Shrouded in mystery from the very first car that landed on Indian soil many moons ago, the Lexus brand has always been something of a unicorn.
With the brand finally coming to India officially, not much has changed and it’s still quite a thrill to spot one on the roads today. So when the call came to “check out” the NX300h, I ignored the fact that this isn’t really a new car and jumped at the opportunity to experience “takumi” for myself. Known to be more fastidious in their attention to detail than a Michelin-starred sushi chef, Lexus engineers spent years perfecting aerodynamics, ergonomics, design details and power-to-efficiency ratio. The NX300h might be their entry-level SUV but it wears the green credentials with pride (and two electric motors).
Go-zilla, meet Hulk
Its striking face is unmistakable. The huge spindle-shaped grille with sharply cut LED headlights and DRLs create a futuristic vision that is undeniably attractive. The muscular shoulders and the chunky rear end with taillights that extend out of the bodywork look similarly distinct. If their intention was to garner second looks, they’ve succeeded. Even the 18in wheels are some of the best designs on any SUV this side of an Urus. It’s all going well for the NX300h so far. But then you get inside and suddenly your mind is trying to catch up with the last 30 seconds of exterior design language. Somehow, it feels like two different teams worked on the interior and exterior design of the NX300h and they were from different time periods too! Compared to the futurism of the exterior surfaces, the cabin is a mix of 90’s looking gauges, screens and indicator lights. Even the gear lever for the 6-speed CVT looks like it has been plucked out of a Toyota Corolla.
There’s no room for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto on the 10.3in infotainment screen, which itself looks as old as Yoda. Much has been said about the quirky haptic touchpad that is used to control the system and yes, most of it is true. It’s over-sensitive, hard to use on the move and lacks the outright resolution of newer cars costing a third of its sticker price. You do get a couple of USB ports and a 3.5mm mini-jack to connect your “iPod” (that’s how old the system is), Bluetooth and Qi-wireless charging pad in the armrest. Thankfully, the NX300h gets some cool tech by way of a crisp HUD that shows speed, battery charge level and rev counter with hotkeys to access it quickly. Even the 360-degree surround-view camera does a good job of putting eyes around the car along with sensors that accurately warn of obstacles.
Then there is the 14-speaker Mark Levinson audio system that by itself is as rare as spotting a Lexus on our roads and comes with a similar reputation. It does a fantastic job of letting the music just play through without getting in the way and the surround sound effect is measured well without being overdone. Although it is a tad brittle on the top end, the overall tonal balance is enjoyable, just not as refined or polished as the Burmester on modern Mercs or as detailed and precise as the Bowers & Wilkins on Volvos but better than everything else.
One of the biggest features, quite literally, on the Lexus NX300h is its massive moonroof though. It spans the entire length of the roof and although it remains fixed, the view out on a clear night or a misty morning is simply epic. It coaxes you to step in the backseat and soak in the elements, although the nature of my job allowed me no such pleasures.
No battery anxiety here
The ‘h’ suffix in the NX300 might miss many potential buyers, but this has been a mainstay for Lexus in its transition from ICE to full EV for many years now and it works..well..it just works. Seamlessly transferring drive to the 4-cylinder petrol engine after initial start-up, the Lexus Hybrid Drive has been honed to perfection in this regard. With a light foot, you can drive away in full EV mode, silently and cleanly. The moment the system senses your foot applying more pressure on the accelerator pedal, it transitions to petrol power without you even realizing it. Even its 4WD system uses help from separate electric motors for the front and rear axle to distribute power intelligently across the wheels.
For everyday use, this works great in stop-go traffic where the NX300h always remains in EV mode, eliminating emissions and noise as long as you’re just crawling. There’s also that spike you get when you mash your foot down from a standstill and feel the assistance from the battery kick in. Lexus has ensured that this is the smoothest way of moving away from fossil fuels to batteries since the system needs no charging. All the charge it needs, it gets via brake regeneration and kinetic energy while driving. Of course, this is also the reason there is a limit to how much you can drive on battery power alone, but it seems to be just enough to get you intrigued about a completely clean future. It’s the 6-step CVT transmission though that blunts ultimate performance if you’re looking for a thrilling drive. The paddle shifters don’t offer much sense of control as the revs don’t drop while up or downshifting as rapidly as you’re used to. The lack of any real exhaust note besides the whine also robs it of an emotional connect, although on the F-Sport variant, you do get the option of playing back a throaty engine sound from the speakers in the cabin! What you can expect is miles and miles of comfortable cruising, thanks to the superbly crafted seats that also offer cooling and heating and a great driving position to spend hours in.
A tidy handler, it changes direction rapidly but the steering can feel a bit wooden, with artificial weight becoming apparent in the different drive modes. The ride is comfortable at high speeds, soaking up bumps beautifully even on its sharp-looking 18in wheels. Variable dampers ensure not much upsets the NX300h, and very rarely do you feel tossed about in the cabin. Overall, the Lexus lives up to its image of being a refined, if a little quirky alternative to German luxury. Things like a removable vanity mirror in the middle of the centre console remind you that is not your typical take on high-end while the dated MID between the cluster gauges and the key-fob that looks like it came from a 2015 Renault Duster are puzzling at this price point. So who is it for then? Well, if you want to break the norm with visual spectacle and brand image, it’s hard to argue, the Lexus NX300h looks incredible. But at the same time, there are more accomplished and more up-to-date options for the same sticker price, if not with hybrid powertrains.