2019 Lexus NX Hybrid Test Drive Review: Japan's Hail Mary Leap Into Luxury Dominance

Test Drive

Look out Audi, Mercedes, and BMW, the NX is here to steal your throne.

No, you’re not going crazy, those Hybrid badges on the rear quarter-panel of Lexus’ most fuel-efficient picks really are becoming more ubiquitous. Lexus, after all, is the most successful of the Japanese luxury automakers and its bloom can be attributed to reliability, spindle grilles, and the raging success of the NX. Holding temporary designation as smallest SUV in the lineup while the UX gears up to fill the compact crossover niche carved out by the BMW X2 and Mercedes GLA, the NX has helped propel Lexus into the same weight class as its German competitors when comparing the automakers by sales numbers.

Curiosity got the best of us and forced our fingers to write an email to Lexus asking if we could borrow an NX for a week. We wanted to see whether consumers were right to fork over their hard-earned cash for the NX or if sales have piled up because of a misguided love of those aggressive looks that help affluent soccer moms prove their children haven’t yet robbed them of identity.

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Lexus replied to our inquiry by sending an Atomic Silver NX 300h to our front door—the last letter in the name designating this model as a hybrid—ready for an overheated drive through Arizona roads. Our findings in short: the NX is not perfect—like any vehicle—but it’s easy to see how it has allowed Toyota’s luxury offshoot to infiltrate American roads and work its way to dominance. Lexus released the NX late in 2014 before giving it the facelift seen here for 2018.

Given that Lexus’ parent Toyota holds the patent to the world’s most popular hybrid system, it came as no surprise that Lexus planned to stick it in the NX. Those “Hybrid” badges mean that this NX comes equipped with a 2.5-liter inline-four mated to a CVT while two electric motors, one supplementing the engine up front and another at the rear justifying the AWD designation, deliver electric propulsion in lieu of the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that the non-hybrid NX 300 gets. The hybrid system makes a combined total of 194 horsepower, 41 ponies less than the gasoline version that comes mated to a six-speed automatic and sends power either to the front or all four wheels.

Emerging from our driveway and plowing onto the main road with the air conditioning on high and the cooled seats blasting chilled air onto our backsides, it became apparent that Lexus thought drivers who prefer the hybrid NX would be of the unhurried variety—proved by the 8.8 seconds it takes the 300h to reach 60 mph from standstill. But once the cabin cooled and the NX caught up with the pace of traffic, we were able to feast our eyes on the well-crafted interior.

Soft black leather covers every portion of the NX’s cabin that will come in frequent contact with driver and passenger skin while the leather-wrapped steering wheel adds tranquility to the confidence delivered by the direct yet uncommunicative steering rack. Plastic colored to look like metal trim accents the interior and adds visual variety to an otherwise dark and monochromatic cabin. Not like this crossover needs more optical distractions though, the 50+ buttons that sit within reach of the driver steal plenty of attention and could easily overwhelm technophobes on a bad day. Keeping with Lexus’ brand philosophy, most of the buttons control comfort and convenience functions.

The buttons that don’t tinker with the HVAC or audio system are either devoted to adjusting drive modes or tweaking driver aid settings. Thankfully all complication can be done away with by gripping the wheel, looking ahead at the road, placing one's right foot on the pedals, and driving. With the moonroof closed to keep out an angry sun, the cockpit feels cozy but not cramped—C-pillars prohibit vision and foster dependence on the backup cameras (plural because of the 360-degree surround view) but ample amounts of rear headroom ensures comfort isn’t sacrificed. Occupants are generally insulated from the outside world thanks to a ride that’s been quieted on this facelifted model and a smooth suspension that skews towards tranquility even if it kills dynamics.

The NX doesn’t quite soak up bumps and freeway expansion joints the way the body roll indicates it would, but on most road surfaces the crossover remains composed and unhindered in its mission to sweep Americans who want nothing more out of their commuting tools than comfort and style off of their feet. It is at that that the NX succeeds most. Ask for more and you may be disappointed because from the beginning, the NX was designed to be a rider’s car, not a driver’s machine.

It sells as well as it does by doing everything the majority of road-going customers need it to do and pulls it off with an interesting Japanese take on gothic styling. Everyone laughed when Lexus began to exaggerate those spindle grilles and gave its engineers orders to follow the design team’s lead rather than sticking to the conventional inverse of that rule. Over time that resulted in aggressive lines that seek attention with more effort than a Kardashian daughter can muster, but at least the tactic has worked. After years as an underdog, Lexus has had the last laugh, and it’s the resulting credo of brash sophistication that penned the grooves of the NX.

The front remains angular with all lines leading to the Lexus badge sitting on the center of the grille. Sharp daytime running lights underscore LED headlights and rest above fog lamps housed inside of the groves on the lower front bumper. Flashy 18-inch rims distract from the somewhat tacky black plastic trim that accents the wheel wells and runs under the doors, but at least the center of the body tantalizes with protruding striations of its own. It’s clear designers tried to portray a sense of organic origin at the rear with a tailgate that’s smooth and bulbous, but that’s contradicted when the linear taillights get pasted on.

The effect of the styling is head-turning, to say the least, and though the NX's looks might not appeal to everyone, Lexus’ design team has managed to follow the prevailing modern social narrative closely enough that the crossover will be interpreted as “pretty” by most. With aesthetics manufactured for a world where restaurants redesign their dishes to be more Instagramable, it’s no wonder the NX is a hit. Especially because it doesn’t fall short in many areas unless you try to get it to do what its German competitors do better. Lexus has had enough time in the game to give its own take on luxury, and that perspective typically doesn’t involve “sheer driving pleasure”.

It does, however, include infotainment systems that induce fits of rage. A lack of smartphone integration and the fact that an unintuitive touchpad is the only way to interact with the infotainment makes one want to forgo use of the newly enlarged 10.3-inch screen altogether, but at least the bevy of buttons on the center stack allows the driver and passenger to use features without having to see a therapist afterwards.

If a driver does find themselves lost in the software maze of a GPS destination change, driving responsibilities can be partially shifted to the now-standard Safety System + suite of driver aids. Included in that package are a pre-collision system, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and automatic high beams. The fact Lexus made this package standard beginning in 2018 means that one can have a luxury crossover with all the latest safety systems for the low price of $39,330 (including destination).

Our tester’s price was inflated by almost $10,000 over base price, to $48,308, thanks to a $3,270 premium package that adds niceties such as heated and cooled front seats, blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, and power seats and a steering wheel while the $1,800 navigation package and a handful of extras like parking assist and the panoramic view camera system fill out the rest of the price tag.

Budget seekers can opt for the gasoline-only NX 300 and save $2,350 over the hybrid. Whether it’s worth it is a question that depends on driving style, but our NX yielded an average of 28.9 mpg during its week as a mobile air conditioner roaming through the desert. That's about 2 mpg less than the NX 300h’s combined EPA rating but it still beats the NX 300’s rating of 24 mpg and 25 mpg combined for AWD and FWD models, respectively.

We could have squeezed another few miles out of the tank using Eco mode, but don’t think our lead feet got exercise using Sport mode thanks to its lazy attitude. Sport mode's lackluster performance reinforced the notion that this is not the kind of car you buy if you see driving as an art. Like the growing line of Lexus’ that lie before it, the NX forgoes Germany’s luxury car philosophy entirely and builds vehicles for people who dislike to drive and want the process to be as painless as possible.

The NX, like most Lexus products outside of the F lineup, has an unengaged soul. It acts less like a capable partner on the battlefield of the modern American road and more like a bodyguard that makes dealing with platoons of paparazzi or hordes of rush hour traffic less of an ordeal. At least it’s damn good at doing that.

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