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As compact luxury SUVs go, the 2015 Lexus NX combines enough driving fun and occupant comfort to deserve a look, but anyone with serious cargo needs should look elsewhere, or stick to the brand's popular RX.
As badge engineering goes, Toyota's luxury division has more hits than misses. The ES midsize sedan feels considerably nicer than a Toyota Camry; the GX bears little resemblance inside or out to its Toyota 4Runner sibling. And so it goes for the NX, a car Lexus calls "loosely related to the RAV4," Toyota's popular small SUV. Still, Lexus insists the NX has 90 percent different parts and a structure that's 20 percent more rigid.
Indeed, the two seem like distant cousins, at most. The NX hits U.S. showrooms in December and pricing is still to come, but at a media preview in Seattle, I drove preproduction versions of the gasoline-powered NX 200t and the gas-electric NX 300h hybrid. My early take is that the NX holds promise.
Exterior & Styling
When the NX broke press last April, we thought it would compete with the latest crowd of subcompact luxury SUVs — namely the BMW X1, Audi Q3 and Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class. Lexus, however, insists the NX stacks up against those competitors' larger X3/Q5/GLK siblings, a group that's still a few inches shorter than the RX. The brand's spindle grille draws similarities to the rest of the Lexus lineup, but the standard four-bar design combines with the NX's thin lights and pinched nose to evoke an angry, rat-like expression. F Sport versions extend the grille lower, swap in a crisscrossing insert and finish out the bottom with a deeper, layered air dam. It's unique — sinister, really — and you should get used to it. It's what most F Sport models look like now, and I'll take Vader over varmints any day.
Seventeen-inch alloy wheels are standard; 18s are optional. F Sport versions have 18s and P225/60R18 all-season tires or optional (and wider) 235/55R18 summer high-performance tires.
How It Drives
Roughly the size of a Q5 or X3, the NX is still longer and wider than the original 1999 RX 300. In two generations since then, Lexus' mainstay has grown; today's RX 350 is 5.5 inches longer than the NX. It's also more than 230 pounds heavier than Lexus' new smallest SUV, whose lighter weight benefits drivability and efficiency. The NX 200t's 235-horsepower, turbo four-cylinder speeds ahead with sufficient punch, and its six-speed automatic performs better than the RX's clumsy transmission, holding lower gears and kicking down adeptly. Using Lexus' familiar Drive Mode Select, the Eco and Normal modes introduce occasional gear-hunting in passing maneuvers, but Sport mode imbues the transmission with satisfying decisiveness.
All told, Lexus says the NX 200t hits 60 mph in the low 7-second range. That's a hair slower than the competition's base gasoline engines, but the expected fuel efficiency justifies it: Lexus pegs gas mileage at 22/28/24 mpg city/highway/combined in the front-drive NX 200t and 21/28/24 mpg with all-wheel drive. Final EPA figures are still pending, but if those figures pan out, the NX will impress in this class. One pesky detail: The NX 200t requires premium gas, something many competitors merely recommend.
The NX's ride quality is busy at times, but it still feels more composed than the sometimes-choppy RX. I couldn't detect a huge difference between the normal and F Sport suspensions; the latter have performance shocks and retuned springs, but most of our brief seat time in an NX 200t F Sport was over smooth pavement in moderate traffic.
We'll have to put an F Sport through our handling loop around Cars.com's Chicago headquarters to get a better sense of the ride/handling differences. In all trims, the steering feels a bit numb at low speeds; feedback improves as you speed up. Still, a non-F Sport 200t pitched hard into corners — a quick reminder that this is no sport sedan. The 200t's all-wheel-drive system biases power up front, though it can split power 50/50 (front/rear) if needed. You can enforce the split with an all-wheel-drive lock switch on the dash. The 300h, meanwhile, gets a unique all-wheel-drive setup with separate motors for the front and rear axles.
The 194-hp NX 300h (which doesn't come in an F Sport version) cedes more of the fun factor. There's plenty of droning, rubber-band responsiveness from its continuously variable automatic transmission, along with a slow climb up the revs when you floor it; even at full bore, power feels adequate but never energetic, and the regenerative brakes have a degree of pedal vagueness that evokes earlier hybrids.
Indeed, Lexus says zero to 60 mph takes a modest 9.1 seconds in the hybrid. It feels like that, but the payoff comes in impressive efficiency. Lexus estimates the NX 300h will get 32 to 33 mpg combined, depending on driveline — figures that trounce any immediate competitors, hybrid or diesel. What's more, premium gas is only recommended, not required.
The NX's interior packs a lot of eye candy, mostly thanks to stitched, leatherlike synthetic materials that cover portions of the dashboard, center console and doors. Less convincing is the molded stitching that adorns upper sections — similar to the dash materials in the Camry and ES — as well as the big chunks of faux-metal plastic trim that flank the center controls. The layered approach does, however, look sharp overall.
Lexus' standard NuLuxe upholstery helps, too. It's fake leather, but it's damn convincing. Real cowhide is optional, but you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Seat packaging is good: The reclining rear seats offer good legroom and a higher seating position than the backseat in the RX, which is too low to the floor. Still, taller adults may want more headroom; sitting upright, my 6-foot-tall frame brushed the ceiling. The optional power-folding rear seats work with one touch, and if something is in the way — say, a mischievous child trying to pancake his sibling — they stop and retract. You can work them from the backseat or cargo area, too; in the backseat, the hip-level buttons double as power recliners.
Cargo & Storage
Lexus says four golf bags fit behind the rear seats. If that's the case, certain competitors must be able to fit the bags plus a caddy. The 2011-2014 X3, plus the Q5 and Acura RDX both have 25-plus cubic feet behind their rear seats, but the NX 200t has just 17.7 — a little more than the GLK's undersized cargo area, but small for the class and less than half the cargo space of the RX. Fold the seats down, and the NX's 54.6 cubic feet makes up some of the lost ground, falling near most competitors. (The NX 300h's battery pack sits beneath the rear seat, cutting about 1 cubic foot of volume in either configuration.)
Ergonomics & Electronics
I'm less enthralled about the brand's next-gen Remote Touch interface, which comes on navigation-equipped NX models. The latest setup abandons a stubby joystick for a square surface that's similar to a laptop touchpad. It's straightforward and retains haptic feedback, but it suffers clunky map interactions and menu items that are too easy to miss. Pinch-to-zoom map functions operate with halting lag, and scrolling the map still takes too much hold-and-swipe dexterity. Sans navigation, the NX gets a simpler directional joystick knob.
The standard CD stereo has HD and AM/FM/satellite radio, Bluetooth audio streaming, Siri Eyes Free compatibility, USB/iPod connectivity and DVR-like real-time audio recording (AM/FM only, unfortunately). An optional wireless smartphone charger works through Qi, a wireless charging standard (much like Bluetooth is a wireless data-streaming standard). Navigation-equipped models add extra stereo speakers, including a subwoofer. They also add Lexus' Enform system, which can stream apps ranging from Yelp to iHeartRadio off a compatible smartphone once you download the Enform app.
The NX had not been crash-tested as of publication, but standard safety features include eight airbags, a backup camera and the required antilock brakes and electronic stability system. Front parking sensors and blind spot, lane departure and forward collision warning systems are optional. The lane departure warning includes automatic steering correction, and the forward collision warning — packaged with all-speed adaptive cruise control — can automatically apply brakes if the driver misses its warnings.
Value in Its Class
Lexus expects to sell about 36,000 NX SUVs in the U.S. annually — about a third of RX sales, but right in the thick of Q5/GLK/X3 numbers. And very few of those should come from RX shoppers; Lexus officials predict just 5 or 10 percent of sales will come at the expense of the brand's mainstay SUV. Pricing information is due in fall 2014. The NX comes fairly well-equipped: eight-way power front seats with driver's power lumbar; keyless access and push-button start; Bluetooth phone/audio with Siri Eyes Free integration; and that backup camera are all standard. The German competition starts just less than $40,000 (all prices include destination), but Acura's 2015 RDX, at $35,790, is the value pick of the litter. We'll see which direction Lexus goes. The NX can't, however, start too close to the RX, which starts at less than $42,000 for 2015. With the right pricing, the brand's latest SUV deserves attention.
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