Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2015 Lexus NX 200t and 300h

On the one hand we have Kato Takeaki. The Lexus chief engineer is an out-and-out racer. He races in several Japanese amateur series, and when he’s not on the track, he terrorizes the roads at the wheel of his 1995 MR2 with an aftermarket limited-slip diff. He has a passion for 2.0L turbo engines – after all, there’s one in his trusty red MR2 – but there isn’t such an engine currently in the Lexus family. Takeaki sees a gap.

On the other hand, we have the fastest-growing segment in North America, if not the world; one defined by stiff competition in the mainstream sub-segment and a clear class leader in the luxury sub-segment. Their cousins stand tall at the pointy end of the field with the seminal RAV4, while Lexus’s own RX long ago outgrew the “compact crossover” class. Lexus sees a gap.

Enter the NX; Lexus’s all-new luxury compact crossover and the first Lexus ever to sport a turbo.

Available with a 2.0L turbo engine, or as a Hybrid with a 2.5L inline-four, Lexus says it shares platform aspects of the CT200h and of the RAV4.

There are two main trims: 200t and 300h. The 300h is available in just one, fully loaded Executive Package while the 200t gets Standard, Premium, Luxury and Executive trims.

The NX boasts the longest luggage-load length in the class. Handy if you have a passion for Expedit bookcases.

Additionally, there are two F Sport trims available on the 200t, which align with the Luxury Package and Executive Package base trims. They come with a suite of extra look-fast bits and suspension tuning but no hp increase.

Our drive gave us a taste of the F Sport and the hybrid.  It also allowed us to sample Lexus’s replacement for its much-maligned, mouse-based HMI – but more on that later.

Pricing figures weren’t available, but when questioned Director of Lexus Canada Cyril Dimitris said he expects the NX to be priced “competitively”, but also confirmed the NX would be priced above the $39,940 Lincoln MKC.

The new 2.0L Atkinson Cycle, direct-injection four-cylinder is force fed by a twin-scroll turbo with an air-to-liquid intercooler and produces 235 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque across all trims.

That is on par with the base engines of the Lincoln MKC (240/270), BMW X3 (241/258), Audi Q5 (220/258) and pulls up just shy of the Acura RDX’s 3.5L V6 with 273 hp and 251 lb-ft.

Each of those vehicles (bar the RDX) has an upgraded engine available with more power and torque. Lexus’s engine upgrade is the hybrid, which has a net output of 194 hp – peak torque is not available.

The 2.0L engine is mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox, with AWD standard in Canada. The six-speed was selected to avoid having too many “new” components to configure – chief among them the engine, but also a complete revision of the way the traction control and stability control systems operate. It has been reconfigured to provide better response and be less intrusive during most driving conditions. The AWD system is front-wheel-drive based and will give between 50 and 100 percent of the power to the front, and between 0 and 50 to the rear. The Hybrid is slightly different and will only send a maximum of 40 percent power to the rear – transmission duties in the hybrid are assigned to a CVT.

At 1,755 kg the NX is lighter than all of those competitors except the RDX despite being similar in size at 4,630 mm in length and 1,845 wide. Because it is among the shortest in the class (1,645 mm high) you lose a little cargo volume, with Lexus claiming a preliminary 500 L with the seats in place and 1,545 L with them folded.

By comparison the Q5, which Lexus says it set as the benchmark for the class (we concur), packs 540 and 1,560 L respectively. It also packs more towing capacity – a lot more – 2,000 kg to the NX’s 907 kg.

For those with an Ikea fetish though, the NX boasts the longest luggage-load length in the class. Handy if you have a passion for Expedit bookcases.

On the subject of passion, the NX has polarizing styling. It is far better looking in the metal than in photos, where the pointiness at the front seems accentuated. The Lexus “L” is everywhere, starting with the large and aggressive grille. That motif is carried over at the rear where the taillights and bumper lines subtly form the same shape. In profile, the side skirts kick up just before the rear wheel, joining up with the line where the rear bumper meets the taillights to create a fluid and “dynamic” line. “Dynamic” is the word of the year it seems - especially in Lexus’s styling notes. Cyril Dimitris cites the “cool exterior and fascinating interior” as a tool to “make the customer fall in love at first sight”.

The NX really comes alive in F Sport trim, where larger wheels and an aggressive air dam at the front help boost aesthetic aggression levels.

Lexus says NX buyers want something sleek, stylish futuristic and aggressive – as well as something sexy and sporty. But that they also want a car that is sophisticated, well-appointed, versatile and nimble. The styling cues with sharp creases and exaggerated lines are Lexus’s attempt to communicate those ideals in sheet metal. The “NX Appeal”, Lexus says, is 47 percent emotional and 53 percent rational -  a mix that should appeal to intelligent, confident people who are also responsible and family-first.

Lexus expects 80 percent of this car’s audience to be married with young kids. All that helps explain not only the dramatic styling, but many of the interior design features of the NX – some of which are downright brilliant.

For example – a wireless charging pad for your phone. I was so excited for this feature, it’s the main reason I took this assignment on. So you can imagine my disappointment when I realised my phablet was too big for the little sculpted pad! Apple iPhone users might also be disappointed to learn they need a special $30 case for their phone before the wireless pad will work – but that case is a hard cover that can be used as a phone protector outside the car as well. Buyers who use regular-size Android phones or who don’t mind using the case for the iPhone will love this feature though.

Another neat touch? Cupholders that grip your cup/bottle so you can open it with just one hand. We tried it with bottle of water and it worked perfectly. It’s convenient and also a lot safer than trying to open a bottle of water with your elbows perched on the steering wheel. The cargo area will accept four golf bags with all seats in place.

People who enjoy clever tricks will also appreciate the hidden key barrel in the driver’s side door handle and the door handle illumination. People like me who appreciate being able to do what we want, when we want will appreciate that you can open any of the five doors with the proximity key stowed in your pocket – many marques will only allow the front two doors to be opened with the proximity key.

A sunglasses holder is nestled under the wrist-rest on the centre console and the back of the lid has a mirror on it – I guess that’s so you can do your make up/trim your nose hair at traffic lights, but I would never do that.

The interior is littered with premium trim pieces, including Lexus-branded allen bolt fasteners on the console, genuine stitched leather, and porous wood. The F Sport models get stunning red leather and stitching to further improve the look and feel of the cabin. The Lexus logo is imposed into the edge trim of the centre stack and console.

Accompanying the 4.2-inch TFT and 7-inch display screen is a full-colour, fully customizable head-up display – offering excellent access to a suite of audio, trip, navigation, speed and even cruise control information.

The NuLuxe seats are wide and supportive with deep bolsters that deftly tread the line between support and ease of access. The steering wheel is thick and comfortable to hold and the controls are all easy to reach. Controls for the dual-zone automatic climate control system are close to hand and sensible – the only two gripes being a lack of cooled seats and the labelling of the “sync” button as “dual”. Small gripe I know but it did trip me up for a while. It’s also ambiguous. Does “dual” mean you’re in split mode? Or does it mean you’re in sync mode? I still don’t know.

Lexus has abandoned the mouse-type controller for its HMI in favour of a puck-style controller in the Standard and Premium Trims, and a haptic, pinch-and-squeeze remote touch pad for the Luxury and Executive trims. I’ll cover both devices more in an in-depth feature but I found them to be a vast improvement over the old system. The system still lacks the finesse of Audi, BMW, or of the industry-leading UConnect systems, but it is easy to use, intuitive and has great ergonomics. The standard eight-speaker stereo system sounds incredible – Lexus has done a lot of engineering to make sure they get the cabin filled with the sound you want – and none of the sounds you don’t want.

The cabin is largely devoid of wind and engine noise – but F Sport models are available with engine amplification through the speakers for those who want to hear the horses screaming. You can even control the volume of the engine sounds playing through the audio system via a separate knob on the dashboard.

On the road the NX is pure Lexus. Silent, comfortable, composed. We first sampled the 300h and I was pleasantly surprised by the weight of the steering – the electric assistance is not as intrusive as many in this class and allowed for much tighter control. It also made the NX less busy on the straight highway stretches. The heft in the steering was doubly surprising when we got into the F Sport later on – that felt lighter by comparison. These were pre-production models so I would bet money that the hybrid gets more assistance before it hits the showroom. Shame really.

No matter the drivetrain, the NX gets MacPherson strut front suspension and double-wishbone rear. In the hybrid the sub-frame cradle is inverted to allow space for the batteries.

In either case, the NX handles superbly; surprisingly so. It is agile and nimble, with only the slightest tinge of body roll. Understeer is almost non-existent, in fact the NX is completely neutral and almost perfectly balanced – at least it feels that way. Changing direction is effortless and the car is composed over most normal bumps.

And that’s not even the F Sport model! F Sport models get upgraded adaptive variable suspension. The system has been upgraded from other Lexus models and now responds in just 20 milliseconds (down from 80) over 30 separate levels of stiffness – up from eight. If I’m honest, I couldn’t feel the difference. What I could feel, was complete surefootedness. We made several passes over a mid-corner pothole just to see if it would upset the NX 200t F Sport – no matter the speed, the NX cleared the obstacle with total aplomb.

Reefing on the wheel on corner entry to try and generate some understeer invoked a little tire squeal, but no push. This just proves the thoroughness of engineering with which they approached this car – we suspect few owners will ever expect such extreme handling and be well satisfied with its superb demeanour for everyday driving.

Both the hybrid and 2.0T editions pull adequately to speed from a stop, but the 2.0T is certainly the engine to have if oomph is your preference.

The Lexus feels as fun to drive as a Q5 – it is nimble, the engine is responsive and the gearbox demonstrates that you don’t have to be complicated to work well. F Sport models get flappy paddles – which bring up rapid gear changes and obediently completes requested shifts – even when dropping to second gets you within 700 rpm of redline. Non-F Sport models get only the gear selector manual mode which is set up the wrong way. Forward for up and back for down. The paddles add a lot in terms of driving enjoyment and winding road capability – being able to select your gear before the corner is always preferable to waiting for a shift mid-corner. Then again, it’s not like you can steer the NX on throttle with only 50 percent of power to the rears.

Lexus has not yet released fuel economy figures for the NX, but we saw 8.2 L/100 km from the 300h and 10.8 from the 200t F Sport at the end of our drive.

All hybrids come in the fully equipped Executive Package trim - but not F Sport trim, so we got to taste all the goodies in the 300h. The F Sport was merely the Series 1 F Sport trim, and so missed some options. But even the base model NX comes well equipped.

The first tier is the Standard trim. It gets three-mode drive mode select, 17-inch alloy wheels, L-shaped LED daytime running lamps, LED fog lamps, one-piece door handle with integrated lighting, dual exhaust with chrome tips, back-up camera with guidance lines, Smart Key System with push-button start, eight-way power-adjustable front seats, heated front seats, NuLuxe seats, seven-inch multimedia display with puck-type controller, and eight-speaker audio.

Premium Package adds 18-inch five-spoke wheels, premium LED headlamps, driver's seat memory, power-adjustable tilt and telescopic steering wheel with comfort access, cooled front seats, heated steering wheel, power liftgate, moonroof, roof rails and a rear-seat AC outlet.

To get navigation you need the Luxury Package, which includes the remote touchpad HMI controller, leather seats, wood trim, blind-spot monitor, rain-sensing wipers, rear cross-traffic alert, 10-speaker audio, and parking assist.

The fully loaded Executive Package also gets pre-collision system, dynamic radar cruise-control, the wireless phone charger, power-folding rear seats with controls at the seat, tailgate and next to the steering wheel for use by the driver, lane-departure alert, head-up display, automatic high beams and unique five-spoke alloys.

The first F Sport tier gets standard equipment plus steering wheel–mounted paddle-shifters, aluminum pedals, F Sport seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, F Sport interior trim, suspension and steering tuning, performance dampers, F Sport front mesh grille and bumper, 18-inch F Sport alloys as well as intuitive park assist, blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, LED headlamps, 10-speaker audio, navigation with remote touchpad HMI controller, rain-sensing wipers, black headliner, black side mirrors, and a G-force meter.

F Sport Series 2 adds the pre-collision system, dynamic radar cruise control, wireless phone charger, lane departure alert, head-up display and adaptive variable suspension.

The NX is available in eight colours, Eminent White, Atomic Silver, Grey Pearl, Obsidian (F Sport only), Starlight Black Mica, Matador Red Mica, Fire Agate Pearl and Ultrasonic Blue Mica (F Sport only). The interior is flaxen (tan) or black, and in F Sport models red or black.

The 2015 Lexus NX will be built in Japan.

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