Review: 2016 Lexus NX 300h

Review: 2016 Lexus NX 300h

Lexus hit the ground running with its compact crossover line, offering turbocharged and hybrid models designed to take the fight to the growing ranks of small, car-based SUVs.

This is our first comprehensive look at the company’s hybrid variant. Is the NX 300h too much of an efficiency compromise to be a worthwhile drive? We spent a week with it to find out.

What is it?

The Lexus NX 300h is a hybrid-powered compact crossover/SUV. The NX line shares basic architecture with Toyota‘s RAV4 (of which a hybrid variant also exists).

While the base model NX is powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, this variant employs a hybrid system built around a 2.5L, naturally aspirated Atkinson-cycle engine. Total system output is rated at 194 horsepower.

As is common with Lexus hybrids, power from its gasoline and electric drive units flows through a planetary transmission, which functionally behaves like a CVT. To make the NX 300h drive a bit more conventionally, Lexus engineers incorporated a “kickdown” function, where a substantially shorter ratio is summoned to simulate the effect of a downshift in a car with a stepped automatic transmission.

The NX 300h is available either in front- or all-wheel-drive configurations. Our tester was the latter, and like other hybrid SUVs from Lexus, the NX 300h’s all-wheel drivetrain was designed to take full advantage of its power plant.

Rather than simply adding a center clutch pack or differential to shunt power from the hybrid system to the rear wheels, Lexus added a motor to the rear axle. Translation? There’s no prop shaft going from the front axle to the rear. Physically, the two are not connected.

Instead, when all-wheel traction is demanded, the rear electric motor is activated. This setup allows for lightning-quick (pardon the pun) response from the rear wheels without any of the potential binding issues you find in pre-loaded mechanical systems.

What’s it up against?

The NX 300h occupies a strange market segment. The NX family competes size-wise with the BMW X3, Audi Q3 and Mercedes-Benz GLA. However, none of those are currently offered as hybrids. In fact, the compact SUV/CUV segment in general has been somewhat devoid of competition since the Ford Escape family left the market with that nameplate’s redesign for the 2013 model year.

If you’re willing to stretch your size requirements, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Infiniti offer some of their larger crossovers and SUVs with hybrid options, but Lexus has offerings in those segments too. If the NX’s luxury angle is not crucial, Toyota’s own RAV4 Hybrid is an excellent way to get the same powertrain at a lower price.

What does it look like?

Lexus design language is… unique. While the NX 300h’s appearance is a little less aggressive than the turbo model’s (the F Sport’s, especially), it’s still pretty out-there.

Our tester’s Vortex Blue Metallic paint finish doesn’t exactly foster subtlety, either. Where some hybrid vehicles advertise themselves even with their sheet metal, the NX 300h relies on its blue-tinted badge and chrome “Hybrid” lettering on its rocker panels.

We also had some added exterior flavor thanks to an included Premium package, which added 18-inch wheels and LED DRLs. It was also equipped with optional auto-dimming side mirrors.

And the inside?

Inside, the Lexus is far more conservative. Having experienced other crossovers in this segment, we also found the front cabin to be more cockpit-like than that of some competitors’.

Thanks to the aforementioned Premium package, our tester was equipped with heated and ventilated front seats, a power tilt & slide moonroof and a power 10-way adjustable driver’s seat with memory. Lexus also threw in a heated steering wheel as a stand-alone option–worth it, at just $150.

Those familiar with older Lexus infotainment systems are likely aware of the mouse-like interface around which they are centered. Not so here. Instead of a mouse, we have a touchpad.

The on-screen behavior is still the same (there’s no pointer; you can only use the pad to cycle through available options), but the physical anchor of the fake “mouse” is gone. Highlighted selections are chosen by pushing down on the touchpad itself and “clicks” are confirmed by haptic feedback–think of the corresponding vibration you get from selecting something on your smartphone touchscreen. The jury’s still out on this interface.

Elsewhere in the interior, we found the seats to be comfortable and supportive. Thanks to the 10-way power adjust, we had no trouble positioning ourselves exactly where we wanted to be. The rear seat was also plenty roomy behind both the driver and passenger, and the nearly 17 cubic feet of cargo space in the hatch was more than adequate for hauling enough luggage for a week-long trip for two with the privacy shelf in place.

But does it go?

We went in to this evaluation with relatively low expectations for the NX 300h’s performance. You see, unlike the NX 200t model, the 300h is not available with the F Sport suspension package.

This follows fairly closely the formula Toyota employed with the RAV4–offering the non-hybrid in a new “SE” sport trim but not doing the same for the hybrid–but with one major difference. In the RAV4’s case, the hybrid is the more powerful of the two available powertrains.

The same is not true of the Lexus’s model hierarchy. Here, the turbo takes the honors both for power and handling (especially when the F Sport model is in the discussion).

In spite of this, we came away quite pleasantly surprised. While the NX 300h is tuned for comfort and fuel economy rather than outright performance, it comports itself with far more grace than we expected.

We give a lot of credit here to the NX 300h’s all-wheel-drive system. This lightweight, tech-based solution works beautifully in the real world and doesn’t detract otherwise from the driving experience.

The powertrain was also far more responsive than we’d expected. The “kickdown” feature may seem like a gimmick, but it’s great when you’re on the highway and you need to make a passing move in a hurry. Rolling onto the throttle gently is equally rewarding. The electric motors deliver in-gear passing torque that’ll remind you of very responsive turbochargers.

When we assign grades in reviews, we try our best to look at the complete picture–the car’s intended audience, it’s competitive set, etc.–and judge accordingly. We can’t help but give the NX 300h high marks here. It’s still a 4,000lb CUV with less than 200 horsepower, but it delivers a surprisingly rewarding driving experience and bests 32 mpg in mixed driving.

Leftlane‘s bottom line

If space efficiency and fuel efficiency matter to you in equal measure but you don’t want to go smaller, the NX300h delivers both in spades. But above all else, it’s a hybrid we didn’t hate driving. That alone speaks volumes. $50,000 for less than 200 horsepower may seem like a stretch, but if you need a budget-friendly alternative, the RAV4 exists.

2016 Lexus NX 300h AWD base price, $41,310; as-tested, $48,160

Qi-compatible wireless charging, $220; Auto-dimming interior mirror, $125; Navigation package, $1,875; Auto-dimming exterior mirrors, $660; Park assist with front & rear sonar, $500; Power rear liftgate, $400; Premium package, $2,670; Pre-collision and adaptive cruise control systems, $900; Heated steering wheel, $150; Destination, $940; All-weather drive performance credit, ($1,590)

Photos by Byron Hurd.

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Review: 2016 Lexus NX 300h Reviewed by Byron Hurd on May 23 The compact luxury crossover goes hybrid. Rating: 4