Review: 2015 Lexus NX 200t and NX 300h

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While Land Rover arguably invented the concept of a luxury SUV with their first Range Rover, the 1998 Lexus RX is the vehicle that’s had the single biggest impact on the luxury industry. Initially derided by the press as a lifted Camry with delusions of grandeur, calling the RX a run away sales success would be an understatement. Lexus’ original crossover  now accounts for over a third of the brand’s total volume in America and holds the crown as the best selling luxury vehicle on our shores. Trouble is, the RX has grown over time and is now a half-step too big for European tastes. In the hopes of dominating a third of Lexus brand sales in Europe, Lexus engineers went back to the drawing board and created s little brother for the RX: the 2015 Lexus NX.

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Exterior

The right-sized Lexus crossover is, as you’d expect, almost exactly the same size as the Audi Q5, Volvo XC60, BMW X3 and Acura RDX.  That puts the NX slightly ahead of the Mercedes GLK, four inches ahead of the 2015 Lincoln MKC and a full foot longer than the Range Rover Evoque. With 6.9 inches of ground clearance the NX should be just as dirt-road capable as the average luxury soft-roader and interestingly Lexus bothers to publish approach and departure angles. In case you’re now wondering, approach is 28.7 degrees in 200t and 300h trim and 16.8 deg in the F-Sport because of the flatter front end. Departure remains 24 degrees on all models.

Before you ask, the NX isn’t a shrunken RX and it isn’t a luxury RAV-4 either. Lexus claims that 90% of the parts are unique to the NX and those that are shared are primarily related to the optional hybrid system. While there are obviously some design similarities with other Toyota and Lexus products, I was hard pressed to find much parts sharing. And I looked.

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Thanks to the clean sheet design, the NX is the first Lexus that looks comfortable in the new corporate uniform.While other Lexus models (namely the LS) wear the “spindle” grille surprisingly well, other aspects of the new design language haven’t translated well to the luxury brand’s utility vehicles. The “Nike swoosh” LED daytime running lamp modules that look oddly out-of-place on the IS sedan actually work on the NX and I found myself wondering why. I think the answer can be found in the headlamp module which is much sleeker than in other Lexus models thanks to standard LED low beams. Overall the combination allows for a more balanced front end.

From tip to tail there’s no doubt that the NX’s design won’t be for everyone, but I find that refreshing for a brand long known for design-restraint.  I wouldn’t exactly call it the looks ground breaking or polarizing, but this is as close as Lexus has even been. Although Lexus is making an NX F-Sport Hybrid, Lexus has chosen to not offer the aggressive grille and fuel-sipping engine combo in America.

Interior

Meanwhile the interior is less of a departure from Lexus’ past. Taking a page from the IS sedan, the dash is bisected by a center console and multimedia stack with buttons pointed towards the sky. While I think the design is intriguing it suffers from the same problem as the skyward buttons in the MKC, you can’t read them in strong light. Like most of the other entires in this segment the dash is a combination of soft injection molded plastics and stitched pleather but Lexus isn’t going outside their comfort zone to offer a 100% leather dash like you find in some XC60 models.

Following BMW’s lead Lexus has ditched real cow in base models, although you can option up genuine hide in the turbo and hybrid trim (it is oddly absent in the F-Sport). Lexus’ imitation leather, called NuLuxe, is nearly indistinguishable from the real deal and the engineers claim it wears better and doesn’t “pucker” like leather can. Helping keep prices low Lexus also makes real wood an option and unlike most of the lineup you don’t get a choice of veneers.

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The front seats proved comfortable during a day’s non-stop driving although the F-Sport seats have an edge in my opinion thanks to the aggressive bolstering. F-Sport models also benefit from contrasting stitching, a red interior option and sport gauge displays in the LCD nestled between the tachometer and speedometer. The rear seats are just as comfortable as the rest of the luxury set but Lexus takes thing to an interesting level offering a power recline feature. (Manual recline is standard.) Opting for the power recline function brings the ability to power fold them via buttons on the seats, in the cargo area and to the left of the steering wheel.

Despite being nearly half a foot shorter than the RX, the small crossover offers nearly identical leg and headroom figures both front and rear, a fact Lexus was very proud of. A quick look at the spec sheet confirms the numbers but also answers the question “why buy an RX?” The RX is several inches wider offering more hip and shoulder room front and rear and offers more than twice the cargo volume behind the second row seats at 40 cubic feet to the NX’s 17.7. Digging farther into the numbers shows that the class leading legroom numbers come at a cost: a cargo area that’s around 33% smaller than the XC60, Q5 or X3. Lexus decided to use a less convenient hard tonneau cover rather than the roller variety, although they did design a slot for it to fit under the floor. Under that load floor you’ll find another novelty: a compact spare tire. With spare tires facing extinction in most European vehicles, Lexus has remained dedicated to the donut. You’ll even find one in the hybrid model.

 

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Infotainment & Gadgets

All US-bound models come standard with a 7-inch display perched high on the dash, unfortunately the distance from the driver and the large plastic bezel conspire to make the screen look smaller than it is. The problem is further compounded by the screen being actually smaller than the competition as well. As with the IS sedan, the standard “display audio” system is the only way you can escape the infamous Lexus Remote Touch system. Thankfully the base system is well featured with HD Radio, SiriusXM, CD player,  iPod/Bluetooth integration and weather/traffic displays delivered via HD Radio.

I find myself very conflicted about Lexus’ Enform navigation and infotainment system. When coupled with a touchscreen LCD as in the Lexus GX 460, I find the system easy to use and intuitive. Admittedly the software lacks some of the polish BMW’s iDrive offers, but it’s still one of my favorites. Sadly in most Lexus vehicles the touchscreen has been swapped for a joystick-like device which transforms the system from easy to use to frustration itself. For 2015 Lexus is trying something new: a track pad. The laptop like unit works essentially the same as the former joystick and offers haptic feedback in addition to some limited pinch and scroll gestures. HD Radio support and traffic information via HD radio are standard so you don’t need an XM subscription to get a color-coded traffic map. If you can get beyond the input method, the system proved reliable and moderately intuitive. Overall however I still rank this system below BMW’s iDrive, Audi’s MMI, Infinit’s new two-screen setup, Volvo’s Sensus, and even Mercedes’ aging COMAND system. On the flip side, Lexus is one of the few companies to offer complete voice command of your USB/iDevice ala MyLincolnTouch and the company continues to expand the number of smartphone integrated app features. New for 2015 is an OnStar like app that gives you all the standard “did I lock my car” telematics features in addition to alerting you if the car is speeding, exceeding a Geo-boundary or violating curfew.

While Lexus has offered radar adaptive cruise control for some time, they made a big push for the tech at this event equipping all of the testers with the option. The new system now offers full-speed-range control and brake hold so the system will take you to a stop and hold the vehicle until you tell the car to proceed. Also on offer is a lane keeping system that uses the electric power steering unit to steer the car back in the lane and an optional wireless charging tray in the center console. Like the optional system in the Avalon, the charging tray is Qi compatible only. Hopefully this will become more widely accepted since it’s more of a novelty at the moment. For 2015 the available heads-up-display has been improved and is now larger with a full color display that provides, vehicle speed, navigation instructions and safety system status displays.

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Drivetrain

Under the hood beats the first turbo engine Lexus has sold in America: an all-new 2.0L direct-injection turbocharged four-cylinder engine. While the engineers spent most of their time telling members of the press how fantastic their turbo design is, I was more intrigued that this seems to be the first non-hybrid drivetrain that can switch between an Otto and an Atkinson cycle. (Mazda tells me they do not consider the SkyAcitv design an Atkinson cycle.) The technology behind this is a new variable valve timing system that can adjust the intake and exhaust cam timing independently allowing for a late intake valve closure when efficiency rather than torque is required. Also on the trivia list is an air-to-water intercooler instead of a more typical air-to-air unit. The result is 235 horsepower from 4,800-5,600 RPM and 258 lb-ft from 1,650-4,000 RPM.

Rather than borrowing the 8-speed automatic used in the RX350 F-Sport (and the XC60), Lexus chose to refresh an existing 6-speed auto and tweak it for the turbo engine’s low-end torque. The engineer I spoke with claimed that the rationale behind the missing gears was that “an 8-speed automatic isn’t as much fun with paddle shifters.” Make of that what you will.

No modern Lexus would be compete without a hybrid option so the engineers borrowed the 2.5L four-cylinder based system from the Camry/Avalon/ES300h and dropped it under the hood. The gasoline engine is good for 154 horsepower solo and when coupled with two motor/generator units system power rings in at 194 HP with an undisclosed amount of torque. (My guess is 200 lb-ft.) As with the RX400h, you can add an optional electric rear axle for hybrid ski trips without chaining up. The engineers said the electric rear axle isn’t the same as what is used in the RX450 but the power output is similar at 67 HP max meaning that approximately 35% of system power can be sent to the rear. If that concerns you, fear not, turbo models use a traditional mechanical AWD system with a multi-plate center coupling capable of a 50/50 split.

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As with other Lexus models, the NX F-Sport is more of an appearance and handling package than anything else. Although Lexus does lower the final drive ratio a hair resulting in the first gear effective ratio dropping from 13:1 to 14:1, no additional power is on tap from the turbo. I didn’t have time to 0-60 test the models properly but initial testing indicates the lower ratio is good for a [very] slightly reduced sprint to highway speeds. As with other turbo vehicles, expect after-market engine computer upgrades to wring more power out of the mill.

Thanks to the Atkinson cycle implementation, fuel economy is projected to be 22/28/24 (City/Highway/Combined) for the front wheel drive 200t. Adding AWD will drop the city figure by just one MPG while the combined number stays 24 MPG. Hybrid shoppers will get the best fuel economy in the segment at 35/31/33 for FWD models and 33/30/32 with the electric AWD system. Overall the engine bay is stuffed with exactly what you expect from Lexus: the Japanese company is deified by steady progress, not leaps forward.

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Drive

Middle of the road is frequently a phrase used to describe Lexus in general. The success of the luxury brand is heavily rooted in offering a product that appeals to the majority of the segment while delivering class leading reliability and a healthy dose of value. This means that although I found the lack of an 8-speed automatic vexing, I have to agree the majority of shoppers will probably not mind the 6-speed transmission. What they may mind however is the turbo lag. All turbo engines have some lag off the line, but the BMW X3 and the FWD versions of the XC60 compensate for this with a very low first gear (16:1 in the X3 28i and 17:1 in the FWD XC60 vs 12.8:1 in the 200t). The 200t’s 13:1 first gear on the other hand is much taller so it takes longer for the engine to get the turbo up to speed. I didn’t have a chance to 0-60 test the 200t for myself but the quoted 7 second time sounds correct and should put the Lexus ahead of the Q5 but behind the Mercedes, BMW and most versions of the Volvo. Opting for the hybrid model will increase your scoot to highway speeds by 1-2 seconds but drastically reduces operating costs by yielding 9 MPG better economy and allowing you to run on regular unleaded.

When the road starts to curve the NX inspires confidence in a way the RX never has. The suspension is moderately firm, the steering is quick (2.68 turns lock to lock) and accurate, and body roll is well controlled. While the NX is likely Lexus’s most firmly spring mainstream vehicle, the F-Sport takes things up a demi-step by stiffening the suspension, adding a dampened strut tower brace and opening the door to 235-width summer tires. Also along for the F-Sport ride is Lexus Active Sound Control which is a canned engine noise system similar to what you find in the BMW M5. Unlike the M5 however Lexus puts a knob in the dash so you can adjust the amount of digital-WRX and (thankfully) turn the entire system off. While at no point was I ever under the impression I was piloting an X3, the 20ot constantly reminded me of the Q5 and XC60, two very solid entries in this segment.

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Lexus tells me that pricing will be released closer to the on-sale date in America which will be some time in December and since primary markets for the NX are likely to be China and Europe, we’ll have to wait a while to taste the NX in its final form. As much fun as the 200t proved, the 300h is what sets the Lexus apart from the competition. Sure, Audi’s Q5 hybrid is 50 horsepower more powerful, but the Audi system is also considerably more complex and expensive at $51,000 starting. While Lexus would barely hint on pricing, I expect the NX to start around $35,000 for the 200t model and the  NX 300h should undercut the Q5 Hybrid by at least $12,000. At that price I think the hybrid will make the most compelling argument against the Q5, X3 and GLK. (Note that Lexus and I are not on the same wavelength as they think the hybrid will account for less than 10% of sales.) Not only is the Lexus likely to be significantly cheaper than the gasoline/electric Q5, it gets 6-7 MPG better fuel economy on the combined cycle and runs on regular unleaded (unlike the German.) The NX hybrid also manages to sacrifice less in the name of fuel economy than I had expected delivering little difference in handling between turbo and hybrid models. The GLK250 diesel is nearly as efficient as the NX 300h but it runs on more expensive fuel and is unlikely to match the Lexus when it comes to cost of ownership. It’s too early to tell how the NX will be received, but anyone looking for a reliable and efficient crossover with a dose of fun would do well to put the NX on their list, especially if that list includes the XC60, Q5, RDX and MKC. The NX isn’t the most dynamic crossover in the segment, but neither is it a slouch. There are enough gadgets on offer to satisfy your inner nerd and the 300h’s fuel economy will make sure your accountant is happy.

Lexus provided the vehicle, insurance and gasoline for this review at a swanky launch event in Canada.