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Considering luxury SUVs are big business, the Lexus NX can’t be accused of being rushed to market.

It’s more than a decade since Toyota’s luxury division introduced its last new SUV, the GX that is a spruced-up Prado and never sold in Australia. You then have to go back into the 1990s for the (LandCruiser-based) LX and (Highlander-based) RX.

German rivals have long since responded to the downsizing trend. The BMW X3 was released in 2003 and the Audi Q5 five years later. Also in 2008, the Volvo XC60 launched as a smaller sibling to the popular XC90.

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In Australia, the Q5 and XC60 are currently the biggest-selling SUVs for their respective brands. The X3 is also popular if not as much as the X5. The Range Rover Evoque has been a stunning sales success for Land Rover, though we’ve left this out for now with its first major update due later in the year.

That only leaves Mercedes-Benz Australia, which has been left frustrated by the lack of a right-hand-drive version of the GLK, though that will be fixed for the next-generation – due in 2015 when it will carry a new nameplate of GLC as part of a huge SUV onslaught.

It’s far from an understatement, then, to declare the NX is a crucial vehicle for Lexus.


PRICE & FEATURES

Lexus, as we’ve come to expect, plays a keen value card. A $55,000 starting price (before on-road costs) undercuts the entry points of its German and Swedish competitors, though you need $59,500 to move from front-wheel drive to match the all-wheel drive of the X3 (from $60,765) and Q5 (from $62,600).

NX will become the first Lexus to use the brand’s new 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine, though with the NX200t not due till February our comparison pivot point is the petrol-electric NX300h.

That made the most affordable diesel versions of rivals the obvious match-up, so we have the Audi Q5 2.0 TDI (from $62,600), BMW X3 20d (from $64,400) and Volvo XC60 D4 (from $59,890).

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The Lexus NX300h test vehicle available for our comparison wasn’t the ideal trim grade, being the range-topping Sports Luxury that costs $75,000.

Aiming to ignore the extra features that brings, we’re focusing on the NX as if it were the sub-$60,000 Luxury.

This still brings some features not available on more expensive rivals: electric steering wheel adjustment, heated front seats (optional on Q5 and XC60), and digital radio (optional on Q5 and X3).

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Only the NX300h Luxury and BMW X3 20d feature navigation where it’s optional on the Q5 2.0 TDI and XC60 D4 Kinetic.

The Audi becomes the only sharer with the Lexus when it comes to most audio speakers (10), while only the XC60 offers electric adjustment on the driver’s seat but not front passenger as well.

The Volvo has 17-inch alloy wheels compared with the 18s of the rest of the group, and has rear sensors only where the others have front alerts as well. However, the D4 is exclusive with emergency automated low-speed braking (City Safe) and has full leather seating where the leather in its competitors is either man-made (X3) or mostly natural leather (Q5 and NX).

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All feature LED daytime running lights, auto tailgates and rain-sensing wipers.

The Audi Q5 2.0 TDI’s major omissions of sat-nav and rear-view camera can be remedied with a Technik Package, fitted to our test car but costing $2922.

On starting prices it had $1800 up its sleeve over the X3 20d, though, and if you factor in its more premium seats, extra speakers plus subwoofer, then the Audi and BMW are about on par for on-paper value.

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The XC60 D4 Kinetic may join the Lexus in starting below $60,000 but this model’s front-wheel-drive layout skews its relative value.

You need $69,990 (plus on-roads) if you want a diesel, all-wheel-drive version of this Volvo, though the D5 gives you a more powerful five-cylinder. Navigation is also a $2950 burden.

Add in the Lexus’s one-year-longer warranty (four years/100,000km), and the NX is a clear winner for value.

INTERIOR DESIGN, COMFORT & PRACTICALITY

If the exterior design of the Lexus NX takes the confronting approach, it’s no less aggressive on the inside – notably the dominant, tiered centre stack. It helps give the SUV its own sense of identity within the Lexus line-up even if styling elements and material selections are familiar.

This imbues the NX with a quality feel overall, though in the details Lexus could still do more to ensure none of its interior plastics don’t look like they’ve come from the Toyota parts bin. It shares a high level of fit and finish with all its rivals here. That includes the Audi as expected, though the interior design struggles to disguise its 2008 birth year more than the same-age Volvo.

The Q5’s cabin is effectively older than that because it’s heavily based on the A4 that will be unveiled in much-needed, new-generation form in 2015.

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Ageing may well be an issue for the XC60 next year when the all-new XC90 launches, but for now the mid-sized Volvo SUV is sufficiently modern in appearance – its decade-old ‘floating’ console concept still contributing to the touches of design flair and impeccable finishes that pervade the cabin.

The TFT instrument display first seen in the V40 adds another touch of class, though of the different colour themes available you need the red Performance to keep the digital speedo in sight.

BMW’s second-generation X3 landed here in late 2010 and was given a refresh inside and out for 2014. It already featured a more convincingly premium presentation compared with the smaller X1, and the update takes the look up a notch with high-gloss black panels and a choice of four new (mostly wood) trim options.

All four SUVs offer driving positions with plenty of comfort, adjustability and the elevated seating height commonly desired by buyers of such vehicles. Visibility is best all-round in the X3 and XC60. The Q5’s huge side mirrors can obscure vision in right-hand turns and corners, and the NX’s shallow glasshouse can also shrink the view out.

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There’s no perfect rear quarters among our foursome, with CarAdvice’s test team finding pros and cons with each back seat.

Volvo’s XC60 offered the most comfortable bench – with clever, integrated child booster seats – but also the tightest legroom (relatively). The NX squeezed toes the most, though actually served up the greatest amount of knee space despite having a noticeably shorter wheelbase than its competitors here.

Only the Audi Q5, though, offers a slideable rear bench so owners can balance boot space and rear space as required.

Our tallest tester on the day – Trent – found all provided plenty of headroom, though he felt more cramped in the Volvo due to the curvature of the roof at the side of the vehicle.

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Testers found the seat squabs lacking depth in the NX and Q5, while the X3 would also benefit from more under-thigh support and grippier seats.

The Lexus’s tiered rear seats afforded the best view forward, with the Audi offering the least visibility for rear passengers.

Rear air vents are standard in all these models, as are electrically operated tailgates.

You don’t need a measuring tape to see the NX has the smallest and shallowest boot. It also has the highest loading lip (lowest is the Q5’s). According to manufacturer measurements, the Lexus’s 475 litres of cargo space compares with 495L (XC60), 540L (Q5) and 550L (X3).

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These all expand with folding rear seats: 40-20-40 configurations for the q5, X3 and XC60 (particularly handy for those mates/family ski trips), and 60:40 for the NX.

The Q5 and NX provide release levers in the boot for extra convenience (with power seat recline in the Sports Luxury range-topper).

The Volvo’s rear seats fold truly flat with ease, the Q5’s do the same with a bit more effort, with the others slightly raised.

There are no full-size spare wheels to be found here. Each comes with a space-saver under the boot floor, with the exception of the X3 that uses run-flat tyres.


INFOTAINMENT & CONNECTIVITY

As the newest SUV, the Lexus NX brings a wireless smartphone charging tray to the segment – though it’s standard only on F Sport and Sports Luxury grades.

It shares the biggest colour display (7.0 inches) with the Volvo – slightly bigger than those in the Audi and BMW.

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With Audi’s multimedia system ticked on the options list, the Q5 joins the X3 in proving there’s nothing more intuitive than a combination of rotary controller and buttons for operating menu systems (with BMW’s iDrive the pick).

Volvo opts for just dials and buttons on its floating console, asking for more familiarity – especially the OK/Menu button/dial that can be confusing – which isn’t ideal when on the move.

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The NX comes with the third iteration of Lexus’s Remote Touch, which has evolved from being based on the use of a computer mouse to a set-up aiming to mimic smartphones and iPads.

Pinching a finger and thumb and pulling them apart on the flat touchpad can zoom in and out on the nav map, for example. Mainly, the driver or front passenger will move a finger around the pad to move the on-screen cursor, with the pad vibrating when a feature/function is ready to be selected. It’s different but not necessarily more effective.

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Internet-based features are standard on the Lexus and Volvo, where you need $800 for Audi Connect (which includes in-car wifi) and $923 for BMW’s ConnectedDrive Freedom that also adds real-time traffic information for the nav, a number of remote operations such as door lock/unlock, and a three-year subscription to BMW Connected Apps.

Freedom also accesses Concierge services, the same name used by Lexus for one of its five Enform apps that bring a quick-dial service to customer care, drive care, Lexus dealers and a destination assist.

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The basic ConnectedDrive introduced to the X3 as part of its 2014 update is standard, and automatically relays servicing data to your local dealer, can make breakdown calls to roadside assistance, and in the event of an incident can alert the BMW ConnectedDrive Call Centre for emergency service assistance if required.

Digital radio is standard on the NX but costs $800 with either the X3 or Q5, while it’s not available on the XC60.


PERFORMANCE, TOWING & FUEL ECONOMY

We’ll come to the odd-man-out Lexus NX later and first focus on the Audi, BMW and Volvo that tread a common path on the engine formula: four-cylinder turbo diesels with a cubic capacity of 2.0 litres.

The X3 and XC60 mate theirs to an eight-speed torque converter auto where the Q5 opts for a Volkswagen Group seven-speed dual-clutch auto.

Engine specs, perhaps not surprisingly, are closely aligned – in terms of outputs and where peak power and torque are produced. There’s just 10kW separating the three (with the X3’s new-in-2014 engine highest at 140kW), though with diesels the key is torque.

The Q5 2.0 TDI, X3 20d and XC60 D4 all deliver maximum torque between 1750 and 2500rpm, with the Audi 20Nm shy of the 400Nm shared by the BMW and Volvo.

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And there the similarities pretty much end, with an especially stark contrast between the Germans. The same could be said about Audi’s small- and big-capacity diesel engines, because the Q5’s 2.0L is a disappointing contradiction compared with the brand’s excellent 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel.

While undoubtedly smooth and quiet, the compact diesel’s top-of-class refinement here is undone badly by the engine’s laggy and lethargic nature – traits that are exasperated around town.

Volvo’s D4 also asks its driver for some patience off idle due to some lag but is more energetic than the Q5 once under way, though its diesel has the most audible clatter, especially under load.

The Audi and Volvo both shift well through their respective gearboxes, though the X3’s ZF auto is just one of the factors that marks the BMW’s drivetrain as not just the stand-out among the diesel SUVs here but the whole group.

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None of the transmissions elsewhere can match the X3 auto’s ability to perfectly judge shifts up and down the gearbox regardless of where you’re driving.

It comes as no surprise to our testers that the Q5 2.0d is the slowest of our oil-burning SUVs with a claimed 0-100km/h time of 9.0 seconds. The XC40 D4 wipes half a second off that while the X3 is almost a full second quicker (8.1sec).

Clearly aiding the BMW and Volvo causes are kerb masses of 1725kg and 1748kg that are plenty of kilos under the 1770kg Q5 (and notably lighter than the 1895kg NX300h).

However, the Audi and Volvo are at opposite ends of the spectrum on fuel efficiency – where the order of our group mirrored that of official consumption figures.

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The Audi Q5 2.0 TDI is the thirstiest SUV (6.1 litres per 100km) in our group according to lap figures, bettered by the NX300h (5.7L/100km), X3 20d (5.2L/100km) and XC60 D4 (4.9L/100km).

The Volvo used the least fuel in our testing, with its 5.9L/100km comfortably ahead of the closely matched BMW and Lexus (7.3 and 7.4), with the Audi recording 8.0L/100km.

Based on those figures and varying fuel tank sizes, the Volvo has a theoretical range of 1186km where you’d have to refill after 958km and 918km in the Audi and BMW respectively. The Lexus would enforce a stop after 757km.

CarAdvice’s figures were based on a test day involving some city and suburb driving but predominantly freeway and country roads. An advantage would swing to the hybrid Lexus, of course, the more time you spend in urban environments.

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This is certainly where the NX300h’s petrol-electric system with continuously variable transmission puts forward its best form. The Lexus steps off the mark with enthusiasm, providing just the kind of response you want for entering roundabouts or turning onto a main road from a junction.

The transition from electric motor to four-cylinder petrol engine and back is as seamless as we’ve come to appreciate through various Lexus/Toyota models over the years, though it’s still too easy to engage the internal combustion part of the drivetrain.

And when the petrol engine does kick in, it’s a fairly coarse-sounding unit that combines with the drone of the CVT to spoil the luxury ambience. There isn’t a corresponding increase in speed, either, as noise levels increase.

And if you want to tow anything with your mid-sized luxury SUV, as many owners do, this could also be a deal-breaker when it comes to the NX300h. The Lexus’s maximum braked towing capacity is a lowly 1000kg – half that of the Audi and BMW (2000kg) and also well short of the Volvo (1800kg).


ON THE ROAD

Only buyers can determine whether they truly need all-wheel drive or not, though all X3 and Q5 models are strictly xDrive and quattro only respectively.

Our bone-dry test days didn’t exaggerate the front-wheel-drive Volvo’s reduced traction capabilities, though they did reveal that regardless of conditions the XC60 D4 owner would experience the effects of torque steer on a fairly regular basis.

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Steering wheel tugs are noticeable even under mild acceleration off the line and it’s prone to kickback, though at least the steering is linear and precise when freee of such interferences.

The XC60 doesn’t endear itself to either driver or occupants when the suspension jolts over surface protrusions, though the Volvo can be settled on the freeway.

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The Q5’s suspension also struggles to provide a luxury level of comfort, bringing a jittery and fidgety ride that only smoothens out when the bitumen does. The aloof steering also disappoints – overly light and vague, making the Audi harder to manoeuvre precisely and progressively.

Considering the NX is based on the choppy-riding and vague-steering Toyota RAV4, it’s easy to believe Lexus’s claim that the luxury SUV is 90 per cent new or newly developed over the donor model.

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The NX’s ride is constantly firm, though it’s more settled than its cheaper relative across typical urban and country roads, and the steering is far more accurate than the RAV4’s.

The Lexus also handles commendably on winding roads with the least body roll here, even if the level of driving satisfaction is similarly flat.

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Our biggest bugbear with the way the Lexus drives is its regenerative brakes. The firm and grabby brake pedal makes judgement of pressure modulation virtually impossible – feeling like an educated guess is needed every time you want to scrub speed or come to a standstill. It’s particularly frustrating around town.

The BMW X3’s ride isn’t plush and can be pattery but it’s still the most comfortable in this group. And if you appreciate a good weekend drive, the X3 is the clear dynamic leader of this group. It has the greater enthusiasm for turning into corners, and is perfectly balanced through them – with its extra body roll over the NX actually adding to its poise. Its enjoyable handling does ask the question about the actual point of the spin-off X4…


VERDICT

The Audi Q5 is a good mid-size luxury SUV but is hard to recommend in 2.0 TDI form. Key omissions such as navigation and the MMI system get it off to a poor start, its ride quality is disappointing, and the company’s four-cylinder diesel is comprehensively outperformed for performance and economy by those in the X3 and XC60.

Lexus’s belated entrant can’t be accused of not trying to make itself heard in this segment with the NX’s extrovert styling and a clear victory on value.

The brand also deserves credit for offering a hybrid when there continues to be no such offering from the Germans.

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The petrol-electric experience, however, also hurts the NX in this company. Its electric-only capability continues to be greatly restricted compared with emerging plug-in hybrids, and refinement quickly drops if any meaningful acceleration is required. And if only Toyota/Lexus could engineer its regenerative brakes to be smooth like they are in an Infiniti Q50 Hybrid.

If the rest of the Lexus NX package appeals, it might be worth waiting for the turbo petrol variant arriving in February 2015.

There’s still much to admire about the Volvo XC60. It has the most comfortable seats overall, looks classy throughout the cabin, and has the best boot mainly courtesy of seats that drop into a genuinely horizontal position.

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Volvo’s smallest SUV (for now) also outsmarts rivals with features such as an auto-braking system that can help avoid rear-enders and those integrated child booster seats.

Its features-for-the-price ratio could be better, though, and its driving manners – particularly compromised in front-drive form – need polishing.

The original BMW X3 was the least convincing of the Bavarian brand’s SUVs at the time, but the second generation continues to turn the tables and establish it as the pick over the X1, X5, X6 and even its newer, sportier twin, the X4.

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It’s still a bit of a tightwad on equipment, especially compared with the Lexus – and artificial leather seats are irksome at this price point.

The X3, however, is at least consistently good in other areas where it’s not leading the way, and it would still have been in the running to win this comparison before its 2014 update.

Add those interior tweaks and the faster yet more economical diesel four-cylinder, and the BMW simply cements its place as our favourite mid-sized luxury SUV.

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AUDI Q5 2.0 TDI
Pros: Versatility of sliding rear bench; tidy dynamics; high cabin quality
Cons: Laggy and lethargic diesel; wooden spoon for fuel economy; fidgety ride; aloof steering; rear camera and nav among options

BMW X3 20d
Pros: Punchy yet frugal performance; brilliant auto; benchmark handling and comfortable ride; biggest overall cargo space
Cons: Relatively high starting price; some equipment shortfalls; rear bench could be more comfortable

LEXUS NX300h
Pros: Keenly priced and equipped; electric-only motoring capability; smooth steering; spacious back seat; four-year warranty
Cons: Drivetrain refinement decreases as speed increases; firm ride; grabby brakes especially spoil driving experience; small boot; low towing capacity

VOLVO XC60 D4 KINETIC
Pros: Excellent fuel economy; interior presentation and fit/finish; comfiest rear seat; clever touches such as integrated child booster seats; low-speed crash avoidance system standard
Cons: Torque steer and steering kickback; patchy ride quality; noisiest diesel on test; expensive jump to AWD model

Click on the Photos tab for more images by Christian Barbeitos.



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