2018 Lexus NX300 F Sport Review: Bigger (and Better) Than You Might Think

Don't look now, but the aggressive-looking, chill-driving Lexus has become one of America's most popular luxury SUVs.  

Like Glenn Close’s frizzy-haired provocateur in Fatal Attraction, Lexus refuses to be ignored. The Toyota luxury brand, whose designs were once like Xanax in warm milk, has been busting out a knife-edged, spindle-grilled styling attack that’s demanding the attention of many a shopper. The look doesn’t always work, yet it seems to be working: Lexus's newer, most-aggressively styled models are receiving a warm showroom welcome, and not just the midsize RX crossover that’s the brand’s lifeblood: Sales of the all-new LS, an extroverted flagship sedan, are up 128 percent so far in 2018, offsetting declines for other traditional car models like the ES and IS sedans and RC coupe.

The Lexus NX is another: In sneaky fashion, the NX has steadily become one of America’s most popular, compact luxury crossovers. The outstanding Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class, riding huge momentum—it’s up another 78 percent in 2018—now leads that field by a good margin, with 28,223 sales through May. But with 23,810 sold in 2018, the NX is closing in on the stalwart Audi Q5 (with 24,223) for second place in that hyper-competitive class. And the Lexus is easily outselling BMW’s new X3 and the Acura RDX, though Acura’s lavishly redesigned 2019 version is just entering showrooms, so I’d expect a nice RDX sales jolt over the next year.

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NX 300 brings 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque from a 2.0-liter turbo four

What explains the NX’s success? Good value, for one, with the NX300 starting from $37,180. My week behind the wheel of a shockingly-bright NX300—whose Ultrasonic Mica Blue paint drew an almost embarrassing outpouring of compliments from New Yorkers—reminded me of an automotive truism, one that rings especially true after the torrential blast of high-performance SUVs I’ve recently tested, including the Lamborghini Urus and Alfa Romeo Stelvio: The vast majority of car shoppers, especially in the SUV space, aren’t focused on performance. Give them a stylish cabin, the latest gadgets, peaceful road manners, and a reputation for trouble-free operation, and that SUV can close the deal. 

Oh, and cupholders. People love cupholders.

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The style isn't for everyone, but the NX stands out in a sea of blander crossovers. 

From its angry-bird squint to a body that appears to have been carved by a chain-sawing lumberjack, the NX is one of the most extroverted small SUVs around. Lexus’s larger, more-baroque RX still gives me the willies, but God help me, I’m starting to see the NX’s visual appeal. The tech-stuffed interior, in contrast, isn’t at all controversial—just luxurious, a thickly sculpted layer cake built from evidently good ingredients.

For 2018, the NX’s mid-cycle refresh brings a name change for the gasoline-only version; it's now the NX300, rather than the NX200t. The hybrid is still dubbed the NX300h, and it delivers 33 mpg in the city and 30 on the highway by using the powertrain as the Toyota RAV4 hybrid: a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and an electric motor, with a total 194 horsepower. (The Lexus shares its transverse-engine layout and wheelbase with the Toyota, but not much else, and the cars certainly look and drive nothing alike). The NX300 consumes significantly more fuel than the hybrid at 22/28 mpg in AWD trim, or 22/27 mpg for the AWD F Sport model I tested. So the government figures you’ll spend an extra $800 a year in gasoline, with a $2,200 annual fuel bill versus $1,400 for the hybrid. 

The NX300h (offered only with AWD) is also a square deal by hybrid standards, with a $39,530 base price that’s a $2,390 premium over the non-hybrid AWD model. In other words, the NX 300h should pay back its hybrid price premium in just three years, at which point drivers will start pocketing that $800 in annual fuel savings.

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Clint Eastwood might approve of the Lexus's squint

The 300h’s downside is that tepid hybrid powertrain—including a continuously variable transmission—which also boosts curb weight to nearly 4,200 pounds. It’s quicker than a Prius, but not by much, managing the 0-60 mile-per-hour stroll in about 9.2 seconds. If you’re willing to spend more at the pump, the NX300’s payback is a reasonable 6.9-second squirt to 60 mph, thanks to 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet from a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four. It’s a spunky little engine, despite a short 6,000-rpm redline, with an endearing exhaust rasp and very little turbo lag. That twin-scroll, direct-injection four can adjust cam phasing on the fly, switching between the Otto and Atkinson cycles to save fuel. Where the Mercedes GLC-Class brings a nine-speed transmission and the Audi Q5 and BMW X3 have eight, the NX300 sticks with a six-speed automatic. Still, it beats the hybrid’s drowsy CVT, even without the paddle shifters and heated, leather-trimmed sport steering wheel that were part of my tester’s F Sport package.

For your $2,400, that F Sport package also throws in larger 18-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels with all-season or summer tires, a firmer suspension, black exterior mirrors, fog and driving lamps, metallic interior trim, aluminum pedals, door scuff plates, cabin noise cancellation, and sport seats. Those seats, with their generous shoulder-to-hip bolstering, are an NX highlight: They’re among the best, most-supportive chairs in the class, here rendered in bright Circuit Red synthetic leather that I could have sworn was the real thing. (Genuine cowhide is available in two of the Lexus’s five interior color choices). Lexus says the supple “NuLuxe” material weighs half as much as leather, and produces 65 percent fewer CO2 emissions during its manufacture.

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Enveloping sport seats are an F Sport highlight

The NX’s optional cloud-based, split-screen navigation system brings with it a bigger 10.3-inch touchscreen. The Lexus Enform app system is standard, along with the Lexus Safety System, which brings adaptive cruise control, a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with lane-keeping assist and adaptive high-beam headlamps. Lexus has finally added optional wi-fi to its lineup; a blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic assist also costs extra.

The brand’s notorious Remote Touchpad infotainment system has become slightly less distracting, thanks to a bigger touchpad and simpler access to submenus. Annoyances do remain, including a satellite radio preset list that shows only the station number rather than the station name itself. (Aside from Howard Stern at SiriusXM 100, I can’t associate a single satellite station with its number.) Some center stack controls are also fussy, such as the tiny metal wafers used to adjust climate settings. But many buyers will focus on the bigger picture of the NX: a rock-solid structure, cushy ride, and calm interior.

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Interior is satisfyingly solid and rich, especially in an SUV that starts from barely $37,000. 

I’d be fine with the chill performance vibe; it’s a Lexus, not a Lamborghini. But the F Sport package did raise some performance expectations that the NX couldn’t meet. Its “F”-ing teases included slightly firmer springs and adaptive dampers, with sporty driver-selectable modes. Flashy come-ons included digital g-force and turbo boost displays in the instrument panel. Yet this NX F Sport turns out to be “sporty” in the manner of a certain Spice Girl, more about the form-fitting gym outfit than any real athleticism. The NX’s electric steering feels up for some fun, and this SUV turns in eagerly, but the body doesn’t follow suit; there’s excess body roll in corners, and it dives under hard braking. As in too many Lexuses, a spongy brake pedal requires more travel than you expect to stop within a given distance. Ultimately, the F Sport delivers little of the sophisticated, engaging feel that made the likes of the Lexus LC coupe such a revelation

The paddle-shifted transmission is a smooth helper, however. That said, with only six speeds, the gearing itself is a mite tall. Again, some owners might prefer an eight- or nine-speed with a wider spread to keep revs tamped down and the engine in its sweet spot.

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There's a hybrid NX, too, which manages a thrifty 33/30 mpg in city and highway

A word about accommodations. Some reviewers keep lumping the NX into the subcompact class with the BMW X1, Audi Q3, and Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class, but they need to recheck their tape measures: The Lexus may be on the small side for a compact SUV, but it’s decisively larger than any subcompact. It’s nearly a foot longer than either the Q3 or GLA, for chrissakes. In fact, the NX is just 0.6 inches shorter than a Mercedes GLC-Class, and 0.9 inches shy of the Audi Q5. The Lexus’s sole dimensional handicap is its short 104.7-inch wheelbase, which trails the Audi by 6.3 inches and the super-stretch Mercedes by more than eight. Lexus’s midsize RX is also roughly a foot longer than those Germans, so it’s clear that the NX represents their compact entry. (Clarity will arrive with Lexus’ true cocktail shrimp, the UX, which will be the fifth crossover SUV for the brand.)

One NX advantage is that it’s priced closer to those subcompact luxury models. On the flip side, one disadvantage is less cargo space versus its long-wheelbase rivals, especially behind the second row. The NX’s 18 cubic feet nearly matches the Mercedes with 19.4, but it’s easily bested by the Audi’s 26.8 cubes and the BMW X3’s class-leading 28.7. Still, the Lexus’s front and back seats feel as roomy as its rivals’—including just 1.2 inches less rear legroom than the Benz—and the cabin is commendably packaged, considering the tidy exterior footprint. The NX’s split folding rear seats also offer a power-folding/reclining option, which Lexus says is a class first.

Starting from $40,970, my NX300 F Sport AWD rose to a shade over $49,000 with a generous sprinkling of options. That’s several thousand dollars less than a comparably equipped Mercedes, Audi, or BMW. And the Lexus’s luxury and technology are fully on par with those competitors, even if the handling is not. As NX sales are proving, when Americans are choosing the SUV players, a lack of athleticism rarely gets one kicked off the squad.

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence@thedrive.com.