by Jared Rosenholtz
For years, Lexus was fairly criticized for being a boring automaker - building nothing more than leather-clad Toyota products that couldn't hold a candle to the German automakers. Lexus has worked tirelessly to turn that image around, with some critics arguing the company went too far in the other direction with its new design language. I happen to be a fan of the current Lexus styling - yes, that means I enjoy the spindle grille - because it does stand out against other cars on the road.
A few years ago, I tested the best-selling model from Lexus, the RX. Keen to piggyback off the success of the RX, Lexus introduced the smaller NX 200t - which stands for Nimble Crossover - back in 2015. For 2018, the name has been changed to the NX 300, and I tested it for a week to see how it measures up in the compact luxury crossover segment.
I should note that a 2019 NX 300 will be available soon, but the changes are minor compared to the 2018 model.
Although the name has changed from NX 200t to NX 300, Lexus hasn't actually changed anything under the hood. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine still produces 235 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque going out to the front or all four wheels via a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission.
Fuel economy comes in at 22/28/25 mpg city/highway/combined, though the highway and combined numbers drop by one each with AWD. Lexus also offers a hybrid model that achieves 33-mpg city and 30-mpg highway, and we have a separate review of it for those looking for the most efficient NX.
The 2018 NX starts at $35,985 for the base FWD model, though my AWD F Sport tester starts at $39,775 with an as-tested price of $48,569 before destination. Even at that price, the NX represents one of the better values in this segment, with comparably-equipped European rivals like the Audi Q5, BMW X3, Mercedes GLC, and Volvo XC60 costing thousands more.
My tester did have a few options including a surround-view camera ($800), LED headlights with auto-dimming high beams ($1,515), rear power tailgate with kick sensor ($550), navigation ($1,800) and the F Sport Package ($2,865). That last option is the most important because it rolls in ventilated front seats, a moonroof, power steering column, memory driver seat with lumbar, and blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert.
The F Sport model also has a noticeably more aggressive exterior with a different front fascia, grey 18-inch F Sport wheels, and plenty of F Sport badging. Inside, the F Sportiness is apparent thanks to perforated leather sports seats, a steering wheel plucked directly from the RC F, and metallic sports trim. Underneath, the aggressive looks are partially backed up with a sport-tuned suspension, which remains compliant enough to remain comfortable on rough roads.
Lexus continues to ignore power upgrades on its mid-level F Sport models, and instead saves the massive power increases for its fully-fledged F models. The NX is loosely based on the old Toyota RAV4, but Lexus does an excellent job of masking it. There is an all-new RAV4 on the way for 2019, so a new NX should arrive shortly after with improvements from the new RAV4, including an eight-speed automatic.
Lexus does an excellent job differentiating its cabin from equivalent Toyota models. There is almost zero indication of RAV4 structural points on the NX. Almost all of the materials feel premium, with only a few hard plastics. The metallic sports trim does feel a bit cheap to the touch but looks great. I particularly love the sports seats found on this F Sport trim.
My tester had the red and black interior, which alternates between red leather with black accents in the front, and black leather with red accents on the rear bench. Those front seats are very nicely bolstered with heating and ventilation, so no weather conditions will ruin your comfort in the NX. The only non-Lexus detail is the "red" stitching, which looked pink and didn't match the red on the seats.
The dashboard layout features a high center tunnel, providing drivers with a sensation of being cocooned as they would be in a car. Buyers who prefer the feel of a truck may not appreciate what Lexus has done to the NX's interior, however.
All of the controls are easy to access, but in a slightly odd move, Lexus made them incredibly small, so they can be a bit difficult to press if, like me, you have fat fingers. I'd quickly forgive Lexus for including small physical buttons because they preclude you from having to use the Enform infotainment system.
The Enform infotainment system and its Remote Touch controller are the NX's most glaring weakness. On the plus side, Lexus has improved the screen size as well as the resolution, so it looks great from a distance. Unfortunately, the Remote Touch controller is still cumbersome to use and makes me pine for the days when the company just included touchscreens in all of its models.
The system is controlled by what looks like a laptop mousepad, which gives haptic feedback through vibrations. It constantly overshoots menu items and forces the driver to look down at the screen. This is extremely distracting to do while driving, so I relied on the steering wheel-mounted controls. Fortunately, most of the basic radio function can be easily controlled by the wheel and the voice command is fairly competent. Unfortunately, Apple Car Play and Android Auto are unavailable. Despite looking like an extremely youthful car, the infotainment experience makes the NX feel older than it really is.
Lexus has been working hard to overcome its stigma as a "boring" automaker. The NX 300 F Sport is a step in the right direction, with tight steering and decent power from the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. It isn't a speed demon with a 0-60 mph time of around seven seconds, but the NX never feels slow or inexpensive. Lexus' 2.0-liter isn't the most powerful or torquiest engine on the market, but it gets the job done smoothly and easily.
On paper, the six-speed automatic transmission shouldn't be able to stand up to rivals with eight and even nine gears, but Lexus has managed to make this automatic so smooth, there is no sense complaining simply because it lacks a couple of cogs.
Although this is the F Sport trim, Lexus hasn't sacrificed comfort in the name of sportiness. If you want a more aggressive crossover, you'd be better off with one of the more powerful models from Audi or BMW. The F Sport does offer a stiffer suspension, but it isn't aggressive enough to inspire a ton of confidence through tight bends. The steering has a nice weight and decent responsiveness on-center. That being said, I wish Lexus would have gone a bit further turning this into a sporty crossover.
There are a few interesting touches including a boost gauge and G meter in the instrument cluster, as well as a dial labeled ASC. It stands for Active Sound Control, and it allows the driver to choose how much fake engine noise they want. I typically hate fake engine noise in sports cars, but in a comfortable crossover, it adds a bit of drama when you want to drive quickly. Just don't show it off to your friends in a 30 mph zone because you will get pulled over - trust me, I know from experience.
Lexus has tried to capture the magic of the RX in a smaller package, and it falls just short of perfect in a few key areas. The drivetrain lags a bit behind the competition in terms of power and number of gears in the transmission, but Lexus does a great job of masking the NX's shortcomings. Inside, those youthful looks are let down by lackluster infotainment that is wrapped up in an otherwise lovely interior. None of the NX's minor shortcomings preclude it from being a good car, but they do hold it back from being a great one. The NX falls just short of being a Great Buy, but the bad infotainment is enough to reduce it to a Worth A Look - still a nice crossover, but outmatched by pricier competitors.