Test Drives

Lexus NX 300 review: Face off



The Lexus NX has received a mid-life revamp, but are the changes enough to put it ahead of a youthful pack of challengers?

SINGAPORE — See the black plastic inserts in the front bumper of the Lexus NX 300 under the headlights? They’re one of the ways to tell that this is the facelifted model you’re looking at (the previous car had narrow vertical slots). The new plastic bits are designed to look like large air intakes, so as to make the car look more aggressive and sporty, which sums up the aims of the cosmetic work on the NX.

Mid-way into its lifespan, the compact Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) from Lexus has undergone a customary facelift. Its designers must have thought there wasn’t much wrong with its looks to begin with, though, because they haven’t altered its appearance all that radically.

New headlamps with the triple-lamp design seem on other Lexuses are another giveaway (unless you buy the cheaper Executive spec, which sticks with a plainer design).

At the caboose end, the change is a little more obvious, thanks mostly to a new tailgate that swaps out a soft curve between the tail lamps for a harder edged bulge. The tail lights themselves are wider, to give the NX a broader stance from the back. It might not look all that different, but once you see what’s changed, it’ll be impossible to un-see.

There’s more revision inside, much of it to do with size: a bigger display screen for the infotainment system, a larger touchpad controller for it, and more real estate for the Qi wireless charging pad, which has grown to accommodate today’s bigger smartphones.

New switches for the climate system tidy things up a bit on the dashboard, too, while making the air-con a bit easier to use.

What remains is the thing that has always made the NX a bit of a standout in the class, which is the air of solidity to its construction, and how the materials feel nice and expensive to touch. If you’ve never wanted to fondle a car’s interior, the NX will make you want to start.

You might also have noticed a name change, from NX 200t to NX 300. That isn’t a sort of cherry on the facelift cake, but part of a general rationalisation with all the 2.0-litre turbo Lexus models (so the IS 200t becomes the IS 300, and so on).

That being so, it doesn’t entail any more oomph under the bonnet than before. That means there’s still plenty, however, with all of 238 horsepower at the driver’s beck and call.

 

It’s enough to set the Lexus barreling along nicely, anyway, with lots of mid-range surge to make the NX 300 feel energetic, but controllably so.

In a straight line, at least, the NX 300 is a pleasantly eager car.

But things take a turn for the worse as soon as the Lexus itself takes a turn. In spite of the firmer F-Sport suspension setup (which also includes active dampers) on our test car, the NX 300 simply didn’t muster the sort of grip and finesse around bends to feel remotely sporty.

Drive it quickly through some corners and you’re not only made aware of its height (and the body roll it brings) but you also soon discover that the tyres stop gripping and start griping early.

That’s not the only way the chassis is a let-down; there may be active suspension, but it’s active in the sense that it’s constantly transmitting jiggles and bumps into the cabin. The F-Sport is supposed to be sporty, but the ultimately car’s suspension team seems to have confused restlessness for sharpness.

In a similar vein, the engine guys seem to have mixed up loudness with sportiness. Rev the engine to tap into its deep pool of torque, and it doesn’t feel shy about piping up to let you know how hard it’s working.

As a result the NX 300 doesn’t offer the sort of comfort and serenity you’d expect of a Lexus, at least in F-Sport trim. Things might be better if you opt for the Luxury version or the 2.5-litre petrol-electric hybrid NX 300h instead; those models lack the sporting pretensions of the F-Sport, and (presumably) their softness will be more in tune with the basic character of the NX.

That said, the F-Sport’s appeal is understandable. The interior mixes tones to terrific effect, and the anodised alloy wheels look so tasty it’s like they’ve been coated in a shell of hard candy. There’s the aggressiveness of the front grille, too, which takes the bold looks of the NX and really amps up the fierceness.

If you opt for the NX 300 F-Sport, though, you’ll be buying the car for its looks instead of its abilities. Its behaviour around corners, certainly, fails to live up to the aggressive styling. That might be forgivable if it also served up the sort of ultra refinement that the Lexus badge promises, but there it falls short, too.

The NX 300’s real problem, though, is that since its arrival the market has become crowded with new offerings from other premium brands: the Mercedes GLC, new BMW X3, Volvo XC40, and Jaguar E-Pace are the rivals eager to tempt the would-be NX buyer. A facelift is one thing, but new faces are quite another.

NEED-TO-KNOW LEXUS NX 300 F-SPORT
Engine 1,998cc, 16V, inline 4, turbocharged
Power 238hp at 4,800-5,600rpm
Torque 350Nm at 1,650-4,000rpm
Gearbox 6-speed automatic
Top Speed 200km/h
0-100km/h 7.1 seconds
Fuel efficiency 7.9l/100km
Price S$233,800 with COE
Agent Borneo Motors
Available Now

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Leow Ju-Len
Leow Ju-Len is a lot older than he behaves. He's been writing about cars for 23 years. Someday he might do it coherently. Ju-Len believes in world peace and V8s, but not necessarily in that order.