Lexus NX 300h: First drive in a dapper junior SUV

As the luxury arm of Toyota, Lexus has always had a thing for hybrids. It currently has five in its lineup, and is making room for a sixth.

The 2015 Lexus NX is the brand’s belated entry into the burgeoning – big breath –compact luxury crossover segment. Lexus hopes it will woo younger buyers with a combination of fuel efficiency, sportiness, and styling apparently inspired by the Romulans.

The NX is based on the Toyota RAV4 (of which there is even a pure electric version), but Lexus claims 90 percent of it has been re-engineered. That includes the two available powertrains.

The NX 300h we have here features a hybrid powertrain shared with the plush ES 300h sedan. It uses a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine, a continuously-variable transmission (CVT) and a single drive motor powered by a nickel-metal hydride battery pack for a total of 194 horsepower (the kind of power puts in roughly in the firing line of the $41,900 BMW X3 xDrive28d).

A second motor acts as a generator, and a third motor is used to power the rear wheels (when needed) in all-wheel drive models, although front-wheel drive is standard.

There’s also the NX 200t, which features Lexus’ first production turbocharged engine. This 2.0-liter, four-cylinder model produces 235hp and 258 pound-feet of torque, and is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. It features a more conventional all-wheel drive option, and a racier F Sport version of this model is also available.

Confrontational styling

The NX makes a powerful first impression with its styling. The angular body looks like it was shaped with a chisel, and the Lexus-signature “spindle grille,” LED daytime-running lamp slashes, and standard LED headlights make for an aggressive, scowling face. Green cars are often accused of not having enough personality, but this one’s got it in spades.

The interior isn’t quite as edgy, although the center console has an unusual, cascading shape that puts buttons for the climate control within easier reach. The seating position is also lower than in most crossovers for a more car-like (Lexus would car it ‘sporty’) feel. Rear visibility is somewhat compromised, but not too badly considering the extreme rake of the roofline and the tiny backlight.

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Seated in that hunkered-down position, the driver is greeted by a gauge cluster that includes two traditional dials, with a 4-inch TFT display in the middle that includes a fuel-economy readout. In addition to the speedometer, there’s also an economy gauge, with “Charge,” “Eco,” and “Power” areas in the sweep of the dial.

Next to the shifter is a rotary dial that controls the three main driving modes: Eco, Normal, and Sport. These all do pretty much what the names say, with Eco mode switching the air conditioning to a more-efficient mode and softening throttle response.

The driving modes are common to all NX models, but the 300h also gets an EV mode, which prioritizes electric power. However, like all plug-less hybrids, it’s really more of a placebo.

Lexus stays true to form

The electric motor can propel the car at speeds up to 25mph for up to a half mile, but this requires a lighter touch than any human being is capable of, even in EV mode.

While crawling in downtown Nashville traffic during a Lexus press preview, the gasoline engine stayed on most of the time. The car only saw fit to keep it off on startup and while creeping or stopped at a traffic light – hardly ground-breaking stuff.

Official fuel-economy ratings for the 2015 NX 300h haven’t been published, but Lexus expects the front-wheel drive version to achieve 33mpg combined (35mpg city, 31mpg highway) on the US EPA cycle, while the all-wheel drive version is expected to fare slightly worse with 32mpg combined (33mpg city, 30mpg highway).

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In both cases, those represent improvements of just 2 to 3mpg over the ratings for the larger RX 450h. That may be because, while it is smaller than the RX, the NX isn’t exactly compact. It’s actually close in size to the first-generation RX from 1998.

The Nashville test route wasn’t long enough to accurately judge fuel economy, but given the way the car behaves, it seems like Lexus’ estimates are a bit optimistic for real-world conditions. This, it must be said, is typical of nearly every carmaker.

Despite the NX’s racy looks, hybrid performance isn’t stellar either. The only model that approaches a truly sport feel is the NX 200t F Sport, and only when driven in Sport mode. The more times the word “sport” is used, the sportier the vehicle becomes, apparently.

What the NX 300h excels at is quiet, sedate cruising. The cabin is so quiet, in fact, that at most speeds it’s hard to tell whether the gasoline engine or the electric motor is doing the work. It will occasionally emit a subdued growl, but only if you stamp on the throttle or when it first starts up after the battery is depleted.

So while it isn’t hyper-focused on fuel economy or performance, the NX 300h is a bona fide luxury car, an impressive achievement considering its humble origins and relatively modest stature in the Lexus hierarchy.

Should I buy one?

Lexus is a bit late to the luxury compact-crossover party, but the hybrid option should help the NX stand out in this crowded field. While it doesn’t offer a significant fuel-economy gain over the larger RX hybrid on paper, the NX 300h does beat the only other hybrid in its segment, the Audi Q5.

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The NX will almost certainly cost less than the RX as well. Pricing will be announced closer to the NX’s December 2014 on-sale date, but Lexus claims it will start “under $40,000.” Buyers will likely have to watch the option sheet carefully, though, as is standard practice when it comes to luxury brands.

In terms of character, the 2015 Lexus NX 300h is a luxury utility vehicle first, and a hybrid second. It’s a good choice for luxury-car buyers looking to save money on gas, but its credentials are not impressive enough for green-car true believers looking to save the planet.

Posted by Stephen Edelstein

Stephen's obsession with cars is almost too hard to quantify. From the latest electric car to the classics, he's interested in anything with four wheels. When he's not writing, he can be found searching the Internet for a car he hasn't seen before, or reading a good book. He has a Master's Degree in History from Clark University. He currently lives in Connecticut.

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