Lexus NX 300h compact SUV first drive

Lexus NX 300h Lexus, the premium brand arm of Toyota, had a good year for sales in the UK in 2014.

Their registrations increased by 28.4%, but we are not talking big numbers as their record sales figure last year was still only 11,527 units as opposed to Toyota’s 94,012 sales.

Towards the end of last year Lexus introduced their compact SUV – the NX 300h hybrid with front or all wheel drive models with prices starting at £29,495 and rising to £42,995. The core best selling version will be the Luxury AWD variant priced at £34,495. Already 1,000 of the new NX 300h models have been sold to UK buyers. The range will be extend in Spring of this year with the arrival of the NX 200T 2.0-litre turbocharged 235bhp petrol engined non-hybrid AWD variant with the same five door SUV design and priced at £38,095..

Sales of 4x4s, SUVs and crossovers (termed Dual Purpose vehicles by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders) reached an all-time record in the UK last year at 292,347 units. This made them the third best selling segment of the new car market behind Supermini and Lower Medium cars. The forecast is for them to continue their popularity with more new models entering this sector – especially compact versions. Globally demand for these types of vehicles has grown seven-fold in the last seven years and sales this year are expected to top the one million mark.

Back to the UK market, Lexus expects the compact NX 300h range to achieve around 3,000 sales in 2015. Its main competitors will be the non hybrid BMW X3 and X4, Audi Q3 and Q5, Range Rover Evoque, Volvo XC60, the forthcoming Land Rover Discovery Sport and in 2016 the Jaguar F-PACE. The larger Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, the UK’s best selling plug-in petrol/electric hybrid SUV, is also be a competitor because of its even lower tax benefits. These is no VED road tax cost, no London Congestion Charge and just 5% Benefit-in-Kind tax for company car drivers. These tax savings are better than all other current SUVs and it’s roughly the same price to buy as the Lexus and its other similar sized premium brand competitors.

Hybrid technology is now commonplace in an increasing number of models on sale, not just Lexus. Hybrid input to improve fuel economy, lower emissions or to increase performance is used either as a complete system such as plug-in electric/combustion engine/electric motor drivetrain or as a more simple hybrid energy gathering element such as power capture through regenerative braking.

Toyota/Lexus have produced over seven million hybrid vehicles since 1997 first launching this technology with the Coast Hybrid EV Bus and at the end of that year the first Prius Hybrid was launched in Japan. The Prius was launched in the UK in the year 2,000 and over 133,000 Toyota and Lexus Hybrids have been sold in the UK to date.

Lexus NX 300h Lexus NX 300h Lexus NX 300h The NX 300h five door four to five seater compact SUV design wise is a scaled down version of their popular RX 450h large SUV. The NX 300h is 140mm shorter than the RX 450h but it has the same mix of sharp styling lines at the front and a combination of flared wheelarches, sculptured doors and coupe roofline at the side leading to sharper crease lines and prominent angled lights at the rear. This is no rounded jelly-mould design, it’s aggressive and bold and I think full of character. Without even looking at the badge you know it’s a Lexus. Inside the sharp angled styling continues with a futuristic fascia panel and lower centre console. Of course being a premium brand Lexus the quality of the vehicle is impeccable. There is only the choice of the base S specification for the front wheel drive version but AWD models are available with SE, Luxury, F-Sport and Premier equipment levels.

Whilst other manufacturers seem intent on reducing the amount of buttons and controls, the NX 300h has loads of them, it looks impressive but it takes a while to find out what they all do and some are positioned out of site. All versions have a centrally positioned eight-inch information screen but it is only the top Premier specification version that has the navigation system as standard. This is £995 option for all other versions which given the premium status of this vehicle I find a bit mean. But in general the specification is high for even the S model and all versions are fully loaded with safety equipment hence its five-star safety rating. Standard features include alloy wheels, space saver spare wheel, LED headlights and daytime running lights, pre-crash safety function and adaptive cruise control, reversing camera, dual zone climate control, Lexus media display with remote dial controller, DAB digital radio, 60/40 split folding rear seats, electric windows and mirrors, drive mode selection, vehicle dynamics control, hill start assist, electrically operated parking brake and eight airbags. The £34,495 Luxury grade model I tested also gains LED fog lights with cornering function, rear privacy glass, heated electrically adjustable front seats, leather upholstery, parking sensors and smart entry facility.

All versions are powered by the same hybrid powertrain, a 2.5-litre, 153bhp, four-cylinder DOHC petrol engine with variable valve timing and direct injection. This is linked with a front positioned electric motor for all versions to run in harness with the engine. There is an additional second electric motor at the rear to drive the rear wheels when AWD is needed. Total power output is 194bhp with the engine producing 210Nm of torque from 4,200rpm but the electric motors add another 270Nm of torque from just over zero rpm. All this seamless technology of course happens automatically and there is an EV mode where the vehicle can be driven for a few miles only using battery power. Drive is through a CVT continuously variable automatic gearbox.

Lexus NX 300h Lexus NX 300h Where the NX 300h and some other SUVs with hybrid technology miss out is with not having the electric plug-in element. This additional way of providing power is the big difference in reducing not only emissions but vastly improving taxable fuel economy figures and lowering taxes.

The NX 300h officially returns 54.3mpg in the Combined Cycle with CO2 emissions of 121g/km so VED road tax is £0 for the First Year rate and £110 for Year Two onwards and Benefit-in-Kind tax is 17%. In real life driving my test drive average was 35.5mpg.

This is better than a diesel powered SUV of the same size and quality but a plug-in/hybrid/ petrol SUV will do even better. My recent Outlander PHEV 4×4 test drive model cost virtually the same to buy but returned 60+mpg in real life with only 44g/km of CO2 meaning VED road tax is nil cost every year and Benefit-in-Kind tax is rated at only 5%. Food for thought?

However back to the Lexus NX 300h which is a superior vehicle in terms of interior quality and brand image to the Outlander but it is unlikely to trouble the BMW and Audi competition which already have strong followings in the fleet, business and retail market sectors. Where the Lexus performs well, like many hybrids, is driving in urban, town, city and commuter driving conditions. These vehicles like the stop/start motoring, they thrive off the regenerative braking and overrun energy capture and owners like the ease and smooth driving experience. It is ideal for school runs and business use, it is light and easy to drive and park and generally the visibility is good apart from the rear quarters but then there is the camera information to help. The vehicle also copes with country road driving with lots of down-hill and overrun de-acceleration conditions to boost the battery power. Where this vehicle and most other non plug-in hybrids don’t cope as well is on long high speed motorway journeys. At 70mph cruising there is little scope for any input into the hybrid system, it is mostly the petrol engine providing the driving power and hence the fuel consumption goes up. At a commuting pace the e-CVT auto transmission is smooth and quiet and the Eco, Normal and Sport modes are useful choices for the variable driving conditions.

Under acceleration on the open road the lazy transmission forces the engine revs to rise so the noise is intrusive and the acceleration progress quite modest. Once cruising speed has been reached then the NX 300h returns to its refined state.

Ride comfort is generally good although shocks from the largest potholes will be felt inside the vehicle and there is road noise intrusion. The ride is generally flat and level during cornering and the front to rear lift and pitch under acceleration or braking conditions is minimal. Front end grip during cornering is reasonable but it is less predictable at higher speeds on greasy road surfaces. Although it is a 4×4 its use of a rear electric motor to drive the rear wheels isn’t as sharp or as competent as a conventional AWD mechanical drivetrain.

The Lexus NX 300h is more suited to the driving requirements of those who spend most of their travel time in commuting traffic, which is where it works best. Of course it will work in the countryside, but not as efficiently but it will also cope with limited off road travel as well.

MILESTONES: Lexus NX 300h Luxury, a mid-sized hybrid SUV. Price: £34,495. Powertrain: Petrol/electric hybrid, 2.5-litre, 4-cylinder, 153bhp/210Nm petrol engine plus two electric motors combining with the petrol unit for 195bhp total power output plus 274Nm of torque from the two electric motors, e-CVT automatic transmission with e-Four AWD. Performance: 112mph, zero to 62mph 9.2 seconds, 54.3mpg Combined Cycle, (35.5mpg on test), CO2 121g/km, VED road tax £0 First Year rate then £110 per year thereafter, BIK company car tax 17%. Insurance group: 32E. Dimensions/capacities, L 4,630mm, W 1,845mm, H 1,645mm, boot/load space 475 to 1,520-litres. Warranties: 3-years/60,000-miles, hybrid components 5-years/60,000-miles. For: Low taxation costs, good specification, distinctive styling, comfortable seats, beautifully made, easy to drive, smooth and refined performance in urban travel conditions thanks to the hybrid system. Against: Road noise intrusion, power-sapping CVT transmission makes the engine noisy under hard acceleration, motorway cruising harms fuel economy because of reduced hybrid power input, it lacks electric plug-in function to significantly reduce CO2 emissions and taxes. Miles Better News Agency 

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