FIRST DRIVE

Edgy 2015 Lexus NX 200t proves agile and downright youthful

Competitive new SUV doesn’t revolutionize burgeoning segment

Published: March 03, 2015 04:00 PM

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Lexus joins the crowded upscale compact SUV fray with the new NX. Clearly, late to the party, the key question is, “Does the NX bring anything new?”

Although derived from Toyota’s popular RAV4, the NX encompasses a vastly different style, driving dynamics, utility, interior ambience and—of course—price. Where the RAV4 serves as a mainstream compact crossover and is typically priced in the high $20,000s, the NX is a designer version meant to chase the likes of fashionable crossovers such as the Audi Q5 and BMW X3.

While the NX starts at an enticing $35,880, typical option packages quickly bloat the price to the low- to mid-$40,000 range. Our popularly equipped car with the Premium and Navigation packages, plus a few other odds and ends, landed at $43,284. Still, comparably equipped, the NX cuts its main competitors by about $3,000. 

New for Lexus, there’s a four-cylinder turbo mill powering the NX. It’s a 235-horsepower, 2.0-liter engine that turns out to be one of the most refined units among this ilk. It has no turbo lag. Instead, the force-fed four provides a linear power delivery and a smooth, refined demeanor. Those drivers used to a silky V6 won’t be disappointed. The six-speed automatic is two ratios short compared to the Q5 and X3, but it works well, shifting unobtrusively. The NX is also offered as a hybrid, employing a similar powertrain that fitted in the Toyota Camry and Lexus ES 300h with a total output of 194 hp. The EPA estimates this new hybrid will return 32 mpg overall. Perhaps this is  Lexus’ answer to the diesel offerings from the European competitors.

For years, Lexus channeled their inner old-school Buick, building cars that were soft, plush and isolating. And most Lexus customers felt right at home. But the NX aims to change that perception and woo buyers away from sharp-driving competitors, like the aforementioned prestige-brand SUVs. Indeed, the NX proves taut and responsive with a resolute attitude when taking corners. It may not be as rewarding to drive as those German athletes, but it’s certainly close.

The ride is firm and tightly controlled, yet absorbent enough on winter-ravaged New England roads. We don’t think that NX owners will complain. But if you expect a downsized Lexus RX type of plushness, then you’re not looking at the right car.

Naturally, smaller vehicles will forego some space for their stylish exteriors, snazzy interiors, and the luxurious ownership experience. The NX is feels very cozy inside. The dashboard and door panels wrap around you, making it feel cocooning and intimate. Some drivers noted that the center console was encroaching on their right knee.

The NX’s styling is distinguished by small windows and a high beltline, with a cumulative effect that may be good for appearance but certainly bad for visibility. The rear three-quarter view is especially lousy for parking and merging. Thank goodness a rear camera is standard; buyers should strongly consider opting for the blind-spot monitoring system, too.

Lexus' new touchpad controller can be challenging. Fancy luxury cars typically have complicated controls. 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 the right selections requires a deft touch and is distracting. Not to mention, it’s easy to brush against the touchpad and inadvertently change something. Unlike its German and domestic competitors’ controls, the ability to use shortcuts through the steering wheel and small screen in the instrument panel is limited.

The seats are comfortable but we were surprised (and, admittedly, dismayed) that the lumbar support adjustment goes only in and out and not up and down as in the competition. Apparently, Lexus hopes buyers won’t notice this missing detail.

One nice touch is a pull-out mirror in the center console, perhaps intended to cater to women buyers or other vanity seekers.

While it may be late to enter the hot compact luxury segment, we think the NX is going to be a big hit for Lexus. Stylish, competitive, well-trimmed, and benefitting from Lexus’s reputation for reliability and customer service, this recipe packs a lot of appeal for many buyers. We’ll know more soon as our NX 200t accumulates more miles.

Read how our NX ownership experience began: Infotainment system failure sends Consumer Reports' 2015 Lexus NX 200t back to dealer.

—Gabe Shenhar with Tom Mutchler

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