2018 Lexus NX 300 first drive: Urban luxury mobile gets even sharper skin
The compact luxury crossover segment is showing no signs of slowing down, and it seems that every few months another gladiator enters the arena. Lexus has been battling in this niche since 2014 when it launched the NX as a smaller companion to the veteran RX model, and in that time it has managed to find home in many a subdivision. With an aggressive-looking front fascia, it has been the Lexus badge and a very comfortable interior that have been doing most of the selling. And for a few years now this has been enough.
The NX has received a thorough update for 2018, including restyled front and rear fascias and even a "badge upgrade." This crossover now wears the NX 300 badge in place of NX 200t, but don't be fooled: It's the same turbocharged 2.0-liter paired with a six-speed automatic under the hood, good for 235 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. (Badge updates are the new styling updates, it seems).
The changes to the front and rear fascias are subtle but welcome: The "spindle" grille is now populated by black horizontal bars instead of a slightly different honeycomb pattern, and the daytime running light housings have also been redesigned. Overall, the front is now visually cleaner, but it is still plagued by the fact that there is no good place to attach the front license plate, a lesson that Audi learned the hard way over a decade ago with its A8 flagship. The front section of the car also extends quite far out ahead of the front wheelarches and the headlights, which makes the tip of the nose sit way in front of the front wheels, giving the crossover a longer overhang than it probably needs.
More changes abound inside and underneath the bodywork: Lexus has reworked the suspension in the NX 300 and updated the infotainment system with a second-generation Remote Touch Interface (RTI), which is a touchpad-style controller located at the center of the armrest, just south of the gear shifter, in addition to updating the climate controls. The suspension tweaks are perhaps the most noticeable updates here: Lexus has fitted new shock absorbers, and added the Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) system borrowed from the LC 500 as an option.
Standard features in this model include all-wheel drive, 17-inch aluminum wheels, Lexus Safety System+, a pre-collision system (PCS), cruise control with lane departure alerts with active steering, eight airbags, a backup camera with gridlines and Lexus Enform Wi-Fi with 4GB of space, which is complimentary for the first year. Other standard items on this model include eight-way power seats, an eight-speaker Lexus Display audio system, the Remote Touch control pad, and an auto-dimming rear view mirror.
The car I drove (and the one you see in the photos above) was optioned up to $45,560, benefitting from the $4,705 luxury pack that is a popular bundle of goodies for this model, and the $1,800 navigation package which includes the Remote Touch interface and the 10-speaker Lexus premium audio system.
On the road the NX 300 feels well planted and alert, even if a little top-heavy. Nosediving during braking is only moderate, and throttle response is on the better side for this segment. The NX 300 accelerates with just the right amount of haste and revs, and the sound insulation does not try to block off 100 percent of the outside world, so unlike in the Lexus RX the engine and road noise are still there to remind you that you're actually driving a good-sized vehicle.
This means the NX 300 is a little more in touch with the road and the outside world, but it's hardly more sporty or nimble than the RX as it's still a pretty hefty luxury mobile. The chassis tries to keep body roll reigned in when it comes to cornering with haste, but the overall reactions are still leagues away from competitors like the Mazda CX-5. This is a Lexus, after all, so its priorities are a little different.
Speaking of priorities, cargo space is not a big priority here. The loading height and the floor of the cargo space are pretty high off the ground, and the rakish D-pillars aren't particularly friendly to big square boxes. The typical NX 300 buyer may not use it to haul hundreds of pounds worth of stuff from Home Depot on the weekends, but fitting a decent-sized golf bag across the trunk space is a tight fit as well. Accommodations for rear seat passengers are not as generous as they can be due to the rakish roof profile, but they're not snug either.
When it comes to user friendliness plenty of actual buttons dot the center stack, as Lexus has made the wise choice not to bury everything inside the submenus of the infotainment system. Still, there are a few shortcut buttons lacking, and they do require some spelunking in the infotainment system controlled by a very large touchpad just ahead of the armrest.
The issue with this mouse-style pointer is that it requires a little too much nuance, especially when the vehicle is in motion, to perform some basic tasks. Particularly, focusing the pointer on the needed areas of the admittedly large screen usually takes a couple of glances to accomplish. This is perhaps something that could be done better with an iDrive style rotary dial which, as annoying as those can be in their own right, don't require much nuance and can move the cursor faster to select various functions once you know where they are. Lexus' system is fussier and requires the eyes to adjust to the road to the cursor on the screen, whose position is not always obvious. This is one of those systems that probably looked and felt good in a lab, but when mixed in with actual driving it becomes a lot less user-friendly.
With a starting price of $38,380 the NX 300 delivers a four-fifths scale Lexus RX experience with plenty of interior comfort and versatility, but not a particularly exciting ride. The interior is where the NX300 impresses, as Lexus has its priorities straight, but it's still an acquired taste, especially with the touchpad. That's an item that you should definitely try at the dealership to make sure you're comfortable with it, as you two will be spending a lot of time together.
The NX is no longer the smallest Lexus crossover in the range as the all-new UX has assumed that mantle, signaling that Lexus has been mining the correct segments and is ready for more.