July 7, 2014
What’s hot: Fantastic edgy styling, unique 'Goldilocks' size, new 2.0-litre turbo engine and some nice tech tricks.
What’s not: Both autos sub-par, tyre noise in some conditions.
X-FACTOR: The design. For Lexus, it had to be the car that stood out, and it manages it, inside and out.
Vehicle style: Sporty, mid-size SUV
Price: TBA, but from $55,000-$60,000 is the tip.
Engine/trans: Turbocharged 2.0-litre with 175kW/350Nm; CVT multi-mode automatic.
Fuel consumption listed: Not confirmed but aiming for low 8 l/100km.
Lexus designers were faced with a big ask with the new NX. They were handed something that looked like a fridge and had to turn it into something that looked like it might have come from Bang and Olufsen.
The small-to-middling sized NX is an important car for Lexus, and the starting point was the missable and unremarkable Toyota RAV4. So they did what anyone would do: and threw most of it away.
Lexus says 90 percent of the NX is new or redesigned.
In design terms, the two - the NX and the RAV4 - are about as similar as a frog and a butterfly. For its part, the Lexus manages to look damn near as edgy as its concept predecessor.
This is important because it has to appeal to style-obsessed buyers in the US, and here.
They’ll likely go for the top-spec F-Sport models though: they’re the only ones that get the pretty spindle grille, rather than the horizontal ho-hum one.
Those who look deeper will find the usual hybrid offering - which looks set to be the base model locally, priced around $55,000 to $60,000 - and an exciting new 2.0-litre turbo with the latest in cutting-edge engineering to help it haul 1700-1800kg of SUV around (and still be fun).
Lexus Australia says the NX will be either its second or third best-selling model when the hybrid model arrives in November.
The turbo model, which should be the most popular option, arrives in March next year. At this point, we could see the NX become Lexus' best seller.
- World-first in-car inductive phone charger - Apple phones excluded - using a system called Qi (pronounced “chi”)
- Keyless entry and start (and auto stop/start)
- Dual-zone climate control
- Parking sensors front and rear
- Radar cruise control
- Reversing camera and surround view cameras
- Automatic Sound Control (F-Sport models only), which allows you to raise or lower the level of engine noise in the cabin
- Remote touch interface, which is loads better than the silly mouse they’ve been using
- Colour Heads Up Display (optional on some models)
It’s a typically understated Lexus interior for the NX, which feels both solid and classy.
The hand-stitched finishes underscore the premium ambience as does the 'Shimamoku' wood surfacing - it's polished so it looks like steel and is inspired (apparently) by Yamaha’s concert pianos.
That latter point might be mostly lost on buyers, but it looks terrific.
The seats, of course, are typical Lexus. The front seats are good in base models and excellent in F-Sport spec.
That means sumptuous finely-grained leather, exceptional comfort front and back, and fastidious finish. The textures and surfaces generally are very appealing as is the solid feel to the switchgear and controls.
Lexus doesn’t quite reach Audi levels with its design and feel, but it’s line-ball with BMW.
The rear legroom is really quite surprisingly good for this class of vehicle - the NX actually sits between an Audi Q3 and Q5, so it’s compact but not small. It's that 'Goldilocks' thing... "just right" for premium family buyers who don't want a tank.
As the features list (above) shows, the NX is not short of standard fare. Its world-first inductive phone charger is a real talking point, although Apple users will be miffed.
Sitting in the centre console it will charge most phones - but not Apple ones - without the need for a cable.
Another thoughtful touch, though lower-tech, is the bottle-holder padding that grips the plastic of your Mount Franklin so you can open it with one hand.
So, yes, a very impressive interior in the new Lexus NX.
Safety features: All-speed active cruise control, blind spot monitor, lane departure warning, cornering lamps, pre-collision safety system.
There's also driver and passenger airbags, driver’s knee airbag, passenger’s cushion airbag, side airbags in front and full-length curtain-shield airbags in the rear, and an impact relaxation body design for pedestrian protection.
ON THE ROAD
- Turbocharged 2.0-litre in-line four: 175kW @ 4800-5600rpm and 350Nm @ 1650-4000rpm
- 6-spd Multi-Mode automatic transmission (CVT in hybrid models)
- Suspension: MacPherson strut, coil springs (front); trailing arm double wishbone, coil springs rear
- Electronic Power Steering with rack-and-pinion
- Brakes: Ventilated 17-inch disc (front), 16-inch disc with electric parking brake rear
- Wheels: 18 x 17.5
The NX 300h hybrid is powered by a 2.5-litre engine and some electric motors. (There's an extra one stuck to the rear-axle to create ersatz all-wheel drive, for those buyers who don’t just tick the FWD option automatically).
It takes 9.2 seconds to get to 100km/h and occasionally makes slightly sad, whinnying noises up hills as its CVT lurches about looking for a ratio.
The 2.0 litre turbo in the NX 200t is far the better bet. It provides a driving experience that’s almost as sharp as the exterior design.
The essence of the car’s handling success is its body rigidity, which is a claimed 20 percent better than the platform-shared RAV4. On road, there is an instantly comforting feeling of solidity.
That stiffness, aligned with the noise-coating surfaces on the underbody, also makes for a nice low NVH level, although some tyre roar on concrete North American freeways did sneak through on our drive.
Unlike some overly-light Lexus steering set-ups, the NX just about nails it, with nice weighting and a sort of effortless meatiness about it.
The car turns in nicely and flows through smooth sweepers. Sadly, the drive program we were offered - while wonderfully scenic - was lacking in tight corners or even bumps.
That called for a detour down a tight ratty side-road. We were pleased to find that thump-absorption seems to be top shelf. And, while the NX tips just slightly in sharp bends, it is neither prone to understeer nor to wallowing.
The all-new 2.0-litre has its turbocharger bolted straight onto the cylinder-head, with no exhaust manifold at all, providing lovely, smooth surges of power.
The power plant also uses a system called Variable Valve Timing with intelligence Wide range - VVT-iW. It also has the ability to switch between being a typical, Otto-cycle engine and an Atkinson-cycle (usually found on hybrids) to give it a wider, beefier band of torque.
The result is impressive for an engine of this size in a car of this heft, and it gets off the line nicely, zipping to 100km/h in 7.3 seconds (7.1 in AWD variants). But there is a price to pay, with a bit of exhaustion setting in at the top end.
High-speed overtaking manoeuvres see the tacho happily whipping up, but not much power coming out.
In most applications though, and considering its buyer profile (not exactly sporting enthusiasts, we'd expect), it is absolutely fit for purpose.
The only real letdown is the 200t's six-speed auto, which looks a bit under-geared in a modern context and also seems to have its software set for fuel economy - Lexus predicts a figure in the 8.0-litres per 100km range - rather than fun.
All up though, the NX is a worthy competitor in what is the fastest growing market segment in the world.
Its mix of styling flair, unique size and driving dynamics should make it a sure seller. If we’d had a better drive in it, it might have gotten four stars.
HOW IT COMPARES
With pricing not yet set, it’s hard to see exactly where it will hit the Germans hardest. Lexus is tipped to start at $55k-ish, which is above a 2.0-litre X1 at $48,300 but below the starting price for an X3 at $60,900.
The NX will be quicker than either, just as nice inside, and new and exciting looking on the outside.
The BMW will probably still be the driver’s choice, but in this market that probably won’t decide as many sales as the question of style.
The Lexus’s 500-litre boot will no doubt help, although it does look shallow.
Audi’s Q3 starts at $47,500 for a 2.0-litre engine, and you get quattro all-wheel-drive for that.
The Q5 petrol 2.0 is $63,600 and it, too, is slightly slower to 100km/h. But when it comes to style, and interior class in particular, it’s well ahead of the Lexus.
What you certainly wouldn’t buy instead is a RAV4.
We will need to drive it properly, and in local conditions to make a call there.
There's no doubt however that, thanks to its stylish looks, quality interior and powerful driveability, the NX is going to be highly competitive in that mid-size premium SUV market.
Sure, it may not be to everyone’s taste, but for the next year or so at least it’s going to be the eye-catching, new-cool-kid-on-the-block in SUV land, where so many buyers live. Or want to.
Nice technological touches - like the 'automatic sound control', clever new turbo engine, inductive phone charger and more - will also give it a certain brag value for more blokey buyers. The sort of people who buy hybrids will also be catered for.
Pricing will be vital, and Lexus is keeping its cards close to its chest on that one.
But if it can significantly undercut X3 and Q5, it’s going to be a sales winner for sure.