2016 Lexus NX 300h AWD Review
The luxury compact crossover SUV segment is one of the fastest growing in the entire automotive sector, both in overall sales as well as models being added. It’s now up to nine individual entries, or 10 if you include the new Mercedes’ GLC that’s temporarily selling alongside the soon to be discontinued GLK. That last model is one the NX passed right on by in year-to-date sales, along with BMW’s X3 and every other compact luxury SUV other than the Acura RDX and Audi Q5, now sitting pretty in third place within North American luxury compact SUV sales. I’d say it’s been an important new addition to Lexus’ SUV lineup.
When I refer to “luxury compact SUV” I’m not talking about the premium subcompact SUV segment that Lexus has yet to join. It’s sometimes referred to as compact although it’s filled with smaller alternatives such as Audi’s VW Tiguan-based A3, BMW’s X1, Mercedes’ GLA and soon Infiniti’s QX30, amongst others, so while on one hand Lexus had better get a move on so as not to miss out, I think we should just be glad they’ve finally decided to expand downward into the compact class and be done with it.
Over the first 11 months of this year there were 38,630 Americans so glad that Lexus came to market with the NX that they anted up with their wallets. They purchased the NX in base 200t guise, upgraded F-Sport and Hybrid trims with front- and all-wheel drive, with no added package as well as with Luxury, Premium, Navigation, and Comfort packages, plus various standalone features, the majority sold in sportier 200t trim yet many delivered with the more efficient NX 300h hybrid powertrain.
That’s what Lexus gave me to drive this time around. If you read my review of last year’s Nebula Gray Pearl-painted NX 200t AWD F Sport you’d see I came pretty close to gushing, and while I wasn’t quite as moved by my more recent Matador Red Mica finished 300h loaner, at least as far as emotive styling and forward motivation go, it improved my mood when it came time to fill up.
The first thing I noticed when taking delivery of the NX 300h was its toned down grille, Lexus no doubt choosing the subdued look to make this greener model appeal to a less extroverted clientele, the F Sport’s deeper, wider and altogether grander spindle grille about as attention-getting as this segment gets. Call me a showoff if you want to, but that model’s wow factor does something to me that this version’s subtler approach doesn’t, yet I still appreciate that even this more conservative styling is still miles more alluring than what most others in this segment have to offer. Following this quieter, more thoughtful theme is a less pronounced lower fascia with unique fog lamps in chrome bezels, although the $1,160 optional full LED headlamps included some pretty flashy triple-stacked hardware. Optional satin-silver painted alloys round out the wheel cutouts instead of the F Sport’s racier machine-finished, black-painted rims, both measuring 18 inches but the sportier SUV’s making more of a statement, while totally unique thin chrome slats are housed in the rear valance where tailpipes usually go, giving the car an electrified appearance, as if it doesn’t even need an internal combustion engine to function.
Of course, we know this isn’t the case. Under its hood is the same 16-valve,DOHC,2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder as offered in the ES 300h, complete with a NiMH battery, electric motors and a continuously variable transmission. Its 194 net horsepower doesn’t make it as energetic off the line as its closest rival, Audi’s Q5 Hybrid, and I’m talking about the German ute’s regular performance, not the extra dose it delivers when right foot gets mashed to the floor. I’m not saying the electrified NX can’t keep up with traffic, but it’s a decidedly more docile conveyance than either the four-ringed competitor or its own 200t variant. At low speeds, up to about 25 mph, for short distances it’ll run on EV power, which is nice for cruising through parking lots or when trapped in stop-and-go traffic, while its as-tested optional all-wheel drive manages slippery mid-winter takeoff and high-speed control well, wheel slippage causing a second 67-horsepower rear-mounted electric motor to engage the back wheels. The front electric motor/generator takes care of the majority of motive assistance, the aforementioned CVT transferring twist to the front wheels.
While the NX 300h doesn’t feel as raring to go as the 200t even when its driving mode selector is dialed all the way over from Eco to Sport, Lexus endowed it with a kick-down mode for passing that results in snappier response and a nice linear power curve. More importantly to most in its target market is how it goes about regular day-to-day driving. It’s completely smooth and thoroughly comfortable around town, while it cruises highways and byways wonderfully. Its handling isn’t as edgy without the F Sport’s suspension upgrades, and this hybrid’s available front to rear Dynamic Torque Control-enhanced E-Four AWD is a wholly different system than the 200t’s optional AWD system, but its upgraded front gas struts and otherwise identical fully independent suspension setup makes for a very capable and stable CUV when tackling a curving back road or just circling a cloverleaf at faster than posted speeds. Lexus partially achieved this by splitting the battery pack in two and distributing its weight more evenly from front to back, although you’d never know there was anything under there if no one had told you.
The 300h’s passenger volume is identical to the conventionally powered NX, down to the fraction of an inch front to back. That means it’s quite sizable for the class, with ample roominess up front for most body types and room for two very comfortable adults in the rear, or three without the benefit of the folding center armrest. There are some volumetric shortcomings with cargo space and fuel tank capacity, mind you, but I doubt many would notice. With respect to the former the hybrid’s 16.8 cubic-foot maximum volume behind the rear seats is 0.9 cubic feet less than the 200t, yes I know, whoopty doo, while folding its 60/40 split seatbacks forward, which was achieved by optional powered operation in my tester I might add, results in the same 0.9 cubic-foot luggage space loss with a fully expanded maximum of 53.7 cubic feet available. The gas tank is more dramatically affected, its 14.8-gallon volume down about a gallon from 200t trim, but you won’t likely need as much fuel in this hybrid, so it’s a moot point.
Yes, the 300h may not be the most exciting luxury crossover to drive, but its fuel economy might instill a different kind of enthusiasm. Where the NX 200t AWD does pretty well with a claimed EPA rating of 22 mpg city, 28 highway and 24 combined, the 300h AWD delivers a much better 33 city, 30 highway and 32 combined, these figures aided by auto start/stop and regenerative braking. Those are numbers I can live with, although I’m a journalist and merely pay the fuel bill at the end of the week, unlike you the consumer who actually forks over a single lump sum at the time of purchase or more often than not regular monthly charges from your bank account along with interest.
To that end the NX 300h might give you some pause over the 200t, even when similarly equipped. Its starting price is $39,720 with FWD or $41,310 with AWD plus freight and dealer fees, compared to $34,865 and $36,265 respectively for the 200t FWD and AWD. As mentioned my tester was done out in Matador Red, a no-cost option, but if that doesn’t work for you there are seven other colors and shades, from the usual whites, silvers, grays and blacks named Eminent White Pearl, Silver Lining metallic, Atomic Silver and Obsidian, to a brilliant Blue Vortex metallic and unique bronze hue dubbed Autumn Shimmer. Inside the variety continues, with options including Black NuLuxe with Dark Umber trim, Crème NuLuxe with Dark Umber trim (a lighter beige), Flaxen NuLuxe with Dark Umber trim (more of a light chocolate brown), perforated black leather with Linear Black Shadow wood trim, or perforated Crème leather with Linear Black Shadow wood trim.
NuLuxe is Lexus’ version of pleather, a surprisingly realistic material that I’ve experienced in a number of Lexus vehicles over the years, and I must say it’s more authentic feeling than some of the leatherette offered by the German manufacturers. Additional base 300h features include auto on/off headlights with LED low beams and washers, LED daytime running lights, LED clearance lamps, LED fog lights, turn signals integrated into the side mirror housings, LED welcome lights in the door handles, LED brake lamps, 17-inch alloys, proximity-sensing Smart Key with pushbutton ignition, Drive Mode Select, variable intermittent wipers, powered windows with auto up/down all-round, a powered leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, a leather-wrapped shift knob, a 4.2-inch color TFT multi-information display ahead of the driver, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, heatable powered side mirrors, filtered dual-zone automatic climate control, a large full-color high-resolution infotainment system, a reverse camera with dynamic gridlines, Siri Eyes Free, eight-speaker AM/FM/USB audio with HD and satellite radio plus Bluetooth hands-free and audio streaming, an eight-way powered driver’s seat with powered lumbar support and memory functions, an eight-way powered passenger seat, direct tire pressure monitoring, hill start assist, four-wheel discs with ABS, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, stability and traction control, Whiplash-Injury-Lessening (WIL) front seats, front seatbelt pre-tensioners and force limiters, and all the usual airbags as well as a knee blocker for the driver and seat cushion airbag for the front passenger.
On top of this my test model included the $4,505 Luxury package with perforated leather upholstery, a heatable steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers and a powered tailgate; plus a $2,670 Premium package that added those 18-inch alloys mentioned earlier, enhanced LED DRLs with integrated turn indicators, auto-dimming side mirrors, heatable and ventilated front seats, and a powered slide and tilt moonroof; while it also featured the $1,875 Navigation package that included an upgraded infotainment system controlled by Lexus’ latest Remote Touch Interface 2.0 featuring a laptop-style touchpad and filled with voice-activated SD card-based navigation, Lexus’s Enform Destinations and Enform App Suite, 10-speaker enhanced audio, and an additional USB port; as well as the $345 Comfort package with driver’s side memory features and auto reverse tilting side mirrors; while additional standalone features included the aforementioned triple-beam LED headlamps, the power-folding and -reclining rear seatbacks with switches on the dash and in the cargo area that added $400, plus illuminated doorsill plates for $495, heatable and ventilated front seats for $640, a Qi-compatible wireless device charger for $220, intuitive parking assist for $500, blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert for $660, and a pre-collision system with adaptive cruise control for $900.
No matter which features are included the NX boasts one of the nicest interiors in the compact SUV class. Unlike some that base a premium model on a mainstream volume vehicle and don’t differentiate smaller details like switchgear, especially steering wheel stalks and power window switches, not to mention graphic interfaces, the NX shows as little of its RAV4 roots inside as out. In other words you’ll be searching for a long time to find any direct carryover components, only this 300h version sharing its powertrain with the new 2016 RAV4 Hybrid. Lexus has gone to great lengths to make sure upwardly mobile RAV4 owners won’t be questioning why they should pay more for an NX, even rewording and changing the color of the similarly shaped ignition button. The rest of the NX’ buttons, toggles and knobs are as unique as can be, and very high in quality, while the overall design is a particularly attractive mix of hard edges and soft curves, much of which have been asymmetrically drawn for a more interesting design overall, with more soft-touch contrast stitched leather-like surfaces than you’ll find in most competitive compact SUVs. Stylish satin-silver metallic trim outlines key components, such as the dual-level center stack, while thoughtful touches like a small compartment on the lower console with a mirror-backed removable leatherette lid is an obvious nod to women, which make up a large portion of NX buyers.
I could go on infinitum about all of my tester’s details, the clarity and brightness of the primary gauges and integrated multi-info display, how much better the new infotainment controller works, the various info, audio, media, phone and system setup functions within, the accuracy of its navigation system and clarity of its backup camera, how great the audio system sounded, all of its comfortable padded surfaces and impressive componentry, as those who read my review of the 2015 NX 200t F Sport will remember. I was so impressed that I probably dissected and then described every square inch of that SUV, and I was equally wowed by the quality, fit, finish and overall goodness of this one. It’s a premium crossover that won’t ever cause you to wonder why you paid so much.
Along with the excellent fuel economy and low emissions the NX 300h is ultimately quiet, rides sublimely, handles well and is a dream on the highway, really the perfect compact luxury SUV. While I’d take mine in 200t AWD F Sport guise with all of the upgrades, I can appreciate that some people lean more towards luxury than sport. That Lexus does both so very well is a testament to how far the brand has come over the past 26 years and a win-win for its many loyal fans.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press; Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press; Copyright: American Auto Press