2023 Lexus NX 350h review: convincing upgrades
The NX is all-new and with a frugal, yet potent hybrid powertrain
2023 Lexus NX 350h Luxury review with The Road Beat
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
If you were to ask me what the ugliest new cars on the road were 10 short years ago, I would have promptly replied, "Lexus." From their psychotic creases and gaping grilles that correctly mimic the Predator movie villain, just about every car from Toyota's luxury brand were slightly hideous. Ask me the same question today, and Lexus isn't even in the same thought process due to beauties like the LC 500, IS 500, and now the NX crossover. In fact, all three of those models are among the prettiest in their respective classes.
Looks can sell - after all, why do you think models are hired for ads and general consumerism? And especially with some tasty colors on the NX, like the olive green and solar orange examples I tested, there's little doubting future sales success of the NX based on the hot looks alone. Affirming their place as premium products, they definitely look and exude a taste of expense that excites in ways few German cars can due to their restrained and mostly boring new design directives. After so many years of contempt towards that gaping grille, the designers have somehow massaged it to be less intrusive and nailed the proportions of the rest of the car to match. The resultant NX is a shape that's tidy and sharp, looking ever compact in age of bulbous flair; it has looks that ready to cut through the air like a katana. Nice.
I had the opportunity to drive both the NX 350h and the range-topping NX 450h+, and yes, the + sign is actually part of the official name. One is a hybrid model while the 450 is a plug-in hybrid with extra horsepower and nearly 40 miles of electric-only driving range when juiced up. If you're wondering which you should choose, I'll stop you right there and say the 350h is the better option given the significant price savings and better fuel economy when they both are drinking only gasoline. And to avoid confusion, the green car is the 350, and the orange car is the 450.
NX 350h's use a 2.5L inline-four bolstered by three electric motors and AWD for a total combined output of 240 horsepower. I have a strong hunch it's based on the RAV4 Hybrid's powertrain, yet the Lexus is good for 21 additional ponies here. If you were to drag race its Toyota brethren, there isn't much difference against the stop watch, but in normal use, I did find the NX 350h to feel more powerful and responsive than its lesser, pedestrian Toyota relative. Still, 0-60 MPH takes 7.5 seconds, a figure hardly worth shouting about when you consider a BMW X3, with its base 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder, gets there over a full second faster. Still, the hybrid powertrain is modern in operation and provides smooth and unhindered acceleration in day-to-day driving with zero apparent lag. The CVT transmission also does well in its mission to remain transparent. For fuel mileage, I averaged an outstanding 36 MPG during my week in the NX 350h.
Comfort was definitely a high priority in its design and I did find the NX to indeed be very comfortable, with suspension that successfully masks the impurities of the asphalt below well for civil cruising. What the NX doesn't do, though, is have any interest in corners, with an apparent laziness when you get aggressive with the wheel. While this does disappoint me, it must be understood that the target audience likely isn't wanting to take the NX to shred some gnar on canyon roads. The steering itself is fine, with likable weighting and responses, but any speed with an ounce of enthusiasm comes across as reluctant as the tires let go and squeal early. Aggressive traction and stability control intervention certainly doesn't help and prevents getting close to testing out the actual balance, lack thereof as understeer prevails. When I drove the Acura RDX in its sporting A Spec trim a year ago, I found a car that reveled in some freedom and got better the harder you drove it. BMW's offerings also do not fall apart when pushed, as has always been their trademark trait.
Most dramatic in change goes to the cabin, featuring a completely new layout not seen in any other Lexus yet. One of the first to receive the updated infotainment with a gargantuan 14" screen, this represents a vast leap and a half forward compared to the old system that was more reminiscent of a parasite infestation. What I didn't enjoy, though, was the lack of a physical home button for the screen as well as the digital, feedback-lacking controls for most of the climate control. Further, the temperature dials are easily mistaken for volume and do look gimmicky sticking out of the screen as they do with the random color highlight encircling them. Still, I like the creativity and the improvement verse the old models. There's a prominent piano black trim that looks nice, but be warned of potential fingerprint-magnet territory.
The cabin itself is crafted to typical Lexus standards and are benchmarks for luxury and quality due to the materials used throughout in this Luxury trim level NX. As with any modern Lexus, you get a sense of heft and substance wherever your gaze or touch lands, leaving little doubt to the longevity of the vehicle. In twenty years time even, and with well over 100,000 miles, I reckon this cabin will still look mightily similar and with few rattles. The seats are also quite comfortable to spend time in, and the wheel feels fantastic with its supple leather. Regarding size, I think this is a perfect size for a crossover, too, with enough room in the back seats when needed (though maybe not for long three hour-plus drives), and even a spacious-enough boot that is slightly hindered by the sloping lift gate. Despite only marginal dimensional increases over the small Lexus UX, this 183" long and 106" wheelbase NX does both appear and function as noticeably more spacious inside compared to the lacking UX.
However, some of my main gripes with the NX also come from the interior with some awkward new controls. For example, there are buttons that replace traditional latches for opening the doors on the inside. I find them to be somewhat of a novelty for now, as they don't always work like they should. If you push on the door at the same as pushing the little button, it might not open all the way. Rather, you have to squeeze the button on its own to pop the door, and then push to open. There is, however, a little emergency mechanical lever to also open it, but it's visible and not even hidden, so now you have two controls instead of just the one, and at that point why not just have a normal and nice feeling door metal handle. Also, on the outside, what looks likes a door handle is actually just that with no moving part, as you squeeze a control point on the inside. So it looks like a door handle, but it isn't a normal door handle. Why not fully commit and hide the handle altogether? From both inside and outside it comes across as a little half-baked, unwilling to commit to neither technology. They get better with more use, but I don't understand the point as it's a sideways step rather than one forward. Next to the shifter, you'll also a micro-sized parking brake activator that looks and operates like a window switch, except it's so small, stiff, and lacks leverage to actually engage. I've never complained about a parking brake before, but this Lexus has managed to do it.
The real question, perhaps, is how does the NX 350h compare to the NX 450h+: which you should choose and what are the advantages? Upgrading to the 450h+ does net you an additional 60 horsepower, dropping the 0-60MPH by nearly two full seconds, making for a quick vehicle. However, the handling and cornering abilities remain the same so it's almost too much oomph for the NX to handle properly. The increase in straight-line performance is appreciated, but it also just doesn't seem necessary as I had no qualms with the 350h in everyday driving to this regard.
You do gain almost 40 miles of electric driving range when fully charged, but for some this might not be viable due to lack of available charging, or with just how slow it charges when plugged into a normal outlet at home (figure about 1.5 miles of range per hour). Those with cheap energy and/or solar might find a use for it, but others might never bother to charge it. Surprisingly, where I did find the 450h+ to be lacking was in fuel economy, averaging 29 MPG during my week in a variety of restrained driving conditions. That number pales next to the excellent 36 I attained in the 350h, and so if you never have any charging aspirations, the 350h delivers substantially better efficiency.
Lastly, the largest obstacle of the 450h+ is the swollen price increase. At roughly an extra $8,000 when equipped like-for-like, there's no way its worth that much extra over the 350h. The loaded example I drove carried a sticker price of a shocking $62,780. Conversely, the relatively better equipped (upgraded stereo, power-folding and heated rear seats, and panoramic sunroof were optioned here that were absent on the 450h+) NX 350h I drove had an MSRP of $56,405. Further, you can't even buy an NX 450h+ for less than $58,000 whereas the NX 350h starts at about $45,000 for an entry-level version, a very alluring package and value considering the core quality offered. At over $60,000, the NX just doesn't deliver the chops that it should as an all-round package.
So, between these two, I would definitely wager for the NX 350h, happily saving nearly 10 grand in the process in exchange for the worse performance (that you mostly won't notice anyways), but better hybrid fuel economy. Is it the best in its class, though? Depends on what you value. Neither of these Lexus are fun cars to drive; They're very pleasant, but never fun. The looks are a highlight, and the interior is proper luxury, yet some of the controls that you use day-in, day-out can be fussy. There are many improvements to this new NX, with irritants like the infotainment being replaced, yet some new irritants have been introduced. As always, your mileage may vary; Maybe you'll love the new door handles or you never even use the parking brake.
I like the new NX a lot, for its hot looks and did enjoy casually hopping in each day to a quiet and comfortable cabin on the move while no German offering comes close to matching the NX 350h when it comes to fuel efficiency. Further, compared to the old NX, these are definitely what would be considered by many as convincing upgrades. Sacrifice the upgraded stereo (the stock one is still plenty fine), the power-folding and heated rear seats, and you'll have a pretty impressively luxury and highly economical crossover for just north of $50,000.
2023 Lexus NX 350h
As-tested price: $56,405
Pros: Tight, sharp looks; Excellent fuel economy; Quality cabin
Cons: Neither fast nor fun; Annoying touchpoints
2023 Lexus NX 450h+
As-tested price: $62,780
Pros: Quick plug-in hybrid; expensive looks and interior
Cons: Less efficient than 350h; annoying touchpoints; Never fun