Lexus is late. Late to the compact SUV party, the happening place to be for both mass market and premium brands. By the company’s own admission, this is one of the fastest growing segments in the auto industry, one that has expanded almost seven-fold in seven years, and expected to exceed one million units per annum in 2015. Highly profitable, too.
The term ‘compact SUV’ leads one to think of the B-segment Honda HR-V/Ford EcoSport/Peugeot 2008 class in the mass market, but for premium players who entered the SUV game with full sized offerings like the BMW X5, Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne, anything smaller is classified as such.
The all-new Lexus NX will be joining a party dominated by the established BMW X3 and Audi Q5, with stylish options such as the Range Rover Evoque and Porsche Macan in the mix. Better late than never, they say, but does the NX have enough to stand out in the class? We find out in British Columbia, Canada.
Lexus first showed its intention to create a smaller sibling to the RX with the wild LF-NX Concept from Frankfurt 2013. To say that the showcar’s styling was divisive is a bit of an understatement – that origami of a concept had so many lines and edges, it was impossible not to be captured by it. Coupled with a fearsome face, the LF-NX look like it came straight out from AVP.
Things were toned down for the production NX, which made its bow at Auto China earlier this year. While still clearly recognisable as an evolution of the LF-NX, with all the complex lines and surfacing intact, the actual thing had softer edges, both in shape and details. No longer extreme, but the NX is still the SUV with the sharpest suit in town.
Now, why would Lexus, a brand known for refinement and elegance, choose such a bold path for the NX? Wallflowers gain nothing, in both real life parties as well as the one Lexus is crashing.
We’re familiar with the spindle grille by now, but this is the boldest rendition of the signature so far, thanks to the available height of the nose. The triple LED arrangement is as striking as car eyes come, and it’s “ticked” by a LED DRL strip, an arrangement first seen on the Lexus IS.
Two regular NX faces were present at the international media drive – the US front has a pronounced chin caused by a steep approach angle, needed to qualify the NX as an SUV in the States for fuel consumption ratings. The “Asian face” (as referred to by Lexus officials) is more agreeable, and I believe there won’t be any debates about it.
The F Sport gets a more aggressive nose with a mesh grille and metallic painted lower body moulding (as opposed to black); the latter to create an impression of lower centre of gravity. Black wing mirrors and unique 10-spoke alloys complete the sporty package. The F Sport additions fit the NX’s design concept to a tee, to these eyes.
The NX’s rear carries the biggest visual link to the ageing but still popular big brother RX (the top selling premium badged vehicle, not just SUV, in the US), although there are more “layers” at play here. “Flared wheelarches” are claimed by all these days, but Lexus has full rights – click on the pic above, study the lines and surfaces, repeat. Impressive, isn’t it?
At 4,630 mm long and 1,845 mm wide, the NX, which sits on a heavily reworked Toyota RAV4 platform (90% different, 20% more rigid, Lexus says), is comparable in size to an Audi Q5. It’s just slightly less wide, but the impression one gets is a narrower and taller SUV than the Q5, with the X3 in another league. It could be the Lexus’ slim glass area, but the NX manages to look smaller than it is – good or bad depends on how you like your SUVs.
The effect of the slim daylight opening is the first thing you feel once cocooned. It can get pretty dim and enveloping inside, exacerbated by our test car’s rear privacy glass, but the “sporty” feel they’ve clearly set out to achieve is present.
Contributing greatly to the latter is a high centre console that clearly divides the front cabin into two zones. The cockpit effect is present without employing the angled centre stack found in the X3/Q5. A thick-rimmed steering wheel and supportive seats play active roles, too.
Touches like the analogue clock, soft leather on the dash and centre console walls, plus LF-A-style rivets on the kneepads lift the ambience. Ladies (and let’s admit it, men too) will love the removable centre console cubby lid, which has a vanity mirror on its base, while those with compatible smartphones will appreciate the convenience of Qi wireless induction charging.
Also new is the Remote Touch Interface with touch pad, which works like the one on the Mac I’m typing on now, flick and pinch in/out operations included. There’s vibration feedback to guide your finger along, too. It works better than the older mouse-like contraption, but nothing beats a good ol’ knob for this tech laggard. Familiarity is all I need, perhaps.
Hard plastics can be found on the lower half of the dash, but you’ll have to be actively looking. In any case, our test cars were pre-production units that may or may not be representative of customer cars. Overall, there’s sense of occassion in here, not something you’d say of the nice, but safe and business-like German cabins, which look the same throughout the range.
Mood settled, so let’s get it on. We zoomed in on the NX 200t, because Lexus reckons that the turbo variant will outsell the hybrid NX 300h globally by a significant margin. That’s a given in Malaysia, a market that isn’t kind on big capacity engines.
Now that the CT 200h no longer enjoys hybrid tax exemptions, Lexus Malaysia is left with a range that’s good looking, but hobbled by an engine range that bottoms out at 2.5 litres (V6 IS 250, four-cylinder ES 250). This is when all German rivals are pushing downsized, turbocharged engines that trump a big NA on drivability (if not outright figures), fuel consumption and road tax costs. This is why the 2.0 turbo engine in the NX is a breath of fresh air – one that models like the Lexus IS have been crying out for.
The Lexus-developed engine has a world’s first combo of cylinder head with integrated 4-to-2 exhaust manifold and twin-scroll turbo. Turbo efficiency is maximised by eliminating exhaust gas interference. Also, due to the exhaust gas cooling effect, the driving range with theoretical air-fuel ration is expanded for cleaner exhaust output and better FC.
The direct injection D-4S unit, which has VVT-iW (intake) and VVT-i (exhaust), makes 235 hp and 350 Nm from 1,650 to 4,000 rpm. Paired to a new six-speed conventional torque converter automatic, it’s good for 0-100 km/h in 7.1 seconds and a top speed of 200 km/h. The on-demand Dynamic Torque Control AWD system manages drive to the tarmac, sending torque to the rear axle when needed.
To give you an idea of the ballpark, the Audi Q5 2.0 TFSI does 225 hp/350 Nm (0-100 km/h in 7.1s) and the BMW X3 xDrive20i makes 184 hp/270 Nm (8.2s), so the Lexus is competitive, on paper at least.
To put paper into practice, we drove from the Olympic ski resort town of Whistler to Vancouver city – via the British Columbia Highway 99, more popularly known as the Sea to Sky Highway – and back. The scenic route – cliff on one side, water on the other – is a collection of sweeping high speed corners with the odd straight thrown in, an appropriate exercise for the new SUV.
The NX 200t feels quick enough with decent low-end shove expected from a turbo engine, something novel for a non-hybrid Lexus. It’s surprisingly willing to be worked too, and we found ourselves extending the motor to its redline (6,200 to 6,300 rpm or thereabouts) pretty often.
There’s more than adequate performance on call, and it’s not underpowered by any measure, but the NX lacks the Q5’s TFSI-DSG combo of explosive take off and immediacy, even if both share the same century sprint figures.
Could be partly due to weight, but the gearbox definitely plays a role in the NX’s relatively leisurely gait. The six-speeder is not as quick as VAG’s DSG or BMW’s eight-speed auto, and is occasionally tentative during kickdown, although it’s not frustratingly slow either. Yes, the drivetrain isn’t the sharpest in town, but that’s no deal breaker in this context. It would have been if the NX was launched with a 2.5 V6 engine!
If one’s dynamic point of reference is Lexus’ other SUV, the NX is mighty impressive on the move. A static NX looks significantly more dynamic than the RX, and so it is when you get going. The steering is light and easy in Normal, and not too heavy in Sport. Direct and accurate, it feels a lot more natural than the RX’s helm. Even the physical wheel itself feels good in the hands – soft leather, not too fat.
The theme was reinforced with a couple of corners. The NX shows good resistance to roll and decent body control, unlike the RX, which feels like a fish out of water when driven spiritedly. The fact that we continued to push on, risking a ticket by the cops, says something. The high speed ride was pleasingly steady, although Highway 99’s smooth blacktop gave no clues on how the NX will perform on our patchy roads.
Note that our F Sport test car wore 18-inch alloys on standard suspension – local F Sport buyers will get the Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) with active 30-stage damping and a Sport S+ mode, along with goodies like a 14-speaker Mark Levinson sound system with Clari-Fi technology.
Without forgetting the NX’s practical aspects, Lexus claims best in class luggage length, and there’s minimal wheel well intrusion for a pretty square area. Also said to be class topping is rear legroom, although one shouldn’t expect Honda CR-V levels of space in this segment.
The company is also proud of the NX’s couple distance (between the front passengers), which is almost equal to the bigger RX’s. Three variants in the Malaysian range will get powered rear seats, a class first.
The NX is a child of the new Lexus, a brand that’s injecting dynamism into its cars, one by one. This rejuvenation is most visible in design, but also through the drive – like the GS that opened this writer’s eyes last year, the NX is pleasant enough to indulge in a spot of fast driving without embarassing itself. It’s still not the most athletic guy in the room, or the fastest runner, but we’re talking about luxury SUVs that rarely wander out of cities and the highways that connect them.
More relevant to our market is the unique style and bold presence of the newcomer, expressed both inside and out. It’s best not to be late, but if you must, step into the hall fashionably late.
The Lexus NX is now available in Malaysia – read our launch report here.