Lexus and the Holy Grail | PH Footnote

Perfection is an unknown quantity in production cars. Unless you ask a mate, of course…

By John Howell / Thursday, 15 December 2022 / Loading comments

A mate of mine is a car photographer. He’s called Will, and he was running a Lexus NX 450+ as a long-termer. Now, Will has a habit of moaning about every car he ever has. He knows he does it, and it’s become a long-standing joke to rib him about it.

But seriously, he could have the most reliable, best handling, most comfortable, quietest, and fastest car this world – or any other world – has ever seen, and he’d find something. A hole. That’s not a description of him, by the way; he’s actually a nice fella. I mean, he’d find a hole – but probably more than one – to pick.

Our conversations usually go something like this:

“What’s wrong with this one?”
“Ashtray’s too small.”
“But mate, you don’t smoke?”
“That’s not the point; what if I decide to start?”
“You are impossible.”
“And you’re an idiot.”

Anyway, we were both in Wales recently, so Will popped over in the NX and we went out for a beer. He drove, so obviously I had to ask the question:

“What’s up with the NX, then?”
“Nothing, I like it.”

If I hadn’t been sitting already, someone would’ve been picking me up off the floor at that point. I sat staring at him for a moment, the disbelief writ large across my face while my mouth hung open like a guppy fish.

“That’s not possible,” I said eventually,
“There must be something?”
“Nah, I think it’s alright.”

Well, the next day I was straight on the phone to Lexus:

“Can I try one of your philosopher’s stones, please?”  
“Sorry, our what?”
“Never mind, I just need to try and NX”

And a few weeks later, an NX turned up and I’ve never been so excited to try a car in all my life. You can still get a self-charging hybrid, but this was an NX 450+, which is a plug-in hybrid – Lexus’s first, weirdly. It’s strange to think that it’s taken them this long.

Now, first things first: with expectations so high, the NX was always going to struggle to live up to Will’s hype. I knew that. So I tried to reset and open my mind as best I could, starting with its looks. In the past, Lexus’s have veered wildly between the forgettable and the favourable in that department. The original LS was handsome, the third generation was a pudgy thing, but the fourth generation still looks fantastic, in my opinion. Loved that one. I also adore the LC500, which is a concept-car creation that lives and breathes on the road – although having said that I can’t remember seeing one that wasn’t a press car.

Anyway, its SUVs have been less successful. The first three generations of the RX were stinkers, and while the original GX and LX were at least rugged-looking, the latest versions of each are hideous things that make me thankful they’re not sold here. Hopefully, this means we Brits still have some taste left. I’m glad the NX is sold there, though. I quite like the way it looks, and everyone I introduced it to had exactly the same reaction. Etched on their face was the impulse to say, “I don’t like that” but then there would be a pause and a moment of reflection, followed by something along the lines of “Actually, it’s not a bad looking car, is it?”

The question mark was a constant, though, because no one, including myself, is ever quite sure how good-looking it is. It’s fair to say it’s not going down as a design icon, like its LC cousin, but it’s something different and striking in a sea of generally bland-looking SUVs.

I like it on the inside, too. The colour schemes can make or break it, but go for a dignified one like the tan and it’s pretty nifty. The massive touchscreen is a bit jarring, but it works at least. Normally touchscreens get a hammering from these quarters because there’s too much going on, but coming from Lexus’s old system – with a touchpad that would throw the cursor any which way but where you wanted it – this could only be better. And it is. The software is snappy, the icons are big, as is the sharp, 14-inch screen fitted to this model (lesser trims have a 9.8-inch screen). And it’s got Apple CarPlay, which is all I really ask for anyway.

The other good thing is that there are some buttons. Lovely buttons and knobs that just make life easy for the often-used bits. But there’s a button to open the doors, too, and that’s less useful. Instead of a full-sized lever to pull in the usual way to get out, there’s a child-sized lever on each door that you push with your thumb to make the door open. But because it still looks like a lever, naturally people pull it, which means that you will be destined to explain this once-simple procedure every time you give someone a lift. This will definitely become very annoying after a week, because that’s how long I had the car and I was annoyed.

The stupid doors aside, there are many more good bits of kit, though, because the NX is well-kitted out. I have tried to fathom out how the trim walk-up goes but I can’t – you’ll need someone with a doctorate in statistical analysis to decipher that – but I can tell you every trim seems to be well equipped and this F-Sport trim with Takumi Pack came with everything: a head-up display, keyless entry, surround-view camera, heated and cooled seats, heated steering wheel. It’s even got 64 shades of mood lighting, and I don’t think I have that many moods.

Lexus is known for its marvellous build quality, and in this area it’s a bit of a letdown. It’s not bad, exactly, but when the centre console wobbles a bit and there are a few too many nasty plastics dotted about ­– mostly lower down to be fair – it’s not what you expect from this brand. And with all the boasting in the brochure about Takumi craftsmanship – it actually says the ‘driver-centred cockpit crafted by ‘’Takumi’’ artisans’ – your mind wanders to the attention to detail bestowed on a samurai sword; what you get feels a bit more DFS in places.

I’ll tell you what’s spot-on, though: the seats. Absolutely fantastic. They look like seats, but they don’t feel like basic bits of furniture. They’re better than that. Sitting in them is like being scooped up and sunk into the cosseting grip of an oversized baseball glove. Seriously, imagine sitting on something that equalises the pressure on every square inch of flesh that’s being supported. That’s what these seats seem to do. Blooming marvellous. And the driving position in general is good, too. It’s reasonably high up, which gives you a good view of the road ahead, along with the dubious pleasure of looking down to see car drivers scratching their whatnots in traffic.

It’s even decent to drive. The handling is the least favourable bit, because the NX is not really built for fast cornering. It goes around corners, but with a Volvo-esque ‘I’ll tolerate this but it’s a bit beneath me you know.’ I tried cornering quickly once. I decided it could manage it if push came to shove, but it wasn’t very enjoyable so I didn’t bother again. Instead, I wafted around. I enjoyed that more. The hush of the e-motor and punch of the 2.5-litre engine worked well. The former makes it very relaxing and the latter adds more than enough performance if you need it.

The four-cylinder isn’t quiet at higher revs, though, and, as we know only too well, a CVT gearbox never shies away from revs. Getting up to motorway speeds quickly, for example, in noise terms is still like listening to the proverbial OAP burning out the clutch as they pop off in the Micra to bridge. This wouldn’t be so bad if the engine sounded sweet, but it doesn’t. It’s a four-pot, and that’s just what it sounds like. Only a bit rougher than a Volvo V60 T6. I didn’t like that side of the driving experience so much.

But in every other way, it’s very admirable. Take the ride. This F-Sport has firmer suspension but it’s still absorbing enough around town and just a little unsettled on uneven motorways. From what I’ve heard you should go for the standard suspension with a low-end trim on 18-inch wheels rather than 20s. Then it’s very comfy. And other than the bursts of engine noise, the interior is reasonably hushed at speed.

It’s even quite roomy, although it takes a while to realise that’s one of its pluses. It’s one of those cars that wraps itself around you in a way that makes it feel smaller than it is. But I am lanky and I had enough head and legroom in the front, and when I sat behind my driving position I fitted fine in the back, too. It’s not quite as big as an XC60, but it’s not tight.

So, was Will right? No, of course not. I’ve never known him to be right about anything in his life, especially not a car, so I’ve no idea why I trusted him this time. The Lexus NX is not the best car that’s ever been produced. I think he was a) in a particularly good mood that day or b) just trying to wind me up by saying something out of the ordinary. Or c) he could just be the idiot I’ve always suspected him to be. But did I enjoy my time with the NX? Yes, I did. It’s a good car.

If push came to shove I think I’d still be swayed by the more conventional Volvo XC60 T6, but I can see, if you’re after something a bit left-field, why you would. And that’s just choosing with your heart. There’s plenty to get your head around, too. It has a 10-year/ 100,000-mile warranty (as long as you service it with Lexus), it’s very likely to display atomic-clock reliability, and if you go for the plug-in it will average 70mpg. That’s if you top up the battery, mind, which alone will supply about 35 miles of real-world range on a full charge (a bit more if you’re knocking about town). I’m not sure about the ashtray, though. I forgot to check that bit. I asked Will and he said it’s perfect – so be warned smokers: it’s probably useless.

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