IT HAS taken a while – some might say too long – but the luxury brand Lexus has now finally entered the compact premium SUV market.
Only time will tell if it’s come to the party too late. It’s already pretty busy in there with the likes of BMW’s X3, Audi’s Q5, Volvo’s XC60 and the Range Rover Evoque, for which the production line in the West Midlands is struggling to keep up with worldwide demand.
Global sales in the segment are expected to top one million next year, having grown seven-fold over as many years as buyers seek to combine the lifestyle image of a recreational vehicle without the extra running costs of a full-blown 4x4.
So a full 16 years after Lexus appeared in the premium SUV market with the original RX in 1998, it’s come up with a slightly smaller version which combines high standards of build quality and luxury with the latest technology.
The NX300h is a hybrid with a 2.5-litre petrol engine combined with an electric motor to drive the front wheels in the base S model. The other four versions in the range – SE, Luxury, F Sport and Premium – have a simple four-wheel drive system, provided by a second electric motor which delivers additional power to the rear wheels when driving conditions demand.
The result is a package which offers confidence and peace of mind, simple-to-summon performance and efficiency with good economy and low emissions.
On the design front, it follows the conventional profile but with edgier and sharper lines than its big brother, along with stronger and more distinctive features.
It’s the only one in its segment to have low-energy LED headlights as standard and a host of safety features and equipment which would cost extra in the competition. The front is eye-catching, with defining lines and angles stretching back from the massive black spindle grille that is now a Lexus trademark. The daytime running lights which sweep up below the pair of three small headlights bear a strong resemblance to the Nike “swoosh” symbol and give a positive tick of approval to the overall look.
At the back end, it has a fairly standard segment look with a high waist and rear lights which wrap around each corner. A new range of lightweight alloy wheels have been created especially for the NX300h, and in the test car these were one of the three 18-inch designs.
On the inside, it’s classic Lexus, with a big bold steering wheel and a centre console crammed with buttons, switches and controls. It looks a bit too busy at first sight but no doubt a long-term owner would gradually get to know their way round the landscape, although they might continue to have trouble loading a CD as the changer opening looks to be too close to the gearchange without first putting it into Drive.
There are lots of electronics around a 4.2-inch LCD full colour screen which is the master control centre for many of the functions. A touch-sensitive pad on the central console is used to negotiate your way round the on-screen icons, and just behind that is a thick padded palm rest to help steady the fingers. Behind that again, under the central armrest, is a wireless charging tray which can power up your mobile phone – if it’s compatible –just by laying it upon it.
It’s standard on the top models or as part of a £495 Convenience Pack option which includes a powered tailgate. A quirky touch – and a little unnecessary, although some more narcissistic owners might not agree – is a removable vanity mirror in the centre. Alongside all the latest technology is a very traditional and welcome small clock with a round dial and real moving hands.
The top of the range Premier model comes with a purpose-built four-speaker Mark Levinson Surround System with “Clari-Fi” appearing for the first time in a car – this piece of software analyses and improves the sound quality of digitised music sources to produce a crisper, sharper sound… and it is sensational. Also on the Premier is Lexus’s first 360-degree Panoramic View monitor which gives a bird’s-eye view through four connected cameras to help manoeuvring in tight spaces.
But it’s on the road that I felt a touch let down on the initial promise. In spite of its 2.5 litre engine, it felt somewhat unwilling to get up and go, even in Sport mode. It was as though it had been restrained to achieve consumption and emission targets, and under pressure the engine was noisier than I’d have expected from a car which proudly carries the Lexus luxury name.
The gearless CVT transmission seemed reluctant to respond to demands and replied with an annoying whine when easing up on the right foot. That apart, it felt sure-footed and balanced on bends at speed over a range of surfaces, and the four-wheel drive system kicked in seamlessly when needed.
About 90 per cent of what’s in the NX300h has been designed and created specifically for it, and the overall package is luxurious and refined. It’s certainly got off to a good start. Even before any prospective buyers have had the chance of a test drive, 750 orders have been taken which means Lexus has already met its sales target for this year.
Next year, which will also see the appearance of a two-litre non-hybrid turbo version, Lexus expects to put 3,700 NX300 hybrids on British roads. So it may be a little late to the compact SUV party, but as far as the company’s concerned, that party has only just begun.
Car Lexus NX 300h Luxury AWD
Price £34,495 (£36,630 as tested)
Engines petrol – 2494cc 4cyl, 153bhp, 154lb ft; electric – 650V, 141bhp, 199lb ft
Performance Max speed 112 mph; 0-62 mph 9.2s
CO2 emissions 121g/km