2015 Lexus NX 200t, NX 300h First Drive
The Little Entry-Level Luxury Crossover That Probably Could and Probably Will
Have you ever flipped through an airline magazine and come across one of those "travel essentials" picture stories where some hipper-than-thou fashion executive reveals the contents of his carry-on bag? "I never leave the country without my reversible Tahitian palm frond hat. It's quite the conversation starter!" The whole thing's fake, and a slick way to sneak in some product placements, but those articles succeed in making you, the reader, feel like an inadequate, ill-prepared, out-of-touch traveler. And you know what? Maybe you are making a fashion faux pas by not having that hat. Maybe you do need that ostrich-skin-bound travel-diary. Or the wrinkle-free, roll-up tuxedo for impromptu black tie events.
Or, if you fit a certain demographic, Lexus would like you to feel that you're making an even bigger sartorial bad decision by not owning its new entry-level luxury crossover, the NX.
Doesn't Lexus already make a small, luxury crossover SUV, the RX? Yes, in fact, in the U.S. the RX outsells the BMW 3 Series. That makes the Camry-based high-rider the best-selling luxury vehicle, period. That's more than 100,000 RXs per year. I'll let you chew on and digest that for a moment. Where does the NX fit? It's smaller than the RX, 5.5 inches shorter with a 3.2-inch-shorter wheelbase. It's also going to cost less. The RX begins life at nearly $42K. Lexus is being oddly tight-lipped about how much the smaller NX will cost, but I'd guess a bit less than the similarly sized (and heavily targeted) Audi Q5, a strong-selling, entry-level luxury CUV priced at just under $40K. That's to start, as the Audi's sticker can easily skyrocket north. If the Lexus NX shows up wearing a $37,000 base sticker, don't act surprised.
That price is for the front-wheel-drive NX 200t stripper. Add AWD and the price will go up, as it will when opting for the Luxury trim level or the hybrid powertrain in the NX 300h, which can also be had in AWD guise. However, Lexus thinks the hybrid models will only account for 10 percent of the NX sales mix. It feels that the take rate for AWD will be about 50 percent across both the 200t and 300h. Lexus also feels that the buyers will be split 50/50 between men and women, and that the average age of a NX customer will skew between 5 to 12 years younger than the brand's traditional customers. Deciphering exactly how it settled on that age range makes my head pound with the fury of a thousand PowerPoint presentations. All you need to remember is, "younger." Additionally, Lexus believes a full 25 percent of takers will opt for the sportier, pricier F Sport model (yes, you can get a hybrid F Sport) that offers a different front fascia with the best yet interpretation of the now-signature Lexus spindle grille, black mirrors, performance gauges that includes a G-meter, and a reworked suspension complete with dampeners for side-to-side motion. Fun fact: If you lift up the spare tire cover there's a little slotted window that allows you to glimpse part of the rear shock absorber. A totally unnecessary, but nice, detail.
There are two big questions surrounding the NX. First: Since it's based on the ignoble Toyota RAV4, can it possibly be a credible premium vehicle? Second: What's up with Lexus' new 2.0-liter turbo mill? Especially since that long-overdue engine is going to start showing up in other models, most notably the IS 250, replacing that car's dowdy, unloved 2.5-liter V-6. Starting with the former, Lexus claims the NX is 90 percent different than the RAV4, and that the only elements the two share are things such as wheelbase, suspension points, and holes in the unibody for speakers. I must admit I initially dismissed those claims until I got in the sharply creased Lexus and drove it. Color me a convert. The NX's ride is first-class, a strong engineering feat for a vehicle with such a small wheelbase. This is particularly true of the non-F Sport model. The steering is properly weighted and lively; the NX 200t holds the road well during fast sweeping turns; and the brake feel is about 10 times better than you'd expect on this class of vehicle. Aside from size, the only giveaway that the NX is in any way related to the RAV4 is the shape of the passenger side airbag cover, and you'd have to be a total car geek (Hi, mom!) to notice.
The NX 200t is quick. Starting with a 2.0-liter inline-four, Lexus developed a scratch-built twin-scroll turbocharger. (Twin-scroll means that exhaust pulses from the 1 and 3 cylinders hit the impeller with alternating pulses from the 2 and 4 cylinders, reducing lag.) Taking a peek under the hood reveals an unusually wide cylinder head. Reason: There is, in fact, no exhaust header. The little turbo is mounted directly to the exhaust side of head. What a world. The engine summons 235 horsepower and stumps up a useful 258 lb-ft of torque. Gazing at the competition reveals that the Volkswagen Group 2.0-liter turbo I-4 in the Q5 makes only 220 hp but the same amount of torque. It should be noted that the Lexus NX has only a perfectly fine six-speed automatic transmission (even though the IS can be had with an eight-speed), while the Q5 has more gears, as most of the rest of the competition does.
Speaking of the competition, the Mercedes-Benz GLK doesn't have a small turbo gas motor (yet) but its comparably priced 3.5-liter V-6 creates 302 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque, with the accompanying mileage and weight penalties. Having driven the GLK, I can say it doesn't feel any quicker than the NX. The Cadillac SRX also has a V-6—a big 3.6-liter that makes 308 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque— though the Caddy's still hooked to a six-speed. Then there's the BMW X3, which in xDrive28i guise (a 2.0-liter turbo) cranks out 240 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. The BMW figures are, of course, massively underrated. Let's not discount the new, similarly sized/positioned and quite classy-looking Lincoln MKC, which features a 2.0-liter turbo I-4 good for 240 hp and 270 lb-ft of twisting force. The little Lincoln also has an optional 2.3-liter turbo I-4 that creates 285 hp and 305 lb-ft of torque.
You might be asking -- and I know I was -- if Lexus feels it's made a mistake by bringing a muzzle-loading rifle to a shotgun fight? It says no. First of all, the 200t will (probably) hit 60 mph in the high 6-second range. Fast enough, though with 194 hp total system power, the 300h hybrid will require more than 9 seconds to do the same. Then there's the little matter of reliability, an area where Lexus has long enjoyed a hard-won reputation in the luxury category for not breaking. It claims the 2.0-liter turbo's output has been optimized for precisely that. Yes, the Lexus folks told me the engine is capable of making more power -- stay tuned. Third is fuel economy, where Lexus is estimating 22/28/24 for the FWD 200t, and 21/28/24 for the AWD model. How does that stack up to the competition? The less powerful Audi is rated at 20/28/23 and the more powerful cars are worse. While there's no diesel model (a move I say thwarts the brand's global ambitions), the hybrid 300h should return EPA numbers to the tune of 35/31/33 for FWD and 33/30/32 with AWD -- impressive from a green perspective, no doubt. My big takeaway is that the NX 200t feels plenty powerful, though even in F Sport guise, an X3-rivaling sports car it's decidedly not. Could Lexus shoehorn in its venerable 306 hp, 3.5-liter V-6? Probably, but I doubt NX customers will demand it.
My gut tells me that people interested in the NX will be signing up because of the design and the technology. Let's get the design portion of the conversation covered. I asked some pretty high-ranking Lexus bigwigs if they like the Predator-faced look of the new cars, starting with the polarizing (to put it mildly) IS. To a man their reaction was, "I personally don't care for it, but we can't stop selling 'em!" I feel that the non-F Sport NX looks like a catfish with an overbite. However, and especially in white, the F Sport models snuck up on me. They look pretty groovy, as weird as it feels to write that. Maybe I'm getting soft? The rear three-quarter view is particularly well-wrought. Inside, the NX carries on the design direction first seen in the high-flying LFA's cockpit that has shown up in the GS and IS. Not only does the NX cabin look premium and sporty, it feels the part, too.
As for tech, gone is the teensy, emasculating joystick controller seen in other late-model Lexi. Yay! It's been replaced with a functional and high-tech-feeling touchpad. You'll need to spend about three minutes learning how the snap-to control of the icons work, but once you do you'll realize it's a slick solution. Most importantly for Lexus's global aspirations, the touchpad allows for Chinese and Japanese character entry. Sadly the map still looks like it comes from a decade ago. As I told many Lexus people, Tesla exists, and if you're coming to market with a nav screen less good than what's in the Model S, you're not launching at the top of the market. Remember, everyone's phone has great maps built in. Audi uses Google Maps for a reason.
Like some recent BMWs, the NX comes with a digital sound composer that plays car noises through a speaker (interestingly, it's a separate speaker and not part of the stereo). Personal feelings about that piece of tech aside, one unique feature is a volume control knob for the piped-in sound, located below and to the right of the steering wheel. It allows you to control the amount of vroom, vroom coming into the cabin. After a few minutes of playing with it, I just turned it off. Much better, says me. There's also a built-in wireless phone charger, to which I say amen.
Lexus is planning on selling about 3000 NX units per month when the car goes on sale in November of this year. After spending a day with various models, I think 36,000 units for a year seems low. Remember that the big luxury growth segment is compact CUVs, and Lexus is showing up to the party with a very competitive product. Key point: Dealers have been howling for this thing. The NX is good-looking in F Sport guise, luxurious and high-tech enough, handles and rides well, and might be priced to fly off lots. The hybrid 300h is pretty forgettable and has weird-feeling re-gen brakes, but as stated earlier it will only account (maybe) for a tenth of overall sales. Getting back to the 3000 units per month, Lexus also feels that NX sales will not interfere with sales of its cash cow, the almost 9000 RXs sold nationally. Truth be told, Lexus is creating two product channels at the moment. The drowsier, old-folk people-movers RX and ES, and the much more exciting, great-to-drive GS, IS, and now NX. Crucially, Lexus expects that half of the NX customers will be new to the brand. Especially if they see the newest luxury CUV as this season's must-have bauble.
This is just one man's opinion, but I think Lexus has an upcoming hit on its hands.
|2015 Lexus NX|
|BASE PRICE||$37,000-$41,000 (est)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door, SUV|
|ENGINES||2.0L/235-hp/258-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4; 2.5L/154-hp/152-lb-ft Atkinson Cycle DOHC 16-valve I-4 plus 141-hp front and (opt) 67-hp rear electric motor(s); 194 hp comb|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed automatic, cont. variable auto|
|CURB WEIGHT||3950-4200 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||182.3 x 73.6 x 64.8 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.0-9.1 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON||21-35 / 28-31 mpg (est)|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||96-160 / 109-120 kW-hrs/100 miles (est)|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.59-0.82 lb/mile (est)|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||November, 2014|