There’s no doubt that Lexus has carved out a profitable niche as the most normcore of luxury brands. This is particularly true in the SUV segment, where the midsize RX and compact NX represent its two best-selling models despite their fierce adherence to the kind of bland, comfortable competence that sees middle managers get promoted year in, year out.
The NX is somewhat of a tweener in size, falling between smaller fare like the Cadillac XT4 and Acura RDX and the more generous proportions of the Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class. It has long relied on making a practical appeal to conservative customers by way of its spiritual pairing with the excessively popular Toyota RAV4, whose ultra-reliable, if occasionally boring bones it borrows.
For 2022, the Lexus NX is hoping to better establish itself as a premium contender by straying from its established middle-of-the-road playbook. That means turning up the crossover’s visual appeal while revising a cabin that had fallen behind the pack in terms of tech and tactility. In particular, the NX 350h promises a more modern experience behind the wheel while maintaining the hybrid frugality that helped endear it to 50,000 buyers over the previous 12 months.
Does the new NX elevate the petro-electro cocktail it has on offer, or is it still catering to the same classy-but-casual crowd it has courted since day one?
An Upgraded (and Available) RAV4
The 2022 Lexus NX 350h has a solid base to build on when viewed as the luxury twin to the excellent RAV4 Hybrid. Although not the most interesting option from behind the wheel, Toyota’s crossover connects with customers to the degree that there’s currently a waiting list of between six months to a year for the Prime plug-in version of the vehicle, whose production has been hobbled by pandemic supply-chain issues.
The standard hybrid might not be quite as coveted, but Lexus makes the most of its fuel-sipping potential. The NX 350h posts 39 mpg in combined driving, a full 10 mpg ahead of the next-thriftiest member of the NX family. The setup consists of a pair of electric motors and a 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder gas engine that together produce 239 horsepower, matched with all-wheel drive and a continuously variable automatic transmission.
Drinking responsibly at the fuel pump is the NX 350h’s most standout feature when it comes to its demeanor. Although it delivers acceptable acceleration and relaxed handling, there’s little else about the Lexus to compel one to place its daily drive above any of its rivals. It’s not unusual for smallish SUVs to underwhelm when it comes to engagement — after all, they are intended to deliver transparent logistical support from doorstep to office lobby to school pick-up line — but it’s a little disappointing given how anonymity of effort was also the previous generation NX’s calling card.
It’s What’s Inside That Counts
Where the 2022 NX 350h truly steps up is inside the passenger compartment, which for the first time feels of a piece with the badge’s luxury projections. The biggest improvement, bar none, is the decision to banish the brand’s trackpad-based infotainment interface to the dustbin of history, replacing it with a touchscreen setup that not only looks much better than anything previously available from Lexus, but is actually usable when driving. It’s a long overdue change that will eventually trickle through the automaker’s entire lineup, but the NX got it first and it’s the better for it.
The company has balanced the more traditional touchscreen with a slightly less intuitive set of controls on the steering wheel that interact with the vehicle’s head-up display. The circular navigation buttons change music tracks and adjust the velocity of the cruise control system by way of a context-sensitive menu that changes depending on which HUD “screen” you’re viewing. It’s not terribly cumbersome, but it’s also hard to see how it improves over a simple set of buttons matched with the gauge cluster display, making it an affectation rather than a boon.
More successful are the updates to the materials found throughout the NX 350h’s interior, with respectable leather and the occasional splash of brightwork keeping the largely dark-colored dashboard and center stack from feeling dour. The seating position is high and forward, and second row riders have plenty of space to stretch out. It’s a quiet and well-trimmed cabin that is a match, or better, for several of the brand’s European bogeys.
Is This the Hybrid for You?
Is it enough? If that word represents expectations when shopping for a sub-$50K luxury SUV, then the answer is yes, but that’s always been true of the NX. In a segment where few of its rivals truly separate themselves from the rest of the pretty-good pack, Lexus has done a brisk business with a sharp-looking compact that struggles to provoke a strong reaction.
It’s safe to say that the new NX is less of a rethink and more of a consolidation, a vehicle that gathers close its most winning attributes (reliability, efficiency, utility) and gives them an upscale sheen compared to the year before. It’s hard to see the spiffier Lexus attracting a new batch of buyers, but it’s easy to project its comfortable status quo with the already-converted well into the future.
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