Lexus's smallest SUV is finally on the road. CarAdvice finds out whether the Q5, X3 and Evoque should be worried
It’s almost a relief to see the Lexus NX in production form after the Japanese luxury brand scared us with a preview concept you wouldn’t want to meet down an alley, whether it was dark or not.
With its aggressive mix of sharp-edged lines and savage slashes all over a body that looked as though it’d cut you if you touched it, Lexus’s designers toned things down for the showroom version.
The Lexus NX is still the boldest yet of a new era of eye-catching designs aiming to shake-up the brand’s image globally, though it seems it's better to polarise rather than completely alienate buyers.
This is especially true as the NX is both significant and crucial.
It’s significant because it’s the first model to emerge under the full guidance of Lexus International – the Californian division set up in 2012 to assume responsibility for global products instead of Japan.
And crucial because Toyota’s luxury brand needs more SUVs to fill gaping holes that don’t exist in the line-ups of its German rivals.
Ignoring the Prado-in-disguise GX sold in the US only and the LandCruiser-based LX, the RX has been Lexus’s sole road-focused SUV in recent years.
Where the RX’s size meant it essentially straddled the large and medium luxury SUV segments, the NX must battle the Audi Q5, BMW X3 and Range Rover Evoque while also hoping to conquest buyers considering higher-spec versions of the smaller Q3 and X1.
The Lexus NX will start closer to the entry prices of the mid-sizers, though, with Lexus Australia suggesting a kick-off somewhere in the $55-60,000 bracket. The X3 starts at $60,900; the Q5 from $63,600.
NX is also much closer in size to the mid-sized Germans, with a 4.63 length identical in size to the Q5 and just 1.8cm short of the X3.
It achieves its size by being 6cm longer than the Toyota RAV4 on which it’s based – sharing the same wheelbase, though with Lexus keen to stress that 90 per cent of the NX is new or newly developed.
Borrowed, however, is the electronically controlled on-demand all-wheel-drive system, which will be an optional alternative to standard front-wheel drive on the base Luxury but standard on F Sport and Sport Luxury trim grades.
Lexus says the NX’s AWD system puts more emphasis on rear torque distribution, though it’s still limited to 50 per cent at the rear axle.
As with the RX, though, this is a high-riding Lexus designed more for tree-lined avenues than forest trails.
Our first experience of the Lexus NX was very much through the trees, and among lakes and mountains, with the international launch staged in Canada around Vancouver and the nearby Whistler ski resort.
As one of the most famous ski destinations in the world, and the host of the 2010 Winter Olympics, it’s no surprise the quality of the bitumen covered was of a high standard generally.
There were also few taxing corners on the launch route, and the vehicles tested were pre-production, so we’ll have to wait for the NX’s October launch in Australia to truly discover the merits or otherwise of this Lexus’s road manners.
A touch of abruptness over larger bumps suggested the ride might not end up being perfect, though there’s also a feeling that major changes to the donor RAV4 platform could avoid the annoying choppiness of the Toyota. Road noise was noticeable on our test cars, both wearing 18-inch rubber that will be standard in Australia.
The electric steering is better – smooth, well weighted and losing the slight vacant patch that hinders the RAV4 when driven in a straight line.
Our closest encounters with dynamic assessment – some sharp corners and an airport slalom test – pointed to a sufficiently responsive and controlled SUV though not necessarily one that will entertain more than an X3.
The Lexus NX can certainly be competitive when it comes to engines, however, courtesy of a new 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that is the brand’s first ever boosted petrol engine (and the first in the Toyota world since the Celica GT-Four of the 1990s).
This direct injection, twin-scroll turbo engine produces 175kW of power and 350Nm of torque and sits under the bonnet of the Lexus NX200t, which is expected to carry a slight premium over the alternative petrol-electric NX300h.
It’s our pick of the drivetrains based on first impressions.
Although there’s some hesitation if you request instant power with a heavy push of the accelerator pedal, the engine is tractable at low speeds and feels more effortless than the hybrid at higher speeds due to its maximum torque being delivered between 1650 and 4000rpm.
As you would expect for a Lexus motor, it’s also refined with smooth performance and no unwelcome intrusion into the cabin even at higher revs – though the engine note, while capable of being throaty down low, doesn’t sound quite as good as BMW’s equivalent engine.
Lexus’s new six-speed automatic – supplied by Japanese gearbox company Aisin – can’t deliver gearchanges as fluent or decisive as the German eight-speed ZF transmission hooked up to most BMW engines these days, including the one in the NX200t’s direct rival, the X3 xDrive28i.
Choose the NX300h and theoretically the hybrid will save you about two litres of fuel every 100km according to Lexus’s pre-production info – 5.7L/100km versus somewhere under 8.0L/100km for the petrol – though the 2.5-litre four-cylinder can be heard working hard away whenever out of the city.
Modulating brake pedal pressure in the NX200t is also an easier task due to the typical interference associated with regenerative braking systems found in hybrids.
Battery storage costs the NX300h some boot space over the NX200t, though it’s only 25 litres. Even with its maximum 500L, the cargo space behind the petrol NX’s automatic tailgate is still 40 and 50 litres shy of the boots in the smaller German SUV.
Despite being 14cm shorter than the RX, the NX also boasts a bigger boot than its larger sibling (at 446L) despite losing out by 140mm in length. There’s also comparable rear seat legroom in Lexus’s smallest SUV – with the inclusion of power reclining/folding rear seats.
A new RX is due out at the end of 2015, so the NX inevitably feels fresher inside.
The interior design mirrors the exterior’s obsession with angles – notably the zig-zagging centre stack that houses the 7.0-inch colour display and heating/ventilation controls in the upper section and audio in the lower part.
It blends into a centre console that includes electric parking brake button and rotary dial for driving modes – which can also alter the suspension setting on F Sport models that will be standard with adaptive dampers.
A new-generation version of Lexus’s Remote Touch Interface makes its debut in the NX. It now aims to mimic the operation of smartphones and tablets rather than a computer mouse as before. Where the old point’n’click system was a nice-in-theory-but-flawed-in-practice idea due to the system’s oversensitivity, there’s now a more effective touchpad.
It allows the thumb-finger pinching in/out style for, say, zooming in and out of navigation maps, and the touchpad also vibrates to let the user know (without looking) when they have moved the selection from one feature to another.
The operation still feels as though it takes a greater conscious effort than BMW’s benchmark iDrive, though a bigger annoyance was the glare on the 7.0-inch display that made information difficult to read.
What no other vehicle in the world can match for now, though, is a wireless charging system that will replenish your smartphone’s battery life on the go simply by placing it on the tray in the console bin. Your phone just has to be Qi compatible – so an iPhone, for example, requires a special case.
Get an NX with the Mark Levinson audio and you’ll also benefit from a new technology called Clari-Fi that can raise the quality of compressed digital music tracks to a level similar to CDs (no luck yet for the vinyl purists).
While neither will be standard in an entry-level Lexus NX, expect the Japanese brand to bring its usual lengthy list of inclusions for the Luxury. These will include 18-inch alloy wheels, parking sensors, navigation via 7.0-inch display, 10-speaker audio, synthetic-leather seats, aluminium roof rails, LED low beam lamps, and possibly blind spot monitoring.
The German brands have worried about rival Lexus models since the LS made a noise in 1989 with its hushed refinement.
The Lexus NX isn’t going to upset the establishment in quite the same manner but it's unquestionably competitive. How uncomfortable it makes life for its rivals, however, could also be determined by how buyers respond to that aggressive styling.