These days, it seems every automaker needs a compact crossover, and Lexus is no exception. In fact, Lexus is surprisingly late to the party, particularly since its RX300 was the pioneering crossover in the luxury field way back in 1997. Consider, also, the fact that an available donor architecture has been around even longer, in the form of the Toyota RAV4. Lexus, though, downplays the connection between its new NX and the RAV4 as well as between the NX and the larger RX. Instead, the company prefers to pitch the NX as a kin to the IS sedan.
No relation to the sporty IS, despite what you might hear
The thing is, there’s really not much connection between these two vehicles. While the IS uses six-cylinder engines driving the rear (or all four) wheels, the NX has the typical crossover powertrain of a transversely mounted four-cylinder engine with front- or all-wheel drive, just like the RAV4. And like the larger RX, the NX is also offered as a hybrid, again with front- or all-wheel drive.
But it’s not just a gussied-up Toyota RAV4 either
Beyond the powertrain layout, there isn’t much that’s shared with the RAV4, however. Lexus engineers claim that only part of the floorpan is common, and that 90 percent of the overall parts content is unique to the NX. Certainly, the two look nothing alike, as the Lexus sports a full suit of the wild creases and slashes that characterize the brand’s recent styling efforts. Mercifully, the design has been toned down from its retina-searing concept precursor, the LF-NX Concept, which was unveiled at the Frankfurt Auto Show last year.
Brand-new, twin-scroll-turbo four-cylinder engine
The hyperaggressive look is supposed to denote sportiness, but that memo appears to have missed the engine room. The two powertrains are a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo, in the NX200t, and a 2.5-liter four-cylinder hybrid, in the NX300h. The former is expected to account for the vast majority of sales in North America (more than 90 percent). It’s a brand-new engine for Toyota, one that’s likely to find its way into many more vehicles. The direct-injected four is tricked out with a twin-scroll turbocharger and variable cam phasing that effectively allows it to switch between the Atkinson and the Otto cycles. The output of 235 hp (at 4800–5600 rpm) and 258 pound-feet of torque (from 1650–4000 rpm) is in league with the 2.0-liter turbo fours from Audi (220 hp, 258 lb-ft in the Q5), BMW (240 hp, 260 lb-ft in the X3), and Ford (240 hp, 270 lb-ft in the Escape and the Lincoln MKC).
Not enough gears, not enough speed
Unlike those vehicles, however, the NX200t feels slow, moving languidly away from a stop. While both the Q5 and the X3 can muster 0-60 times in the mid-6-second range, the NX200t needs 7.0 seconds for the sprint — 7.2 seconds with front-wheel drive (factory times). Even the Ford Escape/Lincoln MKC, which is likely no quicker overall, nonetheless feels much more responsive. As you’d expect, the six-cylinder competitors such as the Mercedes-Benz GLK350 and the Acura RDX are decidedly quicker. The Lexus doesn’t carry any more weight than its German counterparts — although it is heavier than the flyweight Acura — but its six-speed automatic is two gears shy of the Audi and the BMW. Nor does the NX200t have a big edge over its competitors in fuel economy.
Hybrid NX300h is a gas mileage champ
The Lexus NX300h, however, is a mileage champ. The hybrid is predicted to return 30 to 31 mpg on the highway (all-wheel drive or front-wheel drive, respectively) and an impressive 33 to 35 mpg in town (AWD or FWD, again). Those city figures easily beat the X3 and GLK diesels, although the oil burners have the edge on the highway. With the extra shove from its electric motor, the NX300h actually moves off the line with more verve than the NX200t, but it is slower overall; it needs more than 9 seconds to reach 60 mph, as its continuously variable transmission sends engine rpm skyward and keeps them there.
Nice job on the electric steering, Lexus
From the moment we rolled out of the hotel parking lot in Whistler, British Columbia, it was evident that the electric power steering in the NX is tuned for greater heft than the Lexus norm, and the fat-rimmed, flat-bottom steering wheel feels great. Out on the gently curving Sea to Sky Highway, and on a tighter two-lane that branches off into the mountains, the NX handled confidently; the F-Sport version slightly more so, owing to its firmer springs and dampers and extra suspension bracing. Even so, the Lexus NX is not an energetic corner carver in the manner of a BMW X3, or even an Audi Q5. Ride quality on the optional 18-inch wheels was quite good — although the area’s smooth pavement is hardly the toughest test.
If not the biggest cabin in the segment, perhaps the most luxurious
Where the Lexus NX really excels is in its cabin, which is styled and outfitted to beat all comers. True, the accommodations aren’t vast. Although rear-seat riders have a comfortable perch, their personal space is impinged at the extremities, with headroom only marginal and little extra space to wiggle their toes. The cargo hold, particularly with the rear seats up, is among the smallest in the field.
Instead, the cabin imparts a cockpit-like feel, with a high center console that angles up to meet the dramatically sculpted dash. Layered surfaces, rich materials, and plush padding abound. The seats provide genuine lateral support and can be upholstered in three different two-tone color schemes, in either NuLuxe faux leather or the real, cow-based stuff. A power-folding function is available for the rear seatbacks.
No more mouse
The standard 7-inch center screen is controlled by a redesigned Lexus Remote Touch interface that ditches the previous mouselike device for an easier-to-use flat touchpad. Set your Qi-enabled personal electronic device on a tray in the center console, and it recharges wirelessly. The Lexus NX also boasts a long list of available active safety features (lane departure warning, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, pre-collision braking), and an enhanced Lexus Enform app can even set speed or distance limits for a guest driver.
This is not your mother’s Lexus RX350
With its second crossover, Lexus is keen not to follow in the tire treads of its first. It does not want the NX to turn the (often gray-haired) heads of RX buyers. The driving experience isn’t that dramatically sportier, but the aggressive styling, racy interior, and up-to-the-minute tech features will probably be enough to attract a younger crowd. With more and more buyers wanting their luxury/sports sedan in taller form, it’s pretty clear that one crossover isn’t enough.
2015 Lexus NX200t
- On sale December
- Base price $36,000/$45,000 (200t/300h, est.)
- Engines 2.0-liter I-4 turbo
- Power 235 hp @ 4800â5600 rpm
- Torque 258 lb-ft @ 1650â4000 rpm
- 2015 Lexus NX300h
- Engines 2.5-liter I-4 electric hybrid
- Power 194 hp (total system)
- Torque N/A
- Transmissions 6-speed automatic, continuously variable automatic
- Drive Front- or 4-wheel
- Cargo capacity (rear seats up/down) 17.7/54.6; 16.8/53.7 cu ft (200t; 300h)
- Estimated fuel economy (city/highway) 22/28 mpg (200t FWD), 21/28 mpg (200t 4WD), 35/31 mpg (300h FWD), 33/30 mpg (300h 4WD)