Words: Sirish Chandran
Photography: Rohit G Mane
I’ll cut right to the chase and address the elephant in the room. That styling! That cheese-grater of a grille! The smorgasbord of cuts and slashes, collateral damage of Beatrix Kiddo’s quest to Kill Bill. But then again we have only ourselves to blame – a million stories accusing the Japanese of being boring flicked a switch somewhere at Toyota’s headquarters and now (at least to look at!) there is no longer a Toyota, or even Lexus, that is boring. Polarising, for sure. But boring? No chance.
Staring at the NX’s elaborate and massive grille I honestly don’t know what to make of it. I’ve always been a fan of what others would call weird – the BMW X6 SUV-coupe-thing, the offset number plate of Mitsubishi Lancer Evolutions – but this is difficult even for me to digest. It’s in your face. It does not blend in the background. There’s no anonymity, but let’s face it most buyer do not want anonymity. They want to be noticed and with the NX, or any Lexus for that matter, your entire neighbourhood will take notice of you. What opinion they’ll form of you is debatable. Then again beauty lies in the eye of the beholder so I won’t dwell any longer on the spindle grille, as Lexus refers it, and quickly jump into the driver’s seat.
A unique cabin
I’m driving the F-Sport trim that gets sports seats with extra bolstering (over the chairs in the Luxury trim) but they’re still really, really comfortable. Better than all its rivals for sure. The cabin too is rather unique in its styling – the centre console resembles the form factor of the grille, there are loads of interesting surfaces that you won’t see in a traditional German SUV and it retains a forest of knobs and buttons, in sharp contrast to its rivals who are moving mountains to clean up clutter. Personally I have no problems with knobs and buttons and the touch pad to navigate through the infotainment is easy enough to use with good feedback, but I have to point out that the dash has far too many far too plasticky bits leaving one in no doubt of its Toyota (Rav 4) roots.
Another point to note, the rear seat isn’t particularly accommodating with headroom being at a particular premium. It’s similar to the Evoque while the GLC and X3 are considerably more spacious. But it does get a full-size spare wheel, hidden under a raised boot floor like on the Jaguar F-Pace. And the Mark Levinson 14-speaker sound system is superb – if you’re still ripping music off torrents it’ll even decompress your MP3s to restore clarity. Shame that there’s no Apple CarPlay.
With the government getting increasingly vocal about electrics and alternate propulsion Lexus is positioning itself at the forefront of responsible (luxury) motoring with their hybrid lineup that already complies with Bharat Stage VI emission norms. And that’s a great stand to take until full electrics become a reality. Under the hood of the NX – a very interesting engine bay to peer into what with all the controllers and orange high voltage cables for the hybrid system – is a 153bhp 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol. It’s mated to an electric motor on the front axle that makes 141bhp and the combo powers the front wheels via a CVT transmission. On the rear axle is another electric motor that makes 66bhp and kicks in to drive the rear wheels when the ECU detects slip making the NX all-wheel-drive. With all power sources combined the peak output is capped at 194bhp while max torque is 210Nm peaking between 4200 to 4400rpm. And with sufficient juice in the batteries it can start off on pure electric propulsion.
No matter how many electric cars you drive pulling away silently is still a thing of wonder. Motoring along at a relaxed pace, and even with engine having chimed in, the refinement, the silence, is really incredible. It makes the most refined diesel seem, so, last century. This is not a plug-in hybrid and the batteries recharge under braking and coasting with the energy path illustrated graphically on the infotainment screen to much (initial) interest from passengers.
Up the pace and the characteristic rubber-band effect of the CVT becomes all too apparent with the petrol engine whining away at peak revs while the SUV makes no apparent effort to get to speed in a hurry. To drown it out I’m advised to stick it into Sport mode that activates the sound synthesiser. Now in other cars I’ve experienced this trickey in (the turbocharged Porsche Panamera and BMW M5 spring to mind) the synthesiser pipes (and in some cases amplifies) the induction and exhaust growls into the cabin. Here it is all artificial, like a CD slipped into the Mark Levinson. Under hard acceleration I was amazed to hear a very vocal engine note rising and falling as if going up the gearbox despite the CVT transmission holding revs at a steady 6500rpm without budging. Your eyes are seeing on thing, your ears are hearing an entirely different thing, and you can even control the volume via a little knob. I guess when we go to full electrics this is what we will be hearing but it’s all too weird for me and I promptly turned it off.
The claimed 0-100kmph time is 9.1 seconds and that is hardly in the ballpark of 2-litre diesels that do it in an easy 7 seconds these days. Getting it to crack 100 in under 10 is a rather noisy affair too and the engine just doesn’t sound happy doing it. Neither is there the low-end grunt that makes driving a turbo-petrol or turbo-diesel so effortless. And then there’s the stability control that is stricter than my principal at school and cannot be switched off completely. At the merest hint of excessive speed allied to too much steering lock it throws the anchors and cuts out power. The level of intervention is amazing; unless you head straight for a stone wall the NX300 is practically uncrashable. But it’s not going to light the fires of any enthusiast with the only on-limit experience being armfuls of understeer.
On the ride front the NX is pleasant enough while pottering around on smooth roads where that silence and refinement is really a thing of wonder. However, in a bit to inject some excitement into the crossover, the suspension damping is way too stiff, and with a lot of the sound deadening having been deleted thanks to the inherent refinement of the powertrain you can hear the suspension audibly crashing into even the most innocuous imperfections. Unlike other SUVs that take speed breakers in its stride here you have to slow down, even with the adaptive suspension in comfort mode, while raised white lines on the road have never sounded so alarming as in the NX. What you don’t need to be alarmed about is the fuel efficiency, a claimed 18.32kmpl being pretty good for an SUV of this size.
Around Rs 60 lakh
The NX300h has been launched in India, with 170 customisation options between the F-Sport and Luxury lines, but the final price has yet to be fixed. Lexus India’s president tells me it will be, “around Rs 60 lakh”. At first I though that was in the hope of a more favourable GST structure for hybrids but that anomaly has been corrected with hybrids being spared the recent GST cess hike (stays at 15 per cent while petrols and diesels have been hiked to 25 per cent). Turns out Lexus is catering to our penchant for new model year cars and so will only bring in NX300h’s produced in Jan 2018 with deliveries set for mid-Feb and that’s when the price will be firmed up basis the Yen-Rupee exchange rate. Or there’s another theory, that Lexus now has two months to gauge customer response to the (premium) pricing and can course-correct by Feb. As things stand this is the most affordable Lexus in the country today but it still is at a solid premium to its rivals like the GLC, X3 and even the Evoque, and it will take a dedicated commitment to the environment or whatever is the polar opposite of a shrinking violet to join the band of early Lexus adopters in India.