Lexus NX VS BMW X3
- Long electric range
- Flexible drive modes
- Excellent interior overhaul
- Feels much bigger than outgoing car
- Ride not as good as RAV4 relation
- Fast but doesn't feel sporty
- Scorchingly fast
- Gives its rivals a run
- Terrific chassis
- Apple CarPlay price is extortion
- Some (not me) find the ride too hard
- Needs more visual aggro
For Lexus. a lot is riding on the new NX. It's one of the brand’s most important models, playing in the key mid-size SUV space, and it brings with it a lot of new technology and design elements for the historically conservative maker.
The key one we’re looking at here is the first ever Lexus plug-in hybrid, and the most expensive NX model ever, the 450h+.
The question is: Should you pick this one over the brand’s renowned 350h hybrid variant, and how does it compare to its luxury PHEV peers?
|Fuel Type||Hybrid with Premium Unleaded|
Big fast SUVs have long been a guilty pleasure of mine. My brain has been telling me for years, since the first time I drove one - the first-gen Audi SQ5 - that they're silly and wasteful and 'not my kind of car'.
The Europeans - and latterly, the Americans - seem to be playing to an audience of me, convincing my prejudiced head that my try-anything heart is right: over-engined, jacked-up, stiffly-sprung family wagons are as much fun as anything else.
The X3 M is BMW's first full-fat M version of the X3, a car that has never really fired the imagination until this third generation. First we got the very good X3 M40i, now we have a 375kW, twin-turbo straight-six screamer, the M Competition.
|Engine Type||3.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
The NX 450h+ is a leading example for plug-in hybrid models. It’s a big ask for a buyer to switch to this technology at a correspondingly higher price, and others could follow the example set by this car as it nails the brief for core offerings.
It has a long range, charges relatively quickly, and the hybrid system is easy to use, yet is also customisable to allow keen users to extract the most out of the technology.
The NX does all of this whilst also being a big step forward for the brand in terms of its interior design, technology, and features.
What remains to be seen is if there’s a big enough target market for PHEV tech when Lexus sells an even easier-to-use standard self-charging hybrid version.
As much as I love the mental GLC63 - complete with V8 bellow - the X3 M is the one for drivers. While that's a silly thing to say on the surface - what 'driver' is going to buy an SUV? - this is the new reality. We love these things and they're not going away.
While it may not be quite as comfortable as any of its competition or have the V8 cachet of the Jag and the Merc, it still takes the fight to them in what is easily the roomiest and most practical in this niche part of the segment. And it's an enormous amount of fun.
You have plenty of choices in the mid-size fast SUV market - X3 M, GLC63, Alfa Stelvio Quadrifoglio - what's your choice?
The design of the new NX is perhaps the thing I love the most about it. I was no fan of the prior model, which seemed a pretty average re-imagining of the previous Toyota RAV4 on which it was based. This new one, though, is a stratospheric leap into the future.
It thoroughly owns its appearance inside and out, leaving hardly a hint that it might share its underpinnings with the RAV4, and moving the Lexus brand forward in so many ways.
It has a newfound imposing stance thanks to its significantly expanded dimensions, with the signature Lexus descending roofline, massive wheels, and expansive grille.
While I wouldn’t call it ‘elegant’ it’s certainly contemporary, with the contours running down the bonnet, and particularly the ones surrounding the rear wheel arch cutting strong, post-modern lines.
It looks distinct, and importantly, far more resolved than its predecessor, to my eyes for the first time truly earning its place as a Lexus.
Interesting touches this time around also include the typeface across the rear, and sharp LED light clusters front and rear.
If you agree the exterior is an impressive step forward, wait until you see the inside. Lexus has clearly re-thought its entire approach to interior design, with the dash a clean slate exercise.
Immediately dominating the design is that massive touchscreen, which has an entirely new and much easier to use interface. Some clear thought has also been given to ergonomics, as, despite its size, even the furthest elements are easy to reach for the driver. And the clumsy touchpad interface which plagued the previous car has finally been consigned to the bin.
There’s also no doubt the NX reaches into the premium realm, with soft touch materials and tasteful grey finishes everywhere. There are even some clever elements, like a padded leather strip running alongside the centre stack for the driver’s knee, and largely tasteful application of piano black finishes.
The digital dash and wheel design is aesthetically pleasing, while maintaining a driver-oriented approach, which can sometimes feel a bit lost on some other new designs which replace an indented cluster with a single continuous panel for the dash and multimedia functions.
There’s also a distinct lack of buttons to clutter up the design, which ties into the practicality of the space which we’ll look at next.
The third-generation X3 is by far the best-looking and isn't as badly blighted by BMW's current oversized, hatchback-straining grilles. It's not small, no, but in the flesh, it looks fine.
The usual M accoutrements are present, with new front and rear bumpers, skirts and a whopping set of 21-inch alloys. It looks different and marginally more aggro than the M40i and just enough so a vaguely interested observer will notice.
A quick look at the rest of the similarly-sized hard-and-fast SUVs reveals a similar approach.
The seats add some serious excitement, they're a proper set of M seats, complete with the slightly naff light-up X3 M logos in the backrest. But it's predictably well-made, is very comfortable and is full of nice materials.
The NX is much bigger than before, meaning it has a lot more cabin space, but what cabin space is on offer is also more efficiently used.
A prime example is the centre stack and armrest console. The latter is simply huge and features the brand’s signature top with a trick hinge so it can be opened both ways.
The lack of clumsy controls featured in previous cars, as well as a tidy fly-by-wire shifter, means a lot more space in the centre console for two huge bottle holders.
Under the climate controls is a neat, floating, wireless charger, which slides back into the dash to reveal yet another large storage area and 12V power outlet. Front passengers can also make use of a choice of USB 2.0 or USB-C for connecting to the multimedia suite. Nice.
Moving onto the touch panel itself, and the basic dual-zone climate functions are controlled via big shortcut touch units, as well as the smart inclusion of physical dials for temperature. There’s also a physical dial for audio volume in the centre, and shortcut buttons for instant de-fogging. Smart.
There are big bottle holders with a small bin in the doors, and the space on offer for front passengers is great. The seating position is quite high, but the excellent seat trim which Lexus has built a reputation for is still present. The F-Sport seats in this variant offer unexpectedly good side-bolstering, too.
The rear seat continues with the lovely seat trim, and the 60/40 split backing has two states of recline.
The space offers plenty of room for my 182cm tall frame, featuring ample airspace for my knees and head. Oddly though, it doesn’t feel as big as its Toyota RAV4 relation.
This could merely be perception, as the interior trim consists of dark leather with dark headlining and a deep tint for the rear windows.
For storage, pockets feature on the backs of the front seats, alongside a decent bottle holder in the doors and an armrest console with two more.
Amenities include dual adjustable air vents with a lock-off (but no independent third climate zone), as well as dual USB-C outlets and a 12V socket.
Finally, there’s the boot. Volume is decent, with 520 litres on offer. The loading lip and floor is quite high, though, and it’s notable that 60 litres have been lost to this car’s design when compared with the RAV4.
It fits the three-piece CarsGuide luggage set with a little space to spare, but the luggage cover had to be removed to accommodate the height.
Under the boot floor there is no room for a spare, but a small storage cutaway, perhaps for your charging cables, as well as a tyre repair kit and a compartment which houses the 12V battery.
This X3, if you need reminding, is bigger than BMW's first SAV (ugh), the X5. That means plenty of room up front, heaps of legroom for most in the back and enough room for five aboard.
Front seat passengers score a pair of cupholders with a cover and the centre rear armrest has two more for a total of four. Add to that bottle holders in each door and your beverage holding capabilities are pretty standard.
The boot starts at an impressive 550 litres, almost tripling to 1600 litres when you drop the 40/20/40 split fold seat. You get a good flat load space when you do that, too.
Price and features
The NX 450h+ is the most expensive NX ever, wearing a before on-roads price-tag (MSRP) of $89,900. It’s some $6000 more than the well-received NX 350h 'self-charging' hybrid and offers a huge battery with an unusually long range for a PHEV.
We’ll look a little more closely at the detail behind that in a moment, but you should also know that in the context of its PHEV competition the value equation is not as alarming as it first seems.
Standard equipment is also excellent, with the NX range a huge leap forward for Lexus, the 450h+ only being available in the top F-Sport trim.
This includes a brand new and enormous 14.0-inch multimedia touchscreen with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and built-in nav, an 8.0-inch digital instrument cluster, head-up display, wireless phone charger, 14-speaker premium audio system, full synthetic leather interior trim, dual-zone climate control, power adjustable front seats with heating and ventilation, keyless entry and push-start ignition, 20-inch alloy wheels, colour-matching F-Sport bodykit, fully adaptive LED headlights, and a power tailgate.
Adding further value on top of the standard F-Sport equipment mentioned above, Lexus throws in the sunroof, heated steering wheel, and digital rear-view mirror which are optional lesser variants.
It doesn’t end there, though, with the NX featuring the full suite of active safety items offered by Lexus, as well as a particularly large hybrid battery (18.1kW) which allows a claimed NEDC range of 87km.
It also throws in the polite inclusion of a Type 2 to Type 2 charging cable, which you’ll need to charge up at public AC locations.
So yes, the 450h+ is the most expensive NX ever made and will still be too tall an order for many, but it’s actually a lot better value than it first seems in the context of its rivals.
For $157,900, before on-road costs, you may think this car should be absolutely loaded with stuff. And it is. Whether that's enough is up to you, but the price is about right for its segment.
It's worth remembering we only get the up-spec Competition version, BMW saw no point in offering the 'normal' version nobody was going to buy.
For your cash you get 21-inch alloys, multi-zone climate control, ambient interior lighting, keyless entry and start, active cruise control, electronic damper control, digital instrument cluster (not the new 'Live Cockpit'), sat nav, auto high beam, auto LED headlights, launch control, leather seats and steering wheel, electric front seats, head-up display, auto parking, power everything, auto wipers, huge panorama sunroof and a tyre repair kit.
The big central screen features BMW's iDrive, controlled by either the rotary dial or via touchscreen. It's a belter of a system and I reckon it's still the best, although you have to pay for Apple CarPlay - this remains controversial and I wonder how long the company will persist.
Engine & trans
Okay, this is where it gets tricky. You ready? The Lexus NX 450h+ has a combustion engine up front. It’s a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine producing 136kW/227Nm which runs on the Atkinson cycle, meaning it sacrifices some power in favour of efficiency.
The idea is that the slack is taken up by the electric motors, of which this car has two. It has one more powerful unit on the front axle, producing 134kW/270Nm, and a second unit on the rear axle facilitating the all-wheel drive system, producing 40kW/121Nm.
The electric motors are, in fact, the same ones used in the ‘regular’ 350h hybrid, however the higher voltage 18.1kWh battery pack in the 450h+ allows a full range of motion in the fully electric driving mode, up to 135km/h without any assistance from the combustion engine.
Combined power is rated at 227kW, but no system peak torque figure is given. Lexus claims the NX 450h+ will sprint from 0-100km/h in just 6.3 seconds.
The X3 M arrives from the US with a shiny new version of BMW's modular six-cylinder performance engine. While the M Performance M40i has a single turbo (B58) straight six, one tiny change to the name - from B58 to S58 - means a heck of a lot.
The S58 takes the same fundamental formula, bolts in two new single-scroll turbos, throws in forged conrods and a few other changes to boost the power to 375kW (500 horsepower) and 600Nm.
That torque figure is available across a nice wide 3350 revs, between 2600rpm and 5950rpm.
Getting all that to the wheels is the M version of BMW's all-wheel drive system xDrive and an active rear differential. The near-ubiquitous eight-speed ZF brokers the connection between that system and the flywheel and it's all impossibly smooth and feels bulletproof.
The 18.1kWh battery pack which features in the NX 450h+ grants it an unusually long range for a PHEV, at a claimed 87km. This is to the more lenient NEDC testing cycle, however, and in our real-world driving the car reported around 62-65km of pure electric range at close to 100 per cent charge.
That’s still the longest real-world range of any PHEV I’ve tested, which bodes well for the usefulness of this system.
Unlike some PHEVs, the NX 450h+ has flexible options for controlling the drivetrain. The car defaults to EV mode, but with a flick of the switch it can be driven as a parallel hybrid (like any other Toyota or Lexus hybrid system) which does a great job of maintaining the battery level.
Or you can switch to charge mode, which constantly runs the engine using excess idle power to charge the battery.
The only thing I wish you could control here is the regenerative braking, which has a single mild state of tune. The ability to control it with the paddle-shifters would make for a more efficient EV.
Claimed fuel consumption for the 450h+ is just 1.3L/100km, and after my testing, covering several hundred kilometres in a few drive modes, on the freeway and around town, I came to a final figure of 3.9L/100km.
That's pretty good, but if you were able to make more use of the EV drive mode, it could easily be less.
In terms of charging, the NX uses a European-standard Type 2 charging port. Importantly, the NX can charge at a rate of 6.6kW, double that of many PHEVs.
This means despite a relatively large battery you can get to 100 per cent charge on a public AC charger from the reserve level in just 2.5 hours. A more realistic proposition for those who only have on-street or apartment parking and cannot charge at home.
Total range can theoretically be in excess of 1000km with a full charge and tank of fuel. The NX takes 55L of fuel but notably requires mid-shelf 95RON premium.
The reality, of course, is different but not unexpectedly so - a week in my hands in the suburbs and a cobweb-clearing early morning run delivered a 14.1L/100km average. Again, not bad given the kind grunt that's on tap.
The NX feels entirely different from the previous model. The new car feels bigger, wider, heavier, almost as though you’re driving the previous-generation RX, a full size up.
It’s also a completely different beast from the RAV4 on which it is based. Visibility is still excellent with expansive glass on all but the rearmost window, while the refreshed cabin design feels spacious but more luxurious, too.
The steering is heavy, regardless of drive mode, making the NX feel substantial, but not inconvenient or artificial, with some organic feedback letting you connect with the road.
The hybrid drivetrain is the real star of the show, however, with Lexus putting its decades of experience on full show.
The car defaults to EV priority mode, moving primarily as an electric car at up to freeway speeds without needing the combustion components.
In hybrid vehicle mode, the components (which are the same as the standard hybrid, anyway) do an excellent job of mimicking the series/parallel drive of other Lexus and Toyota hybrid models.
The key brilliance of this system is how drive to the wheels is managed by the transmission, so it is imperceptible to the driver when the engine is assisting (aside from distant noise at higher loads).
The mastery of this tech is such that it is still the leading hybrid drive on the market for smooth power transfer.
The NX also has a charge mode, where it will operate primarily as a combustion vehicle with less electrical assistance. The idle time from the engine is used to charge the battery via the transmission.
While it’s not an efficient way to use the energy, it may be useful for where you want to maximise the amount of energy saved during a freeway trip in order to have a full charge for emissions free motoring at your destination.
The only area of drivetrain customisation I wish the NX had is in regeneration. The stock regen tune is quite mild, so I feel as though it could get even more range out of EV priority mode if you were able to maximise this.
The NX is also quite fast in a straight line, with Sport and Sport+ modes allowing you to eke otherwise hidden performance out of the electric motors.
Raw acceleration does make the 6.3-second claimed 0-100km/h time feel like a realistic proposition, but I wouldn't put this SUV in amongst its performance rivals.
While its electrified straight-line performance is impressive, the each-way suspension tune and weight of 18.1kWh of batteries leaves a little to be desired on the handling front.
This car feels its weight in the corners and comes with a fair bit of body-roll to keep it out of the same league as German sports machines like the GLC53 or BMW X3 M40i.
The suspension tune was another source of disappointment. For context, the ride is generally very good, but I found the large wheels, low profile tyres, and new adaptive suspension package give the NX a ride with a harsher edge than I was expecting.
This is perhaps more notable because its RAV4 relation is particularly good for ride comfort. Seems odd that the relatively affordable Toyota-branded SUV rides with more grace than its Lexus luxury equivalent.
The same goes for road noise. Not bad, but it could be better on coarser chip surfaces, where you can hear the difference the big Lexus wheels and low-profile rubber makes.
Where does that leave us? This is a more luxury-oriented model when it comes to its ride and handling than some of its price-equivalent sporty rivals, but leans into its electric features to provide a customisable platform for energy-efficient adventures.
It’s silky smooth around town but leaves you with the confidence to have some battery left at the end of your trip without making it too complicated. I’d argue the ingredients on offer here are what more manufacturers should be combining to get people into PHEVs.
One of the things I love about BMW is the company's ability to produce a car that on one hand is so normal and competent for the every day but also produce a version that is completely doolally.
The fine folk at M obviously involve themselves from day one so that when they get a finished car they can get cracking on making it properly fast. Obviously, quite a bit has to change for that to happen.
The X3 M is very stiff. Pop the bonnet and you'll see a piece of whatever the metal equivalent of four-by-two keeping the two sides of the car apart.
This is something M does whenever it gets a vanilla BMW, as it has with the M2 and outgoing M3 and M4 pair. To name three. The difference from the driver's seat, when compared to, say, the M40i, is immediate.
The steering is super-responsive, the front of the car reacting incredibly quickly given the X3 M's two-tonne weight.
Even in Comfort mode, the X3 M's ride is pretty firm. That doesn't bother me especially, nor my wife, who has a keen sense of ride quality. It never really falls over the line of being uncomfortable but it's worth knowing if you're considering this and you have to carry passengers.
If you drive around town in either M1 or M2 (in the factory settings at least), you're mad - the suspension becomes very hard and the steering too heavy. In fact, the steering in its Super Sport setting is just too heavy and uncooperative.
Cheerfully belting the 7200rpm redline at every upshift, barking between gears and delivering torque the way a hungry Labrador delivers a headbutt if you get in between it and food, the straight-six is glorious.
The 4.1-second sprint from 0-100km/h is only part of the story. Not many cars can cover ground so quickly and fewer still SUVs of this size and weight can do it with such precision.
When you turn the wheel on the X3 M, the front goes where you want it, instantly. All that under-bonnet bracing prevents the front flexing and shimmying, which is the enemy of going fast. So that sorts out getting into the corner. The best thing is you can push through corners and slingshot out the other side, riding that huge torque slab, the rear wheels doing most of the work with the occasional wriggle to keep you smiling.
A good chunk of the applause goes to the way the xDrive all-wheel drive system and its 'M Active' diff at the rear work together in Sport+ mode.
As colleague Steve Corby discovered at this car's clay-pan launch, the front wheels aren't doing much of the driving when you've turned it all up to 11 in '4WD Sport'.
When the road goes from straight to twisty, the excellent brakes come in to play, hauling the car down from big speeds without complaint. Even better is that in normal driving, they're not grabby and the pedal always lets you know what shape you're in.
As the top-spec car, the NX 450h+ comes with the full suite of modern active safety, including freeway speed auto emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, a new intersection assist feature, a new emergency steering feature, blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, lane departure warning with lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, road sign assist, safe exit warning, and panoramic reversing camera.
It also packs a whopping 10 airbags alongside the standard array of brake, stability, and traction controls, as well as dual ISOFIX and three top-tether child seat mounting points across the rear row.
At the time of writing, the NX was yet to receive an ANCAP safety rating.
The X3 M rolls out the door of BMW's North Carolina factory with six airbags, stability and traction controls, front and rear parking sensors, around view camera (including reversing camera), forward and reverse AEB, blind spot sensor, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, reverse cross traffic alert, speed limit recognition and tyre pressure monitoring.
There are also two ISOFIX points and three top-tether restraints.
The X3 scored a maximum five ANCAP stars in 2017.
Lexus offers a five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty but goes one step further for its hybrid and electric models to offer an industry-leading 10-year/unlimited kilometre warranty for the high-voltage battery components.
Service costs are very competitive for the luxury market, too, with every NX costing just $495 a year for the first three annual visits.
Good value considering the PHEV is more complicated compared to standard combustion variants.
Specific ownership boons offered to buyers of the PHEV model include complementary home installation of an AC charging terminal, alongside a three-year membership to the Lexus Encore Platinum service.
Benefits include invites to various events and discounts with partnered venues and fuel stations. But perhaps most importantly, access to the 'Lexus on Demand' service which lets users swap their car for another model for up to eight days at a time.
This is a fairly generous ownership initiative which keeps Lexus ahead of its luxury rivals.
BMW offers a segment standard, but increasingly mean-looking, three years/unlimited kilometre warranty. It's not just BMW, though, it's all of the premium Germans. You do get three years roadside assist into the bargain and you can pay to extend the warranty, too.
You can pre-pay your servicing, with a five-year/80,000km Basic package for $3685. If you think you're going to give your X3 M a proper walloping you can opt for the the 'Plus Package'. For a not-inconsiderable $8173.
BMW will cover your brake pads and rotors for the same period as the Basic package.
Service intervals are variable because, as ever, BMWs tell you when they need a trip to the dealer.