The Lexus NX range arrived in 2014 at a critical time for the Japanese luxury automaker, giving it a core new model at a time when the SUV craze really began to light the 'burners.
However, while the NX has proved to be a top-seller for Lexus, it's never been at the pointy end of its own segment. This mid-life update aims to go some way towards rectifying that.
WHAT IS IT
The first major update to the Lexus NX. Big changes are limited to how the models are specced – a wider application of active safety gear as standard, for example – while cosmetically there are few alterations. Inside and out, bar some extra colour choices, slightly tweaked body plastics and infotainment upgrades, the new NX looks pretty similar to the old one. Autonomous emergency braking is standard on all models now though, which is definitely a move in the right direction.
WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
Lexus reckons it has improved the way the NX rides and handles, which is good news considering its first attempt at the car failed to impress in those areas. Other changes are minor, though there's a new infotainment setup to play with, and a few upgrades to standard equipment levels.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
You'd normally expect a car to get better and better as you ascend through its model hierarchy, but in the NX's case that's definitely not true. The base model NX300 Luxury is the brightest member of this family, and that's largely thanks to the fact it's not equipped with the ineffective adaptive suspension that's standard-fit on the mid-grade F-Sport and high-trim Sports Luxury.
With no upgrades under the bonnet for this mid-life refresh, there's still no reason to recommend the slack 300h hybrid variant. Unless you're happy to sacrifice driveability in the pursuit of fuel economy, that is. Stick with the petrol turbo. There's more kit on offer to justify a slight price rise, but unfortunately the changes applied for the 2018 model year don't go far enough to keep the NX in the same league as its German rivals.
For now, the only measurable advantage it has against its more sophisticated competitors is its price – with retail stickers starting in the mid-$50k region, the NX is roughly $10k more affordable than the German-badged options.
PLUS: Likeable 2.0-litre turbo engine; solid build quality; improved infotainment system; more equipment as standard
MINUS: Limited updates for 2018 model year don't keep pace with rivals; no powertrain changes, firm ride
THE WHEELS REVIEW
LEXUS is a relative newcomer to the mid-size SUV game, but since launching in 2014 the company's NX model family has quickly become its top-seller in Australia. However, that's more a result of it being a mid-size SUV rather than a superior product to other vehicles in the Lexus stable. Because it isn't by a long shot.
Lexus has knocked things out of the park on its first try before – think original LS400 that put the brand on the map, or perhaps the first-gen IS – but unfortunately the NX hasn't been quite as compelling. It may be a popular choice within Lexus showrooms, but out on the streets it's a different story. The Europeans dominate.
Now halfway through its lifecycle, this is the NX's chance to redeem itself. The bodywork is largely carry-over, but squint and you'll find bi-LED headlamps on all models, new taillight graphics, reshaped bumper plastics, tweaked grilles and new wheels.
It's a similar story on the inside, with most of the furniture being the same as before, but freshened up by the addition of a big 10.3-inch infotainment screen, larger touchpad interface, new trim colour options, reconfigured ventilation controls and a bigger clock.
And that means the same usability issues carry over. It's easy to get lost in the button-heavy centre stack, and there's only a token shelf squeezed between the ventilation and audio controls that isn't big enough for any contemporary smartphone. It all feels rock-solid and well built, but visually and ergonomically this is one messy design.
At least the infotainment issue has been addressed, with the latest iteration of Lexus’ touchpad interface now standard equipment across the NX range along with the aforementioned big screen. The laptop-style touchpad's responsiveness to inputs has vastly improved, it’s still a clunky system to navigate through. At least it means the pre-update model’s stingy 7.0-inch screen has been turfed forever.
The base Luxury's suite of driver aids swells too, with adaptive cruise control, auto high-beam, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning and pedestrian-detecting autonomous emergency braking now standard-fit.
There's no change to the 2.0-litre turbo petrol four in the front of the NX300 (formerly known as the NX200t), though that engine and its six-speed auto have always been good partners for the NX. Weighing a minimum of 1700kg – add 70kg for the AWD 300 Luxury we're testing here – it's a heavy thing, but the turbo four doesn't sweat too much.
What grates, though, is the ride. Suspension improvements that see stiffer stabilisers, low-friction dampers and myriad other minute spring and damper setting alterations do improve the NX's handling somewhat, but on the 300 Luxury, with its passive dampers, it's not as compliant as some of its key rivals.
But the base model rides like a dream compared to the F-Sport and Sports Luxury grades and their supposedly more sophisticated adaptive dampers. Those models sport a brittle ride that can't be cured no matter which drive mode you select.
And that's a problem given Lexus' rivals aren't sitting on their hands. BMW and Audi have just launched new-generation models of the X3 and Q5 – both of which have impressed us greatly – while Alfa Romeo is also entering the fray with its Stelvio, which, unlike the NX, boasts genuine driver appeal.
Even high-end variants of mainstream mid-size SUVs like the Volkswagen Tiguan and Peugeot 3008 are more compelling than the Lexus. That's not good news for Japan's premier luxury carmaker.
If you're considering an NX, avoid the F-Sport and Sports Luxury grades and that terrible adaptive suspension. Steer clear of the hybrid too – its powertrain is too docile for a 1700kg SUV, it's more expensive and it has terrible brake feel to boot.
Buy a petrol-powered Luxury model and throw the $6000 enhancement pack at it to gain a panoramic glass roof, 14-speaker Mark Levinson audio, and colour head-up display. In that configuration, the NX is at its most compelling.
Model: Lexus NX300 AWD Luxury
Engine: 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Max power: 175kW @ 4800-5600rpm
Max torque: 350Nm @ 1650-4000rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 7.1sec (claimed)
Economy: 7.9L/100km (claimed)
On sale: Now