FIRST DRIVE: 2015 Lexus NX
Finally, a fun-to-drive Lexus crossover.
Web2Carz Contributing Writer
Published: August 18th, 2014
We didn't have high hopes that the newest Lexus luxury crossover SUV (or CUV), the NX, would offer much in the way of smiles per mile. Yes, Lexus has tried to shed its staid image by getting sportier (there seems to be an "F Sport" trim for just about every model), and it's even succeeded in some cases - mainly with the recently redesigned IS sports sedan and the larger GS sports sedan.
But no one thinks of the mid-size Lexus RX - the staple of suburbia - as a sportster. Enter the all-new NX.
Based on the Toyota RAV4, the NX is aimed at late-30s urban-dwelling men and women (with and without children). Its aggressive styling and small size scream "city car," and it's possible that just as many, if not more, NXs will wind up in condo parking garages as suburban driveways.
Perhaps to prove how urban-yet-practical the NX is, Lexus flew media to Nashville, Tennessee - a city that happens to be located just a short drive from one of the best driving roads in the heartland, the Natchez Trace Parkway. We got to try the NX in a variety of situations: Back-road blasting, interstate cruising, and urban touring.
Before we get to what we found while testing, let's look at some basics. NX buyers will have two engines and drivetrains to choose from. There's the NX 200t, which is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (the first ever turbo gasoline engine in a Lexus), and the NX 300h hybrid.
Both can be had with front-wheel or all-wheel-drive, and the NX 200t is available with the F Sport trim package, which adds a more aggressive grille, black sideview mirrors, special wheels, sport front seats, a lower front bumper, sportier tuning to the front and rear suspension and steering, and the Active Sound Control system, which lets the driver control how much engine noise can be heard in the cabin.
Alright young, hip urbanites with cushy bank accounts, listen up. This might be the ride for you - as opposed to say, an Acura RDX, or BMW X1/X3, or Audi Q3/Q5, or Buick Encore, or Lincoln MKC, or Mercedes' GLA- or GLK-Class.
On the Road
One Lexus exec told us that the NX is an "SUV version of the IS." While we're normally averse to PR speak, after driving the NX we can say that the above statement isn't just mere spin.
Speaking of spins, take the 200t for one and you're immediately greeted with a tall wagon that's well suited for fun. The same engine that seemed quiet during an interstate cruise came alive with a nice roar when foot was planted to the floor, and the NX pulled nicely towards higher speeds. The six-speed automatic transmission (standard on the 200t; the 300h gets a continuously-variable automatic (CVT)) kicked down promptly for extra power, with little lag.
The Natchez Trace is filled with long sweepers that require little or no braking, you simply enter at high velocity and hold on, making minor corrections and hoping that law enforcement isn't waiting around the bend. In front-wheel-drive F Sport trim, the NX felt stable throughout the process with very little body roll and steering that was perfectly weighted and highly accurate. It was easy to trust, at least in F Sport mode (our opportunity to test handling in a non-F-Sport 200t was brief and limited, and our drive of the 300h was limited to urban and suburban streets) with a competency usually seen in similarly-priced sports sedans.
When we did need to brake suddenly, thanks to an unexpected traffic jam, the F Sport's binders were more than up to the task, with linear feel and solid strength. We didn't need to be so aggressive with the brakes in the other models, but in normal driving they felt smooth and linear.
Ride was luxury-car smooth when required, but never, ever soft. Lexus has done a nice job of blending smooth and stiff here.
Of course, nothing's perfect, and the NX isn't either. The 300h, especially, is a bit of a letdown. There's throttle lag in every drive mode (Sport, Eco, and Normal), and despite the transmission's kick-down feature, which is supposed to dig deeper for more power, the hybrid didn't feel quite as quick as its turbo brethren. It also happened to get loud under power, and not in a good way.
The F Sport's Active Sound Control system didn't seem to make much of a difference in exhaust noise (it was noticeable but subtle), but that's fine, since the turbo sounds wonderful under power.
We'll have to wait to report further on the all-wheel-drive's handling prowess, as our time in the hybrid was limited to the urban grid and we weren't able to get our dirty paws on an AWD turbo. But overall, we came impressed with the NX's driving dynamics. This from the same brand that makes the RX? There's hope, after all.
This will be by far the most divisive element of the NX. The aggressive styling looks scrunch-faced from head-on, and its snout looks like it sticks out too far when you gaze at the side profile. Additionally, the scoops on the front corners of the non-F-Sport models looks crumpled - your author thought his co-driver had hit something before realizing that the look was by design.
Opting for the F Sport solves some of this. The more-aggressive "spindle" grille and lower front bumper make the front end look smoother, and the scoops at the corners don't look so rumpled. The front of the NX becomes much more attractive in this guise.
From the rear, the NX looks much better. The L-shaped taillights blend into the hatchback and D-pillar seamlessly, and the whole look is smooth.
We applaud Lexus for taking a risk here, and we think that the younger buyers who the brand has targeted might find the angular NX appealing. If it were us, though, we'd definitely spring for the F Sport.
Like the exterior, the interior might be polarizing. Like other Lexus models, it's also a mish-mash of angles and levels, with the HVAC controls on a level above the basic radio controls. There's a non-retractable infotainment screen on top that sticks out a bit too much, and the new touch-pad that replaces the computer-mouse-like joystick from other Lexus models sits next to the shifter.
It was probably the touchpad that we took the most issue with - it's meant to be less distracting than the mouse, but we found it more so. It's not accurate with its infotainment selections, and it's not as smooth or intuitive to use as we'd like. Maybe owners will get used to it, but we didn't.
One neat feature is a wireless cell-phone charging tray. The idea of charging a phone without a cable is convenient, and it's the kind of small luxury touch that will appeal to Lexus buyers. Depending on what phone you have, you might need a special adapter, though.
We liked the reclining rear seats, and found them roomy enough even for six-foot-plus adults, but we also whacked our head on entry to the rear each time we sat back there (your author is six-foot-one). Once inside, though, rear headroom was more than adequate. Head and legroom up front is plentiful.
Most materials looked and felt class appropriate, but some bits seemed a little cheap for the price. A couple of minor nitpicks: The start/stop button seems placed oddly high, and the Active Sound Control knob is down low by the driver's right knee.
Like on the outside, Lexus has tried hard to get aggressive. The attempt mostly works, but there are some minor flaws.
There's no doubt the NX will be a conversation piece - its styling assures that. But owners can do more than just talk about the angular styling or the spindle grille on the F Sport. Buyers will be able to talk about how sporty their NX is and how that's surprising coming from Lexus.
Really, the NX is a driver's car in crossover clothes. It feels worlds apart from the RAV4 on which it's based - we'd never do to a RAV4 what we did to the NX on the Natchez Trace. And we wouldn't feel all that inclined to try.
Whether or not the public reacts favorably to the NX's looks, it's a safe bet the driver inside won't care.
Specs, Features, & Prices
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (NX 200t), 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas/electric hybrid (NX 300h)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic transmission (NX 200t), continuously-variable automatic (NX 300h)
Drivetrain Layout: Front-engine, front- or all-wheel-drive.
Power Output: 235 horsepower/258 lb-ft of torque (NX 200t), 194 system horsepower/152 lb-ft of torque (NX 300h)
Fuel Economy (mpg): 22 city/28 highway (NX 200t FWD), 21/28 (NX 200t AWD), 35/31 (NX 300h FWD), 33/30 (NX 300h AWD)
Base Price: Not yet announced
Available Features: Bluetooth, navigation system, infotainment system, USB port, wireless cell phone charger, 18-inch wheels, moonroof, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, LED headlamps, pre-collision system, heated and cooled front seats, parking assist, SIRI eyes-free system, satellite radio, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, keyless entry and starting, power liftgate, lane-departure warning system.
• For more information such as specs, prices, and photos of the 2015 Lexus NX 200t, click here: 2015 Lexus NX 200t.