Mountain Wheels: Smaller, hybrid-powered options help round out Lexus lineup
If you’re a really big Lexus fan, you might have stayed up late Friday night to see the global debut of the newest version of the company’s second-smallest crossover, the NX. While we wait to see it in person — and I continue to enjoy this week’s cruises in a very pleasant 2021 RC 350 coupe — it’s time for a bit of a catch-up on the company’s current models, including an expansive range of hybrids and a few desperately in need of big updates.
Earlier this year, I had three in a row, so let’s address them from small to large. The smallest, the UX 250h, along with its $33,000 gasoline-engined variant, is still the least expensive entry point to the Lexus family. My $43,875 hybrid Luxury model bucks that trend a bit but proves its worth with 39 combined city/highway mpg, and a sporty and responsive 181-horsepower character that will appeal to newcomers or upscale hybrid gotta-have-its.
Yes, we are not cool enough to get the full electric version they sell in Europe — a shortcoming we hope Toyota/Lexus addresses across its entire product line soon — but if you’re seeking a sleek, slightly simplified version of the Lexus experience (the golf score clicker-style radio controls are still an oddity to me), the UX still seems flashier and more fun than the smallest German imports.
My favorite of the bunch this year is still the about-to-be-updated, all-wheel drive NX 300h, a step up in size and a move more squarely into traditional Lexus luxury. My Luxury trim hybrid, priced at $52,855, is already a much more expressive and engaging embodiment of newer-generation style and utility. It’s got a size and an overall presence that’s way more pleasant than gigantic SUVs, with a car-like character that makes it more maneuverable and less of a wobble-horse on the highway.
I’m guessing the 2022 NX will address the current model’s only major shortcoming, which is hybrid power. The hybrid setup here makes only 194 horsepower, versus the 235 horsepower the considerably sparkier gasoline-engine model generates. While that still got me close to the promised 31 combined mpg, you might find it a little sluggish at the upper reaches of the divide.
But it certainly captures the Lexus zeitgeist, retaining real versions of all of the infotainment controls, displays and luxurious features of larger models. And the low dash and thin A-pillars, plus the lower ride height, still make it an easier drive than the big SUVs. It makes no real false promises of off-road prowess, but is instead a right-sized crossover with enjoyable proportions.
The larger RX (here in a $63,495 450h F Sport model) — the Highlander-sized, Ontario-made, fourth-generation, all-wheel-drive SUV that has long been the most ubiquitous Lexus around — shows just a smidge of age, its last major refresh in 2016. But I drove it after umpteen midsized SUVs in a row, and I noted that the joy of driving returned, briefly. (Even the new Acura MDX, which we’ll get to soon, felt like a football stadium compared to the RX.) It’s been around to the point where its 1920s aero locomotive-styled nose is not quite as jarring as it used to seem
It was also absolutely the least hybrid-feeling hybrid of the bunch, with a 3.5-liter hybrid combo producing an impressive 308 horsepower and still about 30 mpg in real-world mileage. You can corner flat and smoothly, which allowed me to completely keep up with overexcited out-of-towners on a run along the Peak to Peak Highway between Lyons and Nederland. Here, the one-speed CVT transmission does not flutter or fade, and you can even use the slightly fake paddle shifters for braking. The F Sport upgrade includes ultra-sporty and well-bolstered leather seating and a race wheel. You can also upgrade to a Black Line special edition.
Finally, let’s go back to the future for the Lexus that is arguably the most in need of a generation-level update: the larger, absolutely not-hybrid GX 460 SUV, priced at $71,890. Its current underpinnings date back to the 2010 model year, and it seemed to have a lot in common with the final-edition Toyota Land Cruiser I drove at about the same time. That is, it only felt safe at 60 mph max, and it got a solid 16 mpg combined.
But if you desperately need a fancier, three-row replacement for your 4Runner, this is still it — complete with Russian instructions in the ancient, side-swinging rear cargo door. Tall, narrow but still super-girthy, the GX and its 301-horsepower V-8 and a paleolithic six-speed transmission feel tremendously inadequate on high-altitude climbs. Minus the actual Land Cruiser-derived LX, however, it is Lexus’ most accomplished off-roader, with shock damper, air height and crawl control toggles possibly sourced from a Tupolev Tu-22 bomber.
Andy Stonehouse’s column “Mountain Wheels” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Stonehouse has worked as an editor and writer in Colorado since 1998, focusing on automotive coverage since 2004. He lives in Golden. Contact him at email@example.com.
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