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While wingsuit marketing and hoverboard spin will come and go, Lexus continues to inhabit the same cosy, feature-laden, price-savvy middle ground between Euro prestige and the affordable mainstream it’s occupied for its quarter-century history. And despite its funky crossover pitch and brand-shaking turbocharged motivation, the Lexus NX 200t medium SUV doesn’t venture too far from the homestead.

True to Lexus (and dare I say oh-so-Japanese) tradition, the 200t translates ‘premium’ to ‘loaded to the hilt with spec and equipment’ to combat German brand cache. That said, the high-spec NX 200t Sports Luxury version scored a dead heat against the BMW X3 xDrive28i in recent testing.

Further down the range sits the NX 200t Luxury, though it still asks a pretty penny compared with the ‘great unwashed’ mid-SUV alternatives. So the question begs: does Lexus’s entry all-wheel-drive version have appreciably more spec and luxury than, say, the Mazda CX-5 Akera 2.5L Petrol AWD, which is both measurably more affordable yet sits at top of its range, and a high-water mark range in medium-sized family movers at that?

Where, if anywhere, is the newcomer markedly better in justification of its richer price tag?

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PRICE AND FEATURES

The most richly specified variant among the 13 petrol-powered CX-5s currently available asks for $47,410 plus on roads. The Luxury AWD Lexus, though, is just one rung up from the base 2WD petrol version of a choice of four 200t variants, and wants for $57,000 list. Yes, the closest price gap you can bridge these otherwise direct Japanese rivals is a sizeable $9590.

Not handing Lexus a favour yet presenting welcome clarity to the fight, though, is that neither test car has any options fitted.

Such price disparity questions whether the two are truly direct rivals. But while it’s true buyers with a $50K budget can’t or won’t make the stretch to Lexus money, those who can might well be enticed to save a motza opting for the Mazda if the CX-5’s bang-for-buck stacks up. You don’t have to squint hard to see that a victory here weighs heavily on the length and strength of the armoury equipped.

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Both brim with standard features. Each gets adaptive LED headlights, daytime running lights and fog lights, front and rear parking sensors, reversing cameras, rain-sensing wipers, cruise control, climate control, sat-nav, keyless entry with push-button start, leather appointed upholstery and electrically adjustable heated front seats.

Differences? The Lexus gets 18-inch alloys on 60-series tyres, an electric tailgate, and a 10-speaker audio, hill-start assist, while the Mazda counters with 19s loaded with 55-series rubber, a power sliding/tilting sunroof, 10-speaker 231-watt audio.

Each car offers front driver and passenger, front-side and dual-row curtain airbags, though the Lexus adds an additional two front knee airbags.

That said, the Mazda pulls a trump card with its suite of standard-fitment active Safety Pack features which includes blind-spot monitoring, forward obstruction warning, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, rear cross traffic alert, side monitoring and forward/reverse low-speed autonomous braking.

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You can only get blind-spot monitoring and land-departure warning systems in higher-grade NX200t variants. And it’s only once you add the Enhancement Pack 2, a five-grand cost option, that the Lexus gets the pre-collision safety and radar-based active cruise control – plus a sunroof – that feature standard on the now nearly $15K more affordable Mazda.

So it’s the CX-5 in the lead out of the blocks. And it’s a fair jump at that. The Lexus, then, would really want to be clawing back into the race in a commandingly premium manner once you climb inside…

Before that, though, I’m compelled to touch on exterior styling: specifically, the NX’s polarising looks. Both cars are stylised beyond mere family-lugging convenience, but it’s the 200t specifically that hangs its appeal so conspicuously as a ‘cross-over sport utility vehicle’. Whatever that conceptual amalgamation means – feel free to enlighten us, readers – you’ll likely like or loathe the Lexus styling. If you’re amenable to that ‘crossover’ look, then read on…

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INTERIOR

The styling assault continues inside the Lexus, mostly in the dash fascia design and centre stack. The latter is a visual overload of screens, clocks, touchpads, dials and no less than 32 individual buttons of various shapes, sizes and functions.

The Mazda, by contrast, is a more tempered balance of flashiness and restraint, fresher in presentation and generally cleaner and easiest to navigate in user interface. But it’s the Lexus that’s more upmarket in look and feel.

Both run the gamut of suede-look plastic and metallic – if not necessarily metal in areas – highlights, the Lexus favouring darker ambience, the Mazda’s look lighter and brighter. Of the two, the Lexus requires closer scrutiny to find areas made to cost, such as the plastic shiny lower door trims, and it features beautifully supple touch points on the doors and centre armrest.

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The Lexus’s chunky wheel, that electrically extends in reach on start-up, is also rimmed with nicer leather than the Mazda’s, but has clunkier audio and driver screen controls.

Both cars have fine front seating: sporting contours, great all-round support and suitably natural, car-like positioning. But the leather in the Lexus is noticeably softer to touch and more supple, good enough to shame some pricier German offerings. The Mazda’s ivory-coloured hide, too, showed signs of wear discolouration despite the modest kilometre count on its odometer (it can be optioned black to no cost).

In the first row, the Lexus feels lower-slung and cosier, exacerbated by its large centre console. The Mazda is airier with headroom and a little more upright in seating. As such, and with its more generous glass area, the Mazda is easier to see out of and allows the driver to more confidently judge its exterior perimeters.

The Mazda has a more technical look to its instrumentation, while the Lexus sets its simple dials too low in the binnacle – tallish drivers, such as yours truly, will find setting the wheel to a comfortable height obscures the lower sectors of the dials. There’s also no digital speedo in the Lexus, the driver’s screen favouring myriad (and frankly pointless) eco-babble as a substitute.

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Despite ample seat time in this NX 200t (our long-termer) I’ve failed to acclimatise to its frustrating touchpad interface, though thankfully there are dedicated shortcut climate controls in the centre stack. It’s usable if given undivided attention – once it’s parked – but too distracting on the move. Both offer multifunction steering wheels.

It’s the Mazda’s combination of intuitive rotary controller and touchscreen (at least at a standstill) design that continues to rate highly for ease of infotainment interface. In outright terms, it lacks some of the slickness and bells and whistles functionality of some premium (Euro) systems but it’s much friendlier than the convoluted Lexus system. The 200t, though, evens things up somewhat by offering a richness and fidelity in sound system quality above and beyond that of the Mazda’s otherwise fine audio equipment.

If the Lexus wants to be accepted as feeling higher grade, there are details to support it. The one-touch overhead lights are neat, the automatic parking brake function is convenient, and the doors have more surety in weight and close with more assuring ‘thunk’ than the lighter and tinnier Mazda doors.

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The Mazda has a more spacious and naturally packaged second row. Be it a result of design or styling, by comparison, the Lexus once again feels claustrophobic despite actually offering ample knee and shoulder room together with functional headroom for taller occupants. The Lexus also offers reclining rear seat backs in its 60:40 split, whereas the Mazda’s 40:20:40 split-fold seats are static. Both SUVs feature rear air vents, outboard Isofix points and conventional tether points and door bins, though there’s no 12v power available in back of the Lexus.

Frustratingly, the Lexus has no remote access for folding the second row seats from the cargo area. Nor do the rear seats fold flat. But despite the high floor – which offers underfloor storage for the solid parcel shelf – there’s not much between the two SUV in term of cargo volume.

The NX claims a superior 500L to the CX-5’s 405L rear seats in play, though the curvaceous tailgate design impacts on luggage space usability – it isn’t quite as practical as sheer volume suggests. Rear seats down, the Mazda has the slight space advantage, though its 1560-litre capacity is superior to the Lexus by just 15 litres.

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ENGINE AND PERFORMANCE

The CX-5, in contemporary Mazda convention, continues to buck the wider mid-SUV trend towards turbocharged petrol engines.

Despite being the larger 2.5-litre four (against the lower-spec CX-5’s 2.0-litre units) in the range, its 138kW (at 5700rpm) and 250Nm (at a high 4000rpm) won’t win any heavy-lifting awards, even against price-parity rivals wearing Kuga, Forester and Tiguan badges producing between 155-175kW with roughly up to an extra 100Nm on board.

So while the Lexus’s ‘landmark’ turbocharged 2.0-litre – the first forced-induction engine in the marque’s quarter-century history – produces a dominant 175kW (at 4800rpm) and 350Nm (at a low 1650rpm) against the Mazda, the numbers aren’t overly heroic when compared with a raft of more-affordable mid-SUV segment chasers.

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Both are tied to six-speed automatics and all-wheel drive, and offer a Sport calibration to add pep beyond their default drive modes.

It’s easy to underestimate the 2.5L CX-5 on outputs alone, it’s proven an effective powertrain basis in tests past, and many CarAdvice opinion-makers rate this engine more highly than CX-5’s 2.2L diesel despite the marked 170Nm deficit.

Mazda’s weight mitigation consciousness – marketed under the vagaries of ‘Skyactiv’ – yields a respectable 1628kg kerb weight for the full-fruit Akera model. While hardly segment smashing, that figure makes the NX’s 1860kg seem downright portly because, well, the Lexus is.

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The weight disparity is a performance leveler, though to a point. The Mazda is brisk off the mark, if lacking the Lexus’s assertive, lag-free shove, though the Mazda’s excellent and intuitive auto does its finest to keep the 2.5L in its 4000rpm sweet spot. So while the CX-5 is slower, it’s only by a modest measure. The Mazda’s energy, too, levels out as revs rise, despite the engine’s higher-revving nature. The Lexus pulls harder in the upper rev range and never gets caught lagging in upshifts despite the low 4800rpm peak power point.

While not quite as slick as some of the German rivals this Lexus hopes to rub shoulders with, the NX’s six-speed auto easily matches its Japanese opponent for intelligent operation and near-seamless shift quality. It’s quite harmoniously married to the turbo four as well, an engine more convincing and characteristically well-suited to a mid-sized SUV in the NX than it perhaps is in powering the stablemate IS 200t sedan.

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ON THE ROAD

So while the Lexus steels the march in acceleration, its extra energy provides a more useful benefit in the balance of everyday driving flexibility. For lane changing, merging and exiting side streets in adapting to the urban ebb and flow, it’s more responsive – or, at least, more responsive without reaching for the Sport button. The heightening of powertrain response when Sport is selected, too, is more marked in the NX.

The Mazda does feel lighter, airier and more lively to drive. It’s easier to place on the road and there’s a clearer sense of its extremities when manoeuvring and parking. Part of the effect is the Lexus’s smaller glass area, making outward visibility a little more restrictive; part of this is its lower stance and longer (4630mm versus 4540mm) overall length; part of this, too, is the NX’s exceptionally quiet noise isolation that makes it extremely quiet inside the cabin, distancing the occupants from the outside environment. And by design, it seems, to create that premium aura.

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The Lexus is susceptible to tyre noise penetration from its 225mm 18-inch rubber and, despite the generous 60-series sidewalls, the suspension does thud noticeably over square-edged road imperfections. It’s not the most disciplined and cosseting damper tuning on the SUV market.

There’s a whiff of sportiness about the NX’s suspension, though, realistically, it’s a fairly convincing balance of comfort and road connection, if one that doesn’t really shine either way.

The Mazda’s class-leading connection between road and driver remains one of its most positive traits. But its patently more sporty approach, right down to lower-profile (55-series) 19-inch rolling stock, is tempered by ride quality that is firm but nearly never jarring or brittle over poor surfaces.

It’s not merely about dynamic ability where the CX-5 shines – and it does – but, more crucially, the Mazda offers a sense of safety and task-free driving through its inherent connection with the road below, whatever the surface or driving style. The Lexus is a little more numb and, thus, less reassuring.

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That said, the NX plays the role of the comfortable cruiser with confidence. It’s impressively refined, a notch up from regular SUV stock and comparable with the properly premium mid-SUV stuff it hopes to compete with.

The steering in the Lexus is also lighter and more user-friendly at city speeds during tighter urban manoeuvres. Its Mazda rival does have, by driving enjoyment standards, fine steering quality, but it’s more weighty and feels a little more arduous around town against its rival.

Both SUVs performed reasonably well in tested fuel consumption. Surprisingly, despite demanding slightly more effort for its keep, the CX-5 returned a respectable 8.5L/100km against its 7.4L claim.

The Lexus, while more effortless under the right foot, demanded roughly two litres more across the same drive cycle as its advertised 7.9L/100km figure.

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OWNERSHIP AND WARRANTY

Mazda offers a rudimentary three-year warranty – that can be extended for a further year at an added cost – yet covers unlimited-kilometre usage. The Lexus gets four years of coverage complete with roadside assist, though on the proviso that 100,000kms isn’t exceeded.

The CX-5 requires servicing every year or 10,000kms, whichever comes first, and is capped through 16 service intervals with an average per annum cost of $312.50, though this doesn’t include periodic additional maintenance items ($62 for brake fluid every 40,000kms, $260 for spark plugs every 120,000kms, etcetera). The Lexus, however, has no capped-price servicing.

If you plan on clocking up the kays quickly – particularly regional buyers – but wish to avoid mileage anxiety and keen for clear upfront ownership costs, the CX-5 offers better surety of the two.

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VERDICT 

A flamboyant design, prestige as solidity, supple cabin textures, quiet and refined running and a lusty powertrain: there’s plenty the NX has over the CX-5 with which many buyers might hang justification for the Lexus’s near five-figure premium.

Had everything else been equal, this would’ve otherwise been quite a close race. But equal they’re not.

The Lexus is neither as confident in the practicalities of moving small families as the Mazda, nor is it quite as all-round friendly an ally in the urban environment. Wrap that in a package boasting its own inimitable flair, impressive quality and (in this test) superior sportiness – superfluous or not – and it’s of little surprise that the CX-5 continues not only to rate highly in test but remains the solid gold mid-SUV sales chart-topper.

An extra five grand on top of the NX 200t’s already rich ticket to approach the CX-5 Akera’s excellent safety credentials condemned a fate for the Lexus that was perhaps already sealed regardless.

Click on the photos tab to see more images by Mitchell Oke.



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