2015 Lexus NX 300h front three-quarter

With so much hullabaloo being made over the first gasoline turbocharged engine produced by Lexus, it's easy to forget that there's another option for those who'd rather (barely) hear the whirring of electric motors than the high-pitched whizzing of turbos. That's too bad, because we think the NX 300h is one of the more interesting hybrids on the market, due in large part to its innovative all-wheel-drive system and relatively sporty driving dynamics. We spent several hours with the brand-new hybrid crossover from Lexus, and we came away with plenty to talk about.

Driving Notes
  • Of course, the big thing that differentiates the 300h from the 200t is its drivetrain. In place of the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder sits a 2.5-liter gasoline engine that runs exclusively on the Atkinson cycle to save fuel, augmented by a pair of electric motors and mated to an electronic continuously variable transmission. Lexus is no stranger to hybrids, buoyed by parent company Toyota's expertise, and the basic setup used by the NX 300h is a well-known quantity shared with the ES 300h.
  • First thing's first: Lexus estimates that the NX 300h will score 35 miles per gallon in the city, 31 on the highway and 33 combined with front-wheel drive, and 33/30/32 with the brand's new E-Four all-wheel drive. That's quite a bit better than the 200t AWD's 21/28/24 figures, and it ought to put it at the very front of the luxury compact crossover market, though it will be engaged in a who-can-sip less battle with diesel entrants from the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
  • There is no mechanical connection between the front-mounted engine/motor combination and the rear wheels on AWD models. Instead, this is a through-the-road system, wherein a completely separate motor/generator unit, rated at a peak of 67 horsepower, is housed in a unique transaxle that sends power to the rear wheels as needed. We didn't find many areas to test this setup up in Whistler, British Columbia, outside of a gravel parking lot, but that was enough to confirm that power does indeed flow to the rear when called upon, as it isn't all that apparent under normal dry driving conditions.
  • Interestingly, Lexus tells us that electricity from the battery pack is diverted from the front-mounted electric motors to the rear motor when slip is detected from the front wheels. In this way, the all-wheel-drive system is used only when called upon, thereby saving fuel, and total system horsepower remains unchanged. The majority of the time, the rear-mounted motor sits idle or is used to recapture more energy during periods of regenerative braking.
  • Yaw-rate sensors allow the rear motor/generator unit to be used as a handling aid, similar to the Dynamic Torque Control system used in the turbocharged NX 200t.
  • A total of 204 individual nickel-metal hydride cells are used in the NX 300h, split into two packs that weigh 44 pounds each. The units are mounted on either side of the rear seat, close to the car's center of gravity, says Lexus.
  • The P314 transmission is new for the NX, and it brings with it the brand's first use of a kick-down feature in a hybrid. As its name implies, the kick-down is called upon when the driver's right foot mashes down on the throttle, and it basically just forces the transmission into full-speed-ahead behavior.
  • Kick-down or not, nobody is going to mistake the 2015 NX 300h for its turbocharged sibling when it comes to all-out acceleration. Whereas Lexus claims a 0-60 run of 7.0 seconds for the AWD 200t, the same task takes the 300h about 9.0 seconds. In other words, the hybrid is very much tuned for efficiency over maximum performance.
  • Still, driving the NX 300h can be fun. Lexus has included steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters that mimic the ratios of a standard automatic transmission, like that of the 200t. These allow drivers to hold the hybrid's engine at predetermined rev points, providing quicker response on curvy roads, uphill and downhill grades, or anywhere else its pilot deems their use desirable. We used them extensively, and they work fine.
  • Maximum fuel savings can be found using the Eco driving mode, which dulls the CUV's responses in exchange for improved consumption. There's also an EV Mode button that allows the NX 300h to run using electricity only at speeds up to 25 miles per hour for as much as half a mile. Again, we tested it, and it works, so long as there's sufficient charge in the battery.
  • Besides the reduction in outright accelerative performance and a corresponding increase in fuel efficiency, the NX 300h driver isn't asked to give up much of the full NX experience. Handling seemed roughly equivalent between the two models, both were quiet and composed out on the road. The biggest hybrid-related gripe is the brakes, which feel awkward in certain stopping situations due to the fight between regen and the standard disc brakes.
  • The F Sport package can be had along with the hybrid, and this is the way we think we'd order an NX, if we were so inclined to buy one. We prefer the looks of the F Sport over the standard bodywork (non-F Sport seen above), and we're suckers for the cool stitching of the revised interior in that model, too. We honestly didn't find the 2.0 turbo all that convincing as an enthusiast-grade engine – the BMW X3 28i offers a superior driving experience when going quickly is of paramount concern – and the Hybrid's Sport Mode, combined with its paddle shifters, offered us just enough driving enjoyment to make the Hybrid F Sport with E-Four AWD our personal NX of choice. Plus, lowered gas bills leaves more money for other enjoyable endeavors, right?
  • That said, remember: Your mileage will most definitely vary, and the quirks of a hybrid powertrain aren't to everyone's tastes. Test drive 'em both, we say, if you're in the market for an entry-level luxury crossover, but don't forget that this is a crowded segment with a bevy of compelling options from the US, Europe and Japan.