Day one: As American car journalists like to say, full disclosure: Lexus invited me to a hotel in the Cotswolds to celebrate their 25th birthday. They lent me an RX450h to get there and an NX300h to go home in. They paid for my stay, and let my wife and baby son come along too. I wasn’t going to accept but Mrs Sniff said it was nice to be asked and rude to say no. I think she just wanted a night away in the Cotswolds. Anyway, we drove there in the RX which is a funny old bus with a sort of high tech dashboard yet a glowing digital clock from 1981 and bizarre touches like needlessly concealable heated seat controls. We had a nice walk down the lane and then there was a press conference with a man called Alain Uyttenhoven who is Vice President of Lexus Europe. He told us some things about Lexus. The company knows its cars are bought for rational things like quality and customer service but now they want to be bought for emotional reasons. One way to do this is with more interesting styling. Hence the riot of folds and creases all over the NX. To make sure design gets priority from now on, they’ve put Toyota’s styling boss in charge of the whole of Lexus. Also, they’re not trying to topple the Germans because that would be ‘impossible’ and that Lexus wants to ‘represent an alternative’. Oh, and they’re considering a more mainstream replacement for the LFA.
After this, there was a dinner starting with treacle cured salmon, moving on to roast beef medallions with winter veg, progressing through a superb lemon tart and ending with coffee and some little cubes of fudge that looked confusingly like cheese. There was also a 2009 Saint Emilion, which I found delightful, and an after-dinner fireworks display, which I also found very delightful, although that might be because I’d drunk several glasses of the 2009 Saint Emilion.
Day two: When we arrived yesterday there was an LFA and an original LS parked outside the hotel. I thought they were just for display. But no, they were driveable. I’m up early, it’s a beautiful morning, I’ve never driven an LFA. It seems rude not to. On first impressions, it’s an unusual car. All the controls seem to be in strange places and even selecting reverse takes a bit of working out. Creeping off down the lane, it feels massively wide and determined to follow the camber of the road. The first gearchange on the paddle shifter is a shock too. No seamless PDK-style trickery here. It’s a single clutch and it seems to take ages. Also, the roads are a bit greasy and it’s not entirely clear how much grip the LFA is going to find. The immediate, unsettlingly slithery answer as I pull out of a junction is, not much. It’s a rare car, it’s worth 300 grand or so and it belongs to Toyota UK who seem to like it the shape it is. One way or another, this might be quite a short drive. But then I give it some revs and holy mother of sweet Jesus all manner of exciting things happen at once. There’s a sound like an old F1 car and a sensation of being pushed into an open lift shaft and at precisely that same moment I drive into an unexpected bank of thick mist which is shot through with shafts of clear morning sunlight and just for a second I think, well this is it. I’ve died. I didn’t feel it happening but here I am, in heaven. And heaven sounds like a Honda RA109E. It later turns out I’m not dead. I’m alive. I’m very, very alive, driving a Lexus LFA around deserted Cotswold roads, getting braver and braver, using more revs, loving the sharp turn-in and the frisky back end and the quirks of that gearbox and the sense of a fundamentally well-sorted chassis. But most of all, just relishing the sound and the fury of that sensational engine. One day when everything has a turbo, we’ll look back on engines like this with their love of revs and their raw sound and their sheer sense of joy through engineering and we’ll lament what we’ve left behind. It dominates the LFA yet doesn’t overwhelm the feeling that the whole thing is a unique and very special piece of work. After an hour of driving I decide against just heading towards Scotland with no plans to return and take the LFA back to the hotel. What an hour. What a car.
Driving home in the NX isn’t as exciting. What can I tell you? There’s quite a lot of room in the back. The dashboard has a touchpad controller for the stereo and nav which has some sort of weird haptic feedback. It’s quite quiet for the most part, but going up hill on motorways you can hear the four cylinder engine droning in an unappealing way. The NX is a hybrid of course. So are 97.1% of Lexuses sold so far in the UK this year. Yea, that’s right, I’ve been to a press conference AND taken notes.
Day three: My neighbour Louis comes out of his house this evening and admires the NX. A while back there was a concept version of this car. To my eyes it looked awful, like someone had crumpled up the design sketches by accident. The real life car is much better. The front overhang is a bit long and from some angles there’s a bit much going on but overall it’s interesting and different. The interior is a mixed bag. In some places it feels expensive and well designed. In others, like they’ve not bothered. The large amount of black plastic on the centre stack, for example, or the engine start button that bulges out next to the instruments and seems to have been taken off a cheap washing machine. For no accountable reason, there’s a tiny cubby in front of the arm rest with a removable lid which has a mirror set into its underside. I’m not sure why. Perhaps they’re trying to attract cocaine addicts.
Day four: A bit of trundling round town. Toyotexus hybrids are always good at that, silently purring through traffic jams on electric power. I’d read somewhere that the standard NX had a bad ride. But this press demonstrator has the optional adaptive dampers and it’s not bad at all. I mean, it could be a bit softer but Lexus seems to think this is a sporty car and instead it has a sport mode, and a sport plus mode, which make things firmer. I tried them a couple of times and went back to normal mode.
Goodbye: The NX is going away. The more I look at it, the more I like the design. The driving experience is less interesting. The NX has some of that ‘like driving, but less so’ feeling of its hybrid brothers but rather than embrace that by making it totally relaxing and calm the NX has been made to tow the official line that Lexus is getting sportier. A quarter of all the cars they sell in Britain now are in F Sport trim, which is sort of like their BMW M Sport or Audi S Line. So that sort of thing is what they’re focussing on. But what about the 75 percent of buyers who don’t buy the sporty trim? They’re the majority so shouldn’t they be the people Lexus takes a steer from? Everyone’s trying to be bloody sporty and it’s getting quite tedious. Everyday saloons and SUVs aren’t going to be sports cars so why pretend otherwise when all you’re doing is fucking up perfectly pleasant and wafty cars that are never going to handle like a GT3 racer? Moreover, since Audi and Jaguar and Mercedes are all obsessed with this stuff, why can’t Lexus become a true alternative choice by making thoughtful, intelligent, civilised cars for thoughtful, intelligent, civilised people rather than for utter bellends with their Breitlings and Bicester Village suits who want four door rep cars to be ‘sporty’. Lexus could do this better than anyone, what with their avoidance of nasty, noisy diesel and their devotion to refinement. But no, they want to be sporty too. And it’s a shame. They’re inspired of course by their own actual sports car, the LFA. But the NX is not like the LFA. Nothing is. Nothing at all.
The car talked about here is a Lexus NX300h F Sport. It has a hybrid drivetrain featuring a 153 horsepower 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and an electric motor on each axle. Total ‘system output’ is 194bhp. Lexus says it can go from 0-62 in 9.2 seconds and on to 112mph. In this trim without options it costs £36,995.