A jack of all trades, but a master of none.
In the fiercely competitive world of compact luxury crossovers, automakers simply cannot rest on their laurels. Skip a beat and your fancy people-mover is quickly eclipsed by newer, fresher competitors that offer more of everything – more style, more luxury, more tech, you name it. This is where the 2021 Lexus NX 300 F-Sport finds itself.
And yet, we Canadians don’t seem to mind. By the end of the first quarter of this year, the NX was not only Lexus’ second best-selling model, but also among the top five best sellers in the segment as a whole. It’s also worth pointing out the NX has been around since 2015, its last major update was in 2018, and it has a face only a mother could love. What gives?
Perhaps it’s because the NX 300 is the textbook jack of all trades, master of none. It’s roomy, but not class-leading. It’s luxurious inside, but even lesser-priced crossovers feel more premium. The powertrain is punchy, smooth, and there’s a hybrid available, but it’ll hardly make your heart beat faster. It just works – well, for the most part, but we’ll get to that later.
You can spec the NX with one of two powertrains. Our particular tester is powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, good for a respectable 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. The electrified NX 300h swaps out the turbo-four in favour of a normally aspirated 2.5L four-cylinder hooked up to an electric motor and a battery pack, all good for a middling net system output of 194 hp. Gas NXes are hooked up to a six-speed automatic, while hybrid models are CVT-only. All-wheel-drive is standard fare in Canada.
Unless fuel economy is your top priority, the gas-powered NX is the superior choice. It’s punchy around town and has more than enough kick on the highway, making quick work of even the diciest on-ramps and 18-wheelers. The six-speed automatic might be lacking in gear count compared to some rivals, but who needs ‘boxes with eight, nine, or even 10 gears when six do the trick? It’s smart and well-matched to the NX 300; it kicks down quickly when you need it to, but it also fades into the background when you need to sit back and relax.
In fact, relaxing is probably what the NX 300 does best. It’s hardly a corner carver, but if you’re buying a Lexus SUV to clip apexes and test the limits of adhesion, you’re missing the point. There’s a bit more road noise than we expected, but the NX’s light steering, cushy suspension tuning, and generous tire sidewalls do an excellent job of soaking up bumps, potholes, and rough pavement.
Fuel economy is rated at 10.7L/100 kilometres in the city, 8.5 on the highway, and 9.8 combined. After a fairly even split of around-town and highway motoring, the trip computer settled at exactly 9.8, meeting the official combined rating. That’s not great, but it’s also not that bad, either. If you do most of your driving around town and don’t really care about passing power, the NX 300h and its 7.2 L/100 km city and 7.8 highway ratings might be a better fit for your needs.
Outside, the NX 300 wears Lexus’ corporate “spindle grille” styling up front; while the execution is questionably successful on other Lexus SUVs, the NX pulls it off – or maybe we’re just used to it by now. Spec one of the three F-Sport packages and you get a more aggressive-looking front end that may or may not resemble an angry Gundam fighter, as well as a laundry list of interior styling and equipment tweaks.
We can deal with the NX 300’s overly aggressive styling, simply whelming driving dynamics, and middling fuel economy, but where it really shows its age is inside. In all fairness, material quality is top-notch, everything feels solid, the upgraded seats exclusive to the F-Sport look and feel great, and the neat-looking metal accents on the dash and door panel look great. Oh, and the 14-speaker Mark Levinson sound system is excellent.
But as with every other brand-new Lexus you can buy today, the infotainment system is a huge detractor. Lexus calls it the Remote Touch Interface (RTI), but we actually call it something much meaner – the 10.3-inch display is easy to read and boasts crisp graphics, but it’s not a touchscreen. Instead, you control it via an overly sensitive touchpad on the centre console that requires taps or swipes. And because it’s so sensitive and finnicky, doing something as simple as changing the radio station takes your eyes (and attention) off the road for far too long. Best to set everything up before you hit the road, or have your passenger fiddle with the infotainment – even though there’s a solid chance they’ll hate it, too.
Oh, and if you yank out the palm rest for the touchpad, there’s a make-up mirror on the other side. Can’t fault Lexus for knowing their customer base, I guess. In addition to our quibbles over the infotainment, the layout over the centre stack shows the NX’s age, too. Don’t get us wrong, we’ll take physical switchgear over the fingerprint-and-dust-magnets that are touch panels any day of the week, but the NX’s centre stack is an explosion of buttons and knobs that’d really look more appropriate in 2011, rather than 2021.
Still, the cabin is spacious enough – you can stuff 500 litres worth of your stuff behind the rear seats, and that grows to 1,545 when you fold them. Headroom and legroom up front, as well as rear-seat legroom is generous, but passengers sitting behind you might feel a bit claustrophobic given the NX’s sloping roof, smallish windows, and black headliner.
The NX 300 starts at $44,600, but our F-Sport Series 3 tester tops out at a whopping $59,100 as-tested. For almost $60,000, you can do better: the Mercedes-Benz GLC is arguably the more luxurious choice; the BMW X3 is your best bet if you actually enjoy driving; the Volvo XC60 is probably the most stylish and frugal option, particularly if you opt for the T8. Hell, even a full-jam Mazda CX-5 Signature delivers nine-tenths of the NX’s experience at a fraction of the cost.
The 2021 Lexus NX 300 F-Sport exists in a weird grey zone – it needs an update, but given its strong sales figures, Canadians don’t seem to mind this jack of trades, master of none.