You wouldn't be wrong. Takeaki Kato, Chief Engineer and therefore the single person most responsible within Lexus for the success or failure of this NX crossover, openly admits that he chose the platform of Toyota's compact cute crossover instead of using a bespoke Lexus design. The IS sedan may look as if it would've been a pretty good starting point for a small-but-tall wagon, but it was discarded due to the realities of crossover life. We love rear-wheel-drive dynamics as much as the next set of auto enthusiasts, but a compact CUV like the Lexus NX is more likely to be photographed on Venus with the Loch Ness Monster at the wheel, than at Laguna Seca driven by Soccer-Mom Sally. Modern front-drive platforms offer significantly better space management while simultaneously keeping costs down, too.
Practicality aside, Lexus would much prefer you perceive that 90 percent of the 2015 NX is new and therefore not shared with the RAV4. After spending a day behind the wheel in the mountains in and around Whistler, British Columbia, we're keen to see it their way.
Much has been said already – and we've said much of it ourselves – about the styling direction Lexus has taken over the past several years. Love it or hate it, the spindle is here to stay. We speak, of course, of the massive front grilles, pinched in the center, now adorning everything in the Lexus lineup from the smallest CT to the largest LX. While we're still struggling to accept the grille on otherwise blocky sport utility vehicles, we're starting to come to grips with the face on sedans and crossovers. It's still a bit overworked on the NX in general, and especially so in F Sport trim, but in person the corporate schnoz has well-defined presence, offering a clear link across the range.
Love it or hate it, the spindle is here to stay.
As we said, the grille is most pronounced on the sporty NX 200t F Sport, but somehow it's this version that we're most drawn to – perhaps because if we're giving in to Lexus' styling flourish for a penny, we're diving in for the full pound.
Overall, the NX's lines are crisp, pulled taught in at each corner so that the car has a visible diamond-shape when looked at from above. We'd stop well short of calling the NX pretty, but it's certainly not ugly, either. Let's go with distinctive; and by that, we aren't trying to be politically correct – cookie-cutter shapes are all too common in the compact crossover craze these days. As we're wont to do when we think that styling lands on the controversial side, we polled a bevy of local Canadians for their opinions, and the responses were almost universally positive.
Open the door and you'll be greeted by an interior that is several orders of magnitude nicer to look at and touch than in the RAV4. Where the mainstream Toyota appears built to a price point, the designers of the NX have done a sterling job covering any flimsy plastic or rough edges with something soft and supple. Its interior design isn't groundbreaking in any meaningful way, but we appreciate the lines of the center console, which mimic the diamond-shape of the car's exterior, and we think the little techno-flourish provided by the touch-sensitive overhead lighting system is a good way to make a small statement that doesn't get in the way of usability.
We never felt lacking for space inside the NX.
We never felt lacking for space inside the NX. The tale of the tape reveals that there is more room overall in the Lexus than in the BMW X3, albeit not quite as much as the Audi Q5. There's 17.7 cubic feet of storage space in the back that rises to a good and useful 54.6 cubes with the rear seats folded.
There are some new technology bits worth briefly touching on that come as part of the Lexus Enform system in the NX. For 2015, Lexus is launching a smartphone app that is capable of starting the engine, locking or unlocking the doors, lowering the windows, checking fuel level or helping to locate a parked car. To get it, you'll have to check the box for factory navigation; the first year is free, after that, it's going to cost you $80 (that's just for the remote – other add-ons like Safety Connect at $140 per year after the first and Destinations at $125 further drain the bank account).
There's also a wireless charging mat in the console (you'll need either a phone or a phone case that's Qi-compatible) and Siri Eyes Free Mode for use with Apple iPhones. Opt for navigation and you'll get a new Remote Touch Interface that uses a touchpad with haptic feedback in place of the old mouse-like control unit, though the old joystick is still used when navigation isn't included. We can't shake the feeling that Lexus is throwing every input option at its customers, trying to find one that sticks. In practice, though, while both systems require a bit of a learning curve, either works fine once you're accustomed. If you hate fingerprints on your touchscreen, the Lexus input method isn't the worst option, though the Enform experience continues to be let down by uninspired graphics and dull, boring color schemes.
The Enform experience continues to be let down by uninspired graphics and dull, boring color schemes.
Straight ahead of the driver, a 4.2-inch screen sits between two large circular gauges – a speedometer to the right and either a tachometer or hybrid power meter gauge to the left, depending on model. At the top of the center stack sits a seven-inch LCD screen, with or without the optional navigation. This is also where the Lexus Enform Apps are accessed from. All buttons and controls down below the screen work well, ergonomic complaints are nonexistent, and we appreciated the ability to find a comfortable position in the nicely contoured seat that didn't impede our ability to get a clear look at all of the gauges in the dash cluster.
F Sport models have a perforated steering wheel cover and more seat bolstering, but that's really just for the sake of appearance, as is all that red stitching. More eye candy is provided by a G-Force meter and turbo boost indicator found in the smaller LCD.
Fire up the brand-new turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine in the 2015 Lexus NX 200t and you'll be greeted by... well, not a whole lot, which is noteworthy as there's a turbocharger spinning at a few hundred thousand rpm underhood. As ever, Lexus prides itself on well-managed sound deadening, and we noted nicely muted noises from its first compact crossover. Following BMW's lead, if you want to call it that, Lexus has equipped the NX 200t F Sport with Active Sound Control, which uses a little dial to the bottom right of the steering wheel to adjust how much synthesized engine noise is pumped into the cabin using a specific speaker. We tried it, and it does increase the amount one hears the simulated powerplant, but we can't help but view it as 100 percent, completely and unequivocally unnecessary, especially for a Lexus crossover.
Lexus rates its 2.0 turbo at 235 hp and 258 lb-ft, but there's not a lot of torque off idle.
Despite the turbocharged engine's maximum boost of 17 psi, we didn't feel like there was all that much thrust to go along with all that lack of noise. Lexus rates its 2.0 turbo at 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, and that feels about right. There's not a lot of torque off idle (max rating is achieved from 1,650 through 4,000 rpm), and power peak comes in at a lofty 5,600 rpm. Six-cylinder competitors definitely feel more sprightly when accelerating from a stop, but the Lexus mill comes into its own at passing speeds. We broke down this new turbocharged engine from Lexus in much greater detail for those interesting in learning more.
We find it interesting that Lexus has chosen to create an all-new automatic transmission with only six available ratios, considering that most of its competitors have seven (Mercedes) or eight (BMW and Audi). Lincoln's similarly new MKC looks like a viable competitor to the NX 200t with its base 2.0-liter turbo engine and six-speed automatic, the rub here being that Lincoln also offers a more powerful 2.3-liter option, and even its base powerplant spits out more ponies and torques than the Lexus. Acura's top-selling RDX also makes do with a six-speed auto, but comes with a standard 3.5-liter V6 with significantly more horsepower but slightly less torque.
Lexus says the NX 200t can scoot to 60 miles per hour in 7.2 seconds in front-drive form, or 7.0 with four driven wheels, which is probably accurate, though the engine's lack of low-end torque makes it feel a bit slower. Certainly, the 2.0-liter turbo found in the BMW X3 28i feels more powerful, and we think it'd pretty easily walk away in a drag race, not to mention its optional turbocharged inline-six and turbo-diesel options. Audi's same-size engine is probably roughly equivalent, but remember – this seems a common refrain, no? – there's a much more powerful V6 optional in the Audi, too. The V6-only Acura is about a second quicker, as well.
Since we've sampled the rest of the class, we're keenly aware that the NX 200t is trailing its more powerful rivals by a good margin.
At the end of the day, we exited the Lexus NX 200t thinking it could use more punch, possibly from a larger, optional powerplant. Most buyers will likely be pleased as pie with Lexus' 2.0 turbo, but since we've sampled the rest of the class, we're keenly aware that it's trailing its more powerful rivals by a good margin.
Those with a hankering to give up more speed for the sake of efficiency might appreciate the available NX 300h, which, despite its appellation hinting at greater displacement, makes less power (192 hp combined from its 2.5-liter gasoline engine and electric motor combination) but boosts mileage considerably. EPA figures aren't yet finalized, but Lexus predicts the NX 200t will return 22 miles per gallon in the city, 28 on the highway and 24 mpg combined (21/28/24 with all-wheel drive), while the 300h and its 35/31/33 (33/30/32 with AWD) ratings will be rivaled only by the BMW X3 28d's 27/34/30, depending on how its owner drives and on what roads it is driven on. The Audi Q5 Hybrid and Mercedes GLK250 BlueTec may come close in the real world, too. (We should probably mention that the diesel offerings from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are rather delightful to drive... Not that the Lexus NX 200t isn't a nice steer in its own right.)
You'd never guess that any major components are shared between it and the RAV4 when behind the wheel, which makes sense, because Lexus claims to have benchmarked its own IS to set the bar for the NX. The entire chassis boasts enhanced rigidity due to a high percentage of high-strength steel, additional welds and body adhesives, which allows the suspension to perform as its designers intended.
You'd never guess that any major components are shared between the NX and the RAV4 when behind the wheel.
Up front are MacPherson struts, and at the rear is a new double-wishbone setup that separates the coil springs from the dampers. Instead of typical strut towers, the Lexus employs an oil-filled damper that connects the right side to the left, allowing for an additional level of tuning while taking up less space than a rigid metal structure. Our tester wore 18-inch wheels shod in 225/60 all-season tires; 235/55 summer tires are optional on the F Sport.
Lexus has included its Drive Mode Select knob, with settings for Normal, ECO and Sport. As you'd expect, ECO is there to save fuel, and its more casual responses will surely reward those looking to eke the most miles from a gallon of fuel. Sport, on the other hand, is more interesting to enthusiasts as it tightens up the steering feel using a variable assist curve and quickens throttle response. Normal, of course, is the standard baseline setting that the NX defaults to, resulting in a somewhat relaxed demeanor that is still on the comfortably firm side of taut.
Steering is indeed a little bit video-game-esque, in that there are times when the driver can tell there are computers dissecting requested movements before turning them into reality. That said, the car tracks straight and true without needing minute corrections, and it responds quickly to directional input when driven with a sporty bent. Ultimate grip is decent, and when things do break loose, the NX is well composed, defaulting to very-slight understeer to go along with plenty of tire squeal.
Models equipped with Dynamic Torque AWD benefit from enhanced traction in bad weather and otherwise slippery conditions, but will also get a few additional handling tricks with a fully active spread of torque from front to rear (up to 50 percent of torque can be sent to the rear wheels) and from side to side. With or without AWD, a preloaded differential up front is said to assist on slick surfaces and in keeping the car planted at high speeds. The four-wheel ventilated disc brakes stop the 200t with authority, though the 300h and its regen braking functionality make for some strange stopping sensations.
The NX is most definitely a Lexus through and through.
Pricing has yet to be announced, and it won't be until we get closer to its on-sale date later this year (it's already available in Japan and will roll out to the rest of the world on a staggered timeline). If Lexus is able to undercut its German competitors by a few thousand dollars – and we think that's wholly possible – then it will have a compelling package with which to compete. It may not be as ultimately sporty as its rival from BMW, and it may not have as many powertrain options as the Audi Q5, but we think it strikes a rather pleasant balance between Lexus luxury, attention to detail and class-appropriate driving dynamics.
Calling the NX a RAV4 in drag would do it a great disservice, and it wouldn't be accurate, either. Ninety percent of this CUV's makeup is unique, and quite a bit improved, over its corporate sibling from Toyota. While perhaps not 90-percent better – it's not like the borrowed bits from the RAV4 are terrible – the NX is most definitely a Lexus through and through.
At the end of the day, the NX 200t isn't perfect, but it stands as proof positive that platform sharing needn't be a dirty little secret swept under the rug by automotive marketing departments.