Watch an old movie where they’re driving and you’ll get the distinct impression that the first era of automobiles was about the driving experience, not the experience of being in a car while motoring from point A to point B. There were exceptions, the super fancy cars for rich folk like a Rolls-Royce or Bentley, but generally speaking, it was all about speed, handling, steering, and reliability. At some point along the way the interiors got quiet enough that the idea of having some music seemed reasonable, and so AM/FM radios started to show up, along with cassette players, 8-track tapes and, finally, CD players.
Somewhere along the evolutionary journey priorities shifted and for many car manufacturers it seems like their first priority is the experience of being in the car rather than the driving experience itself. That’s why BMW can tout its “driving experience” without sounding silly; it only makes sense when compared to other companies that aren’t making cars with driving as a primary focus.
Which brings us to Lexus, the upmarket brand of Toyota. Toyota really knows quite a bit about both the driving experience and the design of comfortable vehicles so adding a luxury brand has always made sense. No surprise, there’s a lot of similarity between the two brands, as there also is with Acura/Honda. Lexus, however, has never really established its own identity as a brand, and so its cars tend to seem a bit disjointed, a mish-mash of high and low tech that can creates a surprisingly frustrating experience. In Japan we’d describe it as disharmonious.
When I had the chance to spend a week driving the 2021 Lexus NX 300h Luxury AWD hybrid, I was quite curious what it would be like to check out this staple SUV of the Lexus line and see if Lexus had made any progress on establishing its own personality and identity within the vehicle.
To start, I have to say that the exterior is beautiful and the Nori Green Pearl of this model proves a lovely color:
My daughter said she felt the nose jutted out too much, and it is a very aggressive front grill styling, but personally I don’t mind that at all, and it might be good for aerodynamics at higher speeds too. Or it’s just style. Either way. But block the nose with your hand for a second and the rest of the body design looks like every other SUV on the road. It’s a popular category, whether you’re looking for a low budget Sports Ute or a top end luxury model with similar interior dimensions.
Moving into the driver’s seat, the NX 300h sports a complicated array of buttons, dials and knobs:
Notice the analog clock on the right; that’s perhaps the most signature element of Lexus vehicles and they all have one somewhere on the dashboard. Quaint. But then look just to the left of the gear shift where there’s a touchpad for navigating the entertainment system. Here’s a closer view:
I first encountered one of these touch, drag and push interface panels on a BMW a couple of years ago and found it difficult to work with and this Lexus iteration is no different. Not only that, but because the NX 300h has a bit of a bouncy ride, it’s tough to swipe to make choices without accidentally pushing on the panel while driving. And if you can’t use it while driving, it’s not a great interface for a driver control.
Problem is, you couldn’t use a touchscreen on the nav system because, as you can see, it’s a long way from the driver. In fact, I found some glare issues because it’s so deeply recessed into the front windshield area, something that’s not an issue with designs that have the display panel closer to the driver. But the confusion in interface isn’t just limited to the touch panel: Look at the knob on the top left of the above photo. That’s the drive mode knob and it is marked ECO, SPORT and, in the middle, PUSH / NORMAL. You spin it left for ECO mode, right for SPORT mode, but you push it for NORMAL mode. Why not just have a three position dial knob so it’s a single gesture?
Let’s look at more of the dashboard:
Now you can see that analog clock, which I suppose adds a bit of whimsy to a very technologically advanced vehicle. Younger drivers probably don’t even know how to read an analog clock dial, but Lexus isn’t aimed at Gen Z’ers, this is a vehicle for Boomers, right? Again, though, look at the lack of consistency in the user interface: environmental controls are adjusted via up/down toggles, but seat heating or cooling are multi-push buttons. There are a lot of things to control on a modern vehicle, but this really felt like the seat controls design team hadn’t talked to the environmental controls team, and neither of them had a chance to meet with the nav/entertainment systems control group before the car was launched.
You can, of course, get to all of these features through the nicely sized 10.3″ entertainment system (the buttons along the top of the display are Destination, Audio, Phone, Apps, Projection, Info, Setup and Climate) so there’s yet another possible path to attain the settings and environment you seek. The entertainment system did sound lovely, featuring its Mark Levinson sound system and support for Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa. “Alexa, drive me to the supermarket” does not yet work, however.
This Lexus NX 300h is the hybrid edition so Energy Monitor was interesting to view while driving, it’s a good way for the driver to learn how to maximize the benefit of the gas/electric hybrid drivetrain and regenerate energy through different driving habits:
No surprise at all, the hybrid drive experience with its 2.5L continuously variable transmission delivered a fun drive. As a rule, hybrids are peppy and much more responsive than the average internal combustion engine. Fuel efficiency was decent, though nothing to get too excited about, as shown in this gauge closeup:
With the Toyota Prius getting over 50mpg, it’s a bit disappointing that the Lexus NX 300h hybrid was averaging 31.7mpg, only 3mpg better than my non-hybrid Mazda CX-5. You can also see that Lexus opted to stick with a “tachometer” dial, though since a CVT doesn’t work the same way, it instead shows charge/eco/power modes. Why not just rethink this display area entirely since speed is better displayed as a digital value too? Perhaps in the 2024 NX!
I bumped into control confusion again with the steering wheel control clusters:
A bit more use of icons might have helped out to differentiate between the left side (media controls) and the right side (main display area controls), though I imagine owners figure this out after a short period. The cruise controls were also a bit disjointed as you can see: The main controls are on the stem just behind the right side of the steering wheel, except for a couple of controls that are embedded in the steering wheel itself.
I know that I keep harping on the user interface problems, but it’s because this is otherwise a really nice, comfortable car with a luxurious feel. It’s just unnecessary for Lexus to be making a car that has such an inconsistent user interface experience after this many years of manufacturing, particular this popular SUV.
Speaking of the interior, here’s rear legroom:
Very nice, though adding a few inches to the length of the vehicle could have made this a standout for rear leg room, even if the driver was tall and needed to move the front seat as far back as possible.
The rear had a nice, spacious storage area and the (add-on) mats made it seem tough and rugged, ready for camping or sports gear:
Driving the Lexus NX 300h Luxury was fun, without being a standout either. Solid hybrid performance with a relatively big 2.5L engine meant you could rabbit from a stop and speed up to slide into highway traffic with ease. The interior was reasonably quiet, though the ride was a bit more bumpy than I would have expected from a vehicle in this class.
A final rear photo brings us back to the attractive design and beautiful Nori Green Pearl color:
And so I’ll end as I started, observing that the NX 300h Luxury is a very attractive car with undeniable curb appeal, lots of comforts, a terrific sound system and a solid driving experience. Where it comes up short is with a sense of unity in the overall experience inside the car. No Qi wireless charging support, no USB ports for the back seat passengers, no 120V plug in the back cargo area, and a complex mashup of different user interface controls makes for a vehicle that’s not quite as polished as you would expect for its greater than $50,000 price tag.
CONFIGURATION: 2021 Lexus NX 300h Luxury in Nori Green Pearl, featuring a 2.5L hybrid CVT transmission and all wheel drive. MSRP: $46,510.00. Included packages: panoramic view monitor, triple-beam LED headlamps, navigation system, parking assist, power back door, mud guards, cargo mat, floor mats, road rack. AS DRIVEN: $52,855.00.
Disclaimer: Lexus loaned me the NX 300h Luxury for a week to drive and experience in return for this writeup. Thanks, Lexus!