Toyota’s luxury brand finally jumps into the crowded upscale compact SUV fray with the new Lexus NX. Sure, they’re several years late to the party, but it doesn’t look like the SUV market is ready to call it a night anytime soon.
After spending several days with this all-new model, we think there are several things consumers need to know:
The NX isn’t just a gussied-up Toyota RAV4
Sure, the NX is based on a modified version of the highly popular RAV4 small SUV, but the models diverge on equipment, style, and utility. Whereas the NX will accommodate a young couple’s needs, it doesn’t have the spacious rear seat and squared-off commodious cargo area as the more family-friendly RAV4. (Hopefully, the structural changes will improve upon the RAV4’s Poor test result in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s small offset set crash test.)
Most NX buyers will probably be willing to forego some space for its stylish exterior, snazzy interior, and the luxurious ownership experience. The NX is noticeably upscale, with the tight cabin festooned with padded surfaces accented with stitching and stylish gauges.
The NX feels surprisingly personal and intimate inside
The NX’s dashboard and door panels wrap around you, making it feel cocooning and personal. That’s a departure from mainstream SUVs, which emphasize space and airiness. And yes, it feels a lot different from a RAV4.
The NX is further distinguished by small windows and a high beltline, with a cumulative effect that is great for ambiance but bad for visibility. The rear view is especially tight. Thank goodness a rear camera is standard; buyers should strongly consider opting for the blind-spot monitoring system, too.
The NX is offered as a hybrid
There’s a reason why almost every small upscale SUV is packing a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder under the hood. Global tax rules and fuel economy demands push automakers towards this seemingly universal answer. The Lexus NX200t’s engine makes 235 horsepower and feels relatively quick and refined, helped by electronic active sound control masking any nasty sounds. We expect to see this engine appear soon in the Lexus IS.
More unique is the NX300h’s four-cylinder hybrid drivetrain, making 194 combined horsepower. We think lots of buyers are clamoring to buy an upscale-but-small hybrid SUV. (Among rivals, only the Audi Q5 offers a hybrid, and not many people buy it.)
Like the NX200t, it’s available in front- or all-wheel-drive, the first four-cylinder Toyota hybrid sold here that can power all four-wheels. We wonder if and when this drivetrain will make its way to the RAV4.
Lexus’ new touchpad controller can be challenging
Fancy luxury cars typically have complicated controls; not many automakers escape this curse. Since the NX’s center dashboard screen is too high and a far reach to be a convenient touchscreen, selections are made through a flat touchpad mounted down on the console. Scrolling around the screen and tapping the pad to make selections is distracting.
It doesn’t drive like your stereotypical Lexus
For years, Lexus channeled their inner old-school Buick, building cars that were soft and isolating. The NX aims to win buyers away from sharper-driving competitors like the Audi Q5 and BMW X3. Decked out in optional F-Sport trim, the NX200t we drove felt tight and responsive; we’ll see how the conventional NX drives when we buy our production test car. That said, we predict it will drive better than the Acura RDX, the Lexus’ most direct rival.
A pull-out mirror in the center console
Affluent women buyers will represent a big number of NX owners, and this hidden feature is aimed right at them. It’s hard to say if this is clever, or pandering.
Reflecting on all of this, we think the NX is going to be a big hit for Lexus. Stylish, well-trimmed, and available as a fuel-efficient hybrid, the NX aims to please its owner more than fulfill family obligations. For plenty of buyers, this recipe packs lots of appeal.