Monday, March 27, 2023
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Lexus NX350h—projected as a crossover but meant for the road, not off it

Good looks don’t mean good driving. And just like you can’t expect a supermodel to race down a ramp on stilettos, the 20-inch wheels are a problem on bad surfaces.

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The Japanese do things differently, and the best evidence of that is the izakaya. You will find these all over Tokyo and other Japanese cities. We can call them Japanese pubs. But that would be injustice. An izakaya is different. You don’t get the standard nachos and chicken wings from a small menu, you get an elaborate choice of food and there is a formal element to it, something you’ll never experience in those ‘restro-cum-pubs’ of west Delhi. The first time you walk into an izakaya as a gaijin in Tokyo, it is intimidating, in a way that walking into a public house in England. Yes, at the end of a Friday night, everybody is drunk out of their wits while the owners are trying to get you to leave.

But what does a Japanese bar have anything to do with a car? Actually, everything when the car in question is a Lexus.

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Touch, feel and the ‘entertainment’

I have been brought up on a steady diet of German luxury cars — from Audi and BMW, to Mercedes-Benz, and while they’re all nice to sit inside, when you board a Lexus, it feels different. Not in a fundamental sense-the steering is where it should be, as are the pedals and the gear lever. But there are the tactile things, things that brochure pictures and reams of public relations information cannot convey. The feel of the stitching on the leather both on the steering wheel and the seats. Heck, even the plastics feel different, the switchgear genuinely feels nice to touch. Words can’t really capture the tactile sensation from the edge of your fingertips. It isn’t as if you want to sit behind the wheel, put the car into drive and gun it down a small rural road, sure the new second-generation Lexus NX can do that but it is more than just a driving machine.

With their new generation of cars on the new GA-K platform, which Lexus shares with its parent company Toyota, Lexus has fixed one of the major issues that its previous generation vehicles had. They have finally added a bit of Ginza to the car as well. If you haven’t been to Tokyo, Ginza is the district in the heart of the Japanese capital, a central point for all things electronic, from toilet seats that can do things you don’t even want to know about, to batteries in form factors you never knew existed.

The 14-inch infotainment display is among the best in class now, a far cry from previous generation Lexus vehicles where miniscule standard-definition screens were eons behind what you got on a Rs 20-lakh Korean SUV. And then, there is the customisable colour heads-up display that you can control from the steering-mounted buttons. These are surprisingly intuitive, so much so that while changing tracks from my Apple Music playlist, I really didn’t need to take my eyes off the road. Of course, I could have done that through Siri as well, the NX is integrated to Apple CarPlay completely like most vehicles today. If you have an Android device, you can use Android Auto. However, there is no wireless connectivity for these applications. That said, the car’s software is pretty good even if you hook up your device through bluetooth.

And there are other little touches as well. Like the wireless charging tray that can slide in and reveal cupholders. There are reverse cameras and sensors that also warn you of an oncoming car when reversing out of a parking spot in a shopping mall. There are the door latches inside the car, in the sense that there are none. Not like you have never known. There is a button to open the door, but hear me out here, it is smart in the sense that if there is a car approaching from behind you, it won’t let you open the door so that you don’t open your door and have it smashed by a car or worse, get out of the car into oncoming traffic.

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The hybrid king

The technology it carries under the hood is the stuff you do not see often. Lexus has hybrid technology, which the carmaker has inherited from its parent company. Toyota has been a global leader in hybrid technology ever since the first-generation Prius. And the Lexus NX350h they have just launched in India is the next generation of that technology. While the new platform will allow for a fully-electric NX to be built later on, particularly as Akio Toyoda, the chairman of Toyota Motor Corporation wants Lexus to move towards becoming a fully-electric carmaker by the end of the decade, this car utlises Toyota’s hybrid technology to deliver both an amazing driving experience and impeccable fuel economy at the same time.

The 2.5 litre four-cylinder petrol engine, with an output of 140kW (approximately 188 horsepower) powers the car, and that is coupled to a battery that powers two electric motors, a big one on the front axle and a smaller one on the rear axle. The NX, like most of its European brethren in a similar class, is primarily front-wheel drive. If you floor the accelerator, both power sources will simultaneously provide power to all the wheels and give a total power output of 179kW or around 240 horsepower, just a little shy of the recently launched petrol-version of the Audi Q5, which has around 246 horsepower. So, the Lexus can move when you want it to and touch 100 kilometers per hour from a standing start in just under eight seconds, not bad for a big heavy car.

But while hybrid powertrains can ensure you get a great dose of power when you want it, where it comes into its own is when you drive it smoothly. The battery pack on the NX350h isn’t very large, but stores enough power to start the car in an all-electric mode and when you are coasting, it switches the petrol engine off and drives the car in electric mode. The constant switching between the two modes is something Toyota Camry owners in India would be familiar with, and this results in unbelievable fuel economy. Of course, driving up and down the Sahyadri mountains at speed is not really ideal for fuel economy, but despite that the car easily delivered 10 kilometers per litre, in a city with traffic and slow-speeds, the system should be able to come to the fore.

Of course, when you are spending upwards of Rs 65 lakhs for a car, fuel economy might not be the top thing on your mind. That would be the way the car presents itself, and here the NX really stands out from the crowd. Over the years, Lexus has built up a good reputation for itself globally, and while unscrupulous importers played around with the brand until the carmaker formally arrived in India five years ago, that damage has been repaired. However, beyond the ‘L’ badge that can stand equal to the three-pointed star or the four rings, the standout feature on the NX is not just the signature ‘spindle’ grille or the katana-styled headlights, it is the way this car looks overall. It has a stance and contours that are truly impressive. It doesn’t really look like an SUV. The 20-inch wheels, which we will also talk about later, really do stand out, especially the black ones on the F-Sport variant. The second-generation NX is wider and larger than the outgoing model, but it looks sharper, and certainly, with the possible exception of the Jaguar F-Pace, it is the best-looking car in its class.

Good looks, however, doesn’t mean good driving. And just like you can’t expect a supermodel to race down a ramp on stilettos, the 20-inch wheels are a problem on bad surfaces. The roads around Lonavala are patchy at best, non-existent at worst and without enough rubber to take the impact of the road, ride quality is not the best. Lexus is bringing the NX as a full import and as a result, bringing it in the standard wheel and tyre combination available in other countries. Now, the average luxury car, whether it is a Lexus or not, will rarely ever face such godawful surfaces, indeed roads in most Indian cities have improved dramatically over the past decade, and on regular roads, this car will do just fine. But unlike say, the Audi Q5 with its Quattro system, this is not a car that you’d take off the beaten path. Horses for courses as they say, and the NX, while described as a crossover is a vehicle meant for the road, not off it.

But on the road, this car when pushed is a fun machine. I was driving the top-end F-Sport model, which not only has unique interiors — ‘Flame Red’ leather and a stunning ‘Heat Blue’ exterior colour — but also special dampers that improved handling around corners. Given a good surface, the NX can outhandle its rivals. In fact, coupled with the gadgetry and gizmos, this is clearly a car designed for people behind the steering wheel. And while you are behind that steering wheel and if you like music, the 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio is, for lack of a nicer word, banging.

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Can Lexus make a mark with NX?

The company just assembles their ES sedan in India currently. The NX will be coming to India as a full import unlike many of its rivals mentioned above, most of whom are assembled in India. It also does not have a diesel option, no Lexus does, but the hybrid system makes up for the fuel economy. Thanks to the semiconductor crisis, the NX350h will have limited supplies in India with allocations being limited to between 200-250 units.

And then there is the fact that Lexus India has few showrooms across the country, just four at the present time — New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad. However, Naveen Soni, the newly appointed president of Lexus India and an old Toyota-Kirloskar Motor hand told me that three new showrooms in Chennai, Chandigarh and Cochin are opening in the coming months and more ‘satellite’ showrooms and workshops are coming up soon. “Lexus is here to stay, and while half of our official existence in India has been taken up by the pandemic, we know we can compete with our rivals,” he told me, adding that the carmaker has some exciting plans, of possibly even expanding their assembly operations in India subject to the semiconductor crisis resolving.

End of the day, would I buy a Lexus NX350h over its primary rivals? The Lexus is pricier than its rivals by a fair margin. The F-Sport, which I drove, has an ex-showroom price of Rs 73 lakhs, compared to the Rs 65 lakh of the BMW X3 30i MSport and the Audi Q5 Technology edition. Yes, it is prettier than both German cars and drives just as well if not better. And in terms of kit, it is more or less the same. But if you were to ask me where I’d want to go out for a drink, a pub or an izakaya? I’d choose the latter even if the bill would end up being slightly more.

@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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