“Should I buy a sporty SUV? Or one that’s focused more on luxury?”
Great hypothetical question, invisible questioner! We’ve assembled two prestige SUVs that appear to be trying to offer you two cars in one – sporty, and luxurious.
Our two competitors are the BMW X3 xDrive28i and the Lexus NX200t Sports Luxury.
“Whoa, hold up – couldn't we just wrap it up now and give the Lexus the win, based on the name of this variant?” Erm, no - not given BMW’s heritage of offering benchmark dynamic ability and top-notch posh.
Let’s start off with sportiness.
Firstly, the big news is that both of these models are powered by four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engines – and it’s the first time we’ve ever been able to say that about a Lexus in a comparison test.
The NX200t is powered by the company’s first-ever forced-induction engine, which is a 2.0-litre unit with 175kW of power and 350Nm of torque.
Lexus claims the all-wheel-drive NX200t Sports Luxury has a fuel use rating of 7.9 litres per 100 kilometres, while also stating the SUV can dispatch with a sprint from 0-100km/h in 7.1 seconds.
That puts it pretty close (on all accounts) to BMW’s long-standing, impressive 2.0-litre turbo. The engine in 28i guise has long been a favourite among the CarAdvice crew, no matter what body it was hauling around.
Its familiar outputs of 180kW and 350Nm have a slight power edge in this test (by 5kW), and its performance time is superior to its Japanese rival, with a claimed sprint from 0-100km/h in just 6.5sec. Fuel use is claimed at a more frugal 7.3L/100km, too. Both cars have stop-start to help save fuel at a standstill.
However, part of the reason the BMW has a lower consumption figure is the fact it has it also has an extra two gears available: the X3 has an eight-speed transmission, while the NX has a six-speed auto. Both have steering wheel-mounted paddleshifters if you feel like taking matters in to your own hands, too.
On our test, however, it was the Lexus that posted a more impressive fuel consumption figure: the NX used an average of 10.1L/100km, while the X3 used an average of 11.2L/100km. It might not be enough to change your mind about a car in the short term, but that savings will add up over time.
We all know sportiness isn’t just about how fast you can go – it’s also about how agile you can be.
Lightness aids agility, and while the Lexus is smaller in terms of dimensions – spanning just 4.63 metres long, 1.87m wide and 1.63m tall – its kerb weight is 1860 kilograms. The BMW is bigger in all directions – 4.64m long, 1.88m wide and 1.67m tall – yet it tips the scales at 1740kg.
It’s no surprise, then, that the BMW feels notably more nimble through corners. It changes direction with more ease than the Lexus, and the steering is quicker to respond when turning in to corners. It carves up twists and turns, and there’s plenty of grip at the front end so when you pick a line, you can stick with it through a corner.
Both myself and fellow tester Trent Nikolic found the BMW to feel more like a sports wagon than an SUV in terms of its road manners, and there’s no doubt the 19-inch wheels with 40-profile tyres and the stiffer M Sport suspension fitted as part of the M Sport pack helps in that regard.
However, there is a downside – the ride of the X3 is hard, verging on annoying at times. The thin sidewalls of the (otherwise brilliant) Michelin Primacy 3 tyres offer little insulation of small bumps to those in the cabin, and the general bounciness of the car over bumps could become grating over time.
It is stiff, and buyers who expect an SUV to offer a comfortable ride may wish to reconsider the M Sport option pack (we would, unless we also chose BMW’s optional Dynamic Damper Control).
The Lexus, on the other hand, doesn’t feel like a sports wagon on stilts – indeed, it behaves more like a mild-mannered SUV.
The weight of the NX no doubt plays a part in dulling its cornering ability, as do its 60-profile, 18-inch Bridgestone Dueler tyres, which are much more aimed at those who will partake in occasional off-roading rather than buyers who may consider a twisty trip as more of a point-to-point time trial.
Its steering doesn’t deliver anywhere near as much precision as the BMW, and some rattle through the steering rack can also be noticed over mid-corner bumps. It won’t hold its line nearly as aggressively as the X3, either, understeering when you push it hard before the traction control system intervenes.
It isn’t as overly rigid on the road as the BMW, but on rough roads its chassis tends to offer the bad side of both possible outcomes – crashing and wobbling – while also lacking the cornering poise of the X3. There’s bump-shudder through the cabin over sharp edges, and the damping overcompensates when you hit larger lumps on the road. It makes the Lexus feel as though it’s always moving backwards and forwards or side-to-side.
The Lexus, though, manages to easily outshine its BMW rival in terms of urban comfort.
It coasts over big speed humps and small marks on the road nicely at city speeds, though it’s wheels can stumble over broken sections of pavement, particularly those with sharp edges.
It isn’t perfect in terms of ride quality, but its much more passenger-friendly than the BMW, which never feels settled as its big wheels and thin tyres tend to pick up a lot of the smaller bumps on the road surface.
The steering of the BMW is heavier at low speeds, too, so depending on your personal preference that could be a factor. The Lexus’ low-speed steering is very light and quite lifeless, but it feels a lot less like hard work than the BMW when you’re parking.
With the driving experience of the BMW clearly more focused on being sporty than that of the Lexus, let’s look at our other main criteria for this twin test – luxury.
We all know luxury doesn’t come cheap, and these two contenders are pretty closely matched on price – but not on equipment.
The BMW X3 28i starts from $72,930 plus on-road costs, but that’s not what our test car was valued at. No, including an array of optional equipment its list price is $88,510 before on-road costs.
The aforementioned M Sport pack, which includes those 19-inch wheels, sport suspension, high-gloss roof rails, sports seats, interior trim in brushed aluminium, an M leather steering wheel, and variable sport steering, and an M bodykit is good value at $2900.
Some of the other items fitted to our X3 test car included LED headlights with automated high-beam and anti-glare function ($3680), a head-up display ($2000), panoramic glass roof ($3000) and metallic paint ($1900).
The Lexus, on the other hand, is a $72,500 plus on-road costs proposition. And it had no options fitted, whatsoever.
In spite of that, it offers considerably more standard equipment than the BMW.
While you need to tick plenty of option boxes for the X3, a number of the costly items including LED headlights with auto high-beam, sunroof, colour head-up display, adaptive cruise control - with forward collision warning – all come standard.
The Lexus also has a full smart key entry system with push-button start (the BMW requires a button press to unlock) and lane departure warning, as well as power folding rear seats (which can be operated from the driver’s seat, the second row or the boot) and a 14-speaker Mark Levinson stereo system.
There’s no denying, then, that if your definition of luxury includes value, the Lexus wins hands-down.
In terms of accommodation, the Lexus feels more cramped in the front, mainly due to the intrusive centre console that pokes out quite a lot and divides the cabin between the driver and passenger.
That said, it offers excellent comfort for the occupants in the front seats, with comfortable seats that offer decent levels of adjustment.
The rear seat, too, is supremely comfortable in the NX – it doesn’t have quite as much head room, and the door openings are a little shallow, but once you’re in there’s better leg and toe room than the BMW. That’s despite the BMW riding on a longer 2810mm wheelbase; the gap between the front and rear wheels of the NX is 2660mm.
The BMW feels taller inside and there’s some benefit to its more eminent glasshouse, which makes it feel airy and light, despite physically feeling a bit more cramped.
Up front the BMW doesn’t stray far from the familiar formula. Everything is logically positioned and well thought out, and there’s more room to move, too.
The media systems in both cars provide plenty to talk about.
The Lexus’s system takes some learning. Using the new touchpad style interface with haptic feedback can be a bit like a mini electric shock the first time you do, but once you become accustomed to the amount of pressure required and the responsiveness of it, it’s fine – not great, but acceptable.
The menus themselves take some learning, and Lexus plays the same game as Toyota with Bluetooth phone connectivity only allowing you to choose contacts to dial when you’re at a standstill – which is rubbish, if you’re a businessperson who spends a lot of time on the road. It also resets to the menu screen as a default after you hang up, which is annoying if you’re planning on making several phone calls in a row.
Still, the connectivity worked well – initialising and re-connecting seamlessly – and there’s the brilliant Mark Levinson audio system to offset some of the ergo quirks.
On the other hand, BMW’s iDrive system is a breeze to use. With its much more comfortable rotary dial system, there’s little in the way of confusion when you’re moving between menus. It stays on the right screen when you finish your phone call, too.
The wireless connectivity of the BMW was likewise issue-free, but the stereo system wasn’t of the same calibre as the Lexus in terms of both clarity and thumping bass.
Luxury levels of service are standard for both vehicles, as each has a form of concierge service.
BMW’s ConnectedDrive concierge and Lexus’ Enform concierge systems allow 24-hour access to information through their own call centres – so, for instance, if you want to find out if a particular restaurant is open that night, and if they have a table free, you can ask the concierge to find out and book for you.
As for service at the dealership, Lexus offers a four-year/100,000 kilometre warranty for its new cars, as well as a loan car or the option of having your Lexus picked up from your home or office and returned to you after servicing is complete. There’s no capped-price service program, though.
BMW does have a capped-price program, which is priced from $1140 for five years or 80,000km of coverage. The Bavarian maker’s warranty is a three-year/unlimited kilometre program.
All in all, then, this test showed that luxury sporty SUVs come in different shapes and sizes, and they go about their aims in different ways, too.
The Lexus is the pick if you think getting a lot of equipment for your money equates to good value. The NX may not be as sharp a tool when it comes to carving up corners, but it beats the X3 for luxury accommodation.
That said, the sports part of the SUV acronym can’t be better served than by the way the BMW does it. It’s head and shoulders above the Lexus in terms of dynamic ability, but if you care less about that and more about practicality, the BMW can’t compete.
As such, we’re scoring both the Lexus and BMW equally, with neither nailing the criteria of being supremely luxurious while also profoundly sporty. You could do worse than to buy either of these, though – both offer healthy doses of sportiness and luxury in different ways.
Click the Photos tab above for more images by Tom Fraser.