Core77 was recently invited, along with a cadre of traditional auto journalists, to a drive event outside Phoenix for the 2022 Lexus NX. Now in its second generation, the redesigned and newly-unveiled NX is Lexus' compact SUV offering, a luxury analog to Toyota's RAV-4.
What's new for the second generation are some intriguing powertrains, which we'll get to in a moment, including some hybrid configurations that provided real surprise behind the wheel.
Judging by Lexus' marketing materials and imagery, the NX's target market are young, hip, diverse, forward-thinking, music-loving, middle-class but luxury-minded folks who like things with lots of facets. This goes a ways towards explaining the exterior design of the car.
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Design Impressions, Exterior
The compact SUV is a difficult vehicle to design, because the vehicle's requisite proportions do not lend themselves to grace. The segment demands a form factor that's taller than a coupe or traditional hatchback, but not so tall that it rivals a true SUV; that's short enough that parking one doesn't bring the hassles that come with its larger siblings; that offers the high and rising beltline and the downward-plunging roofline that every auto manufacturer now adheres to as an unfortunate design rule.
This is independent of manufacturer and Lexus, being a luxury brand, is also saddled with the requirement that some aspect of the vehicle's exterior design make a bold visual statement, or three.
In my estimation, the way all luxury compact SUV manufacturers have attempted to reconcile the unwieldy form is to go CAD-happy with the surfacing. We see each manufacturer's design teams trying to jazz up the styling with unnecessary, arbitrary and numerous surface changes meant to evoke market-researched adjectives like "emotion" or "power."
I just want to say to them all: Please stop. The shape is the shape, and you can't hide it from us without creating other problems. Physics and optical science allow you three or four style moves to positively alter our perception of it, but design teams are pulling ten, twenty moves. The individual creases begin communicating with each other, carrying on conversations meant to distract from the overall form, but I feel it's unnecessary, or at the very least, not working.
As for the aforementioned statement that luxury cars are required to make, in the case of the Lexus NX it's the gigantic, textured grille. With two prominent fangs stretching into its maw from the headlights, I find it unwelcomely aggressive for a car that you'd ride in with three hipsters to a music festival or an organic supermarket.
The rear end of the NX is another example of overwhelming surface-change chatter, and while you could stick a feeler gauge into the gaps to confirm Lexus' famously tight tolerances—visual chaos aside, this is a very well-made machine--there are too many form interruptions, slashes and bulges going on for my taste.
I will at least say that the NX's new exterior design is a step in the right direction, versus the old one. Most notably they've gotten rid of the razor-edge triangular crease over the rocker panel, and at least softened, if not removed entirely, other mid-body surface changes.
First generation NX
New, second generation NX
Design Impressions, Interior
The NX's interior is well-done, and mostly aces; when you slide behind the wheel for the first time, the sensation is "Whoa."
First off, fit and finish of a Lexus is top-notch, and the NX is no exception. Their CMF team has done a fantastic job of marrying disparate materials in effective and surprising combinations; for instance I'm not generally a fan of glossy piano-black surfaces in cars, but the designers here have added just enough of it to indicate where a new surface is without making you wonder why it's glossy at all. From the driver's perspective, the placement of components looks and feels right. The materials feel expensive, and the color combinations are striking and stylish.
The ergonomics are superb, and the models I tested even had power steering wheel tilt-and-telescope controls, allowing you to perfectly dial in its position without the flip-flopping that plagues manual set-ups. The steering wheel is chunky and provides good grip, even with sweaty hands (it was over 100 degrees in Phoenix). The fonts chosen for the readouts is clean and perfectly legible. The center armrest is comfortable and well-placed, and wide enough that you and a passenger can share it without getting into a fistfight that requires a flight attendant to intervene.
The driving mode knob, which on other vehicles I've driven is down by the shifter, is here placed in a far better location: Just to the right and slightly south of the three o'clock position on the steering wheel, and above the shifter. It's in the natural path between steering wheel and shifter, and can be operated without having to take your eyes off of the road. The knob rotates between modes, and a quick glance at the dashboard confirms the setting.
The shifter itself takes a bit of getting used to. You pull it to the left, then down for drive, or to the left, then up for reverse. Putting it into park is achieved by a button, which I found non-intuitive. The parking brake, too, is button-activated. I know this has become standard in luxury cars, making traditional yank-up e-brake levers look brutish, but there's an adjustment period required.
One thing that the designers really nailed is the center infotainment screen. A relative newcomer to dashboards, the now all-important center screen is a component that many designers have struggled with; if you look at a lot of car interiors from the last five, ten years, including the first-gen NX, the screen always looks like a separate component that is sitting in a cradle. That type of set-up makes it look like an add-on, an afterthought, and the design language of the object-in-a-cradle is simply incorrect, suggesting that the screen is supposed to be popped out of the cradle.
First generation NX
New, second generation NX
In contrast, the NX's center screen is just there, and precisely where you want it. It's an integrated part of the driver's experience that almost, from the driver's perspective, looks like a floating display, absent any formal distractions. It's also massive, at least in the models I drove, which came with a 14" display that provided a much larger navigation view than I'm used to, and which I found welcome.
Thankfully the screen has honest-to-God knobs for the climate controls, both driver and passenger. One demerit is that the fan level controls are a touchscreen slider, though the screen is so large, and enough real estate given to the fan slider, that I didn't have too much trouble operating it.
Placed where it is, this massive screen presented a challenge for the interior designers, one that I'm pleased to report they cracked. The vent to the left of the steering wheel is in its typical position (A), and is typically mirrored by a vent on the right side. But with the massive screen, there's no place for the right vent. So the designers had to wedge it beneath the screen (B).
I was skeptical of this set-up, because my demand of dashboard vents is that they be able to blow cold air in summer, or hot air in winter, directly onto your hands while gripping 3 and 9 on the steering wheel. I found the vents in the NX can do this perfectly, despite the unconventional placement.
Furthermore, though the center vents appear wimpy compared to the larger vents on the sides, I had no problem rendering the cabin positively icy, though it was nearly 110 degrees outside.
One sign of how far Lexus' designers went with the interior is with the highly unusual interior door handles. It's evidence of extremely outside-the-box thinking. With every other door handle in the world, you pull the handle towards you to release the latch, then press outwards on the door to get it open. We all accept this, yet when you think about it, it's a counterintuitive and two-part motion: Pull, then push.
In contrast, Lexus' new interior door handle is this wide silver button. You press against it, with either your fingertips or knuckles, and this disengages the latch. Continue pressing, and the door can be pushed open. It's just one motion.
In theory, anyway. At the time of the drive event, Lexus' engineers were still dialing in the milliseconds between when the button is pressed and when the door latch disengages. The mechanism is electronic, not mechanical. More than once, I pressed the button and found the latch only partially disengaged, leaving the door ajar but stuck. This requires awkwardly pulling the door in a few millimeters to get it to re-latch, then trying again.
And you're probably wondering: Since it's electronic, what happens when the battery dies? To prevent you from getting stuck in the vehicle, there is a manual override, as indicated by a tiny graphic to the side of the button. If you reach behind the button it can be pulled outwards like a lever. If you pull it towards you twice, the door manually unlatches.
I find this feature both forward-thinking and risky; I admire the concept, but am unsure of the execution. For what it's worth, Lexus rep Carley Bly, who has been driving an NX for the past month, says that once you get used to the feature, you find yourself instinctively pressing on door handles in other cars, subconsciously expecting them to open the same way.
We journalists were assembled at a staging area in the hot Phoenix desert, with a fleet of spic-and-span NX models of all trim levels, and miles of twisty and unpoliced desert roads surrounding us. I got to drive the three versions that I'd be curious about if I were in the target market: The mid-level NX 350, which has a 2.4-liter four-cylinder turbo; the NX 350h, which has a naturally-aspirated 2.5-liter four paired with a hybrid electric motor; and the top-of-the-line, performance-minded 450h+ F Sport, which features the 350h's engine paired with a plug-in hybrid electric motor.
All three had nearly identical interiors. A minor detail was the visible speakers in the doors of the 350 models, whereas at the 450 level the speakers are hidden. Ride comfort seemed about the same in all of them, though the newly-paved local roads didn't provide any truly bumpy stuff to try the suspension on.
The models I tested all had the heads-up display, which I always find useful for navigation. In the harsh overhead desert sun, the HUD was still well-visible, though there was a faintly distracting reflective border surrounding it, where the sun was bouncing off of the HUD's unseen bezel. In sunny environments I always find myself wishing all dashboards were covered in non-reflective black velvet, though I realize that's incompatible with dust.
The seats are large, American-sized and comfortable, but shaped more for easily sliding in and out of the cabin, rather than being bucketed to provide lateral support for hard driving. Power-adjustable in a seemingly infinite amount of directions, it was easy to find the ideal driving position.
Road noise was minimal, and at cruising speed the cabin was pleasant.
These are all de rigueur features for a luxury car. Having established the presence of all of them, the only thing left to do was push the cars, hard, to see what they were mechanically made of. I didn't have to look far to find deserted stretches of impromptu test track, and I was really able to open the cars up, throw them into corners, and really test the acceleration and brakes.
On all three models, the brakes in particular are outstanding and confidence-inspiring, forcefully bringing the car to a calm but commanding stop even from high speeds. On patches of road where the wind had blown desert sand across the asphalt, I accelerated towards these patches and slammed on the brakes while over them, seeing if I could game the ABS, but the cars stopped dead straight each time. The engineers have done their job.
Where the cars differed was in acceleration and handling:
2.4-liter, 4-cylinder Turbo
275 hp, 317 lb-ft
0-60 mph in 6.8 seconds
It's a turbo. Acceleration is good. The car feels fast. It's quick off-the line, and quick when going from cruising to passing. There is some body roll in the corners that I did not expect, given the otherwise tight controls; it handles like a slightly larger vehicle than you'd guess by its size.
NX 350h (hybrid)
2.5-liter, 4-cylinder with Hybrid Electric Motor
239 hp (torque N/A)
0-60 mph in 7.2 seconds
This one was the big surprise. Turns out that removing a turbo, and adding a hybrid electric motor, yields a car that's every bit as fast—without the engine noise during acceleration. Despite the difference in 0-60 times between the 350 and the 350h, I absolutely could not tell the difference, whether accelerating from a standstill or at speed. If you told me the 350h was the faster one, I'd believe you. Same amount of body roll under spirited driving.
NX 450h+ F Sport (plug-in hybrid)
2.5-liter, 4-cylinder with Plug-In Hybrid Electric Motor
302 hp (torque N/A)
0-60 mph in 6.0 seconds
Feels substantially faster than either of the 350s, while being as quiet as the 350h. This car can really launch. The suspension is well-tuned and tight, losing the body-roll sensation in hard corners. The sensation of driving the 450h, at least in the F Sport trim, is closer to the feeling of driving a performance car than an SUV, with the exception of the seating (less lateral support than a sports car). If you like to drive fast and have the roads to do it, this is the trim level to shoot for.
I was fairly blown away by the fact that the 350h feels just as fast as the 350 with the turbo—yet is quieter and sees a huge mileage bump: the hybrid gets 39 MPG, versus the turbo's 25 MPG. Over the lifetime of the car, that whopping 14 MPG difference will lead to a huge savings at the pump.
Also—and this one's a real head-scratcher—the hybrid sells for $500 less. The NX 350 goes for $41,550, while the NX 350h is $41,050.
In short, why would anyone buy the turbo? The hybrid is the far better deal, and doesn't have any drawbacks that I can see. And with the pricing, the NX 350h is really the best of both worlds. To me, the engine note of the turbo is not worth that extra 14 MPG.
Performance-minded drivers whose money is chunky will want to step up to the 450h F Sport. The better acceleration and handling make it feel like a higher class of vehicle, rather than a mere trim level bump, than either of the 350s. And that's reflected in the price: The 450h F Sport rings in at a far higher $56,900. For that same amount of money, you could get a 350h and a pretty good used car, if you could live with the performance step-down.
A massive benefit with the 450h that was not covered in the driving review, is that it's a plug-in hybrid with 37 miles of range. So if you have a daily commute within those numbers, you could drive this car entirely on battery power, spending zero on gas. You'd only dip into petrol for roadtrips and longer weekend jaunts.
A note to potential Lexus NX buyers wavering between trim levels:
If you're a performance-minded driver who cannot afford the 450h F Sport, do not test drive it. Because if you do, then decide to step down to the 350h, you'll find a noticeable difference that will make you long for the F Sport. So it would be better to see if the 350h is good enough for you, and not experience the higher performance level of an F Sport you can't afford.
A note to Lexus dealers:
You are going to sell these cars on the test drives. You should have any potential buyer who's in the market for a 350 drive the 350 first, then the 350h. You are going to sell a lot of hybrids.