This compact luxury ute knows its audience
THE GOOD
  • Well-crafted interior
  • Acres of brand cachet
  • Rock-solid reliability and resale value forecasts
THE BAD
  • Styling is an acquired taste and refuses to mellow with age
  • Touchpad infotainment rivals stubborn goats for recalcitrance
  • Three letters: C-V-T
2021 Lexus NX 300h Review

There are plenty of moments in life when one needs to know their audience.

Pleading your case for a later curfew as a kid, for example, or speaking in public as an adult – or trying to justify buying more car parts at any age. Gauging what charms the person to whom you are speaking can be time well spent.

Lexus introduced the NX as an option for buyers seeking a small crossover carrying a prestigious badge. New for this year, the 2021 Lexus NX300h F Sport Blackline Edition brings a sporty edge to the hybrid-powered model for the first time. And doing so does nothing to tarnish its appeal to its intended audience. In fact, it even enhances it.

Styling: 7/10

Let’s make this clear from the start: Lexus has been pasting its spindle grille on its machines for the better part of a decade, evolving the look along the way with varying degrees of success. Current iterations have no bifurcating body-coloured bar, called a breakpoint in design parlance, meaning customers are greeted with an unbroken maw stretching from motor to macadam.

The F Sport package on our test vehicle brought a natty set of 18-inch wheels whose multifaceted spokes and inky coating drew compliments from the neighbours. Sharp sheet metal sculpting adds visual interest, while blue badge trim denotes the hybrid powertrain.

Practicality: 9/10

In theory, buyers should be considering crossovers for their usefulness, given their tiptoe stance and open cargo areas. The NX falls a bit flat with the latter, offering up just 476 L of cargo space aft of the second-row seats, a number so diminutive that your author had to triple-check its accuracy while typing this sentence. Other closely related family products measure as much as 43 mm (1.7 in) shorter yet have well more than double the cargo room. Customers would be wise to bring along some of their daily detritus, like hockey bags or golf clubs, while test driving an NX to ensure their life fits in this vehicle.

Elsewhere, a mail slot ledge just above the audio controls is a great place to rest a smartphone, and cupholders neatly flip out of an armrest for backseat urchins. We couldn’t help but note Lexus installed a removable mirror, like those found in a makeup bag, in one of the cubbies; this, along with a tiny gear selector, puts an exclamation point on the car’s target market.

Comfort: 9/10

No complaints are aimed at the front-row accommodations, where driver and passenger find a pair of exceedingly comfortable chairs providing heat and ventilation options. Even with a moonroof, headroom was more than ample for this 6-foot-6 author. Ditto for front legroom, but whatever chicanery robbed this crossover of some usable cargo space also nabbed a bit of rear legroom.

Materials and fit in the NX cabin are first rate, confirming why certain people use the term Lexus-like to describe a well-made vehicle. Easy-to-use buttons pepper the steering wheel, a tiller which features soft perforated leather on its heated sections. Lexus delivers on its promise of luxury.

Features: 9/10

As one would expect of any Lexus, the NX 300h is filled to the gunwales with standard kit, including handy items like a wiper de-icer and adaptive cruise control. The F Sport Blackline Edition package bundles niceties like a 10-speaker audio system, 10.3-inch infotainment screen, and built-in navigation. A power sunroof and tailgate, snazzy seats, and premium lighting are also part of the deal. Notably absent, however, is a wireless phone charger – a feature that’s standard in the 2021 Toyota Venza that rivals the NX for ride quality.

Astoundingly, one can increase engine noise by using a feature dubbed Active Sound Control, which tries to mimic the sound of an engine and shifting gears by playing audio through a speaker hidden behind the dashboard. However, actual engine effort and the simulated racket don’t always sync, causing a headache-inducing cacophony. Like a snooze button on a smoke alarm, it’s rather pointless.

User Friendliness: 7/10

Most infotainment systems already require a thick user manual, so some users may find the Lexus remote touch interface to have a sharp learning curve. Rather than a rotary dial, the NX has a square touchpad upon which one traces their finger, controlling a pointer on the infotainment screen. Much like the trackpad on an old IBM laptop, haptic feedback is delivered through the touchpad when the user lands on a selectable function. Most of the menus are different, however, leading to varying haptic points on the pad.

Lexus has wisely provided physical buttons for common items like heating and cooling. A quartet of rocker-style switches have a great tactile feel, while volume and tuning knobs are mounted low but within reach. A few controls were scattered around the interior, like the one for the heated steering wheel, which required a close examination of the area around the driver’s left knee.

Safety: 9/10

Lexus makes a lot of noise about its suite of driver aids, and with good reason. The latest version found here imbues the NX 300h with adaptive cruise control and lane keeping, not to mention various and sundry sensors that warn of impending doom. The NX can take evasive action if the driver has chosen to activate that functionality. The expected yaffle of airbags are on duty in case of calamity.

Power: 7/10

Under the hood of the 2021 Lexus NX 300h is the brand’s go-to hybrid powertrain that’s built around a gas-fired 2.5L four-cylinder working in concert with a trio of electric motors – two up front, one in the rear – and a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The rear motor provides gumption for all-wheel drive and, when combined with the 1.6-kWh battery pack under the back seat, partially explains – but does not excuse – the smallish rear space.

Thanks to unique power delivery properties of each motor and the engine, the NX 300h is endowed with just 197 net horsepower. If that doesn’t sound like a lot, well, it isn’t. Acceleration from a stop can generously be described as leisurely, though keeping adequate pace in traffic is not an arduous task.

Driving Feel: 7/10

At full throttle – think merging onto a busy highway – the gearless CVT pegs this powertrain at 6,000 rpm and keeps it there. It’s a noisy mannerism that’s out of lockstep with the dandy interior. But full throttle shenanigans are not this crossover’s mission. That tally includes providing a comfortable ride and cosseting passengers with acres of luxurious materials.

The powertrain floats seamlessly in and out of electric-only mode when it’s available, working like a dutiful butler quietly doing background tasks. The 1.6-kWh hybrid battery isn’t huge, and its reserves can be quickly depleted, but they are replenished by the NX’s regenerative systems – one of those electric motor generators up front, or the braking system. This reduces the amount of time its gasoline-powered engine is running, saving fuel.

Fuel Economy: 9/10

How much fuel was saved? We nearly matched the official city rating of 7.2 L/100 km published by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) in a week of mixed driving on high-friction winter tires. No quarter was given in terms of driving style, suggesting that kinder treatment of the accelerator pedal could result in even better returns at the pump.

Value: 7/10

Badge snobbery comes with a price. In this case, that price is just north of $60,000 before tax for what amounts to a compact all-wheel-drive crossover with a compromised cargo area and not enough power. However, the high-grade interior and care with which it is assembled do at least partially justify the NX’s sub-$50,000 starting price, for those willing to forgo the fancy F Sport package (there’s an even more expensive Executive pack that further adds to the poshness).

The Verdict

Drinking from the Lexus chalice has always been expensive. Only you can answer if the badge is worth the premium. With a head-of-class interior and gold-plated reputation, there’s no doubting the NX’s pedigree. That’s more than enough for some customers to pony up the cash.

There’s something to be said for a machine that knows its audience and skillfully uses a playbook of features to broadcast its mission with clear intent. In this, the 2021 Lexus NX 300h succeeds.

This compact luxury ute knows its audience 1/6/2021 6:30:00 AM

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.5L   Model Tested 2021 Lexus NX 300h F Sport Blackline Edition
Engine Cylinders I4, dual electric motors   Base Price $46,850
Peak Horsepower 154 hp gas engine only, 194 hp combined   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 152 lb-ft gas engine only   Destination Fee $2,095
Fuel Economy 7.2 / 7.9 / 7.5 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $60,295
Cargo Space 476 L / 1,520 L seats down  
Optional Equipment
$11,250 – F Sport Blackline Edition package (Power Sunroof, Heated Steering Wheel, Heated and Ventilated Front Seats, LED Headlamps, Blind Spot Monitor System, Lexus Navigation, Power Rear Door, 10.3" Display Screen, 10 Speakers, F SPORT Nuluxe Seats, Automatic Rain Sensing Wipers, Power Adjustable Heated and Auto Dimming Side View Mirrors, Auto Dimming Rear View Mirror, Steering Wheel Paddle Shifters, Rear Cross Traffic Brake, and other minor equipment), $11,250