First drive: 2015 Lexus NX

The 2015 Lexus NX 200t F-Sport delivers a more engaging driving experience than we’ve come to expect from the brand’s crossovers, and that’s a good thing.

It’s not exactly surprising that Lexus is finally launching a compact crossover in its all-new 2015 NX. After all, the small-and-tall wagon market is the fastest growing in the business, and Lexus already has a vice-like grip on the midsize segment with its vastly popular RX 350 and RX 450h crossovers.

However, the competition here is steep, filled with practical, stylish, enjoyable vehicles like the BMW X1, Infiniti QX50 and Acura RDX, and soon the Mercedes GLA and Audi Q3 as well.

With that in mind, the engineers at Lexus decided to go back to the drawing board. With its competitors’ focus on delivering both style and dynamics in excess, Lexus couldn’t simply leather-wrap a Toyota RAV4 and call it a day. Instead, it would require a vehicle that could hold its own against the Germans, with a drivetrain never before seen in a Lexus. They had our attention with the word, “Turbo”, a word that we haven’t heard from the Japanese brand since Toyota Supra went the way of the polar bear in 1998.

To see exactly what happens when titanic Toyota decides to take on the Germans at one of their best games, I jumped on a plane, headed to Whistler, Canada and grabbed some seat time with the 2015 Lexus NX 200t F-Sport.

Predatory

After three years of exposure to Lexus’ “spindle grille”, I thought my eye would have grown accustom to it by now. With each new model, however, Lexus’ front fascia grows increasingly menacing, more extreme.

The 2015 NX wears the most fearsome version of Lexus’ L-Finesse  design language to date, with F-Sport models looking even more aggressive, thanks to their massive honeycomb grilles. Remember when the Predator removes its mask for the first time, and you see its teeth and double-hinged jaw? Yeah, Lexus is getting closer and closer to that with every new derivation. That’s not to say the NX is unattractive – I actually really dig the front end – but the styling is polarizing, to say the least.

2015 Lexus NX

Along with its new schnoz, the NX comes with standard LED headlamps, which can be upgraded to a gorgeous set of 32-bulb LED headlights that look plucked directly from a concept car. Around back, onlookers will find more LEDs and more edgy styling. From the side, the NX doesn’t look too far off from a Mazda CX-5, but that’s not a bad thing, either.

Inside, the cabin draws many of its queues from the new Lexus IS, giving the NX a cockpit-like feel, rather than the sensation of sitting above the road. The seated experience is more akin to a sports car, rather than a truck, and the seats are supportive and comfortable.

With the F-Sport model, drivers will find a few options beyond traditional interior palette of blacks, greys and beiges. Customers can also choose the interior in red, or in black with contrasting stitching. The steering wheel feels great and contains all of the necessary buttons to make changes to the infotainment system. That system has been updated to the newest version of Lexus Remote Touch, which is now trackpad-based, rather than controlled by mouse. It’s about as easy to use as it ever has been, and even the trackpad has haptic feedback, intended to help keep eyes on the road, and away from the screen.

In my opinion, the only way to spec the NX is in its F-Sport guise. Frankly, the standard model just doesn’t look as good; the base car misses some of the marks without the blacked-out grille, black mirror caps, and smaller wheels. Plus, customers lose the option of ultra-stylish red leather sport seats, which are absolutely essential if drivers aim to do anything remotely sporty with the NX.

Technology … everywhere

Despite its low-ish base price, the 2015 Lexus NX offers the full suite of Lexus feature and safety technologies, as well as a new one that we haven’t seen before now. On top of the expected stuff – power everything, sunroof, LED headlights – the NX comes with a seven-inch display for its radio, climate, and navigation controls.

In terms of safety tech, Lexus offers just about every feature as its LS flagship sedan.

Choose the base model, and Lexus fits the NX with an eight-speaker setup with HD radio. Opt for the upgraded package and the robots at the factory bolt up two speakers (for a total of 10), a radio (a la DVR) option, and the touchpad with haptic feedback. To top it all off, buyers can also opt for a wireless charging pad – made by Qi – for mobile devices.

In terms of safety tech, Lexus offers just about every feature as its LS flagship sedan. Radar cruise control is available, which not only tracks the cars in front of the car, but also will allow the NX to come to a complete stop, and then restart again.

The luxury crossover also offers a pre-collision system that I thankfully didn’t need to use. However, Lexus did take the time to show me the new Lexus Enform mobile application, which gives users the ability to lock, unlock, and start the NX from a mobile device, as well as set top speeds and curfews for the vehicle, in case the teens take the NX for a spin.

Slow to the game, but smooth upon arrival

Under its sheet metal, the 2015 Lexus NX started as a RAV4. However, Lexus claims that every car has to start somewhere. By the time the NX was finally realized, the RAV4 platform had been altered by 90 percent to become a Lexus.

What changed? Lexus engineers added a totally different set of engines, entirely new suspension, and torsional rigidity was ratcheted up by 20 percent for better handling. So, while we might’ve joked about the NX being a badge-engineered RAV4 in the past, it’s safe to say that they’re nearly unique cars.

There are two available engines in the NX, both of which come standard with front-wheel drive and optional all-wheel drive, and both can be had in F-Sport guise. The NX 300h – ‘h’ for hybrid – uses a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and an electric motor to produce 192 horsepower, which is channeled through a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).

2015 Lexus NX

With this powertrain, the NX drives more like a hybrid focused on fuel savings – not unlike the CT 200h – than it does like any of the Lexus performance hybrids. Power is adequate, but the real magic is in the numbers, where’s it rated at 35 mpg city, 31 mpg highway, and a combined 33 mpg. All-wheel drive models get slightly decreased economy.

All things considered, I say you skip the hybrid.

Instead, choose the better, more interesting option: the NX 200t. It’s powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder producing 235 horsepower and 258 lb-ft. of torque. Especially in F-Sport trim, which gives the NX larger, 18-inch wheels, a sports-tuned suspension and sound control to allow more engine noises into the cabin, the 200t model feels peppy, responsive, and legitimately fun to drive. It’s not quite as entertaining as the Lexus IS or GS sport sedans, but it’s certainly approaches their territory of driver engagement.

I’m not calling the NX 200t is a sports crossover; it isn’t. First and foremost, it’s a statement in style, comfort, and reliability. But, there’s something to be said for its semi-sharp handling, direct steering, and access to torque on the low end. Maybe that’s what we’d call ‘responsible fun’, but that’s not a bad place to be in the entry-level luxury market.

Highs

  • Handsome, comfortable interior
  • Wild, expressive design
  • Engaging driving dynamics (for a Lexus)
  • Presumed reliability

Lows

  • Modest performance for the segment
  • Smallish interior
  • Lackluster hybrid drivetrain
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