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Is the Lexus NX genuinely ‘great shakes’ in a competitive SUV market?

Lexus-NX-1
Lexus-NX

While the latest version of the NX model does appear to have remedied some of the several issues that Iain Robertson has believed to be inherent to the Lexus brand, he elucidates that the Merc rip-off has never been one with which he felt entirely happy, even though it is a brand that should have matured somewhat by now.

When the big old LS saloon made its debut aping clearly the Merc S-Class of the late-1980s period, its number of tricky little features demonstrated a Seiko mentality that existed in Japan at the time. Self-powered airvents that distributed conditioned air around the cabin were among the details that most hardened critics believed would last a full five minutes, before requiring an overhaul. Interestingly, I sampled an early LS400 model not so long ago, in which the same feature was still working faultlessly. Perhaps I had got it wrong. Perhaps Toyota’s indomitable reputation for reliability was all that mattered.

Lexus-NX-2
Lexus-NX

However, I could not help but feel that there was something ‘skanky’ about the Lexus brand. It was trying earnestly to replicate both Merc and BMW (in the 3-Series inspired iS model) in the hopes of shaking the Teutonic cage to its foundations, en route to making a name for itself. The LS was undoubtedly impressive to drive but everything was just a little over-powered and over-engineered, from its brakes and steering to its V8 petrol engine. The dashboard of the iS was a bling-fest, looking more Breitling watch face than conventionally instrumented, but it lacked the dynamic balance engineered into the equivalent BMW and failed to match it power-wise, even in subsequent iS300 form. Of course, every Lexus was packed to the gunwales with goodies, a sort of magpie guarantee for a new class of Japanese car buyer, but the overriding quality was lost in the mix of perfected stitching that only a machine could reproduce, despite boasting of a bespoke stance.

What we were not party to in the west was the honesty that all Lexus models were also badged as Toyotas and Toyota is an everyman brand and it was only the rash of grey imports during the 1990s that highlighted the facts, the Atteza model being a very sound case in point (iS in Lexus speak). While premium branding is a desirable attribute, pulling the wool is just a con-trick, even though charging for the privilege is also just perpetrating a rip-off. Of the Teutonic Threesome, only Audi might be compared unfavourably with its VW parent but even it managed to retain an upmarket quality image that was inherent to both Merc and BMW and remains so today.

Lexus-NX-3
Lexus-NX

When the first hybrid Lexus models hit our roads and London was clarifying its congestion charge situation, Toyota GB argued that its cars were the only ones to qualify for clean city access…except that they were not, as they still emitted quite high CO2 figures, it all hinged on how they were presented and for how long the company could get away with its claims. Yet, again, the Lexus SUVs were trying hard but they fell short in dynamic terms, short wheelbase dimensions introducing jagged handling and ride quality problems that may have worked on Japanese back-doubles but failed to impress on British B-roads. Yet, Lexus was a brave attempt to introduce a classy brand to rival the best of Europe.

With the latest NX model, the second generation, a new platform, more power, greater dimensions and a more balanced appearance are all having a positive impact. Okay. An SUV is just another SUV and there is sure to be a commemorative teacloth due soon to show how similar they all are to each other (barring a few rarities) but the NX has a noticeably jaggier edge that seems to be the measure of several new Toyota models of late. It is as if somebody woke up the main board of the company, slumbering contentedly as it was in a lightly disputed World No.1 manufacturer role, and gave them a shot of humanity. Being too reliant on CAD-CAM and computer modelling was having the effect of moving the products further away from the people buying into them. The ‘new order’ clearly desires and needs the warmth of human sincerity.

Lexus-NX-4
Lexus-NX

The pricing and model range has been rationalised a little, starting at £39,750 for the 241bhp front-wheel drive NX, although adding £1,000 factors in a rear axle electric motor. The plug-in hybrid version that promises 302bhp and around 40mls EV range weighs in at £50,950. Of course, there are also trim variants to play around with. However, there is something more coherent about the newcomer’s stance that helps it to fit in better than ever. It is no more obvious than within the cabin, which abounds with soft-touch, organic forms and a delightful wrap-around quality more redolent in the latest Jaguar F-Pace. Fresh instrument faces, touchscreens that work more efficiently and a broad feeling of ‘bon homie’ are a surprise that is wholly welcome. Yet, the NX has always failed to provide bags of space for taller seat occupants and the new car still feels quite tight in that respect, which means that the disabled driver can be slightly compromised.

While looking more dynamic is part of the NX remit, its actual performance envelope is only modest, the entry level versions topping out at 124mph, despatching 0-60mph in around 7.0s and returning 35-40mpg. Even the PHEV model is only marginally brisker. However, the annoyance of the unmusical petrol engine revving out and straining against the CVT transmission is a source of constant consternation. It is possible to concentrate and work the system more agreeably but hills and traffic conditions soon take over.

Conclusion:          Lexus has made positive progress with its latest NX range but, annoyingly, it retains its unrefined 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine that is equally unpleasant in the punchier versions of the Prius. It is sad, in some respects, as the new NX is so much better than before. Yet, it will remain a leftfield choice in the corporate scene, even though private registrations may falter somewhat.

Lexus-NX-5
Lexus-NX