For the brand that basically invented the luxury crossover and what some may cite as the first modern crossover – period – you’d think Lexus would’ve been one of the first automobile brands to offer something in one of today’s fastest growing vehicle segments: luxury compact crossovers. Well, after years of leaving it to other luxury brands, many of which are now introducing subcompact CUVs, Lexus has finally added a smaller crossover slotting below the RX. Enter the NX.
Although the NX’s platform and basic architecture is shared with the Toyota RAV4, Lexus engineers and designers have gone to great lengths to make the NX look and feel like a Lexus, and more importantly, make it worthy of Lexus’ more prestigious badge.
The first thing that jumps out at you upon seeing the NX is its bold, razor-edged, and very in-your-face styling than can’t be ignored. Lexus may have received its fair share of criticism for boring designs over the years, but this is certainly not one of them. Given the basic crossover architecture designers had to work with, it’s quite an impressive effort to distinguish the NX from other look-alike crossovers, and in your author’s opinion, one of the best interpretations of Lexus’ current design language thus far.
Naturally, the NX’s styling may be a bit too aggressive and busy for some people’s tastes, but even those who are turned off by it should give Lexus credit for attempting a design that stands out in a generally conservative class. In fact, designers are even quoted with saying “it’s not meant to please everyone”.
The NX blends current Lexus design elements with the crossover body surprisingly well. Unlike the RX, GX, and LX, it’s the first all-new CUV/SUV design from the brand since this bolder styling trend began. Its adaptation of the controversial “Spindle Grille” is easily the best to date, looking less like the gaping hole on other Lexus’. Sharp projector LED headlights and separate “check mark” LED running lights flank the upper spindle, with sharply styled lower air intakes and a power bulge hood completing the NX’s very aggressive front end.
This aggressive theme continues along the side of the car, with sharp character lines and creases, and large, rugged wheel arches. Around back things are much more restrained, with high-mounted horizontal taillights and a thin chrome bar above the license plate cavity, in RX-like fashion. One could say that the NX design is effectively reverse-mullet, party out in front, business as usual in the back.
Stepping inside the Lexus NX reveals a very luxurious and finely crafted environment. Eschewing forests of wood trim, the NX doesn’t exude the same kind of Teutonic opulence as rivals from Audi and Mercedes-Benz. Regardless, the NX’s cabin is a very sumptuous place to be, with either real metal or stitched leather (or leather-like material) covering every visible surface.
The shape of its center stack mirrors the spindle grille, and its thick metal outline gives it a premium look. Like many new cars today, a 7-inch infotainment screen rises out of the dash, controlled by a either a joystick-like rotary knob or a trackpad (when equipped with navigation) located on the console next to the gear shifter. A plethora of buttons still dominates the instrument panel, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Personally, I still think physical buttons safer and easier than trying to use a trackpad and look at a screen while driving.
Seats offer high levels of comfort and support, with standard eight-way power adjustments for the driver and passenger. I was able to find my optimal seating position with just a few quick adjustments, something that’s not usually so easy for me. Given that it was a ninety-degree summer day, I decided to take advantage of the NX’s optional cooled seats, something I’ve never experienced before. While it’s not yet something I’d consider a must-have in a new car, they were quite nice. You don’t necessarily feel a “cold” sensation in the way you do warmth from heated seats, but it’s thoroughly refreshing to not stick to the seats when you go to move.
These cooled seats are optional, as are real leather seating surfaces. My tester featured Lexus’s synthetic “NuLuxe” leatherette in a very attractive “Flaxen” color. Seriously, let these seats be an end to the debate of whether or not leatherette is acceptable in a luxury car once and for all! They’re just as rich looking and feeling as one would expect from real leather, and among the softest, supplest, and most breathable “hide” I’ve ever experienced in a car. Plus, for those who hold it as a priority, NuLuxe is vegan-friendly.
Lexus offers the NX in three distinctive flavors: 200t, 200t F Sport, and 300h. Both 200t models are powered by a 2.0L turbocharged I4 making 235 horsepower and 258 pound-foot of torque, and this engine is notably Lexus’ first use of a turbo. Using a Lexus-developed twin-scroll turbocharger, it uses a four-into-two exhaust manifold system to reduce turbo lag and an air-to-liquid intercooler to lower intake temperature without affecting output. Lexus claims zero-sixty times are 7.2 seconds with front-wheel drive and 7-flat when equipped with all-wheel drive.
The 200t F Sport uses the same engine as the 200t with identical output numbers, but includes several cosmetic and handling upgrades, more befitting of its performance personality. The gasoline-electric hybrid 300h is powered by a 2.5L four cylinder, for total output of 194 horsepower and 152 pound-foot of torque. All-wheel drive models also employ an additional electric motor to drive the rear axle while the front is running on gas or electric power.
I chose to test-drive the regular 200t model, as this is the volume leader of the NX lineup. In my decent-length test drive, I was able to take the NX 200t up a few miles on the highway, and come back on the main roads, driving on some pretty rough patches of Route 53, as well as some very smoothly paved roads through Assinippi Industrial Park.
Handling is very good for a front-wheel drive-based crossover. Under mixed driving conditions, the NX feels well planted at all times, which is especially notable given my test vehicle rode on pretty average-width (225mm) all-season tires. Its advanced “Dynamic Torque Control” all-wheel drive system greatly benefits the car’s handling. There were many times under acceleration that I felt substantial power coming from the rear wheels, as if it was a pure rear-driver.
Steering has very good feedback, requiring the amount of effort most enthusiasts like in a car, owing to a greater sense of control. The NX’s thick, leather wrapped steering wheel makes this even more of a feast for the senses. This steering is very accurate in emergency maneuvers with confident brake pedal feel going to its four-wheel disc brakes.
Lexus rightfully gave the NX’s six-speed automatic transmission a turbo optimized torque converter, as well as the IS F Sport’s G-force artificial intelligence system that chooses the correct gear and downshift pattern by sensing the car’s current G force. To make a long story short, shifts are slick and precise.
The NX is no sports sedan, but it does have a very sporty feel from behind the wheel. Its turbo I4 packs quite a punch, with brisk acceleration and engaging revs. Lexus engineers clearly put a lot of effort into the brand’s first turbocharged engine. With no noticeable turbo lag or whine, it feels just as robust as a V6. Yet while the NX 200t can hold its own regarding handling and performance, it’s the vehicle’s ride quality and comfort that the majority of buyers will likely hold higher among their priorities.
In these respects, the NX delivers the smooth ride and quiet cabin that Lexus has been known for since day one. Suspension is significantly firmer than one would find in say, an ES 350, but engineers intentionally gave the NX a performance-tuned suspension that’s much more IS-like than ES. That being said, the NX’s ride is never harsh, doing a great job at canceling out bumps and potholes.
(The NX 200t F Sport, which I was also able to sample at a launch event back in March. I beat the hell out of it in a timed lap through a course with turns as razor-sharp as its spindle grille. I was very impressed with its handling when pushed to its limits, though I’m not a fan of the larger and more obnoxious mesh spindle grille.)
My Final Verdict:
With Lexus arriving rather late to the party, there are plenty of other small luxury crossovers which the NX competes with. Picking the “best” in this class is no easy task, as each one has its strong points. The NX may not have the 3-Series driving dynamics of the X3 or the stately interior of the GLK (or new GLC), but these cars start at noticeably higher prices. The MKC and RDX are more closely aligned in price and equipment levels, but have interiors that aren’t quite as elegant or refined as the NX.
I haven’t driven the MKC yet, but found the 2015 RDX’s steering overly light-weighted and artificial, something Lexus has done a good job dialing out. With this in mind, the Audi Q5 is probably the NX’s nearest competitor, as it offers similar power, features, and driving dynamics for a similar price. Its exterior styling is far more conservative, which can be a positive or negative depending on individual preference. Its interior however, is unquestionably very dated after eight years in production.
There are those of course who’d say “well I could just buy a loaded RAV4…”, but in truth, a fully-loaded Toyota RAV4 Limited comes in at just about $33,000, or only about $1,000 less than a base NX. Platform sharing between luxury and non-luxury cars has been very common for years now, so it’s really nothing to throw a tantrum about (but predictably, some still will). And while that RAV4 may have certain technology features that will push the Lexus’ price further north, the Lexus boasts unique engines, suspension systems, and styling, and most notably an interior which the utilitarian RAV4 can’t come anywhere close in refinement.
Despite sharing a platform with the RAV4, Lexus had made numerous mechanical, drivetrain, styling, and equipment upgrades to the NX, befitting of a true luxury vehicle and the Lexus name. At least in 200t form, the NX has adequate power, handles with a sporty demeanor, delivers a comfortable ride, and offers plenty of available luxury and high-tech goodies. The NX should appeal to a broad range of compact luxury CUV buyers, and to those it doesn’t, Lexus will undoubtably laugh them off all the way to the bank with this one.