AUTO REVIEW: Lexus NX Is Finally More Than an X-Treme Grille

The new Lexus NX 350h

By Henry Payne

(The Detroit News/TNS) – Lexus isn’t letting up.

Six years ago, Toyota’s conservatively dressed luxury brand went full punk with its 2015 NX. The compact SUV threw caution to the wind, stepping out of the shadow of fashion mavens like Audi and Merc and redefining its style with slashing bodywork and a face only a mother could love. Lexus called it the spindle grille; I called it a giant bug zapper.

It put Lexus on the map for a new generation of buyers, and the NX’s polarizing style has been followed by subsequent models in the lineup. When I first tested the NX in 2014, I assumed the “look-at-me” design would be temporary. Boy, did I get that wrong.

Not only was the new Lexus face a hit, but others in the industry followed its lead. Look no further than Bimmer, which has introduced a buck-toothed mega-grille on its 4-series coupe that you can see from space. The BMW X3, an NX competitor, is sure to follow.

The NX’s jack o’ lantern face is back for 2022 with the vehicle’s first major redesign since the 2015 model frightened children everywhere. But like Cadillac’s radical Art & Science grilles at the turn of the 21st century, Lexus designers have made some nips and tucks to improve the original major plastic surgery. The checkmark running lights, for example, are now nicely integrated into the headlights, and the jowls have been tightened around the jawbone. Much better.

The rear taillights are fashionable, connected by a horizontal light bar, and the SUV’s rocker panels are leaner, less pronounced.

Paint my $50,075 tester in Grecian Water blue with red interior and the Lexus isn’t for the timid. In an age of lookalike utes, I applaud the NX’s experimentation with exterior design. The Lexus may be loud, but it’s got attitude.

Unfortunately, NX was also part of a less helpful trend inside: touchpads.

Luxury makers are not shy in pushing new infotainment tools in this electronics age — whether Tesla’s big touchscreens or BMW’s remote rotary dials. First rule of innovation: the tools must work. Trying to mimic a mouse pad on a desktop, automakers like Lexus made screen controls unworkable while the car was in motion. (Imagine your desk moving over Detroit streets while you try to operate a mousepad.)

2022 Lexus NX

Mrs. Payne refused to operate the NX pad even from the passenger seat. I solved the issue (as I suspect most owners did) by only using the device when stationary — or just bypassing it via the voice command button on the steering wheel.

Lexus appears to have gotten the message from customers. The 2022 NX350h is much more livable, with a giant 14-inch touchscreen and easy controls. It removes a huge barrier between driver and car because the NX is really a pleasant place to spend time.

I jumped into the NX for a trip across Oakland County’s lake country and jabbed the easy-to-locate ON button high on the dash.

Armed with the latest in smartphone connectivity, NX wirelessly detected my Android phone, which gave me the option of putting my Google Maps route on the giant center screen. Option taken. Phone navigation systems are generally superior to in-car systems, with the exception of Tesla and Mercedes.

Lexus has made big improvements to its human machine interface, however, and the 14-inch field was not only easier to work as a touchscreen, but also easier to navigate when selecting and saving radio stations. Two giant knobs — closely resembling the Ford Mustang Mach-E’s signature scalloped screen control knob — anchor the Lexus screen, allowing for simple climate control. The volume knob, interestingly, is less dramatically designed — but placed in the center of the dash for access from anywhere in the front cabin.

After years of customers running screaming from their cars, Lexus appears to have spent some quality time with them to make the system user friendly.

Less friendly is the console gear shifter, which seems to have caught a case of the notchies from an old nemesis: Toyota’s automatic shifter. Nissan and VW do similar compact “chiclet” shifters much better.

With the infotainment bugs worked out, owners can concentrate on the NX350h’s hybrid driving experience, which has been superb from the get-go.

Not only did my 6’5″ frame fit easily into the front buckets, but I could sit behind myself in the rear seat with knee room to spare — a rarity in the compact segment.

The Lexus rides on parent Toyota’s excellent Global Architecture, and instills confidence with neutral handling and little head toss. Then Lexus spices the menu with four powertrain options. The base $39K NX250 starts with a 203-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder; the NX350 has a 275-horse turbocharged 2.4-liter; the top-drawer plug-in hybrid NX450h gets 302 ponies — and then there’s my NX350h hybrid sitting in the sweet spot, pairing two electric motors with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder for 239 horsepower and all-wheel-drive versatility.

The NX350h further tempts bad behavior with paddle shifters on the steering column and a fat Drive Mode button on the console. Dial the mode selector to SPORT and the instrument panel glows red in devilish anticipation. Go on, Payne, floor me!

Gladly. Long a missionary for hybrid fuel efficiency, Lexus also uses its electric motors for smooth driving dynamics. Where turbocharged four-cylinder engines often lag off corners, the hybrid’s motor picks up the slack, making for instant acceleration.

The NX350h doesn’t rival the Mazda CX-5 or BMW X1 for best-handling SUV, but the spirit is there.

“Under Akio Toyoda’s stated directive to invigorate Toyota products with energy, passion and ‘Waku-Doki’ (translation: a palpable heart-pounding sense of excitement), the approval process has been streamlined,” Toyota announced in 2014.

What began as an exterior design statement has now made its way through the interior design and drivetrain systems. For the first time, the Lexus feels like the total package. A car that is not only defiantly different — but competently so.

2022 Lexus NX350h

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive five-passenger compact SUV

Price: $42,125, including $1,075 destination fee ($54,150 with Luxury Package as tested)

Powerplant: Hybrid 2.5-liter turbo-4 cylinder with twin electric motors

Power: 239 total system horsepower

Transmission: Continuously variable transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.2 seconds (mfr.); Top speed, 124 mph

Weight: 4,080 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA, 41 mpg city/37 highway/39 combined

Report card

Highs: Big screens, big controls; hybrid pep

Lows: Polarizing face; quirky shifter

Overall: 3 stars

Photos courtesy of Lexus/TNS

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