On a perfect June day in British Columbia, Takeaki Kato opens remarks about Lexus’ latest creation with a picture of his home. Kato, Chief Engineer of the Lexus NX , is dressed in full protective gear (including helmet and fire suit) and strapped into a race simulator. The intent is clear: Lexus’ newest car, the NX, was created to appeal to the enthusiast. Kato has aimed for dynamism and tells those assembled for the NX’s global launch he intends the car to become “part of the owner’s gear.”
Lexus has a legacy in Whistler. In 1997, the manufacturer launched its first luxury crossover vehicle, the RX, on the surrounding roads. 17 years later, the NX represents a distinct take on a burgeoning class: the entry-level compact utility. The car will compete with the Audi Q5, BMW X3, and Mercedes GLK. It will launch in 80 distinct markets, a measure of the broad appeal of such cars, and Lexus’ belief is that the segment will bring in 50 percent new customers to the brand. Repeat: 50 percent.
The NX also represents the final stage of Lexus’ 2-year reinvention that began with the 2013 GS. The body shares the chiseled exterior that is now a hallmark of the contemporary Lexus lineup. On curb, there’s certainly some dynamism—the sort of refined, youthful aggressiveness that certainly serves its sibling, the IS sedan.
Is there space for that thinking in a CUV? Can a vehicle that shares DNA with the Toyota RAV4 (though, we’re told with “90 percent different parts), redefine the driving feel of a segment that typically champions pure utility over excitement? What part of the Lexus personality—reliable luxury or Kato’s projected ode to the Fuji raceway—will dominate?
We spent a day in the new NX to find out.
The 2015 Lexus NX comes with a choice of two available drivetrains. Lexus’ new turbo gasoline engine, a 2.0-liter pumping 235 horses, is paired to a 6-speed automatic in the 200t (and its F SPORT-plated halo variety). The NX 300h employs a 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle gasoline engine. The hybrid has its own new P314 automatic transmission, with a kick-down feature that employs an electric motor generator and electric drive motor and a double set of planetary gears. In a nutshell, the system functions to maximize fuel economy and acceleration simultaneously.
As the chiseled exterior suggests, the Lexus NX proposes dynamic driver experience. That visual cue follows into the interior, which features race-inspired, cockpit-style seating. Whereas in most CUVs the driver sits high and straight, the NX seats surround the driver in a lower position. The effect is direct: an invitation to drive with a degree of passion. The feeling is amplified by the instrument cluster, intricately designed and equipped with intuitive switches.
An important new integration is the introduction of a Remote Touch Interface in the center console. This first-for-Lexus system replaces the old joystick, limiting (massively, to be honest) the previous frustrations with navigating the Lexus’ infotainment system. Imagine a small pad that functions much like a Smartphone or Tablet. The simplicity, even with all the leather trimmings in the NX, ultimately becomes the greatest luxury.
Music is important. The NX delivers with the standard Lexus Premium Audio system and its eight-channel amplifier. However, more important than music is device integration. Bluetooth audio is seamless. But, detraction is that a second USB drive is only offered with an available Navigation package. Powering up is, of course, important. One solve in the NX is a standard Qi wireless charging tray. Essentially, you can lay your iPhone on the tray and get some juice. Are you equipped to utilize one of those? We weren’t, so we still wished for standard multi-port USB outlets.
Lexus also incorporates a series of apps through voice-enabled Bing—movietickets.com, opentable.com, etc.—that certainly could make life easier. However, given the active lifestyle angle of the NX, they also seem mildly out of keeping with the target demo. (I personally think an OpenTable app is awesome).
The Drive Experience
FINALLY, right? Ok, so yeah, the drive is the most important part of the car. But, when assessing a CUV, it is also crucial to understand the total package. Behind the wheel, the driver’s seat certainly “coddles.” The position is firm, comfortable, and offers a solid vantage. All things point to dynamism on the road.
However, in the NX 200t there’s not quite the punch one might expect. Acceleration is smooth, but not at the same smile-inducing level as in the IS. The 300h, understandably, moves forward with less discernible power and not quite as smoothly (at low speeds) as proposed. We drove a model with 18-inch wheels. Although these are attractive, the available 17-inch option might yield a more comfortable journey.
If power isn’t the answer to dynamism, then handling is where attitude matches reality. The NX, in all varieties, is agile. On the curving, mountain roads around Whistler, the vehicle tackled quick turns with confidence and steadily slipped through lane changes. In SPORT mode, the chassis stiffens, and handling is improved. Without having strict city driving time, the lessons drawn from Whistler street time suggest two things: 1. The NX is perfectly capable of handling all challenges the urban environment can throw at it, and 2. The NX is road-trip ready. The latter point isn’t just about driving, but also relates to overall comfort.
Despite the NX’s diminutive stance, the interior is spacious. Additionally, the rear seats recline (added bonus) and provide ample legroom for full-size adults. Lexus tests storage with golf bags. The NX can fit four in horizontally. Or, in more youthful terms, you could fit a few kegs in there and be just fine.
The Dynamic Cruise Control function not only establishes constant speed, but also maintains vehicle-to-vehicle distance up to 37 mph. Read: The Dynamic Cruise Control function can significantly improve your stress levels in beach traffic. Therefore, the function also will improve your road trips. That’s luxury through calm, a hallmark of Lexus.
In short, the NX is most readily compared with the ES sedan than the IS. It’s sporty, comfortable, and not devoid of swagger. Yet, unlike the IS, the NX doesn’t beat its chest too hard. The race inspiration doesn’t ooze out of the tuning. Instead, the NX is more traditional Lexus (well appointed, classic luxury) with a ting of energy.
The X FACTOR: F SPORT
In available F SPORT package, the NX most successfully matches its proposed dynamism. Though the horsepower is the same as in the 200t, the 200t F SPORT ups the ante in style. “BOLD” is an apt brand descriptor—the L-mesh grille gives the NX an aggressive authority. The interior also takes the F SPORT cues of quilted seats, instrument panel, and aluminum pedals inspired by the LFA.
With Active Sound Control, the 200t F SPORT also incorporates something missing from its siblings: ENGINE NOISE. A manual experience, the ASC pumps in an engine noise note that enhances the sporting ambition of the NX.
It looks better and sounds better. But, is the F SPORT a massive upgrade? In non-scientific testing (our drives) it seemed so. The fun comes in handling, much like in the hybrid compact CT model. Not a triumph, but certainly an indicator of the future of Lexus—not divorced from its core DNA, but also with an eye to attracting younger buyers. For our money, it’s the gem of the NX lineup.
The Bottom Line
The NX won’t redefine the CUV category. But, tempering your expectations with the sport propositions will reveal a vehicle readily equipped for weekday and weekend life. It functions, thanks to Dynamic Cruise Control and device integration, as a soothing escape from daily stresses. In its ride, the NX also allows some of the same “breaking free of middle management” that caught our attention in the ES.