► We drive the new Lexus NX plug-in hybrid
► Lexus says it's 95 per cent new
► Is it better than an X3 or Evoque PHEV?
Lexus was ahead of the curve with 'self-charging' hybrid SUVs, but it's taken this long to come out with a plug-in hybrid model. This is the new NX, the Japanese brand's rival to the Volvo XC60, BMW X3 and Range Rover Evoque – all of which are available with their own plug-in hybrid powertrains.
The old model was a fair old success story and sold over a million units worldwide, but it always felt rather hard to recommend against the opposition. Can its successor retain the good bits of Lexus ownership – peerless build quality and painless ownership – but make them more desirable?
It doesn't look much different on the outside
Lexus claims it's 95% new but, stylistically, it's definitely an evolution. It's still dominated by the massive 'Spindle' grille, and from the front and sides it does look broadly similar to the old car – the full-width taillight round the back is a nice new addition, though, and mirrors that on the smaller UX.
Familiar territory under the skin, too – it still has a 2.5-litre naturally-aspirated petrol engine running the energy-efficient Atkinson cycle. This is paired up to an electric motor on the front axle, while a separate motor powers the rear giving the NX electric four-wheel drive.
In this PHEV model – badged 450h+ - there's an 18.1kWh battery pack sitting under the floor. A full charge takes around 2 hours and 45 minutes using a home wallbox, and properly juiced up Lexus claims a range of 42 miles on mixed roads or up to 55 miles in urban conditions. That's slightly more than the X3 or the Evoque, though not as much as the recently updated XC60.
It'll do up to 83mph on electric power, too, making it more than just a temporary thing for towns. And the brand's focus on refinement means it really is silent when the engine's off, in contrast with some rivals where the combustion motor's absence serves to highlight wind and road noise all the more.
Has the inside had as big an upgrade?
Has it ever. For years now, every new Lexus review has included a caveat that 'the infotainment's cack.' The brand's insistence on sticking with an awkward floating joystick and later, a touchpad, combined with ancient and ugly software meant frustration on every journey. It couldn't be ignored. But it had to be tolerated.
Glory be, it no longer needs tolerating. The old system's been replaced by a full touchscreen unit – 9.8-inches across on the base model nobody's going to buy, and a massive 14-inches on the higher-spec cars.
It's responsive enough, easy to use, comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (which you might prefer to use) and a Siri-style voice assistant (which you probably won't). Bright, clear and simple, it's probably the single biggest upgrade over the old car, and it's been a long, LONG time coming.
The rest of the cabin's neat, too. It's very driver-focused, with controls clustered tightly around the captain's chair and the touchscreen angled towards it too. The physical switches largely make sense – a 'home' button for the infotainment would have been nice, but it's good to see physical A/C controls, a volume dial and rotary drive mode selector.
It is a shame, however, that the steering wheel controls have had a bit of a downgrade – they're now multifunctional and unmarked, Lexus expecting you to see what function they're intending to commit by staring at a chart on the head-up display.
Rear seat and boot space is average rather than class-leading, but quality is top-notch and it's nice that Lexus will offer a wide variety of colourful upholstery choices instead of the unrelenting seas of black you find in most rivals. It feels more of a luxury vehicle than an X3 does.
How is it to drive?
Running purely on the battery feels very Lexussy indeed. It's silent, perky enough if not exactly quick and feels well up to an undemanding commute or school run.
The brand's had more experience making hybrids than just about anybody and it's pretty much nailed the experience when it comes to daily driving. Having enough power in reserve – 305bhp to be precise – means that you don't need to work the four-pot that hard in most situations, so the typical CVT mooing just doesn't occur unless you're really flooring it.
Under most scenarios you'll barely hear the engine, certainly less so than you would with a diesel rival.
Performance is peppy when you need it to be, too, with a 6.3-second 0-62mph sprint and plenty of puff in reserve for overtakes. Just don't bother with the Sport or Eco driving modes. The former misses the point of this car while the latter is miserable.
What else should I know?
We found the seats on our F-Sport test car a bit huggy for those who are broad in the buttock. A Lexus should have sofas so we'll hope that less sporting trims feature wider bases.
Other than that, though, there's very little to fault the NX in the comfort department. It rides well, with the adaptive dampers set to Comfort it glides down the motorway and deals well with pockmarked tarmac too.
Lexus is making plenty of noise about safety kit, and it's true that the standard roster is very impressive – adaptive cruise control with lane-keeping aids, autonomous emergency braking, road sign assist and all-round LED lights.
Higher-trim cars get lane-change assist and blind-spot monitors as well as interesting electronic door latches. They'll actually prevent you from opening the door if the car detects something in your blind spot – helping you avoid clotheslining passing cyclists.
Lexus NX: verdict
It still won't set any keen driver's heart on fire, but the new Lexus NX is comfortable, efficient, and should prove utterly painless to own – helped by up to 10 years of warranty cover. And for many, that'll be enough.
The upgraded infotainment is a revelation that's been far too long in the making, and improvements to the old car's comfort and practicality are also welcome additions. This is a good plug-in hybrid, and we're looking forward to testing it in UK spec.