(Pocket-lint) - Welcome to the club Lexus, what took you so long? It'll remain a mystery why Lexus – a brand that was early to the large SUV club with the RX – has played the Johnny-come-lately roll in the hugely popular mid-sized SUV spec.
The NX300h is here now (the Luxury Nav model, no less) but the BMW X3 and Audi Q5 have had the market to themselves for almost a decade. Still, at least Lexus is getting here before Mercedes's GLC makes it to British shores. Can it compete?
The terminator SUV?
On looks alone, the NX look like it could have been worth the wait, at least if you're bored of predictable German design. Lexus previewed this car two years ago at the Frankfurt Auto Show, and the concept version was accompanied by terminator-like robot sculptures, reflecting the acute angularity and aggressive, mechanoid stare of this distinct-looking SUV.
The production car we're testing here is no less visually arresting, even though our test model came in the demure Luxury trim level. Upgrade to F-Sport and you get Lexus's new spindle grille with a contrasting mesh inner (which makes it look less terminator and more Hannibal).
You'll note our deliberate choice of words here. The NX is not exactly what you'd describe as pretty. It's distinctive, aggressive, angular, arresting – yes. But it doesn't have the restrained elegance that Audi's Q5 carries off with aplomb. Instead we see Lexus really grabbing attention and making a design statement.
It's easy to admire some elements though. The rear lamp design ooze hi-tech, and the pressing of the metal panels is hugely impressive from a technical point of view. Panels are so sharply edged, they look like the could cut like a scalpel (not that they're dangerous, of course).
The problem with this kind of design is that it'll put off as many as it attracts. And it's not helped by a huge front overhang, which contributes to rather ungainly proportions overall. The NX shares a platform with the Toyota Rav4, which we think carries itself rather better. And surely that's the wrong way round given that Lexus is the premium brand of the two?
Hasta la vista… not so much
The problem with designing an SUV that looks like it might eat the occasional Fiat 500 or pedestrian is that you've got to be packing enough punch to carry off the threat. Unfortunately, in 300h form at least, the NX is a bit all mouth and no trousers.
Currently in the UK, the majority of cars in this sector are powered by diesel – which gets you decent low-down thrust that makes the cars easy to drive but also delivers decent fuel economy and (for the moment) cheap tax – but Lexus doesn't do diesel, instead offering its hybrid drive system as an alternative to other brand's diesel powerplants. The benefits are even cheaper tax and theoretically better economy, combined with silent running in traffic and at low town speeds.
We never did tire of creeping up on pedestrians in carparks and making them jump when the NX was in EV mode. Unfortunately these hybrid set-ups have their pitfalls too and in the case of the NX, it's that it never feels anything like as quick and effortless as a diesel equivalent from Audi or BMW.
What's more, to make decent progress the CVT gearbox tends to rev out, and do it all too frequently – pegging the revs up in the 4-5,000rpm range at times for many seconds, making for less serene progress than you'd hope a luxury brand like Lexus might provide. The size and weight of the vehicle is a key factor here, because when we tested the new IS with the same engine 18-months ago, the engine proved much less intrusive – we suspect because we were generally working it less hard as it had less car to drag along.
Nonetheless, 35mpg after a week of fairly hard usage and a fair proportion of motorway miles – which are not a hybrid's ideal operating environment – is still a reasonable fuel economy result. We'd have been surprised to see the competition's diesels returning more than 40mpg in similar conditions. You get highly competitive CO2 figures of 121g/km and 17 per cent benefit in kind (BIK) for company car drivers for your trouble.
Beyond the engine and gearbox, the drive isn't exactly one to write home about. We would have preferred it to be a little softer overall, as the ride is a little disjointed and crashy at times, not showing great flair for being chucked around.
Still, buying a mid-sized SUV to get your kicks? If you're really bothered about the drive, try an equivalent-sized saloon or estate instead, as an SUV regardless of brand is always going to be compromised by its height, centre of gravity and the four-wheel drive system it's lugging around.
Practically bursting with kit
Instead, you'll be buying a car like the NX for the space, style, and higher driving position. Here the Lexus ticks all the boxes.
We installed a child-seat with little issue, there's space enough for five big bodies and up-front, and it's generally a good place to be sitting. The seats are, as always in a Lexus, worth a special mention for their infinite adjustability and really supreme long-distance comfort.
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The only area you're likely to feel let down is the boot space, which is a little shallow for this size of car because under the boot floor are the hybrid batteries. Cope with the loss of space, and you'll find the NX better equipped than its equivalent German competition though.
Our mid-range Luxury spec car included just about every option you could care to mention: Navigation (£995) and the convenience pack (£495), the latter which includes a powered tailgate and a wireless charging pad in the centre bin.
Higher spec models net you the highly impressive 14-speaker Mark Levinson surround system and Navigation as standard. But almost everything else – four-wheel drive, DAB, leather, keyless entry, LED lamps, electric heated seats, radar-guided cruise control (the list goes on) – is standard in the Luxury model.
You can add two rear iPad entertainment systems for rear seat travellers too, just don't expect the iPads themselves to be included for your £500 overhead. It's basically a powered dock / holder on each side.
All of which makes the Lexus competitive on price, because brining an Audi Q5 or BMW X3 up to a similar level of spec would trip the price to well over £40k. Our test car came in at £36,630.
Tech, without the UX
However, all of this high spec is slightly undermined by a frustrating user experience. The NX features a rotary control knob for its centre screen, which is slightly easier to use and more intuitive than the touch-pad you'll find in the brand's other cars. But the on-screen menus and graphics just aren't at the races for a premium, technology-led brand.
Trying to change a DAB radio station to one you know you've saved is just one example of a desperately long-winded and frustrating process that should be simpler. There are things you can do via steering-wheel shortcuts, which is the system's saving grace. But otherwise our feeling is thus: this car's user experience really ought to be great but is instead frustratingly unintuitive and old fashioned. Just some modern on-screen graphics that key with the rest of the interior would hugely improve the look and feel in here.
Unfortunately, although it is well-equipped, the rest of said interior doesn't feel quite as special as the cheaper IS saloon, either. In the NX we tested for example, there weren't the electro-static temperature adjustment sliders, nor the digital gauge cluster with its shuttling display. Little things maybe, but they all add up to make a vehicle that's ultimately marketed a step above the mid-sized Lexus saloon, feel less special.
We can see the appeal of the Lexus NX300h, especially the Luxury Nav model. That hybrid drive system and the aggressive, individual design qualities are distinct selling points which – for now at least – the German competition can't compete with. Or, perhaps we should say compare to.
But for all its points of difference, with the exception of the stand-out exterior design, it's hard to argue that Lexus does them better than the near competition in this car. Its drivetrain characteristics, driving dynamics and user interface aren't as standout as the Audi Q5 or BMW X3. And with Mercedes' GLC SUV just around the corner and rumours of Jag and Alfa SUVs of similar size on the way, life for the NX300h is not going to get any easier.
The real winning point is the specification for the price point, though, particularly if you're purchasing it privately rather than on a company car scheme. The Lexus NX300h is brimming with kit for the price.