So, what does one look for in a hybrid car? Fuel economy? Of course. Reliability? I should hope so. Practicality? Sometimes. Affordability? Most of the time. But as much as anything, useability has got to be a major consideration. It’s one thing to have a fuel-sipping econobox that reduces your gas bill by half and emits fewer emissions, but too many hybrid cars are a drag to drive because of pitiful performance, convoluted ergonomics, or arcane operating procedures. Think of BMW or Mercedes offerings here and you get the picture.
But Toyota, who more or less pioneered the hybrid car revolution, has pretty much mastered the art of user-friendliness. The Prius, ground-breaking though it was, could be kind of a pain in the butt when it came to day-in, day-out schlepping. That silly shift lever, for example….never got used to it….but the company refined it over the years and it is now a mainstay for cab companies everywhere.
The technology found in the Prius has served Toyota well. It’s now utilized - in one form or another - in all their hybrid models; including Lexus….that comes to 13 models, in all body configurations and sizes. Other manufacturers, such as Nissan, have also availed themselves of Toyota’s hybrid technology.
One of the more useable models is the NX 300h. Briefly put, this is a mid-size SUV with a hybrid drivetrain and all-wheel-drive. Power is provided by a 2.5 litre normally aspirated four cylinder engine that features Atkinson valvetrain technology, an electric motor, and a CVT. An Atkinson engine, in a nutshell, keeps the valves open a fraction longer to aid breathing and combustion and, in the process, increases fuel economy. It’s invariably at the expense of performance, but you can’t have it both ways. The NX 300h develops some 194 horsepower and 152 foot-pounds of torque. So….boy and girl racers need not apply.
Not that the NX 300h is a complete slug. Give it some welly and it does what it’s supposed to, but this is primarily a grocery-getter/pick the kids up at the rink/hit the local shopping mall/drive to the cabin on weekends rig, with enhanced traction abilities and seating for five. Interestingly, it will tow up to 1500 pounds, which is good, as more than a few hybrids aren’t rated to tow anything at all.
What appeals to me the most about the NX 300h – aside from its combined fuel economy rating of 7.4 L/100 km – is its useability. For once, I found myself driving a hybrid that I understood readily and could, for the most part, comprehend its instrumentation and switchgear without having to consult the manual. For example, a big round gauge front and centre tells you when you’re on battery power or internal combustion. Any speeds over – oh – 60 km/h bring the engine into play, but before that, if you have a light touch and accelerate slowly, you can keep it on battery power.
By way of example, one of my regular trips involves a 2 km run to the local shopping centre. If I drive gently, I can stay in “Eco” mode the entire time, which means no emissions and no gas consumption. It’s easy to see and simple to follow and I turned it into a kind of game, just to see if I could do it. The transition between gas engine and battery power, incidentally, may be the most unobtrusive in the industry…..Lexus has done some work here, and it shows.
Elsewhere, the familiar Lexus stationary mouse, which controls the sound system, GPS, and so on, has been replaced by a touch pad, similar to that found on most lap-tops. OK….it seems to function well enough and was never a source of aggravation. My “Executive” model tester also had three-setting heated/ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, rearview camera, heads-up display, and all the other modcons one would expect on an upscale SUV.
Which leads me to pricing. Your base NX 300h starts at around $53,000 before taxes and extras. The Executive version adds some $9000 to that, and by the time the dust settles and the government has been paid, you’ll be looking at seventy large. That’s enough to give most people pause…..for this kind of money, you’d at least expect to have a little driving fun thrown into the mix. But you won’t get it here.
What you will get, however, is leader of the pack fuel economy, ease of operation, upscale comfort, and, presumably, ironclad reliability. It is a Lexus, after all.
AT A GLANCE
Engine: 2.5 litre four cylinder/electric motor
Drive: All-wheel drive
Horsepower: 194 hp
Torque: 152 ft. lb. @ 4400-4900 rpm
Base Price: $53,350; as tested $62,171
Fuel Economy: 7.1 L /100 km (city); 7.7 L /100 km (hwy).
Alternatives: Audi Q5 Hybrid, Toyota Highlander Hybrid, BMW i3, Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, Toyota Prius V, Lincoln MKZ Hybrid.