Let’s face it, building a car for enthusiasts is easy. Every day, around the clock, small but vocal groups of car-crazed maniacs broadcast exactly what they want at automakers. “This is what the brand needs!” They scream on every forum, comment section, and Facebook post. “This is what you need to do if you want to appeal to us!” And dammit if I’m not glad they exist; would the Focus RS, upcoming Bronco, or Acura NSX be here without them? Probably not.
But here’s the rub: Enthusiast cars largely appeal to — say it with me now — enthusiasts. After the initial launch, sales usually fall off a cliff after the few thousand people with the money for them get their fill (See: Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ). Then after a few years they’re quietly discontinued (See: Cadillac CTS-V wagon, Toyota FJ Cruiser, and after 2018, the Chevy SS). The internet mourns them, then quietly returns to calling for another car to save the brand.
So here’s the hard part: Building a car that will excite people who couldn’t care less about cars. The kind of people that look at a car as a way of getting from point A to B and little else. The type who buy a car in a single day because they don’t want deal with the hassle any longer than that. The type who think routine maintenance like an oil change is “a lot of work.” Hard as it is to say as someone who eats, sleeps, and breathes cars, but out of that record-setting 17.55 million cars sold in 2016, I’d wager that at least 16.55 million went to people who think along these lines. So is there any model that can actually get through to such an obstinate bunch?
Yes, and here it is: the Lexus NX300h.
This is it. This is what an exciting car looks like to people who couldn’t give a rat’s ass about cars. Case in point: I was at Thanksgiving dinner with my family (who is largely car agnostic) and my mother asked what test cars I had lined up in the coming weeks. “Well, next up is the Lexus NX300h, the hybrid one.”
“OHHHHHHHHHHHHHH,” the table said in unison before I could say anything else. “I looooove those!” And they meant it.
Lexus’ SUVs have long been a staple of suburbia; they’ve been there so long, in fact, that they’re virtually suburban royalty. And despite being the newest member of Lexus’ SUV lineup, so far the compact NX has proven it can carry its own weight. In lower-middle class ‘burbs, the NX is a way to broadcast that you’re movin’ on up in the world. In tonier neighborhoods, the NX effortlessly blends in while still conveying class and good taste. It’s the type of car that you will see three of in country club parking lots. Despite being a newer model, that familiar egg shaped profile and big chrome “L” on the grille have become ingrained in the minds of the middle class. So they do love Lexus’ SUVs; they love them because of what they represent, and what they say about the people who drive them. If Cheever or Updike were still alive and writing kitchen sink stories about modern suburbanites, their characters would likely drive Lexus SUVs.
But none of this is a bad thing; people are buying them — to the tune of nearly 55,000 NXs last year. That isn’t enough to unseat the Jesus-of-suburbia RX with its 100,000-plus sales, but it certainly isn’t bad for a second-year luxury model either. After a week with one, I think I got the appeal.
Call me crazy, but I like the looks of the NX. Structurally, it’s not all that different from the Toyota RAV4, but Lexus’ sheetmetal is handsome and crisp — and in my opinion offers one of the best uses of the polarizing spindle grille in its entire lineup. Out back, its rear end treatment is a lot cleaner and sharper than the RAV, and its proportions work a little better than on the bigger RX. Up front, that spindle grille looks cool, and its steep rake below the base of the headlights makes the entire front end look severe and purposeful. I wouldn’t want to take an NX off road, but with an approach angle like that, it looks like it could be more capable than it lets on.
Exterior pros and cons
+ Looks like a true member of the Lexus family, not a gussied up Toyota Rav4.
+ Angular front end and taillights break up the otherwise soft design. The two elements work well together. Overall, it looks bold and contemporary without scaring off Lexus’ base.
+ Steeply raked front end gives the NX a sporty and rugged look. Well, sporty-ish.
– Despite some action up front and out back, side profile leaves a little to be desired.
– Matte black trim clashed against the “Eminent White” paint, and goes against the upscale look.
– Protruding snout and taillights seem like they’d be vulnerable in crowded suburban parking lots.
Despite being the range-topping NX, our hybrid model is also the slowest of the bunch. Weighing in at 4,175 pounds, the hybrid model is over 200 pounds heavier than the base model, and despite its combined 194 horsepower rating, the motor over the rear wheels only kicks in when all-wheel drive is engaged, and that isn’t very often. As a result, you’re relying on the 2.5 liter Atkinson cycle four and single electric motor to power the front wheels most of the time. So the 194 horse 2-ton SUV generally behaves like a 141 horse 2-ton SUV.
So the NX300h isn’t quick. And thanks to all that weight, it isn’t particularly thrifty either. The EPA gave it a 35 city/31 highway ranking. In city, highway, and suburban driving, I generally saw fuel economy in the 25 to 30 MPG range. In comparison, the EPA gave gas-powered, 235 horse base NX a combined 25 MPG rating. Nice as it is that Lexus offers an NX hybrid, it becomes a tough sell when compared to the gas powered models.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ Being a Lexus hybrid, Stop/Start and switching between electric and gas power is virtually seamless.
+ The hybrid does get slightly better gas mileage than gas-powered models.
– But not enough to justify making the jump in my opinion.
– Even from a non-performance standpoint, this is one sluggish little people-mover.
The severe rake of the front end is mirrored inside the NX, which is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it feels like a true Lexus in here, even with its $39K base price (our tester rang up at $48,545). Fit-and-finish is superb, with supple leather seats and hand-stitch accents, real aluminum trim, and that trademark analog clock. I didn’t even mind the floating infotainment screen, which I’m not generally a fan of. But that big dash also cuts aggressively into interior room. In a sporty car, this would make it feel like a driver-centric cockpit. But in the family-friendly NX, it feels out of place, and you have to shoehorn yourself behind the wheel.
In the rear, seat backs are adjustable and there’s plenty of room for full-sized adults despite the battery pack mounted underneath. In any seat (especially once you get used to all that switch gear coming at you), the NX is a quiet, comfortable, and well-built place to be.
Interior pros and cons
+ Looks cool; fit-and-finish is up to Lexus standards.
+ Every control is well within reach of the driver.
+ Adjustable rear bench is both roomy and comfortable.
– Feels cramped up front.
– Chunky, good-looking steering wheel impedes entry and exit.
Tech and safety
Lexus didn’t scrimp on features for its entry-level SUV. My NX was loaded to the gills with nearly $7,000 of options, including the navigation system, 10 speaker premium stereo, auto-dimming rearview mirror, large moonroof, and heated and vented front seats among other things. Lexus’ cumbersome Enform infotainment system has never ranked high on my list, but in the NX, the track pad-controlled system seems almost easy to use. Blind spot monitors, rear cross-traffic alert, and parking assist let you know what’s going on outside the car. With a five-star safety rating from NHTSA, and a Top Safety Pick+ choice from the IIHS, the NX is a true “safe car.” And that type of credibility goes a long way with buyers in this segment.
Tech and safety pros and cons
+ Infotainment system, driving aids, and premium stereo make the NX feel suitably upscale.
+ Finally, an application of Enform where you don’t need to read the manual before using it!
+ Buttons for the HVAC system and stereo are always preferred to infotainment system-based controls.
– Still, using that console-mounted track pad while driving (say, to zoom in on the map) is all but a lost cause.
– Options packages turn an affordable NX into an expensive one very quickly.
Once you’re behind the wheel, the NX feels a lot like its cousin, the Toyota RAV4, which is both a good and bad thing. On the one hand, the familiar platform offers a pleasant and comfortable ride, made even more so by Lexus’ accommodations. On the other, it’s sluggish (at least with the hybrid powertrain), and its upright shape makes for more wind noise than you might expect from a luxury car.
That being said, the sound insulation does block out most of the acoustic chaos in city driving, and a suspension set up for comfort does an admirable job eating up the worst winter potholes without jarring people in the cabin. On the highway, it’s a comfortable cruiser, even if you have to plan lane changes a few seconds in advance. And in the suburbs, its home turf, the NX is a warrior. There’s room for five without anyone feeling too cramped, and the 17 cubic feet of storage space behind the rear seats is plenty to bring home a week’s worth of groceries. Overall, it’s good — and merely good — at virtually everything it does. For some people, that would make it perfect. For me, it was almost maddening.
Wrap up and review
So the NX isn’t a car for enthusiasts, and it took me nearly a week to fully understand what that meant. Not that every car needs to be beautiful, or performance-focused, but the NX hits its marks, and goes no further. Maybe the gas-powered F Sport does, but that’s a test for another day.
The once-polarizing Lexus styling language has assimilated to the point where it looks contemporary, but isn’t so radical that it would turn anybody off. And the chunky steering wheel and driver-centric layout are enough for drivers to say their compact SUV is “sporty” without being too far off base. I’d certainly take the gasoline engine over the hybrid powertrain, but for buyers who want a premium green car, and do care about the slight mileage advantage, the 300h is an attractive option. For A to B transportation with capital L Luxury chops, you could do far worse than the NX300h.
And that was the hardest thing for me to reconcile. Because for all the valid flaws I could find, none of them are deal-breakers. Hell, there’s a good chance the average car buyer would never find them. Toyota and Lexus rarely have the hands-down best car in any segment, but they excel in enough categories where they usually end up with the best all-around vehicle in it. And they have the sales numbers to back it up.
If you’re looking for something sporty and engaging, look elsewhere. But if you want a plush, good-looking luxury compact SUV with green car credibility, go with the NX300h. You’ll probably love it.