► Living with a Lexus NX SUV
► Seven months with the hybrid NX300h
► Worthy alternative to Evoque & co?
Month 7 running a Lexus NX300h: the conclusion of our long-term test
We should start with the residuals – just look at those figures! The depreciation is so modest you could probably have haggled away that much if you’d been in a more aggressive mood when you bought the car. If ever you doubted Lexus’s brand, now’s the time to believe. Short of buying a classic Ferrari, this is as close as you’ll come to a car as an appreciating asset.
Like all Lexuses, the NX is beautifully built, challengingly designed and likeably leftfield premium. The external lines, described last month by Stephen Bayley as ‘a cry for help’, have been much discussed, but I admit I like them; I admire their swagger. The interior, meanwhile, is sublime, like the waiting room in an architect’s office – all modern materials, lavish hides and elegant angles. To walk up to, to climb aboard and to spend time in, the NX is a flatterer. It makes you feel special.
And then you press the button marked ‘power’, and your feelings become somewhat mixed. The ensuing pure silence as the car rolls electrically forward is initially enthralling, but before you’ve even summoned the pace to squish next door’s cat (who didn’t hear you coming) the four-cylinder petrol engine hurrumphs into life, jettisoning said mog and shattering the illusion of green credentials. And that’s the last you’ll hear of EV mode unless you hit the button to release several hundred yards of silent progress between traffic lights. That’s a pretty feeble payoff for the 50kg weight handicap of two electric motors and a party pack of batteries, even if the front motor does harvest braking energy and the rear one does, very theoretically, turn the rear wheels when they lose traction (turns out E4 is not just a Freeview channel showing endless Big Bang Theory re-runs – it’s also Lexus’s part-time 4x4 moniker).
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The brake regeneration part of the equation has become rather unsettling over time – I didn’t feel it at first but have started to notice the sensation of driving over mildly corrugated concrete when pressing hard on the left pedal. Brake performance is good, but it feels as if it’s harder work than it should be.
Apart from all the batteries, you also have to drive around with an elephant in the room (not good for the blonde leather): that being the fact that hybrids Don’t Work. Here’s a car producing twice the amount of CO2 (121g/km) as that prescribed by London’s congestion charge zone, and returning a scandalously modest 38.1mpg, which is worse than Chris Chilton’s Mondeo diesel. The NX languished fifth in our unofficial Our Cars mpg table back in November, and I feared it might miss out on the play-offs. Now it’s slipped to seventh. If it were Chelsea, we’d have sacked the manager.
Irritations? We’ve had a few. The battery-compromised boot is small enough to rule out having two children (should do okay in China), you could knit a jumper in the time it takes the auto-tailgate to close, wind noise around the A-pillars drops the refinement ball and the touchpad controller is simply maddening, requiring your left hand to out-dance the right hand of a brain surgeon.
Joys? We’ve had some of those too. The 14-speaker Mark Levinson sound machine envelopes you like a VR headset, cancelling everything, inside and out – even the whiny engine noise on kickdown. The head-up display is perfection, the steering really nicely judged and the ride fantastically balanced between sport and comfort (its body control is a revelation, especially on track, oddly).
In the end the NX seems damned by a lack of purpose – I don’t really understand what it’s for. But despite more flaws than a cheap diamond it remains a fascinating, curious, infuriating, rather lovely thing.
By Greg Fountain
Month 6 running a Lexus NX300h: what does Stephen Bayley make of our NX?
Bafflement at the rationale behind the NX300h’s hybrid drivetrain leads to classic compensation on a ‘bald man grows beard’ scale. Let’s forget how weird it is to drive and concentrate instead on seeking the finer points or, as Apollo 13 mission controller Gene Kranz apparently stated while assessing the Big Crisis, ‘what have we got on the spacecraft that’s good?’
Well, the Lexus’s interior is certainly good – so much so it almost takes your mind off the thrashing and whining going on under the hood as the electric gearbox holds a lengthy meeting to discuss whether the throttle’s horizontal position establishes a clear case for changing up. But man cannot live by leather chairs alone.
So I turn to design, a facet of the NX’s personality that sits pretty high up in the mix and divides opinion Corbyn-like. Tentatively of the view that I like these looks yet acknowledging my appreciation limitations, I turn to the foremost mind on the subject of automotive art, Mr Stephen Bayley. Tom Wolfe said of Bayley: ‘I don’t know anybody with more interesting observations about style, taste and contemporary design.’ Perfect! So what does Stephen make of my long-termer?
‘Henry Ford said you can read any object like a book,’ he says. ‘That’s certainly true of the Lexus NX. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, but the conclusion is indecisive and the plot extremely vague.
‘In nearly 30 years Lexus has failed to develop a consistent or even persuasive design language. At one point, Lexus liberated itself from an early slavish adherence to doing cargo-cult S-class Benzes, but this emancipation led to aesthetic chaos. What they do now in design is both good and original. The good bits are not original and the original bits are not good. It’s a mash-up where the whole is less than the sum of the parts.’
Bayley’s a man incapable of being visually fazed, yet his expression on first acquaintance with the NX’s frontal aspect borders on disparaging. ‘The beginning of the NX, its face, looks as though an already enraged samurai has experienced blunt force trauma. True, there is an in-house tradition of evocative faces beginning with the 1936 Toyota AA, via the Toyopet Crown of 1955 and the weird domestic market Toyota Verossa of 2003 with a koi carp pout, but the NX is strange without being interesting.
‘They will tell you, and the credulous will dutifully repeat, that the grille is a “spindle”, perhaps a knowing reference to Toyota’s history in the loom business. But it is an attempt to establish character where none really exists. For all the world, it looks like a class of undergraduate designers was briefed to give the NX powerful DTRG, industry demotic for “down the road graphics”. It is meant to look impressive. Instead, it simply looks cross which is no great evolutionary advantage for a sluggish car with modest overtaking credibility.’
Modest is too kind a word – the itself unboastworthy 9.2sec 0-62mph time masks an in-gear torpidity that banishes friskiness as decisively as a flannelette nightie. The secondary force needed for overtaking is not either of the electric motors but a more natural phenomenon known as momentum. Without it, simply keep left.
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But I want Bayley – a notable commentator on architecture – to explain to me the purpose of the multi-faceted detailing on the NX, which marks it out from the slab-flanked Prius parked in the next bay. I mean, it does have a purpose, right?
‘The “jewellery”, with details rushing around like a Japanese fire drill, is also a cry for help,’ Bayley points out. ‘Of course, rationality never had much real connection with design of any sort, but any even residual relationship has here been cruelly broken. The curious comings and goings of front and rear lenses and reflectors with their slashes, ticks, strakes and zig-zags look like a mad woman’s breakfast. Ask yourself what Jonathan Ive would have done and then take pause to wonder if the NX ever had a design review. And if it did, what on earth did they reject in favour of this?
‘The body sides are a roiling ocean of troughs and swells, indicative in today’s market of “premium”, so at least a commercial point is proven by the agitated surfacing. There are detail curiosities too: look at the little blip on the trailing edge of the plastic liner of the rear wheelarch – between us we have about 70 years of collective expertise in looking at cars and we’re left confused and wondering.’
He has a point – what can this tiny plastic nodule possibly add to 1.7 tonnes of steel and batteries? Either Adrian Newey popped in with a last-minute idea to knock off 5mpg or maybe a Lexus suit cemented his perceived usefulness for at least another product lifecycle by suggesting it. We may never know. Ultimately though, this isn’t about taste, it’s about execution, about fitness for purpose. Has Lexus aced it?
‘Cars are not only like books, they are like cathedrals as well,’ says Bayley. ‘And architectural criticism helps us understand the design of the NX. On the whole, it is about “complexity and contradiction”, to hijack the title of Robert Venturi’s post-modern manifesto of 1966. And the details amount to no more than “featurism”. This was the term Robin Boyd used in his landmark 1960 book The Australian Ugliness to describe those pitiable diddles and squiggles architects do when they have no real ideas about proportion or sculpture or detail.
‘But the successful design of any car always depends on the underlying integrity of its concept. The NX is beautifully made, but poorly conceived: even experts cannot understand what its drivetrain is trying to do or what the car is actually for. Artistically, the best Lexus was Giugiaro’s original GS. This was sold in Japan as the Toyota Aristo, a name suggestive of yearnings for elegance and refinement that the visually noisy NX fails to achieve.’
At which point we arrive at the reason why it’s proving such a struggle to fall for this Lexus – I simply don’t know what it’s for. The paradoxes flock – everywhere you look there’s a question. Why fit a head-up display to keep the driver’s eyes on the road, yet make the touchpad controller so sensitive you cannot operate it while concentrating on driving? Why develop a complex drivetrain to help the environment, with a CO2 output double that of the London congestion charge exemption limit? Why abandon peerless refinement – the one nailed down brand value this still-fledgling badge had achieved, in favour of a whiny engine and much wind noise? Stephen Bayley – described by The Guardian as ‘the second most intelligent man in Britain’ – has no idea. And neither do I.
By Greg Fountain
Month 5 running a Lexus NX hybrid SUV: sitting comfortably
Being smitten with the NX300h isn’t easy. It’s an SUV with less room in the boot than a Focus estate and a staggering 172 litres less than the Toyota RAV4 on which it’s based (if you half fill the RAV4 with nickel metal-hydride battery packs first it equals things out a bit). The NX is a hybrid with poorer mpg than Jaguar’s diesel-powered F-Pace (54.3mpg plays 57.6), it’s heavier than an Evoque and it’s slower to 62mph than a Skoda Yeti Monte Carlo (whatever that is). So its CV creaks like the door of Dr Watt’s house in Carry On Screaming.
But neither the Toyota nor the Jag nor the Evoque nor the Skoda has these chairs. So sumptuous is the oatmeal leather (I’m making this up – it’s probably called ‘blonde ocelot’), so fabulous the 10-way adjustable powered seats, that you’ll never again be amazed while testing sofas you can’t afford in Heal’s. The interior of the NX has surely been fitted in error by some ghastly production mix-up. Seriously, if they had nicked it from – or sub-contracted it to – Bentley you couldn’t be surprised. It is delicious, and it reduces the NX’s shortcomings to scattered ashes.
By Greg Fountain
Month 4 running a Lexus NX300h: whybrid?
Enough mincing around the subject – we’ve really got to talk about the NX300h’s drivetrain. Like most Lexuses (and for a while all Lexuses) it’s a hybrid, which any Californian will tell you means it will save the planet. But our mpg figure of 38.4 has hardly kick-started a polar bear party, and penguins would still be shrugging even if we’d hit the claimed 54.3mpg. In fact the NX is only fifth in our long-termer fleet mpg table. At this rate it might miss-out on the play-offs.
One of the NX’s problems, like all battery afflicted models, is weight. At 1785kg it’s 250kg porkier than the diesel RAV4 – the Toyota group product with which it shares a smattering of structural components. And the RAV4, despite no hybrid to excite Leonardo di Caprio, still claims 49.6mpg. Hardly a gulf in ambition.
From a driver’s perspective, the NX is a puzzle. Motive power is provided 90% of the time by the 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, with occasional support from the front-mounted electric motor and very occasional support from the other electric motor at the back. There are three drive modes: Eco, Normal and Sport. In the first two modes the large dial on the left is a windy looking drivetrain status display, with a needle that flickers between Charge, Eco and Power like a Fukushima Geiger counter. Impossible to decode. Your best bet is to ignore it and concentrate on modulating the throttle, but trying to squeeze out a smooth flow of power is genuinely tricky. If your input is too gentle there’s no urge whatsoever; too firm, and the CVT ’box sends the engine bananas, without any great sense of accelerative pay-off. That the NX is slow I can cope with, but it simply refuses to reward sympathetic inputs.
Pressing the Sport button helps. It makes you feel instantly more in tune by swapping the Geiger screen for a proper rev-counter, and adds to the mood by back-lighting the clocks in red. More importantly, it sharpens up the throttle mapping and speeds up the gearchanges, making the car easier to drive and much more rewarding. But if you’re going to do that you’re surely better off with a straight diesel.
A conundrum then. It’s lovely inside, but if passengers spend all their time questioning your driving (‘are you ever going to change gear, mate?’) the effect is lost.
By Greg Fountain
Month 3 running a Lexus NX hybrid: attention to detail
Nice touches – every Lexus has them. You can be unsure about the obsession with hybrids (and I am), you can question the looks (you shouldn’t – it looks great), you can pooh-pooh the packaging (yep, the boot’s not huge). But the touches will win you round like a cheeky charmer who you just can’t stay mad at.
I’ve just recharged my mobile wirelessly by placing it on a tray in the armrest. When I approach the car at night the door handles light up (and the key barrel is invisible!). The ambient lighting around the instrument cluster changes colour when you change driving modes. The drinks holder has a friction base which allows you to unscrew a bottle top one-handed. The panoramic view monitor gives a helicopter view of the car on the centre screen (using cameras on the door mirrors, front grille and rear bumper). The ‘remote touchpad’ may be only usable by those who were great at the boardgame Operation, but it has a beautiful leather palm rest. The Mark Levinson hi-fi is bespoke to the NX, digitally tailoring the sound to the cabin’s shape.
The touches dial out the irritations like noise-cancelling headphones, although they’ve got their work cut out to nullify the drivetrain. More on that to come. One nice surprise though: I drove it at Rockingham as a tracking car, expecting it to dissolve into dynamic mush, and was amazed by its body control, tautness, grip and defiance of understeer. Our James, following in a GT86, said he couldn’t believe how flat it cornered, how little it rolled. Impressive.
By Greg Fountain
Month 2 running a Lexus NX: a few early niggles
Given that Lexus redefined cabin refinement it’s a bit of a shock to hear the wind whistling around the A-pillars at 70mph on the M11. I had to check that the windows were all tight shut. I don’t want to be churlish – the cabin’s been crafted by artisans using trees, cows and various natty plastics – but noise is noise. I want to like the NX, but it is being just a bit niggly. Take the powered tailgate. It takes longer to close than Tower Bridge, which means you get soaked waiting for it to do its thing. I can slam it, dammit, if you’ll only let me.
By Greg Fountain
Month 1 running a Lexus NX300h: the introduction to our long-term test review
Lexus designer Nobuyuki Tomatsu probably didn’t believe his mum when she said learning origami would come in handy one day. But here’s the proof. For surely the outrageously edgy NX could be fashioned from a single piece of A4 by a skilled paper-folder, so few actual curvy bits does it contain. To me, that’s a good thing. I love this rakish confidence – it’s as if they’ve noticed that most modern SUVs have inched in a more chiselled direction – step up RAV4, CR-V, Yeti, Juke etc – and decided to go the whole hog. The result is so sharp it might cut itself.
We did something here we rarely do: opted for the hybrid. That’s because the alternative – the 2.0-litre turbocharged NX200t – makes a bit of a hash of the pointless task of turning the NX into a sporty car. By sounding as whiny as a hybrid (when it isn’t one), changing gear like a CVT (when it’s an auto) and sporting a stability control system that ruins the fun like a death at a birthday party, the NX200t falls between a whole bunch of stools. So, despite being gifted a 50kg weight penalty courtesy of two electric motors and some batteries, the hybrid gets the nod.
Those two electric motors serve different purposes – the front motor gets you off the line in wallowy silence, and thereafter spends its days mucking in with brake energy recovery and battery charging duties, while the rear motor acts as a generator in regenerative braking mode until it’s called upon to assist the rear axle when front grip gives out. Bear in mind that Lexus’s E-Four 4wd system is really front-wheel drive until something slippery happens. All of which leaves the 2.5-
litre four-pot petrol engine to do nearly all the work and, like anyone who has to do nearly all the work, it whines quite a bit.
We’ll delve further into the true driving experience over the coming months, but the underpinning reality is that this isn’t a quick motor car – 9.2sec to 62mph tells its tale – and if you try to turn it into one you end up standing on the right pedal with the rev needle stuck at the limiter, wheezing your way into the fast-moving traffic while a 44-tonne Scania fills your mirrors with his DRS seemingly open.
That’s a lesson already learned. Lexus talks up the so-called kickdown function, intended to drop a couple of virtual cogs on demand rather than rely on the CVT’s studious progress, but amazement eludes me. It just feels as if you’re being mechanically unsympathetic – driving like an arse, basically. And it doesn’t seem to get you there any quicker.
Not that you feel in a particularly racy mood when driving the NX. Why would you, when seated on ridiculously chic leather chairs, surrounded by a mixture of cossety comforts and techy control surfaces, saturated by the sounds pouring out of the 14 speakers Mark Levinson donated to the cause. Never mind kickdown, a stay-awake function might be in order.
Thank heavens then for the ‘Remote Touch’ touchpad controller, which sits there taunting you, daring you to attempt a simple function like changing radio stations, without accidentally calling the cops or setting a course for the post office in Guatemala City. I accept that I may get used to it, but right now the thing feels horribly misjudged. It’s like trying to diffuse a bomb while driving. Even brain surgeons may fluff it.
I need to crack it though, as it holds the key to Lexus’s premium navigation system, served up by a 7in screen set high on the centre stack (which is tiered like a stadium). Masses of mod-cons for us to discover in here later, but headline-grabbing goodies include a head-up display and a wireless phone-charger tray.
In this ‘Premier’ spec the NX is £42,995 on the road, which rather knocks holes in my simplistic belief that it’s a Nissan Juke rival. The most extravagant Juke is £24k, same for the Skoda Yeti. BMW X1, maybe? Merc GLA? The Lexus feels more upmarket than all of them, especially as we’ve added the £1k panoramic sunroof (and £645 fancy paint) to take the total to £44,640. And, being a hybrid, it should be frugal as well as upmarket. Looking forward to finding out.
By Greg Fountain