan
Engine: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder, hybrid, 194 hp
Weight: 4,055 lbs.
Wheelbase: 104.7 in.
Length: 182.3 in.
Cargo: 16.8 cu.ft. (53.7 cu.ft., rear seats down)
MPG: 29.9 (tested)
Base Price: $40,645 (includes delivery)
Dealer’s Price: $38,260 (includes delivery)
Premium package (heated/cooled front seats, moonroof, 18-inch wheels/tires, electrochromic outside mirrors), $2,670
Navigation system (Lexus Enform system, 2 additional speakers, subwoofer, voice recognition), $2,140
LED headlights, $1,160
Pre-collision system (dynamic speed control), $900
Intuitive park assist, $500
Wireless charger, $220
Comfort package (driver’s memory seats, power tilt/telescope steering wheel), $285
Test vehicle: $48,520
Sources: Lexus, www.kbb.com