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By BOB GRITZINGER | Contributing Editor
Toyota may have finally built the perfect hybrid, but you’ll have to opt up into the Japanese automaker’s luxury brand, and into a crossover, to buy it.
The 2015 Lexus NX 300h combines everything we love about the original crossover, the Lexus RX, with the kind of sensible fuel economy we love in the Prius gas-electric hybrid—all at a more reasonable price point than the higher-end RX.
We tested the NX 300h on everything from around-town errands to some longer drives and found it quite capable and adept at handling nearly every task one might expect to throw at a five-seat utility vehicle. Though the cargo area seems a bit pinched at just 16.8 cubic feet, the split-folding rear seats easily drop to create 53.7-cubic feet of hauling room. Seating was perfect for four, and five could ride reasonably comfortably in a pinch, if not for long distances.
Functionality and ease of use were evident, with thoughtful touches like illumination inside the center console storage bin to not only assist with finding items placed there but also to aid in easily spotting outlets to readily plug in today’s myriad electronic carry-ons.
The center stack was functional, with an elegant analog clock in the center to offset all the gadgetry. We’re not totally at home with Lexus’ highly reactive touchpad interface, but we can see where it could be mastered with a little more practice. Lexus tops it off with plenty of upscale trim, stitched leather and soft-touch materials.
The car offers tomb-like quiet, combined with solid fuel economy. The NX 300h is EPA-rated at 33 mpg city, 30 highway and 32 combined; we recorded 29.2 mpg in our mixed driving. That’s significantly better than the sibling NX 200t, with a 2.0-liter turbo four that is rated at 21 mpg city/28 highway/24 combined. (Note that EPA numbers for hybrids, unlike other vehicles, tend to reflect better city fuel economy vs. highway, due to fuel savings from frequent stop-start operation in city driving, as well as some electric-only propulsion.)
While one might buy a Lexus for its amenities and legendary shut-out-the-world silent ride, one buys a Toyota hybrid for its guaranteed fuel economy—and the NX 300h delivers on both.
But there’s one more aspect that the NX 300h provides that no Prius can match: superior performance. Though only powered by a 154-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, the added three electric motors (two front, one rear) juice horsepower up to 194 and provide considerable (yet unspecified) oomph to the little four’s 152-lb-ft of torque.
The powertrain uses a continuously variable transmission, which would normally feel dull or allow the engine to whine, but the NX’s CVT is tuned for terrific response, with instant acceleration from a stop, or when needed for passing or lane changes at higher speeds. Our test model also featured E-Four all-wheel drive, which adds an electric motor to power the rear axle and controls to assist in carving corners in addition to aiding traction at launch or whenever the going gets slick.
Then there’s the electronics package, the best of which is the NX’s Pre-Collision System with All-Speed Cruise Control. This $900 option is worth every penny when it comes to alerting and protecting against front-end collisions, as well as actively managing speed control in all types of driving.
We found the NX system excellent in picking up and pacing cars ahead of us on the road, good at maintaining a safe following distance, and highly reliable in bringing the vehicle to a halt when cars ahead stopped. Lexus says the system’s All Speed Following Function can detect a stopped vehicle below 37 mph, but driver intervention is required when closing on vehicles at a higher speed. The system also seems confounded and loses its way when a vehicle ahead at a stop makes a turn.
Finally, what would a Toyota hybrid be without total electric operation? Think of it as “golf cart” mode, wherein the NX runs pure electric motor power for short distances at speeds below 30 mph (and always when in reverse). With a light foot, we were able to drive more than a mile, even up some steep inclines, all in stealthy EV mode.
The Lexus NX 300h represents the pinnacle of Toyota’s hybrid design, with a multi-motor powertrain delivering seriously amped performance in a super-quiet and luxurious crossover package. It’s a good value compared to its pricier sibling, the RX, at a $42,235 base price, $52,013 as tested with a load of luxury, navigation and technology options.
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