2021 Lexus NX 300h review: Nothing you haven't seen before
For 2021, Lexus hosted a key party of sorts for its 6-year-old NX compact crossover. Previously, you could get an NX hybrid and an NX F Sport, but you couldn't combine the two. That makes the arrival of this NX 300h F Sport Black Line about as much of a surprise as Monday following Sunday, though it's a special-edition model limited to 1,000 units. Even so, at its heart, the latest NX mashup is plenty comfortable and competent.
Why can't they all look like this?
Honestly, the F Sport should be the NX's de facto face. Not only is this mesh-style grille far more appealing than the standard one, the F Sport body kit adds some weight to the lower front bumper, which has a pretty aggressive upward angle on the regular NX 300h and looks like somebody forgot to draw in a chin. Throw in some F Sport-specific 18-inch alloy wheels and you've got a solid looker, even though the NX has been around for a bit now.
It might not carry the flashy looks of its newer, harder-edged Teutonic competition, but the 2021 Lexus NX 300h F Sport's interior is still a damn fine place to spend time. Unique touches inside are limited to contrasting blue stitching, a heated steering wheel and aluminum pedals, but there's no sense messing with success. The seats have superb cushioning and support, and the center console's raised setup means glances take less time away from the road ahead. It's a little old-school in that physical switchgear absolutely dominates the NX's interior, but the controls have good tactility and are dead simple to use with very little distraction. Cubbies and stash spots abound, including my favorite one, nestled just ahead of the center armrest and covered by a small removable vanity mirror. The automotive world needs more weird little touches like that, where nobody's really quite sure why it's there. I mean, there's still a mirror in the sun visor, so who's it for? The back row?
Speaking of, some compact crossovers choose to sacrifice interior space in the name of aesthetics, but not the Lexus NX . It doesn't have the flat, wagon-ish roof of, say, a BMW X1 , but my 6-foot frame doesn't have any issues in the back seats, and with almost 43 inches of legroom, I definitely have room to stretch the ol' gams. If you're just one person or have a small family, the NX's 16.8 cubic feet of cargo space should be plenty, although the hybrid system takes up a bit of space, shrinking the total capacity down from 17.7 cubic feet in gas-only variants. While that's more storage than the Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class can muster up, it falls well behind competitors like the Audi Q3 (23.7 cubic feet) and BMW X1 (27.1 cubic feet).
Smoothness over sport
Lexus creates some of the quietest, smoothest-driving vehicles in the luxury segment, and even its second-littlest crossover really swings for the fences in this regard. While F Sport models do gain a sharper suspension, the NX Black Line is still among the most comfortable vehicles in the segment. Whatever bumps aren't dispatched by the dampers transmit little movement to the cabin, and in traditional Lexus fashion, there's a decent amount of sound-deadening material throughout the body, keeping most unwanted road noises at bay. Gobs of pedal modulation make limo stops a breeze, and the steering turns the car, which I imagine is the extent to which its future owners care about that.
It's good that the brevity-averse 2021 Lexus NX 300h F Sport Black Line is a smooth operator, because it sure ain't a quick one. Like all other NX hybrids , the Black Line gets its forward motion from a 2.5-liter inline-four mated to Lexus' hybrid hardware for a net 194 horsepower. It's a regular old hybrid, not a plug-in, so its battery is limited to a couple miles of electric-only operation at sub-highway speeds, but leaving the NX in Eco mode really puts that nickel-metal hydride to work. On one suburban jaunt, with speed limits never eclipsing 40 mph, I ran largely on electricity for a few dozen miles, resulting in an impressive 45 mpg. That's an edge case, though -- the EPA rates this NX variant at 33 mpg city and 30 mpg highway, which is OK for an electrified all-wheel-drive SUV, but I was able to beat both figures with little more than a light foot. The continuously variable transmission is so well tuned that I basically forget it exists, which is about all you can ask for.
There are driving modes beyond Eco, even though that is my clear favorite. Eco is all about efficiency, so throttle inputs are dulled and the powertrain does its best to be in its most economical range at all times. Normal, the default mode, has a firmer throttle response that does a better job of providing post-stoplight acceleration, but it eats into efficiency a bit. There's a Sport mode, too, but why bother? Yes, the NX 300h F Sport does offer some semblance of sportiness, but it's clear that the underlying Lexus still wants to be cool and collected as often as possible. The Black Line also includes Lexus' fake-engine-sound synthesizer, which thankfully has a proper Off setting.
Out, damned touchpad, out, I say!
One day, I won't have to write about Lexus' accursed infotainment system, which has been kicking around in various iterations for almost a decade now. Its current method of manipulation, a touchpad on the center console, remains as odd and unintuitive as the day it came out, as the cursor "snaps" to various parts of the screen while your finger tracks along. It's hard to manipulate sitting still, nevertheless while driving.
An 8-inch screen, which is what my tester has, is standard and it's fine, rocking the same old aesthetic Lexus has relied on for years. A 10.3-inch screen is available on other trims, which adds navigation, but it's not standard on the Black Line, despite it being the most expensive NX variant available. Thankfully, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are still along for the ride no matter what. Just add touch capability, for crying out loud, it's already available on the LS. Who cares if you have to move the screen closer so people can actually reach it? A second, smaller info display lives between the speedometer and power delivery gauge, relaying relevant information about tire pressures, fuel economy or the trip meter.
If there's one corner of in-car tech that Lexus has down pat, it's safety. All NX models come standard with the Lexus Safety System Plus 2.0 array of passive and active technologies. This bundle features lane-keeping assist, forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, pedestrian and cyclist detection, lane-departure warning and full-speed adaptive cruise control. Blind-spot monitoring and parking sensors are included in the NX Black Line, as well. Parent company Toyota has had plenty of time to refine these hands-on systems, and it shows in their operation.
Down to brass tacks
In its press materials, Lexus says the NX Black Line prioritizes its customers' desire for "exclusive styling and value," but the latter claim is iffy, given that it's the most expensive variant by base price, starting at $47,835 including destination. My tester rings in at $48,745 with some fripperies like door edge guards and illuminated doorsills, which is quite the pill to swallow for a compact luxury crossover that's due for a replacement. But in context, it's about on par with its competitors, all of which offer similar base prices and similar chances to load the cars up to high heaven with all manner of options.
The 2021 Lexus NX 300h F Sport Black Line's hybrid powertrain and focus on proper old-school luxury help set it apart from the crowd. If what you're after is comfort and efficiency, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better fit in the compact SUV segment.