And yet, they sell.
High-end hybrids, that is. And so, they keep building more of them.
Like this new Lexus NX300h.
It’s the same basic ride as the NX200t – but instead of a 235 hp turbocharged four, zero to 60 in about 7 seconds and 22 city, 28 highway (for $34,300 to start) it comes with a not-turbo’d 2.5 liter four/electric motor combo and 194 hp, good for 0-60 in the mid-eights and 35 city/31 highway (for $39,720 to start).
It’s a Prius… for people who don’t want to be seen in a Prius.
The NX300h is a hybridized version of the Lexus NX – which is a smaller and sportier-looking/handling crossover than the company’s big-selling (but possibly too big for some) and perhaps not-sporty-enough RX350.
It’s also less thirsty – capable of averaging in the mid-low 30s vs. mid-low 20s for the non-hybrid NX200t (and mid-high teens for the V6 RX350).
Base price for the FWD version is $39,720; with AWD, the sticker price climbs to $41,310.
This is pretty big bump up from the non-hybrid NX200t’s base price of $34,480. However, the hybrid NX is much less expensive than one of its closest rivals among economical (to operate) luxury crossover SUVs – the $47,500 to start Audi Q5 TDI. Both give similar real-world mileage, but buying the Lexus will save you about $8k up front – and that makes it harder to make the case for the diesel-powered Audi.
Well, except for one thing… .
The Lexus is pretty slow.
The Q5 TDI isn’t.
The NX series is all-new.
Doesn’t look “green.”
30-something MPG average fuel consumption – at least, potentially.
Though smaller on the outside than the RX350 – and thus, easier to park/maneuver than the RX – inside, the NX has almost the same front and second row leg and headroom.
Sexy/racy bodywork and interior – including driver-adjustable LCD gauges and tap/touch (and get a tap back) trackpad input.
Costs a lot less green than an Audi Q5 (or diesel-powered BMW X3).
A Q5 TDI is much quicker – and gives you about the same mileage overall.
Non-hybrid NX’s gas mileage isn’t much lower – but its price tag is.
Sexy/racy bodywork comes at the cost of tunnel vision to the rear and not much cargo capacity in the rear.
Cramped and awkward to access center console storage cubby.
UNDER THE HOOD
Instead of the 2.0 turbo four and six-speed automatic that propels the NX200t, the NX300h is motivated by a larger (but not turbocharged) 2.5 liter four backed up by a pair of electric motors and a nickel metal hydride (NiMh) battery pack, the tandem powertrain feeding a continuously variable (CVT) automatic with three driver-adjustable modes (Sport, Eco and Normal).
It’s similar to what you’d find in a Prius, but pumped up some – to 194 hp, total, when both gas engine and electric motors are given’ you all she’s got.
Which isn’t a lot.
Or rather, it’s only enough to get the hybrid NX to 60 in the mid-high eights, or about two seconds behind the non-hybrid NX.
The upside is class-best fuel efficiency: 35 MPG in city driving and 31 on the highway for the FWD version and 33 city, 30 highway for models equipped with the optionally available all-wheel-drive system.
This is about 10-12 MPG better in city driving than the non-hybrid NX manages (22 MPG).
However, the highway numbers are a lot closer – 28 MPG for the NX200t with AWD, which is only about 2 MPG off the pace of the AWD NX300h.
During my weeklong test drive of an AWD-equipped NX300h, I averaged just over 27 MPG – lower than the EPA’s figures, but to be fair to the NX300h – and hybrids generally – the majority of my driving was high-speed highway-type driving.
This is the equivalent of expecting a Corvette to perform well off-road- and then complaining when it gets hung up on a rock.
Hybrids are most fuel-efficient when the gas engine isn’t running at all (or running part-time) and the vehicle is operating on its batteries and electric motors. This will be the case when the NX is stopped at a red light or stuck in traffic. It can also be driven at speeds up to about 30 MPH for about a mile or so without burning any gas at all.
The problem for hybrids, efficiency-wise, is that maintaining highway speeds usually means the engine’s constantly running. And because the gas engine in a hybrid vehicle is typically on the underpowered side – it’s also running hard to maintain highway speeds.
This is why the NX300h gets worse mileage on the highway than in the city – the opposite of conventional (non-hybrid) cars.
Before buying any hybrid, it’s a good idea to carefully consider how you’ll be driving the hybrid. If it’s mostly city and stop-and-go, the mileage advantage over an otherwise similar non-hybrid (such as the regular NX200t) could be very significant – and worth the higher up-front cost of the hybrid.
On the other hand, if you’ll be doing lots of highway driving – especially at speeds above 70 MPH – a hybrid’s real-world average numbers will probably disappoint you.
In addition to costing you.
Hybrids are – fundamentally – about compromise. You can’t have your cake (low fuel consumption) and eat it, too.
The “eat it, too” part being peppy acceleration.
As mentioned earlier, you give up about 2 seconds, 0-60 (vs. the regular NX200t) to get a potential 8-10 MPG mileage advantage. The NX300h is not slow in general terms – but it is slow for the class. Some car reviewers note this as a liability but that concern is probably exaggerated because the NX300h has sufficient power to keep pace with traffic and maintain highway speeds well in excess of lawful maximums. Most Lexus buyers – and prospective Lexus buyers – will probably be ok with its performance.
The problem is not the NX300h’s speediness – or lack thereof.
Puttering around in stop-and-go traffic, things are silent and smooth. Even more so than in the non-hybrid NX200T because in the NX300h, you can putter along at low speed in virtual silence – gas engine off, electric drive on.
But things change when the Lexus is asked to accelerate beyond stop-and-go speeds. Give it half-pedal and the engine will rev up to 4,000-ish RPMs (not far from the redline) and stay there, making keening sounds of mechanical unhappiness all the while. More pedal (to get more acceleration) and the banshee wail increases.
Part of the reason for this is the underpowered powertain. The NX300h weighs more than 4,000 pounds empty (before your curb weight is added) and that’s a lot of inertia to overcome with just 194 hp, all out. There’s not much reserve – which means that when you need to accelerate – even moderately – you’re often asking the powertrain to give you everything it’s got.
Much of the resultant high-revving (and rev-holding) is also a function of the NX300h’s continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission. CVTs are the go-to box of choice in hybrids because they are more efficient than conventional automatics. Instead of a series of fixed gear ratios (e.g., a six speed automatic) a CVT has just one speed that is continuously variable. It never upshifts – or downshifts. Instead, it kind of surges forward – like a turbine. This is great for economy – all else begin equal, a CVT-equipped car will return 2-3 MPG better on average than an identical car with a conventional automatic. The downside is that if the engine is on the scrawny side – as is usually the case in hybrids – the CVT will often keep the engine running at 75-80 percent of redline during normal keep-up-with-traffic driving, as when trying to maintain 55-60 MPH on uphill stretches of road, accelerating to merge and so on.
People expect (and accept) less-than-speedy acceleration in economy cars and hybrids like the Prius – and many NX300h prospects will probably find the NX300h’s acceleration acceptable, too. But the Prius-esque mechanical squealing-like-a-stuck pig of the NX300h’s drivetrain could be a deal-breaker given the NX300h costs about twice as much as a Prius and is, after all, a Lexus.
People who shop in this price bracket may expect more in the way of refinement – and less in the way of underhood (and in their ears) sturm und drang.
The power deficit (and noise surplus) aside, the NX300h is pretty sporty feeling – and handling – as hybrids go. You’ll reach the tires’ limit of grip long before the chassis comes unglued. Because the tires (this is a hybrid, don’t forget) are fairly tall and skinny 226/60 Michelins designed chiefly to reduce rolling resistance (to enhance fuel efficiency) not provide lots of lateral stickiness. But this lower threshold of grip in the corners makes the NX300h fun to toss around, precisely because the limits of grip are lower. You can work on your wheelman skills at almost-legal road speeds, something that’s impossible to do in any modern sporty car fitted with modern sport tires. Their limits are so high you generally can’t approach them on the street without operating at jail-time speeds if you’re caught doing it.
Remember the old saying? It’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.
That definitely applies here.
Also, those pizza-cutter tires will almost certainly be a big advantage in winter, whether your NX is FWD or AWD. They’ll cut right down through the snow instead of compressing it – and riding up on top of it. Remember how great the old VW Beetle was in the snow? A big part of the reason why was its tall – and thin – tires.
Same deal here.
There used to be three basic categories of vehicle – compact, mid-sized and full-sized.
Lately, there’s a lot of overlap.
The NX is a case in point. It is not quite mid-sized, but it’s bigger than a compact.
For people, at least.
It has almost the same first and second row legroom as the RX350 – Lexus’ mid-sized crossover SUV: 42.8 and 36.1 inches, respectively, vs. 43.1 and 36.8 for the RX. But the NX is about half a foot shorter overall (182.3 inches vs. 187.8 for the RX) which makes the NX easier to park and leaves some more room in your garage.
Of course, you can’t lop half a foot off without losing space somewhere. And that somewhere is behind the second row, in the cargo area. The NX has only 16.7 cubic feet of capacity behind the second row – vs. 40 for the RX350. Even with the second row folded flat, space is limited to 53.7 cubes (vs. 80.3 for the RX).
This is small in relative and real terms. The same-sized (on the outside) Audi Q5 (182.6 inches long, bumper to bumper) has 29.1 cubic feet of storage space behind its second row. The usability of the NX’s smallish space is also hampered by a fairly low roofline (the NX stands just 64.8 inches off the ground vs. 66.3 inches for the RX), which limits the height of object that can be crammed in there.
Still, it’s dog-viable and grocery-store sufficient. People who need more room for cargo can always move up to the RX – while the NX will appeal to people who want the people room but can manage with less cargo room in exchange for the smaller (and more manageable) overall footprint.
The lines of the NX are rakish and modern, some of these shared with the RC-F super coupe – notably the LED-lit Nike swoosh headlight underbrow and the wasp-waisted “spindle” grille. So also the low squat (relative to the RX). It looks sharp, but one downside is your view to the rear is pretty crimped. It would help a lot if the second row headrests (uber-tall, for “safety”) could be folded flat or removed. But you can’t. They go up and down a little, that’s all.
Don’t blame Lexus. Blame Uncle. The government mandated these extra-tall headrests to protect passengers from injury in rear-ender accidents (whiplash). But the unintended consequence of that is very poor rearward visibility – and it’s a growing problem across the new car spectrum.
The center console is too small – and pushed too far back. It’s hard to access without rotating your body, which is hard to do while also keeping your eyes on the road. Plugging accessories into the USB port – located in the console well – is almost impossible to do from the driver’s seat, while actually driving the car.
On the other hand, the console features a wireless charging tray for your phone and the latest generation of Lexus’ mouse-trackpad input is very well done. The trackpad gives you a physical “bump” sensation when you make an input and the ergonomic pad supports your wrist comfortably while you work. The configurable LCD gauges cluster is neat, too. When you toggle to Sport, an analog-looking but entirely digital tachometer (red backlit) appears. In Eco and Normal, the tach is replaced by a Power/Charge gauge that helps you maximize the MPGs (and battery life).
Which is better? Hybrid – or diesel power?
Arguably – my opinion – diesel.
Compare the performance – and economy – stats of the NX vs. the Audi Q5 TDI:
8.4-8.5 seconds to 60 for the Lexus – vs. 6 or less for the Audi (that’s what 428 ft.-lbs. of torque – and 240 hp – will do). Mileage-wise, the Q rates 24 city, 31 highway – vs. 35/31 for the Lexus. There is definitely a big mileage advantage to driving the Lexus if you drive it mostly in the city, stop and go. But if you run fast a lot, you will likely average about what I did – around 28 MPG. Which is almost exactly the same as the Q will average.
Have your cake and eat it, too.
The burly diesels are also smooth as Enrique Iglesias – incredibly low-revving and quiet at Ludicrous Speed (at 80, the Audi TDI’s diesel V6 burbles along at maybe 2,200 RPM vs. a Ned Beatty-esque squeal-like-a-pig 4,500 or so for the under-engined Lexus).
One wonders how come the Japanese seem uninterested in diesels. It may be because they’re so invested in hybrids – which they got to market first, recall. Meanwhile, the Germans are equally invested in diesels – which they’ve been fine-tuning for longer than most of us have been alive. I guess you go with what you know.
The plug-in version of the Prius hasn’t sold well – due probably to the much higher cost of this model vs. the regular Prius. But the NX is a Lexus – and expensive, hybrid or not. People at this price point might be more receptive to plug-in performance (and economy) even if it did add a few bucks to the tab
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s not especially speedy – but it may not need to be. Lexus – the brand – is on high cruise and almost anything they put on the table gets snapped up at full MSRP. They must be doing something right.
Probably, they’ve done it again.
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