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With its second generation NX, Lexus at last fields a properly class-competitive contender in the segment for mid-sized premium brand SUVs. Jonathan Crouch takes a look.
At last, Lexus seems to have sorted out its SUV and drivetrain strategy. The brand has never had a properly-sized mid-shaped model similar in aspiration and shaping to key premium models like the Audi Q5 and the Mercedes GLC. The company's first generation NX crossover wasn't quite big enough to fill that role, but it was just a little too large and pricey to fill the compact premium SUV niche now taken by the smaller Lexus UX. This second generation NX, in contrast, is a direct Q5 and GLC rival, also taking on cars like the BMW X3 and the Jaguar F-PACE on equal terms. All of these models now offer a plug-in hybrid option, something no Lexus in history has ever provided. Well this second generation NX can give you that too - if you don't want its standard self-charging hybrid powertrain. In short, this car looks a rejuvenated proposition.
Most NX sales will be of the standard self-charging hybrid NX 350h model, which as before uses a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol electric engine. This car though, uses a re-engineered fourth generation hybrid system offering 241bhp (20% more power than the previous version of this engine could produce). As before, sales are focused across the range on AWD versions. The extra power means a 15% improvement in acceleration, so 62mph from rest in the 350h AWD takes 7.7s. Plus this MK2 NX will handle the turns better thanks to a stiffer body shell, a 20mm lower centre of gravity, better weight balance and increased track width at each end. Professional racing drivers were apparently used to tune the handling responses. This time round, there's also an alternative NX model, the NX 450h+ plug-in variant which uses the same PHEV powertrain we've already tested in the Toyota RAV4 and the Suzuki Across. Here, a 182bhp 2.5-litre normally aspirated four cylinder engine is paired with a 180bhp electric motor on the front axle and a further 54bhp motor on the rear axle. That means a total power output of 305bhp, channelled through permanent 4WD, with a 0-62mph time of just 6.3s. The motors are powered by an 18.1kWh battery which when fully charged has an electric driving range of up to 47 miles and can run at speeds of up to 83mph.
This second generation NX takes the styling themes established with the brand's smaller UX crossover and interprets them into a slightly larger size, with various cues from the first generation NX model. Owners of the original car might notice and find familiarity with the complex side surfacing, the signature Lexus front grille and the 'kick up' around the rear C-pillar. There's a neat tailgate arrangement that sees the rear lamps adopt a slim wraparound signature over the rear bodywork. Most significantly, this MK2 NX is quite a lot larger than its predecessor. The overall length is now 4,660mm, 20mm more than before, making this car now only about 2cm shorter than an Audi Q5. This NX is now also 20mm wider and 5mm taller than before. Under the skin is the same TNGA-K chassis used in the Toyota RAV4. Inside, the cabin has been significantly updated, primarily with bigger screens which no longer operate using the much-criticised previous touchpad system. The standard centre screen offering - 'Lexus Link Connect' - is 9.8-inches in size. Alternatively, there's the top 14-inch 'Lexus Link Pro' set-up. Around the cabin, there's the brand latest 'Tazona' cockpit design with its high-quality materials and a dashboard that curves towards the driver's seat. Lexus has also introduced touch-sensitive buttons on the steering wheel. The back seat offers class competitive space for two adults. And there's a decently sized 521-litre boot.
Expect a starting price for the NX 350h self-charging AWD model of around £40,000 in base form, with prices up to around £55,000. The three equipment grades are base NX, 'F SPORT' and 'Takumi' and within these, there are various pack options you can specify. You'll be paying quite a lot more for an NX 450h+ plug-in model - in the £51,000-£61,000 bracket. You do at least get lots of equipment for that. Including the latest Lexus multimedia platform that meets customer priorities for fast, intuitive on-board connectivity. It introduces smart services, including a cloud-based navigation system, via the car's data connection module (DCM). This provides real-time journey information and traffic updates without using up the customer's data plan. There is also a new "Hey Lexus" assistant, which responds to natural voice commands, as if you are conversing with the car. This NX is Lexus's first model to feature the third generation of Lexus Safety System+, equipping it as standard with a comprehensive package of active safety and driver assistance features. These include further expansion of the brand's Pre-Collision System capabilities so that motorcycles and some solid objects in the car's path, such as trees, walls and utility poles, can be detected. It also gains a new function that identifies collision risks with oncoming traffic or crossing pedestrians when making a turn at a junction. With these developments, the Pre-Collision System can recognise and help to avoid 36 per cent more accident scenarios than previously.
Improvements made to this car's fourth generation self-charging Hybrid system have enabled CO2 emissions to drop by about 10% compared to the previous generation model, which gives the front driven NX 350h variant an emissions reading of up to 129g/km and up to 49.5mpg on the combined cycle. It's up to 130g/km and 47.0mpg for the 350h AWD. Lexus expects the NX 450h+ Plug-in variant to deliver CO2 emissions of up to 21g/km and up to 313.8mpg (yes, really). With the NX 450h+ PHEV variant, you can set charging times is by using the provided 'Lexus Link' app, which also allows you to set charging schedules according to when the vehicle is next expected to be driven - or when energy prices are low. Via this app, you can also defrost the windows and either pre-heat or pre-cool the cabin before you reach the car, so you won't have to spend climate system energy doing so once you're underway. The LexusLink app additionally allows NX 450h+ owners to check battery charge and driving range - and find public charging stations in the 'Lexus Charging Network' - there are about 160,000 of them across Europe, with around 30,000 of those in the UK. NX 450+ charging takes 2 hours 45 mins from a 7kW garage wallbox - or 8 hours 15 minutes from a domestic plug. As for after-sales, there's the usual three year vehicle warranty, which you can extend by a further year with every service at a Lexus dealer - up to a maximum of ten years. There's also five year/100,000 cover on drivetrain defects.
The NX has been a very significant car for Lexus, the first generation version generating over 170,000 European sales, most of them customers new to Lexus. This second generation model, 95% of which is completely new, is tasked with continuing that the brand's growth across Western markets. So Lexus needs the NX - and needs it to do well. For that to happen, this car has to offer more than the traditional attributes that spring to mind when you think of this brand, things like reliability, quality, refinement, technology and great dealer back up. Of course, the company's proud of the reputation it's built upon these virtues, but it's well aware that for this model to succeed against well-established rivals like those from BMW, Volvo, Mercedes and Audi, worthiness isn't enough. Lexus needs desirability. It needs design flair. It needs excitement. It needs..... an X-factor. Take a close look at this enhanced NX and increasingly, you find yourself agreeing that this is just what's on offer here. That might not necessarily mean you'll want one. It's obviously not intended for the few who regularly want to get their tyres muddy in this segment. Nor will it really suit family-minded driving enthusiasts. And the NX may still be a little too individual to sell in the kind of numbers its maker would like - but then that's all part of its appeal. It's not perfect but it's never boring. And in a market sector that's getting just that little bit stale, it's a breath of fresh air.