Without giving the game away in the first line, Lexus has a hit on its hands with the new NX hybrid. Its allure is all the more surprising given that, of late, the Japanese premium brand has seemed a little lost. Amid waves of new models coming from heavyweight European rivals like Audi, BMW and Mercedes, Lexus was often overlooked.
For a brand that pioneered premium petrol-electric hybrid technology – and foresaw the death of diesel several years ago – Lexus has been slow to make the next logical leap to plug-in power. That was largely down to the powertrain strategy of its parent Toyota, but it blunted Lexus' innovative edge.
Thankfully that’s changing, first with the all-electric version of the UX currently on sale, and later this year with the arrival of the new RZ 450e. That car is likely to steer a lot of attention Lexus’ way.
However, while an entirely EV fleet might be the end goal, right now for many Irish motorists, the plug-in hybrid offers the easiest bridge to electric motoring, particularly if you don’t live on the east coast conurbations where charging points are more widespread.
Plug-in hybrids have been the focus of a lot of ire by those who claim owners buy a plug-in hybrid, or PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) for the tax rebate, but never use the plug. These motorists, it’s alleged, just drive around on the petrol engine, carrying the battery and electric motor along for the ride, thereby burning more fuel and emitting more carbon than a regular combustion engine car.
In reality, it would seem foolish to forego the electric supports on a PHEV, particularly when they offer so much useable range and driving benefits as they do in the new Lexus NX 450h.
Just to be clear, the new NX comes in two flavours: regular hybrid and plug-in hybrid. But with a price difference of under €3,000, it would seem a real shame to miss out on the ability to plug it in – and access a grant for a EV home charger if you are lucky enough to have a private driveway. For that money you also move up to all-wheel drive. Seems like a no-brainer.
Not only that, but with this plug-in version Lexus has managed to combine an impressive fully-electric range with decent fuel economy when the battery is depleted.
While Lexus claims an ambitious electric-only range of 74km from the NX’s 18.1kWh battery pack, we did manage an impressive 54km from it, on a mix of roads and up to motorway speeds. Using a regular plug socket for an overnight charge, it covered all our driving needs for the first few days of pootling into town and around the suburbs.
After that, and with the battery depleted of its plug-in charge, the fuel economy settled into the region of 5.5 to 6 l/100km, which is on a par with the non-plug-in hybrid version of the car. So it’s a winner all round.
Lexus has always delivered a better hybrid driving experience than its Toyota cousins simply because they opt for larger engines. While Toyota is fixated on fuel economy, Lexus wants to blend those savings and environmental concerns with a more engaging premium driving and performance experience. At the pinnacle, look to the stunning LFA. For an example of when the recipe went awry, look to the rather lacklustre CT. With smaller engines supporting the electric motor, it leads to far more engine whine as they run to their rev limits under the control of CVT automatic transmissions.
This was also an issue evident in the first-generation NX with its 2-litre engine. This time the NX features a more robust 2.5-litre petrol engine that doesn’t start to complain unless you really kick down on the throttle. And with a combined output of 309bhp from the mix of petrol engine, 134kW front electric motor and 40kW rear electric motor, it never feels underpowered. Just go easy on the throttle.
That’s something that might raise eyebrows when Lexus refers to our range-topping test version as the F Sport. Using Sport on this car is something of a misnomer.
This is a heavy crossover SUV at the end of the day, and one where the engineers’ eyes were always focused on fuel economy figures. The NX claims a 0-100km/h time of 6.3 seconds, but it’s at its best if you are a little gentler with your right foot and only call upon the full power of engine and electric motors when overtaking or getting out of a tight spot on a twisty road.
And it’s on these twisty roads that the NX starts to settle into its groove, proving it’s actually a pretty fun crossover to drive, soaking up the bumps yet staying upright in the bends and impressively sharp when it comes to steering. As expected from a Lexus, it’s also incredibly comfortable on longer motorway runs, although the F Sport seats could be less cossetting.
The merits of this new NX don’t end there. Lexus has tweaked the styling to make the updated crossover a little more elegant than before, though that big grille is still a talking point. Lexus design still seems very busy compared to rivals.
But it’s inside where the NX really shines, with a cabin that’s now arguably the best of the bunch in this competitive crossover class. Gone is the silly Lexus take on a mousepad; in comes an ultra-smart touchscreen with impressive high-end graphics. Step up to the F Sport version and your touchscreen grows from 9.8 inches to a dash-dominating 14 inches. There are a lot more buttons and knobs than on rivals, but the finish is properly premium.
The rest of the cabin is equally impressive, although rear-seat legroom could be better. Bootspace at 500 litres with the rear seats up is on a par with any executive saloon.
Mind you, so is the price. Starting at €58,130 for the regular hybrid and €61,100 for the plug-in version, this is firmly in the territory of Irish executive favourites like the BMW 5 Series saloon. Would you really prefer a relatively compact crossover instead of the comfortable cruising pedigree of a Lexus ES, for example? It seems from sales figures that many do. Logic aside, Irish car buyers are turning to crossovers en masse.
Since its inception in the 1980s, Lexus has rightly earned a reputation for delivering premium quality on a par or if not better than its European rivals. It has missed its mark a few times along the way, notably in its efforts to try and accommodate the tastes of both North American buyers and Europeans.
Not so with the NX: this is a quality proposition from the powertrain through to the premium interior. Judged against equivalent premium rivals, it seems a more tempting proposition. Alongside the new all-electric RZ, it looks like Lexus is back in the game.
Lexus NX450h+ F-Sport: the lowdown
Power: 2.5 four-cylinder petrol engine with with 40kW electric motor developing 309hp and 227Nm of torque, driving a CVT automatic transmission and four-wheel drive.
- CO2 emissions (annual motor tax) 25g/km (€140).
- Fuel consumption: 1.2-litres per 100km (256mpg).
- 0-100km/h 6.3 seconds.
- Price: €70,900 as tested; NX starts at €58,130, with 450h+ Executive at €61,100
- Verdict: A quality premium crossover with plug-in appeal