The rapidly expanding compact-luxury-crossover segment has a new contender. It's called the 2015 Lexus NX, and it'll slot below the brand's popular RX crossover to compete with smaller luxury SUVs such as the Mercedes GLK, BMW X3, Volvo XC60, Audi Q5 and Acura RDX when it launches this fall. Featuring bold styling, lots of equipment and a sporty demeanor, the NX looks to issue a strong challenge to those models, but will it be successful? We spent some time behind the wheel to find out.
All New From Top to Bottom
Unlike many of the new models we review, the NX isn't just redesigned or facelifted compared to a predecessor. Instead, the NX is an all-new vehicle created completely from the ground up, save for a small number of shared parts from Toyota's compact RAV4 SUV. It's Lexus' first attempt in the compact-luxury-crossover segment, which has heated up in recent years.
So what are the key details? One is size: At 182.3 inches in length, the NX is about 5 inches shorter than the RX -- enough difference to make it a compact crossover rather than a midsize model.
Beyond that, powertrain details will likely be important to potential NX buyers. There are two engines: a 235-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder in the NX 200t and a 194-hp 2.5-liter gas/electric hybrid 4-cylinder in the NX 300h. Zero-to-60 times are around 7.1 seconds for the NX 200t and 9.1 seconds for the NX 300h, while fuel economy is expected to stand at around 24 miles per gallon combined for the NX 200t and 33 mpg combined for the NX 300h.
The NX's other new feature: styling. While most Lexus models offer fairly conservative styling designed to appeal to a wide range of shoppers, the NX does a complete about-face from this design philosophy. Styling is bold, sharp and assertive, but journalists who drove the car had mixed opinions about the overall look. According to Lexus, the design is meant to attract new, younger buyers who likely want a more daring design than what Lexus' other models offer.
On the Road
So how does the NX stack up against its competitors? We spent some time behind the wheel. Our opinions are generally favorable, though we're not sure this is the class leader that Lexus is hoping for.
Our biggest problem relates to the NX's powertrains. Though Lexus is pitching this as a sporty SUV, with the styling and performance-oriented F Sport model to prove it, the NX's engines actually curtail the crossover's performance dramatically. In fact, the NX's 235-hp turbocharged 4-cylinder is the least powerful top-of-the-line engine in its class; rival engines include the Mercedes GLK350's 302-hp V6, the Volvo XC60 T6's 302-hp turbocharged 6-cylinder, the Acura RDX's 273-hp V6, and the Audi Q5's 272-hp supercharged V6.
If performance is your thing, the NX's transmission doesn't help matters, either. Far from a sporty dual clutch, the NX's traditional 6-speed automatic focuses on smooth over sport, and we suspect it saps a few tenths from the NX's already lackluster 0-to-60 time.
This is all likely done in the pursuit of fuel economy, and we admit this is an area where the NX excels: Its 22 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway places it near the top of the class. We think a performance trade-off like this, however, should come with an even bigger gas-mileage bump. The NX 200t's fuel economy numbers are only slightly ahead of the more powerful RDX and are actually behind the Volvo XC60 T6, which has two more cylinders and an extra 67 hp.
Fortunately, shoppers interested in fuel economy have another NX to choose from: the hybrid-powered NX 300h. Although the NX 300h's 194 hp may seem uninspired, its hybrid system makes it feel just as quick off the line as the more muscular NX 200t. The NX 300h will see far better gas mileage, however, with Lexus estimating fuel economy numbers at 35 mpg city/31 mpg hwy with front-wheel drive or 33 mpg city/30 mpg hwy with all-wheel drive.
The NX 300h has an issue that may send shoppers elsewhere: pricing. Lexus announced that the split between gas and hybrid models will be 90 percent gas and 10 percent hybrids, and while the automaker hasn't yet announced pricing, the Lexus officials that we spoke to explained that the primary reason for the huge imbalance is the hybrid model's relatively high MSRP.
Beyond the Drive
Of course, the NX isn't all about driving experience. The model also has many other traits, and we liked nearly all of them. One is the interior, which boasts comfortable seats, a surprisingly large amount of rear legroom for a compact crossover, handsome materials, and a useful cargo area with an easily stowable cargo cover.
We were even impressed with the NX's infotainment system, which isn't necessarily something we've said about previous Lexus models. While the brand's old Remote Touch controller made it especially difficult to carry out even simple functions, the NX uses an updated version of the system with a touch pad instead of the joystick. The difference is night and day, and we prefer the new system to nearly any rival effort, regardless of whether it's a wheel or a series of buttons. With that said, we'd still prefer a touchscreen, but we'll take Lexus' touch pad if it means that the infotainment system stays roughly within our line of sight.
Beyond the infotainment system, we found the NX's controls to be clearly marked and easy to operate, just as we've come to expect from Lexus. And of course, everything works exactly as you'd expect, from the excellent audio system to the available ventilated seats, the blind spot monitoring system, and Lexus' Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, which can bring the SUV to a stop at speeds of up to 37 miles per hour.
The 2015 Lexus NX reaches dealers in November, and you're probably wondering whether you should wait for it. As usual, our answer is: It depends on what you want from a compact luxury crossover.
If sporty is your thing, this model isn't it. Yes, the NX 200t F Sport offers aggressive styling, paddle shifters and stiffer suspension for better handling, but the crossover's engine and transmission are overcome by its size. In practice, nearly all rivals are sportier than the NX.
Though we suggest considering rivals from Acura, Mercedes and Volvo, the NX might be the best compact luxury crossover on the market that offers a comfortable interior, a lot of features and a reputation for reliability. You'll come back to the NX if you want your next car to have all that and highly unique, standout styling -- something most of the NX's rivals can't match.