Michael SimariCar and Driver
Like a family of jackrabbits, the breed of subcompact luxury crossovers is multiplying at an alarming rate. Since 2018, when the aging Lexus NX was last refreshed, and now, the segment has added all-new models such as the BMW X2, Cadillac XT4, Jaguar E-Pace, and Volvo XC40. Still, the Lexus outsold all but the XT4 last year and by a margin of more than three to one. Those sales helped push the hybrid NX300h to its best-ever sales numbers. Because it had been a while since we last tested an NX, it seemed like a good time to reevaluate where the chiseled crossover ranks among its contemporized classmates.
High-Priced Extras and Hybrid Exclusivity
For 2020, Lexus updated the NX with minor alterations inside and out, wider availability of the Mark Levinson/Navigation package, and more standard features. Every model adds Android Auto, active cornering assist intended to suppress understeer, enhanced lane-keeping assist, traffic-sign recognition, and a power-adjustable steering column. The NX300h starts at $40,445, which is $2550 more than the front-drive, non-hybrid base model and $1150 more than its all-wheel-drive equivalent. While Lexus is the only brand that offers a traditional hybrid in this class, the NX300h also competes against the company’s less-expensive, smaller UX250h.
The as-tested price of $50,905 was punched up with about $10,500 worth of extras. Almost half of that came from the $1515 triple-beam LED headlights and the aforementioned $2920 Mark Levinson setup. Another big-ticket item was the $3270 Premium package with several active-safety features, heated and ventilated front seats, a sunroof, and more. Other miscellaneous options include a 360-degree camera, heated steering wheel, power liftgate, self-parking assist, and Cadmium Orange paint. With that eye-catching orange glinting off heavily creased bodywork, our NX300h was easy to spot among the horde of otherwise ordinary crossovers and SUVs that saturate parking lots. Less conspicuous was its hybrid powertrain, which is only advertised with subtle exterior badges and the lowercase “h” tacked to its trim name.
The NX300h features a 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-four that pairs with a two-motor power-split transaxle (only one of those motors provides thrust). They total 194 horsepower. A third electric motor is mounted on the rear axle to enable all-wheel drive. What the hybrid system doesn’t do is move the NX with authority. Zero to 60 mph is a relaxed 8.1 seconds; its 50-to-70-mph passing power—or the lack thereof—is equally casual at 5.6 ticks. The soft brake pedal proved tricky to operate in stop-and-go traffic due to uneven responses, and we needed a lengthy 178 feet to stop from 70 mph. While its engine noise and ride isolation stayed within suitable levels, the NX’s nonchalant body motion and uncoordinated steering made us pine for the more entertaining alternatives that populate this segment.
However, those who prefer efficiency over excitement will only find a true hybrid subcompact crossover in Lexus showrooms. The UX250h has nearly untouchable fuel economy estimates of 43 mpg city, 41 highway, and 42 combined. Still, its diminutive dimensions prevent it from being as practical as the larger NX300h, which is rated at 33/30/31 mpg city/highway/combined. When we tested both on our 75-mph real-world route, the NX300h returned 29 mpg highway and the all-wheel-drive UX250h posted 31 mpg. Those numbers aren’t outliers compared with gas-only rivals, but hybrids are more efficient in stop-and-go traffic around town. That’s when the NX300h should see fewer fill-ups and boost its value versus conventional opponents.
Luxurious Appointments and Annoying Quirks
Inside, the Lexus lives up to its luxury pedigree. Upscale materials and soft-touch surfaces fill the cabin. At 27.6-inches, The driver’s h-point (how high you sit off the ground) is loftier than several other subcompact crossovers, and it provides a commanding view out front. Visibility behind the driver is actually better than in the UX250h. The hybrid NX also delivers a bigger back seat and cargo area than its undersized kin. We managed to fit twice as many carry-on suitcases (eight total) behind the back seat in the NX300h. It can also pull up to 2000 pounds whereas the UX isn’t rated for towing.
However, the NX has some ergonomic foibles. The control panel is awkwardly positioned near the driver’s left knee, making it awkward to activate the automatic high-beams, heated steering wheel, and other functions. The 10.3-inch screen that rules the infotainment system primarily runs through an unintuitive touchpad that proved irritating. And outside of the small shelf in the center stack and the two cupholders in the center console, there’s a dearth of accessible cubby storage. We were also surprised the sun visors don’t extend, a glaring omission on a “luxury” crossover. We were disappointed by the lack of basic HVAC controls and charging ports in the back seat, too.
For the past couple decades, hybrids have become a Lexus hallmark, with more than half of its current lineup available with the technology. Although several competitors employ 48-volt hybrid systems, and the Mini Cooper Countryman offers a plug-in model, the NX300h is the only hybrid in its class that prioritizes fuel economy without compromising practicality. Sorry, UX, we’re looking at you. Sure, the NX is older and slower than the fresh batch of crossovers in this class, but its sales numbers prove that it’s still a popular option.