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.
Ten Second Review
Here, Lexus throws the kitchen sink at the mid-size luxury SUV sector, its NX zeroing in on the Audi Q5 and BMW X3. The range hinges primarily around the 2.5-litre NX 300t hybrid and is offered in either front or all-wheel drive. The sharp looks and beautiful interior are sure to secure no shortage of orders and the 'Sport' variant now included in the range will be popular.
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 an extra 'Sport' variant and a desirable 'Premier Pack' equipment option.
Lexus NX buyers get to choose between two powerplants. The more typically 'Lexus' of the pair is the NX300h, powered by a proven Lexus 2.5-litre petrol engine, generator, motor and battery with a total system output of 195bhp. Offered in front and all-wheel drive versions, the NX 300h is equipped with one or two electric motors respectively. It also gets sprung-weight damping control to increase ride comfort and handling stability by reducing pitching when driving on uneven surfaces.
Alternatively you could get the NX 200t, powered by a 2.0-litre petrol turbo engine. Both all-wheel and front-wheel drive versions will be offered in some markets, but here it's being pitched as the sporty option and sold exclusively in all-wheel drive F Sport guise. Maximum power is rated at 238bhp between 4,800 and 5,600rpm and maximum torque is 350Nm, available from 1,650 to 4,000rpm. It's mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that has been specially tuned for the NX.
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.
Design and Build
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 adopts the current family look with a vast 'spindle grille' at the front, dwarfing the LED headlights and L-shaped daytime running lights. The flared wheel arches house either 17 or 18-inch alloy wheels, while the side profile of the vehicle demonstrates how Lexus has aimed to create a sleek shape without compromising rear headroom, the highest point of the roofline being stretched backwards. Neat styling touches include a door handle with a concealed key barrel and plenty of shape built into the flank surfacing. This thing looks sharp enough to cut you.
The interior also 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 vehicle. 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 SUV 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.
Market and Model
Lexus offers no fewer than six trim level options, although not every grade is available with every chassis/engine configuration. There's the all-wheel drive F-Sport only NX 200t and then there are all-wheel drive SE, Sport, Luxury, F Sport and Premier grades, plus an entry-level front-wheel drive S grade for the NX 300h. 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. You'll get LED low-beam headlights and daytime running lights, a Pre-Crash Safety system and Adaptive Cruise Control, dual zone climate control, a Lexus Media Display with Remote Touch controller, a DAB digital radio driving eight speakers, a USB port, electric folding door mirrors and 17-inch alloy wheels. Then there's safety gear like Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management, Hill Assist Control and eight airbags.
The most recent addition to the line-up is the Sport variant, which gets black finishing for its exterior trimming and 18-inch alloy wheels, plus black 'Tahara' leather upholstery and a Lexus Navigation system. Further up the range, there's an even more dynamic-looking F Sport variant that can be ordered with a 'Premier Pack' that gives you desirabe niceties like Lexus Premium Navigation, a 14-speaker Mark Levinson surround sound system, a head-up display, a heated steering wheel, a 360-degree panoramic camera and Adaptive Variable Suspension. At the foot of the NX range, prices start at around £30,000 for a 2WD NX 300h in S trim, with the figures then rising all the way up to top Premier trim setting you back around £44,500.
Cost of Ownership
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 this petrol model can deliver running cost figures that better those of rival diesels, specifically 55.4mpg on the combined cycle and 121g/km of CO2 in the 4WD version. Go for the 2WD 'NX 300h S' variant and the returns improve a little but not hugely: the 4x4 model does, after all, function nearly all the time in front-driven form as well. The 'S' model manages 56.5mpg on the combined cycle and 116g/km of CO2.
That only leaves the returns you'll get from the single conventionally-engined model in the NX range, the 200t petrol turbo. This of course can't get near to hybrid standards of efficiency, but it does manage a combined cycle showing of 35.8mpg, plus 183g/km, which is very similar to the kind of return you'd get from a rival Range Rover Evoque Si4 or entry-level petrol-powered Porsche Macan.
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.