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2015 Lexus NX First Review: Mission Probable

By Jack R. Nerad, Executive Editorial Director, KBB.com on July 14, 2014 4:52 PM
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All-New Lexus NX, your assignment, should you decide to accept it, is to help establish Lexus as a global luxury brand. 

While this seems a lofty goal for a little car, this is certainly not Mission Impossible.  Quite the contrary, after driving the all-new for 2015 Lexus NX compact crossover on challenging roads surrounding Whistler, British Columbia during its worldwide press introduction, we can report that the NX is bound to be a hit in Berlin, Beijing and Bangor and all points in between.  It seems to be the right vehicle at the right time.  Young buyers want the utility and sportiness of a small crossover, while older buyers appreciate a small crossover's excellent fuel economy and high seating position.  The U.S. market has shown a strong trend away from sedans toward crossovers over the past several years and even Europe, which pretty much has had no use for traditional sport-utilities, has begun to embrace the crossover concept. Like the Lexus RX a generation ago, NX seems poised to blaze its way to the top of the charts.

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Designed to look like it was poured from a single batch of molten metal, the all-new NX isn't just the right size, but it is also so filled with technical innovation and engineering sleight of hand that it is hard to recount it all.  Here are a few notable examples of the remarkable technology stuffed into the NX's attractive shell:

Item: The all-new 2.0-liter turbocharged engine that powers the 200t version features all-new engine architecture, including an advanced valve control system that enables it to switch between Atkinson cycle and Otto cycle to optimize performance and fuel efficiency.

Item: The turbo engine uses neither old-fashioned port injection nor contemporary direct injection but instead a cunning combination of both to ensure ample power and crisp responsiveness at all engine speeds.

Item: To keep the engine oil clean in the turbo engine, the intake system creates a syphon that draws carbon vapors away from the crankcase allowing Lexus to suggest a 10,000-mile oil change interval similar to conventional non-turbo engines.

Item: Both hybrid (NX 300h) and non-hybrid turbo (NX 200t) are available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, each variant using a different all-wheel-drive system. In the NX 200t, the available Dynamic Torque Control AWD system can almost instantly vary front and rear torque split from 50:50 to 100:0 for optimum traction and fuel economy. In the hybrid the E-Four AWD system uses an electric motor to drive the rear axle when required.

A lot to pay attention to

Hey, there's a lot more of this stuff, so we could go on and on, but it is almost ironic that the bulk of this amazing engineering will go unnoticed by most Lexus NX buyers.  That's because there is so much more for them to pay attention to - like the NX's dramatic exterior shape, like the NX's super-functional, sports car-inspired interior, like the NX's innovative driver's aid and safety systems.  In days gone by when they said a car was "loaded" it meant it had power windows, power steering, power brakes and air conditioning.  But this NX, despite its modest size is really loaded with technical fillips that include everything but an app that freshens your breath, and the way the Lexus engineers are moving we wouldn't be surprised if that's coming.

Before we launch into another laundry list of cool stuff, let's tell you how each of the NX versions drives.  Interestingly, in his introductory speech Lexus NX Chief Engineer Takeaki Kato spoke a great deal about his passion for racing, a passion he shares with various members of his product team.  Based on that we expected the NX would be skewed toward performance perhaps at the expense of comfort, but that's not the case at all. The fact is that the NX 300h hybrid, 200t and 200t F Sport all demonstrate a comfortable, quiet ride that is sporting enough for the crossover driver, but far from edgy.  

Does the F Sport up the performance quotient?

While you might expect the F Sport to sharpen the performance edge a bit over its standard-issue brother, if it did it was hard to discern in the varied driving that we experienced in British Columbia.  When you see how the F Sport is equipped you'll see why.  It shares the same 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbocharged engine as its non-F Sport brother.  Horsepower in both applications is 235, and the F Sport and the standard 200t share the same all-new sequential six-speed automatic transmission. Both also share the G-force Artificial Intelligence that automatically selects the gear-change and downshift pattern in response to G forces sensed by the vehicle.

Surely the suspension has been re-tuned and tightened to help deliver the promise of the F Sport's performance-oriented looks, right? Well, no (and please don't call us Shirley.)  The NX starts with an ultra-stiff chassis and uses MacPherson struts up front and a trailing arm, double-wishbone rear suspension in the back that offers smooth handling with the added benefit of a low rear load floor. There was no mention of any tweaks to the F Sport in shock valving or even firmer bushings.

Taking the styling up a notch

So why is the F Sport the sporty one?  Because it looks sporty, that's why.  First, it takes the signature Lexus spindle grille that is already a bold statement at least a notch or two bolder.  In typical go-fast fashion it also blacks out the grille and the side mirrors, because black is always faster than chrome.  It offers distinctive 10-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels with black (natch) accents or, in a real bow to performance, a dark metallic wheel design that carries low-profile 235/55R18 summer tires instead of the 225/60R18 all-season tires on the 10-spokes.

The sporting theme carries over to the interior where a "Rioja Red" interior is available that includes bolstered and quilted NuLuxe seats. The special F Sport steering wheel is perforated; the metallic gearshift is brushed and the aluminum pedals are drilled is a style reminiscent of the Lexus LFA, the father of all Lexus performance cars.  In a bit of show biz the F Sport also features what Lexus refers to as Active Sound Control that enables you to adjust the engine note (noise?) that comes into the cabin.  Finally the F Sport offers a revised version of the NX's already attractive instrument panel that includes a G-force meter in the display.

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While purists may scoff at the NX F Sport as nothing more than an "appearance package," we think Lexus product planners are wise to offer the key essentials of a quiet, comfortable ride with appropriately good handling in both turbocharged versions, letting the customer decide what image they'd like to project.  Lexus execs we talked to at the event said they expected the standard NX to have more appeal to women, while the F Sport version would enable men to choose the small crossover while keeping their "Man Card" valid. 

Hybrid's specialty is - you guessed it - fuel economy

As to the 300h gasoline-electric hybrid version of the NX, its key benefit is its ability to help you keep your credit card in your wallet.  While Lexus was tightlipped about fuel economy numbers for the turbocharged versions, it predicted that the hybrid would offer 33-mpg combined efficiency for the front-wheel-drive model and 32-mpg combined for the all-wheel-drive version. Those are stellar numbers but you pay for it in overall performance.  The sophisticated hybrid system offers a total of 194 horsepower, including the output of the gasoline engine and the electric motor, and that was telling in comparison with the effortlessness of the 235-horsepower turbocharged variants.  Inside, the hybrid offers the same good-looking and functional interior as its gasoline-only brothers, including the touchpad operation of the infotainment system and the availability of a Qi wireless charging tray in the console box that charges a phone just by placing it there.  Sadly, it doesn't work with current generation iPhones without an adapter. 

While this is a disappointment, as a package the NX doesn't disappoint at all.  It looks good, has a beautifully appointed interior and offers a high level of fun-to-drive along with quiet comfort. Boy racers might find the F Sport version a bit vanilla, but we doubt they are seeking a crossover in the first place.  Based on all this, we expect that the NX will fulfill its worldwide mission with a great deal of ease, which is in keeping with its overall demeanor.

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