2021 Lexus NX 300 F Sport Review
Lexus' small utility vehicle has a hidden talent awaiting emergence.
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
I went into my week with the NX 300 carrying low expectations. After all, it's just another corporate utility vehicle/crossover from a big player that's designed to appeal to anyone. The best way to appeal to a mass audience, unfortunately, happens to mean ramping up the level of boringness. After the first drive, I thought the bouncer had limited capacity early. It took a little deeper digging to have the party opened up to its real max capacity. Another important question is whether adding 'F Sport' to the name is another boardroom marketing gimmick, or if this NX is capable of producing something special behind the wheel.
You know what is not boring on first impression? The looks. When Lexus first debuted the large, gaping grille years ago, I thought it was hideous on every car that met its fate. At the same time, they had to be commended for not conforming and doing something different, which is boldly un-corporate. Oh, how the times have changed. I happen to now like the aggressive nature of it as it has been reworked and with complimenting sharp body lines. So yes, I like the way this Lexus looks with the purposeful stance and growling demeanor; I'll even call it striking in the best sense of the word. The paint this example is wearing is called Atomic Silver, and it's probably my favorite silver on any car at any price right now. It has so much character to it and sometimes the reflections shine back like chrome.
Inside, the creativity continues to the tune of red leather seats. Okay, the overall design of the interior is a bit too...practical, but it's easy to spice things up and show intent. Case in point: red leather. It's a bit over the top for most, but vehicles in this class need a little over the top-ness in order to stand out in such a crowded segment. Now to be fair, the red probably isn't for anyone, but the fact it's offered is a revelation and statement of intent from Lexus to do what others are afraid of. The overall quality and materials used are also a massive step up from the recent RAV4 Limited I tried, too.
Otherwise, the ergonomics are mostly fantastic with easy to reach and operate air conditioning controls that are wonderfully close to 3 o'clock on the steering wheel. The classic Lexus satnav nightmare continues, but with a better placed 'mousepad' for control than the last Lexus I tried (The LC 500 was on the right side of the shifter, and this NX is on the left). After some use over the past few Lexus test vehicles, I'm starting to finally get the hang of it. The one incredibly questionable button is the location of the heated steering wheel switch. It's as far as any button can be from the steering wheel, and the wrong side of the dash. It should be on the wheel, or by the heated seats below the nav screen. However, it's above your left knee. Did they forget about it? The other item that struck me odd was the relatively flimsy gear knob; Would like something with more heft and less play to match the rest of the solid build.
F Sport bucket seats provide great comfort and the support where needed. The leather is also shockingly soft. I did find the head restraint was slightly too far forward, but the first time placing my bottom on the seat was like sinking into your favorite recliner at home. Also impressive was the lack of noise on the freeway. You can talk at whispers and hear anyone in the car, representing a remarkable improvement over that same Toyota RAV4 Limited I had just prior. Rear seats had plenty of space for anyone, even in this 'compact' crossover. Cars seem to be growing larger with each passing year and this Lexus is no exception. For numbers, this 'compact' NX measures 183 inches long by 73 wide. A 10 year old 'mid size' Lexus RX 350 is 188 by 74, so the new compact is virtually the same size as the older mid size. Rear cargo is also more than enough for any of your daily doings.
For propulsion, NX models are available in hybrid or conventional combustion. This NX 300 features a 2.0L inline-four cylinder aided by turbocharging to boost horsepower to 235 and 258 pounds of torque. This gives enough motivation for a seven second run to 60 MPH while 50-70 MPH takes 3.8 seconds for passing maneuvers. For the asking price of the NX, this performance, while adequate, is not a shining feature in the slightest. German alternatives from BMW and Mercedes will reach 60 from rest a second faster even with similarly spec'd engines. For bopping around in the real world at least, the Lexus never needs extra power, moving with ease in your day's journeys.
Fuel economy did disappoint on the other hand, with freeway mileage reading 27 and then just 22 overall. For an engine of this size and of its more modest performance figures, I would hope for at least 25 overall and over 30 on the highway. The biggest blame for these metrics could be the presence of an older six-speed automatic that necessitates higher engine speed (RPM) at higher cruising speeds.
So now, this is where things get rather intriguing because I didn't have the highest hopes for the Lexus after my first couple drives to just work and back. On a return trip, I used a favorite freeway exit to take the long way home, which happens to be a wonderfully winding b-road with a 55 MPH speed limit. So I move the delicate gearstick into +/- mode (like most passenger cars, the Lexus is also backwards aka wrong in terms of which direction is upshift and downshift), move the driving mode into sport+, pull the downshift paddle and nail the throttle.
After a brief pause of customary turbo lag, I'm greeted by a new guttural intake growl and a louder exhaust courtesy of the sport+ switch. I know the sound is likely all fake, but it's a rather good and purposeful sound; trust me, you'd like it. The boost hits and you ride the midrange punch all the way up to 6,000 RPM where the exhaust morphs into a rasping howl. I thought this was a dressed up boring family car? Not from the noises emitted it ain't. For a little four-banger engine, it's got mightily impressive aural qualities. The transmission might only consist of six forward gears instead of the usual standard eight these days, but it shifts smoothly and works well even if it isn't super snappy to manual responses.
The steering wheel is wrapped in a perforated leather and is thick in size. In the hands, it just doesn't good, but it feels right. I also like that the steering is not hyper-sensitive, being more relaxed in nature with a slower ratio, which allows for easier highway driving and more adjustment when the going gets curvy. At the first bend, the wheel weights up just as I'd like to and requires a tad more input, but I like giving the extra input. There's no feel, yet I find the effort communicative in its own way. Anyways, the nose changes direction, and with throttle applied, the NX trounces through with ease and composure. Cornering feels impressively flat from the driver's seat, made all the more impressive given the forgiving ride quality over all bumps.
I continue for the next few miles playing with the paddle shifters, relishing in the boosted power available in the workable 3-4,000 RPM range, and the Lexus' ability to tackle corners in ways that other practical cars wouldn't dream of. Brakes also had a firm and confident feel to them. On this road, especially with the imperfections in the surface, there isn't much that this Lexus couldn't keep up with. Everything just seems to flow together so nicely and with ease - I was having a hoot to say the least. Any concerns of this being a woeful wallow were nixed in just five short miles.
There is one pronounced drawback, though: torquesteer. The NX 300 is available in either standard front-wheel drive or optional all-wheel drive. You can guess which I had...In my opinion, the F Sport should be made only available with all-wheel drive. Sure, the torquesteer did make for a somewhat more lively driving experience as you wrestle the delivered boost, but a $50,000 car shouldn't have torquesteer. On a sharply tightening freeway onramp, I did run into power-on understeer as the front tires were overwhelmed. So the simple answer then is to spec all-wheel drive with yours for an extra $1,400. Also, it must be said that the NX 300 F Sports starts at only $40,000, as this loaded tester came with ten grand in options that you may or may not want.
My time with the NX 300 F Sport first started with skepticism followed by enjoyment after discovering the talents hidden beneath its appealingly corporate ambitions. Backroads confirmed that the F Sport badging is indeed earned, I now can only imagine what a real 'F' NX would be like. With a few compromises made to everyday comfort, including some sticky summer tires, a firmed-up suspension and, more importantly, at least 300 horsepower and 300 pounds of torque, it would make this an evermore beguiling machine and help increase the desirability of the 'F' badge.
I like the Lexus' breadth of ability and the way it can act as the comfy cruiser or bomb down canyon runs at your desire; there are not many other small SUVs that can do that short of something with an AMG, M, or Audi S badge. Yet compared to my memory of the last X3 30i I drove, the Lexus has it beat for involvement and enjoyment behind the wheel, and with more composure through corners. The price isn't exactly the value play that I hoped for at the asking price fully-equipped, but the build quality and the way the Lexus drives certainly does leave a lasting impression. Just make sure you get the all-wheel drive model. Oh, and Lexus, how about an F Sport model with more power, eh? Get 300 ponies in the stable and then the Germans will be in real trouble.
2021 NX 300 F Sport
Price As-Tested: $50,215
The Road Beat Rating: 4/5
Pros: Snazzy styling, on-road dynamics
Cons: Could use more power, torquesteer
Verdict: A striking, dual-faceted alternative in the small SUV section