Hybrids have become a harder sell — because gas has become an easier buy.
At $4 a gallon (and sweating the possibility of $5 or $6 a gallon) spending an extra $5,000 on the car — to get the fuel-sippy hybrid powertrain — might make economic sense.
But when gas costs $2 a gallon — as it has for years now — spending thousands more on the car to save a couple of bucks per tank is an economically iffy proposition, at best.
Which may be why Lexus has reduced the price of the 2017 NX300h (the hybrid version of the NX series compact crossover SUV) by $615.
Well, sort of.
The ’17 NX300h with AWD stickers for $40,695 — vs. $41,310 for last year’s basically identical AWD-equipped NX300h.
But, the less expensive (than either) front-wheel-drive version of the NX hybrid — which stickered for $39,720 — is no longer available.
The hybrid NX is all-wheel-drive only now.
Meanwhile, you can still get a non-hybrid (and FWD) NX200t with the same amenities (the regular NX and hybrid NX come in just one “loaded” trim) for $35,085.
Or, get it with AWD — for $36,485.
You could save as much as $5,610 (FWD NX200t vs. AWD NX300h) and at least $4,210 (AWD-equipped NX200t vs. AWD-equipped NX300h).
Which probably makes more dollars and sense at least as long as gas stays around $2 a gallon.
WHAT IT IS
The NX is a compact-sized, two-row crossover SUV, sold in regular (non-hybrid) form — the NX200t — and a hybrid version — the NX300h, subject of this review.
It’s smaller — and sportier — than the popular RX350, with almost as much room inside for passengers (but less room for cargo).
The hybrid version (base price $40,695) is capable of averaging in the low-30s vs. low-20s for the non-hybrid NX200t ($35,085-$36485).
It’s also less pricey than potential cross-shops such as the Audi Q5 hybrid–which stickers for $52,500 to start.
Even if gas cost $4 a gallon, buying that thing makes as much sense — if you’re looking to save money — as doing a bikini shoot at an Amish Thanksgiving dinner.
Another possible and more economically sensible alternative is the diesel-powered version of the BMW X3. It stickers for $42,750 — and its real-world economy (combined city/highway driving) is about the same and maybe even slightly better than the NX’s, when you take into account the fact that the hybrid NX’s highway mileage (30 MPG) is lower than the diesel BMW’s (34 MPG).
But the fact remains: Until and only if gas prices go up a lot, none of these hybrid rides make much sense as economical alternatives to their gas-engined brethren.
A lower sticker price — and standard AWD.
At the cost of a few MPGs… .
Also, there’s a new app — Scout GPS link — which streams navigation data (via Bluetooth) from your smartphone.
Doesn’t look “green.”
30-something MPG average fuel consumption.
Smaller on the outside than the RX350 — and so, easier to park/maneuver than the RX — but has almost the same front and second row legroom on the inside as the larger-foot-printed RX.
Snarky bodywork and jet-setter interior — including driver-adjustable LCD gauges and tap/touch (and get a tap back) trackpad input.
Reasonably priced compared with Audi Q5 hybrid.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Costs a lot of green.
The AWD-only’s mileage is lower than last-year’s FWD-available version.
Non-hybrid NX200t’s gas mileage isn’t much lower (22 city, 28 highway), but its MSRP is.
Snarky bodywork comes at the cost of tunnel vision to the rear and not much cargo capacity in the rear.
Cramped and awkward to access center console storage cubby.
UNDER THE HOOD
Instead of the 2.0 turbo four and six-speed automatic that propels the NX200t, the NX300h is motivated by a larger (but not turbocharged) 2.5 liter four backed up by a pair of electric motors and a nickel metal hydride (NiMh) battery pack. The tandem powertrain feeds power to a continuously variable (CVT) automatic with three driver-adjustable modes (Sport, Eco and Normal).
It’s similar to what you’d find in a Prius, but pumped up some — to 194 hp, total, when both gas engine and electric motors are given’ you all she’s got, Cap’n.
Which isn’t a lot.
There’s enough power to get the hybrid NX to 60 in the mid-high eights, or about two seconds behind the non-hybrid NX.
Fuel economy is good — 33 city, 30 highway — but it’s also down a little from last year, when you could buy a FWD version of the NX300h, which was lighter — and so achieved a class-best EPA rating of 35 city, 31 highway.
It’s very debatable whether it was smart of Lexus to reduce the MPG potential of this thing. After all, people shop hybrids because they want to save on gas… or so one assumes.
The now-AWD-only NX300h’s mileage is no longer clearly better than cross-shops like the BMW X3 diesel. In fact, the BMW may do better overall, because it’s better balanced overall.
Hybrids are most efficient in low-speed/stop-and-go city driving — where they can operate mostly on their batteries and often with the gas engine not running at all. But on the highway, the gas engine is often running constantly — and hard.
Because in a hybrid, the gas engine is typically smaller/less powerful (you know, to save fuel) in city driving. This is why the highway mileage of most hybrids is lower than the city mileage — exactly the reverse of most non-hybrid (and diesel-powered) vehicles.
Keep this in mind.
If you do a lot of highway/high-speed driving, the economics of buying a hybrid may make even less sense.
During a week-long test drive of the new, AWD-equipped NX300h, I averaged 30.2 MPG.
Your mileage may — and probably will — vary.
Mostly city drivers will probably do better. Mostly highway drivers, worse.
Which is why it is really important to take a test drive, the way you drive, before deciding whether to go with the hybrid or stick with its gas-engined (or diesel) equivalent.
ON THE ROAD
You give up some quickness (and some cash) vs. the non-hybrid NX200t to get a potential 8-ish MPG mileage advantage overall.
The NX300h is not slow in general terms. It is a muscle car compared with a Prius.
However, the real problem is not the NX300h’s speediness.
It is the noisiness of the drivetrain when called upon to provide said speediness. Puttering around in stop-and-go traffic, things are as silent as an Omertà (which is an Italian code of honor that places importance on silence, non-cooperation with authorities, and non-interference in the illegal actions of others).
You can glide along in electric drive up to 30-something MPH. Roll the windows down and hear next-to-nothing except the wind.
But things change when the Lexus is asked to accelerate beyond stop-and-go speeds.
Give it half-pedal and the engine will rev up to 4,000-ish RPMs (not far from the relatively low redline of about 5,600 RPM) and stay there, all the while making keening sounds of mechanical unhappiness.
More pedal (to get more acceleration) and the banshee wail increases.
Part of the reason for this is the underpowered powertrain. The NX300h weighs more than 4,000 pounds empty (before your curb weight is added) and that’s a lot of inertia to overcome with just 194 hp, all out. There’s not much reserve power — which means that when you need to accelerate — even moderately — you’re asking the powertrain to give you pretty much everything it’s got.
In the NX300h, half-pedal is like pedal to the metal in the non-hybrid NX200t.
Much of the resultant high-revving (and rev-holding) is also a function of the NX300h’s continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission.
CVTs are the go-to box of choice in hybrids because they are more efficient than conventional automatics. Instead of a series of fixed gear ratios (e.g., a six speed automatic, as in the NX200t) a CVT has just one speed that is continuously variable.
It never upshifts — or downshifts. Instead, it kind of surges forward — like a turbine. This is great for economy; all else being equal, a CVT-equipped car will usually return 2-3 MPG better on average than an identical car with a conventional automatic.
The downside is that if the gas engine is on the scrawny side — as is usually the case in hybrids — the CVT will typically keep the engine running at 75-80 percent of redline during even normal keep-up-with-traffic acceleration, as when trying to maintain speed on uphill stretches of road, or when merging onto a highway or attempting to pass a Clover.
People expect (and accept) less-than-speedy acceleration in economy cars and hybrids like the Prius — and many NX300h prospects will probably find the NX300h’s acceleration acceptable, too. But the Prius-esque mechanical keening sounds of the NX300h’s drivetrain could be a deal-breaker given the NX300h is a Lexus.
Which people expect to be quiet.
The power deficit (and noise surplus) aside, the NX300h is pretty sporty feeling — and handling — as hybrids go. You’ll reach the tires’ limit of grip long before the chassis comes unglued. Because the tires are fairly tall and skinny (225/60 Michelins designed chiefly to reduce rolling resistance to enhance fuel efficiency), they do not provide lots of lateral grip.
But this lower threshold of grip in the corners makes the NX300h more fun in a way. Precisely because the limits of grip are lower, you can work on your wheelman skills at almost-legal road speeds–something that’s harder to do in most non-hybrid sporty vehicles, which are fitted with modern sport tires. Which are wider — and so, grippier.
Their limits are so high you generally can’t approach them on the street without operating at jail-time speeds, if you’re caught doing it.
There’s an old saying: It’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.
That definitely applies here.
Also, those pizza-cutter tires will be helpful in winter. Maybe even more than the now-standard AWD. They’ll cut right down through the snow instead of compressing it — and riding up on top of it. Remember how great the old VW Beetle was in the snow? A big part of the reason why was its tall — and thin — tires.
Same deal here.
AT THE CURB
There used to be three basic categories of vehicle — compact, mid-sized and full-sized.
Lately, there’s a lot of overlap.
The NX is a case in point. It is a compact as far as its exterior dimensions, but inside, it’s almost mid-sized.
For people, at least.
It has almost the same first and second row legroom as the RX350 — Lexus’ mid-sized crossover SUV: 42.8 and 36.1 inches, respectively, for the NX vs. 43.1 and 36.8 for the RX. But the NX is about half a foot shorter overall (182.3 inches vs. 187.8 for the RX) which makes the NX easier to park and leaves some more room in your garage.
Of course, you can’t lop half a foot off without losing space somewhere.
And that somewhere is behind the second row, in the cargo area. The NX has only 16.7 cubic feet of capacity behind the second row — vs. 40 cubic feet for the RX350. Even with the second row folded flat, space in the NX is limited to 53.7 cubes vs. 80.3 for the RX.
This is small in relative and real terms. The same-sized (on the outside) Audi Q5 (182.6 inches long, bumper to bumper) has 29.1 cubic feet of storage space behind its second row.
The usability of the NX’s smallish space is also hampered by a fairly low roofline (the NX stands just 64.8 inches off the ground vs. 66.3 inches for the RX), which limits the height of stuff you might try to haul.
Still, it’s dog-viable and grocery-store sufficient.
People who need more room for cargo can always move up to the RX — while the NX will appeal to people who want the people room but can manage with less cargo room in exchange for the smaller (and more parking-friendly) footprint.
The lines of the NX are rakish and modern, some of these shared with the RC-F super coupe — notably the LED-lit Nike swoosh headlight underbrow and the wasp-waisted “spindle” grille, which juts forward like the chin of a certain politician.
It looks sharp, but a downside is your view to the rear is pretty crimped. It would help a lot if the second row headrests could be folded flat or better yet, removed. But you can’t do either. They go up and down a little, that’s all.
Don’t blame Lexus.
The government mandated these extra-tall headrests to protect passengers from injury in rear-ender accidents (whiplash). But the unintended consequence of that is poor rearward visibility and it’s a problem in pretty much every new car.
The center console is also too small — and pushed too far back.
It’s hard to access without rotating your body, which is hard to do while also keeping your eyes on the road. Plugging accessories into the USB port — located inside the console well and mounted vertically, on the wall of the well — is almost impossible to do from the driver’s seat, while actually driving the car.
On the other hand, the console features a wireless charging tray for your phone and the latest generation of Lexus’ mouse-trackpad input is very well done. The trackpad gives you a physical “pushback” sensation when you make an input and the ergonomic pad supports your wrist comfortably while you work.
The configurable LCD gauges cluster is neat, too. When you toggle to Sport, an analog-looking but entirely digital tachometer (red backlit) appears. In Eco and Normal, the tach is replaced by a Power/Charge gauge that helps you drive so as to maximize the MPGs (and battery life).
Which is better? Hybrid — or diesel power?
Right now, the answer is obvious.
If it’s about reducing driving costs.
Because with gas at $2 a gallon, the up-front premium you pay to buy a hybrid or a diesel is simply too high relative to the cost of a tankful (or several hundred). It will take you (depending on how you do the math) 70,000-100,000 miles or more before you even reach break-even.
Of course, gas prices could go up.
And if you are shopping a hybrid for other reasons — such as the coolness of silent running when in EV mode or because you are trying to be “green” — then perhaps spending the extra green is worth it to you.
Interestingly, Lexus doesn’t offer a plug-in option (BMW has invested heavily in this) which would make it possible to run the NX on the batteries for longer (and faster) and so dramatically increase the vehicle’s efficiency.
But adding plug-in capability would also dramatically increase the NX’s price.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The economic case for the NX300h with gas at $2 gallon is not very strong … but there are other reasons for buying a hybrid that are no less valid than the reasons why people buy Porsches (or whatever).
And who knows what might happen to gas prices next year.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos