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It's always interesting to review a car in the last year before its major refresh. By this point, the engineers and designers and bean-counters have likely reached a consensus that the car has come as far as it can. It's as good as it'll ever be. That's the case with the Lexus NX, which entered production in 2014.
Now that everyone's a home baker, I'll present this analogy: The 2020 Lexus NX is like a fine loaf of bread that someone took a lot of time and effort to make with good ingredients, but they forgot to add salt. In other words, the NX does everything a compact luxury crossover should do: It carries people in comfort, offers lots of room for cargo and is adorned with nice materials. There just isn't much in the way of flavor.
The NX 300 F Sport tested here is the top-shelf non-hybrid NX. It packs a 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 engine with a not-exactly-class-leading 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, the latter of which is available from 1,650 rpm. Power goes to all four wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission, with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
On paper, that six-speed transmission sounds old-fashioned, particularly in the face of more modern eight- and nine-speed units offered by most of the Lexus' competitors. In practice, however, it works just fine. Shifts are smooth and nicely timed.
Having fewer gears doesn't really hurt the NX 300's fuel economy relative to its competition, either. With all-wheel drive, the Lexus is rated at 22 miles per gallon city, 27 mpg highway and 24 mpg combined, which is about on par with the Acura RDX, Infiniti QX50 and Mercedes-Benz GLC300. During my testing, I was able to get close to that 24-mpg combined rating without much effort.
The NX's chassis is nicely sorted. The standard drive mode does a good job of smoothing out highway expansion joints and LA's shockingly gnarly drainage dips at intersections, and this tester has the optional adaptive dampers, which allow you to dial up a Sport mode, but it doesn't change things all that much.
But despite the F Sport badge, the NX doesn't really lend itself to spirited driving. While I like the comfort level that the NX's chassis provides, I feel less warm and fuzzy about the steering, which, while far from sloppy, offers little in the way of feedback to the driver. In short, the NX 300 has a ride befitting the Lexus badge on its nose, but if you're after some on-road personality, best to look elsewhere.
The NX's exterior styling is aggressive by compact SUV standards, but it looks right at home in Lexus' lineup. From the side, the NX is well-proportioned and athletic, and things also look decent around back, with sharp taillights and a dramatic crease at the beltline.
Unfortunately, the NX's front end takes some getting used to. Lexus' spindle grille, also known as the Predator grille, is pretty polarizing even now, nearly a decade after its introduction. Thankfully, Lexus is slowly figuring out how to successfully integrate that unwieldy schnoz onto some of its models like the new ES and LS. Do I love it on the NX? Nope. But styling is subjective, so your mileage may vary.
Inside, things improve considerably. The cabin's design is a little busy, and the interior feels dark and more cramped than it should, but the materials and build quality are nothing short of Lexus-excellent. All of the car's leather touchpoints are buttery soft and contribute to an air of quality. The plastics are fine, but I'd rather see some more real materials like metal or wood, even if they are used sparingly.
The NX's seats are comfortable, supportive and promise to keep driver fatigue at bay for longer drives. Weirdly, Lexus only offers leather seating on the Premium models and up, so my F Sport model comes with black Nu-Luxe material (aka fake leather), though it's at least perforated. Seat heating and cooling are standard on NX Luxury models, but are optional on everything else, including this F Sport.
The rear seating area isn't exactly massive, but with a little finagling, I was able to squeeze in behind my normal front seating position (I'm 6 feet, 4 inches tall, so that's saying something). The cargo area is respectably spacious, too, though the power opening and closing tailgate isn't standard, as it should be on something at this price. It's an extra $400 if you want the power tailgate on the F Sport; add another $150 if you want the kick-under-the-bumper-to-open sensor.
The NX 300's biggest weakness is its infotainment tech. The Lexus Enform system is -- and always has been -- awful. It's awkward to use thanks to the haptic feedback touchpad on the center console, and the system isn't particularly responsive or easy to use, especially while driving. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility go a long way towards making the experience ignorable, thankfully, but Lexus really needs to give this system a rethink, and fast. At least a Wi-Fi hotspot is standard.
Thankfully, the optional 835-watt Mark Levinson audio system remains awesome, and a worthwhile option if you care about your music (or really like hearing Ira Glass' weird mouth noises in HD, you weirdo). The Mark Levinson package also nets you the upgraded 10.3-inch widescreen infotainment display, while the standard screen is only 8 inches.
Lexus deserves a lot of credit for its safety tech roster, and the 2020, the Safety System Plus 2.0 with road-sign recognition and lane-tracing assist is standard across the NX range. Other highlights of the Lexus' driver-assistance suite include standard automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and automatic high beams.
Lexus also includes three years of Enform Safety Connect, which includes automatic collision notification, stolen vehicle notification and an emergency assistance button. It also gets you a three-year trial of Lexus Enform Remote, which lets you control certain vehicle functions (lock/unlock, climate control and so forth) through your iOS or Android device with an app.
The 2020 Lexus NX starts at $37,895, including $1,025 for destination, which just barely undercuts rivals like the Acura RDX and Infiniti QX50, and comes in a few thousand less than the BMW X3 and Mercedes-Benz GLC300. All loaded up, this F-Sport tester costs $52,307. That's a lot, especially when you consider the competitors are mostly more engaging to drive and offer more stylish cabins with better multimedia systems.
There are plenty of buyers who prioritize comfort and proven quality above things like driving dynamics or (subjectively) good looks, and for them, the NX is a solid -- if boring -- choice. Here's hoping the new NX keeps those rhythms intact when it arrives in 2021, but we'd love it if it brought a bit more verve and better infotainment tech to the party, too.