By Jonathan Crouch
With this NX, Lexus brought us a strikingly styled premium compact SUV that was unafraid to go its own way when it came to cars of this kind. It's the only model in the premium mid-sized SUV segment that can't be had in diesel form, with most variants instead offering beautifully refined and highly efficient petrol/electric hybrid power. The brand used this car to increase its European sales by a third. It certainly changed the way a lot of people felt about Lexus. Here, we're going to look at the original 2014-2017 version of the first generation model as a potential used car buy.
Premium compact SUVs are all the same - or are they? Here's one that's a little more individual: the Lexus NX. Lexus isn't afraid to be different: it never has been. This was the company that proved top luxury saloons didn't have to be German. And the brand that pioneered hybrid power when others were only just getting to grips with diesel. In 2014 with this NX model, it turned its attention to the premium mid-sized SUV segment and, perhaps inevitably, its approach was once again somewhat unique.
The looks, for a start, make this by far the most distinctive design in its segment from this era. Amongst obvious rivals, even a Range Rover Evoque looks quite ordinary in comparison, while popular contenders like Audi's Q5 and BMW's X3 look positively mundane. Further setting this car apart is the technology that lies beneath its bonnet. In a segment that's traditionally relied almost exclusively on diesel power, it's the only model in its class from this era you can't fuel from the black pump, with most NX variants instead preferring the greener and more tax-efficient solution of petrol/electric hybrid power.
Other promising attributes include class-leadingly efficient returns, high equipment levels and strong safety provision - plus the promise of a practical cabin. For the right kind of buyer then, it sounds an interesting combination. The original version of this MK1 model NX sold until late 2017, when it was replaced by a heavily facelifted version.
What You Get
Remember when Lexus models tried to look like their competitors? Seems a bit quaint now doesn't it? Those days are long gone and in this NX, what we got instead was one of the most individual designs on offer in mid-sized SUV market back in 2014, its styling an absolute riot of contrasting angles, swage lines and details all competing for you attention. It has absolutely no right to work - but somehow it just does. We think it looks great, but styling is as ever largely subjective and you might think it's terrible, which of course is completely OK. Go and buy a BMW X3 or an Audi Q5 in this segment if you don't want anyone to ever notice or comment on the car you drive. It's just a case of whether you want to spend as much as is required for a car of this kind on something wholly unexceptional.
Powerfully-flared front and rear wings are fused to a diamond-shaped body, with defining lines generated from an overt interpretation of the brand's trademark 'spindle grille'. This feature dominates the front end, almost dwarfing an acutely-styled set of LED headlights that sit above tick-shaped daytime running light strips that also twinkle with hi-tech LEDs. The whole effect might not be quite as extreme as we saw on the LF-NX concept car that in 2013 originally inspired this model, but Chief Exterior Designer Nobuyuki Tomatsu's penmanship is fresh, edgy and different. It's thoughtful too: the artful disguise in the way the door handles conceal their key barrels is a particularly neat touch.
Lexus wanted the NX to look as if it had been carved from a solid nugget of metal and you can certainly see that effect as you move round to the sides. Take the door detailing down near the sills that looks like it's been precision-milled by machine, sharp enough to cut you. We also love the convergence of swage lines by the rear C-pillar. It's true that the end result of all this aesthetic excess proved difficult for Lexus to finesse aerodynamically - hence the need for a lipped rear spoiler to preserve a half-way reasonable 0.33cd drag factor. Still, we think the effort was worth it: this NX is certainly going to stand out in a carpark full of German metal.
It appears smaller than it really is too, thanks to the artful chamfering you'll find on each of the corners. The bodywork actually sits on the chassis of a Toyota RAV4, but if nobody told you, you'd probably look at it and think it competed with Audi Q3s, Mercedes GLAs and BMW X1s from the next class down. Get the size into perspective and the next thing you notice is just how hard Lexus has worked in creating a sleek shape without compromising rear headroom, the highest point of the roofline being stretched backwards. It's all part of a crouching, muscular stance accentuated by flared wheel arches that house either 17 or 18-inch alloy wheels.
All this being the case, it would have been particularly disappointing if on the inside, Lexus had served up something more conventional. Fortunately, they haven't done. Take a seat up-front and the shape of the dash in front of you is a world away from the simple planes you'd find in, say, a Range Rover Evoque - and it's certainly far removed from the kind of BMW or Audi cockpit that would have flowing, natural shapes. Here instead, the look and feel is more deliberately modern, with sharp angles and bold slashes of wood and metal. It's all evidence of Lexus' growing confidence as a car maker.
True, there's a LOT of design going on here and some of it can seem a bit fussy in places. Overall though, we reckon it all works - against the odds in some places. Lexus clearly doesn't hold with the current fashion for de-cluttered dashboards and there's no way an analogue clock should sit amongst all the hi-tech buttons and LED readouts without looking anything but bizarre. Even so, the NX pulls it off. It also incorporates its flat-screen infotainment display without the 'iPad-stuffed-into-the-fascia' feel that similar installations give you in some rivals, though at 6.2-inches in size, the display isn't that big. It's controlled on top models from a touchpad which is much easier to use than the maddening mouse-like thing the brand used to offer, if not quite as intuitive as rival BMW iDrive, Audi MMI or Mercedes COMAND systems. Lexus is slowly getting there though.
While it's easy to get drawn into some of the lovely details like the removable mirror on the centre console and the wireless smartphone charger, what's more important is that the fundamentals are absolutely rock solid. The driving position, embellished by soft leather kneepads either side of the prominent centre console, is high and commanding and you control things via a lovely grippy thick leather-stitched three-spoke multifunction steering wheel. Through this, you view a clearly defined set of virtual dials separated by a centrally positioned 4.2-inch TFT colour multi-information display.
Look about and there's great all-round visibility aided by large mirrors which help to compensate for the fact that you can't quite see the corners of the car when manoeuvring. Still, most models get an effective set of parking sensors that help you deal with that and on the top 'Premier' version, there's also a 360-degree Panoramic View Monitor that uses four cameras relaying their images to the central display panel in seven sequences so you can accurately check your surroundings before driving off.
The cabin's also more spacious than you expect it might be, with Lexus claiming a class-leading distance between front and rear seats. And there are plenty of practical storage areas, including space in the centre console and a decently-sized glovebox, a compartment for your sunglasses and door pocket holders for half-litre bottles. Plus cupholders too of course, fashioned with that typical Lexus attention to detail courtesy of a high-friction lining that lets you open a twist-cap bottle one-handed.
Take a seat in the rear and the feeling of spaciousness continues. We mentioned earlier the way that rear headroom has been preserved, though it can be compromised a little if you opt for a model fitted with a panoramic glass roof. There are no legroom issues though. We've been in SUVs from the class above that have less rear kneeroom than this and better still, the floor is almost completely flat, meaning that this car can far more credibly carry three adults in the back than any of its more compromised rivals can manage. These rear seats also recline, which makes longer journeys in the back far more relaxing.
Out back, plusher models get an arthritically-slow powered tailgate that rises to reveal a 475-litre luggage capacity that's a little less than some rivals offer, though is substantially bigger than you'd get in a rival Range Rover Evoque. In other markets, 555-litres is provided but here, Lexus chose, alone in its segment, to offer a proper spare wheel as standard rather than one of those irritating tyre-inflation devices: good on 'em. Width-wise, there's enough room for four golf bags to be stowed sideways, rather than across the diagonal. Push forward the powered split-folding rear bench and up to 1,520-litres can be revealed.
What to Look For
We really struggled to find too many dis-satisfied Lexus NX owners. Not that we expected to find many. The brand has an enviable reputation for reliability and dealer service and that appears to have been continued here. We did come across a few reports of drivetrain vibrations and interior rattles. On the NX 300h models affected, this apparently sets in between 1,200 and 1,400rpm, so look out for that on your test drive. We did come across one disgruntled owner who complained that on one occasion, he reversed out into the snow to be greeted with a dash message saying 'AWD malfunction - 2WD engaged'. Without 4WD, he promptly slithered into a ditch. There was also an audio display problem, a car pulling to the right and a problem with one owner's navigation system. Otherwise, there's little else to report.
(approx based on a 2014 NX 300h- Ex Vat) An air filter costs around £10 and an oil filter costs around £8-£10. Front brake pads cost around £102 for a set. Brake discs cost in the £48 to £67 bracket. Wiper blades cost around £10. For a replacement wing mirror glass, you're looking at about £16. A replacement water pump will be pricey, costing around £718. A wheel bearing and hub is around £217.
On the Road
You might at first think that Lexus dropped the ball by not offering this car with the diesel power that dominates this model's compact SUV segment. Not so. The Japanese brand thinks that diesel engines have a little bit too much of the '19th Century' about them and the advantages of the petrol/electric hybrid powertrain it prefers instead become apparent as soon as you press the start button and hear.. nothing. Silence. At start-up, the dials will spark into life and you can then ready yourself to slide away purely on electric power by pressing a provided EV button down near the gearstick.
Unfortunately, the car will only run for just over a mile on full electric power before the petrol engine chimes back in to recharge the battery packs - and then only if you keep your speed below 30mph. Which is one of the reasons why most of the time, you probably won't bother with the full EV mode because the NX is very clever at figuring out for itself when the electric motor and the petrol engine should work. Pull away in city traffic and you get absolutely effortless pickup. The E-CVT auto gearbox every 300h model has to have helps here, giving the car a lovely elastic flexibility from standstill but without the kind of boom-or-bust thrashiness that afflicts many belt-driven auto CVT models. Once you're familiar with driving this car, it might be instructive to then jump into a comparably-priced diesel SUV with a manual gearbox. It'll feel like going from using a Macbook Air to being asked to work with a clunky PC from the Eighties.
Get to jogging pace and the four-cylinder 2.5-litre petrol engine this NX borrowed from Lexus' IS and GS hybrid saloons sparks up with a transition that is, again, ultra-polished. In town, there's really no other SUV 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 compact SUV you can buy from this era for shopping and school run duties, you can end your search right here. This is it.
It's not perfect, mind. The ride is a little firmer than we'd want it to be, especially around town where composure is more frequently unsettled than it should be by potholes, speed humps and the scratchy tarmac legacy of shady cable companies. You'll also need to get used to a brake pedal that's neurotically keen on harvesting power back to the hybrid system. As a result, not much more than a touch from your little toe can easily see you standing the NX on its nose until you adjust your left foot pressure to suit its demeanour. You adapt quickly though: it's all part of this car's more individual experience.
Much of which is down to the hi-tech hybrid powertrain we've been talking about, whose various machinations you can follow via a fascinating infotainment dash display graphic there to show you at any given time what's charging or being powered by what. Lexus quotes a combined output of 195bhp for the NX 300h model, so this powerplant's thrust is quite comparable to that of directly rival diesel models like Range Rover's Evoque SD4, Audi's Q5 2.0 TDI, BMW's X4 20d and Volvo's XC60 D4 - the likely alternatives potential buyers will probably be considering. We used the phrase 'combined output': that's because only 154bhp of the hybrid system's total punch is provided by the 2.5-litre petrol engine we referenced earlier: the rest is supplied by an electric motor.
In terms of sheer performance, what all this delivers is a rest to 62mph sprint time of 9.3s on the way to a maximum of 112mph. That's a fraction less than you'd get from the conventional diesel rivals we just mentioned, but a difference not enough to be significant for most buyers. The speeds stats are the same whether you choose your NX 300h in two or four-wheel drive form - Lexus insists on offering the hybrid model with both options, despite the fact that even the E-Four AWD version powers through its front wheels nearly all of the time. Most buyers will choose the 4x4 variant, which brings rear wheel traction to the party when conditions demand it courtesy of a second electric motor that's solely there to drive the rear axle. It's a set-up even less likely to take you very far off road than a conventional mechanical package would be on a car of this kind, but for muddy carparks and icy mornings, it'll be quite sufficient for the needs of most likely owners.
But of course, you won't be buying this car expecting to conquer the Serengeti. You might though, harbour some expectation of being able to ask a little more of it than the usual urban duties. Can this NX deliver as a dynamic match for best-in-class rivals? Lexus certainly wants it to, fitting its 'Drive Mode Select' system, a set-up that works via a rotary dial by the gearstick and offers different driving modes that allow you to adapt the car for different driving conditions or driving styles. Click the dial to the left for an 'ECO' mode that will prioritise efficiency around town. Or switch it to the right for a 'SPORT' setting that will instantly switch the hybrid instrument binnacle display to a red-tinged rev counter and deliver you sharper performance when the road opens up and you really want to flex your right foot.
It's the kind of driving most likely to appeal to customers of the purposeful-looking 'F Sport' variant, which is probably why this version alone gets the option of an Adaptive Variable Suspension system that adds an extra 'SPORT+' setting to the 'Drive Mode Select' system. If you are a potential NX 'F Sport' buyer, AVS is an essential box to tick as without it, you can't do anything about the over-firm ride this version's sports suspension and performance dampers deliver. With AVS as part of the package though, the NX becomes a far more likeable thing, the electronics smoothing out bumps and compensating for uneven surfaces, as well as reducing body roll and improving cornering agility. It's annoying that Lexus didn't offer this feature more widely across the range.
Whatever spec you choose though, this car isn't really in its element being chucked around country roads. For all the improvements made to it, the hybrid powertrain still isn't as linear and responsive in its power delivery as a conventional petrol or diesel engine would be. Better is the more conventional 235bhp 2.0-litre petrol turbo engine fitted to the minority-interest NX 200t variant that Lexus offered as an option for buyers who simply couldn't get on with the idea of hybrid mobility. With this model, 62mph is 7.1s away, en route to 124mph.
Even here though, your enthusiasm for using that performance will be somewhat tempered by the preferences of an over-enthusiastic stability control system that cuts in at the slightest sign of cornering vigour, disguising a talented chassis that actually has quite large reserves of front-end grip. This approach may make the NX almost un-crashable on a typical windy road, but it won't endear this Lexus to many of the folk who buy BMWs and might not be too thrilled at this level of non-switchable interference. Still, horses for courses and all that. If, quite understandably, you don't quite see the point of an SUV designed to be thrown about, you'll probably be very pleased with the driving characteristics of this car. It knows its market.
Lexus needed the NX to do well. It did. That was because this mid-sized SUV managed 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. In addition, there was also desirability, design flair, excitement and a bit of an X-factor on offer here.
That might not necessarily mean you'll want one. It's obviously not intended for the few who regularly want to get their tyres muddy in this segment. Nor will it really suit family-minded driving enthusiasts. Then there are the distinctive looks. If your favoured model choice in this segment is something squarer and more sensible like an Audi Q5 or a BMW X3, you might find an NX a bit. in-your-face. If, on the other hand, you like bold design and don't mind standing out a bit on the school run, it'll probably suit you perfectly.
Such potential buyers will revel in the sophisticated drivetrain that shines in the city. They'll love the generous equipment levels. And most of all, they'll like the way that this car makes them feel special and different, just like a Lexus should. If you fit that buying demographic, then we think you're going to absolutely adore this car.
So there you have it. The NX isn't perfect but it's never boring. And in a market sector that's getting just that little bit stale, it's proved to be a breath of fresh air.