First drive: Lexus NX 300h
Lexus has been curiously absent from the lifestyle vehicle sector since introducing its popular RX SUV in 1998. It has instead focused its efforts on introducing its hybrid technology across its hatchback and saloon model ranges, leaving German rivals to establish themselves with a robust range of offerings in the large crossover market. That's all about to change, however, with the launch of the Japanese marque's first-ever compact SUV, the NX.
What is it?
Like most cars of its ilk, the NX is styled to look like a full fat off-roader, though it's shrunken down to be better suited to the urban use that most will inevitably never escape from. Indeed, Lexus makes no mention of any off-road ability, with the four-wheel-drive system presented as more of a safety aid in poor weather conditions. Instead Lexus has focused on what is a much more pertinent issue to European customers: running costs. The NX is the first hybrid available in the compact SUV sector, and its appeal lies in its low emissions and associated vehicle tax benefits, both for private and business users. That said, Lexus is insisting the it as structurally stiff as possible, which it says has paid dividends in handling, as well as overall refinement.
What's under the bonnet?
For now, there is just one engine option: the familiar 2.5-litre four cylinder petrol unit mated to an electric motor, from the IS 300h saloon. Its combined 195bhp power output is adequate at best, particularly when you consider the NX's rather portly 1,905kg kerb weight. Consequently, its claimed performance figures stand at 9.2 seconds for the 0-62mph sprint, and a top speed of 112mph - figures more often associated with a small city car, rather than a supposedly sporty, premium SUV. A regular 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol model, badged 200t, will join the range next year, though this is likely to be a niche choice, with Lexus expecting it to just make up 10 per cent of total sales.
What's the spec like?
The NX is offered in no less than five different trim levels, though you'll have to slum it in base spec 'S' models if you'd prefer economy-maximising front wheel drive over the stability and security of the four wheel drive system fitted across the rest of the range. That said, even this entry level version is well equipped, coming with 17-inch alloys, LED headlights, DAB digital radio, reversing camera, dual-zone climate control and adaptive cruise control with crash mitigation technology. Step up to 'SE' and aside from four-wheel-drive, the NX is further bestowed with automatic wipers and heated front seats.
'Luxury' trim is expected to be the UK bestseller thanks to the inclusion of choice toys such as parking sensors, keyless entry, tinted rear windows and electrically adjustable front seats finished in leather. Of the two top-end trim levels, 'F Sport' is aimed at those who want a more sporting experience, with sports suspension and an additional S+ driving mode, as well as (quite pointless) paddles for the gearbox, amongst the go-faster additions.
'Premier' maxes out the gadget count with a thoroughly impressive Mark Levinson audio system, head up display and heated steering wheel, making the NX a rival for even its most luxurious competitors.
On top of this comprehensive equipment list, a number of posh options are also available, including a panoramic sunroof and a conductive charging tray, which allows for compatible smartphone to be charged without the need for wires.
The NX is going into battle against plenty of established rivals, including the upmarket Audi Q5 and Range Rover Evoque. These, like the Lexus, bring their own unique twist to the compact 4x4 theme, with the Evoque distilling much of the luxury of the vastly more expensive Range Rover, and the Audi majoring on the brand's subtle (albeit distinctly Germanic) sense of class. However, while they trade even blows with the NX's premium ambience, neither - unless you look to the low-er reaches of the Q5's engine range - are comparable in terms of emissions or fuel consumption.
If you're drawn by the NX's promise of a sporty drive, you'd be better off considering the BMW X3 and Porsche's sublime new Macan 4x4, both of which are far more entertaining behind the wheel.
What's it like to drive?
Our test drive of the most overtly dynamic, F Sport model, with its upgraded suspension and extensive drive modes, initially brought about some confusion. While the NX exhibits all of the strengths usually associated with a Lexus: supreme refinement, and top quality engineering and construction, it feels heavy and lethargic, and exhibits roll at even moderate cornering speeds. The steering, while heavily weighted, feels vague and slow geared, too, further dampening any inclination to drive enthusiastically. The hybrid system, with its eco-minded CVT gearbox also doesn't help in this regard, filling the cabin with a high strung metallic din at full throttle, with the gearbox holding the motor at its most efficient speed when acceleration, and returning little in the way of discernible shove. Where this setup pays dividends is at slower speeds, where drivers can tickle the NX around on its electric motor, relishing the comfort of the well-appointed cabin. However, though the suspension is noticeably soft, and does deflect large bumps well, smaller surface imperfections do upset the ride somewhat.
The AOL Cars verdict
Provided you look past the NX's sporting pretensions, it is a highly competent and likeable car. Its bold looks will certainly prove to be divisive, but it wins points from us for daring to be different. Certainly, it will help drivers stand out on the school runs it will inevitably be used for. And it is in this daily grind that the small Lexus excels; its vast array of toys and the urban serenity of its hybrid drivetrain taking the sting out of even the most hellish drives, and making the NX a compelling choice indeed. And, with the focus on pollution from diesel cars increasing, it could well prove to be a safe bet for cost conscious motorists now and in the future.
Model: Lexus NX300h F Sport AWD
Engine: 2.5-litre, four-cylinder, electric hybrid
Max speed: 112mph
0-62mph: 9.2 seconds
MPG: 54.3 (combined)
Emissions: 121g/km CO2