Lexus’ first compact crossover sport utility vehicle, the 2015 NX, is proof that the luxury automaker has finally severed the bonds of styling that has been as inoffensive as a chocolate chip cookie.
The NX presents a visual intensity with its most ardent expression yet of the “spindle grill” and the family design direction that the company calls L-finesse. It’s an edgy, in-your-face design from any angle, with sharp creases, assorted folds, pronounced wheel arches and a swoopy roofline that makes it stand out from the competition.
And speaking of competition, oh my goodness, nearly every luxury nameplate has a compact crossover — Acura, Audi, BMW, Land Rover, Lincoln, Infiniti, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo. Most of these key competitors have had offerings for several years so it’s somewhat surprising that Lexus waited so long to join the bandwagon, especially since it spawned the luxury crossover sport utility category in 1998 with the launch of the RX 300.
Taking on the competition are two NX models, the NX 200t with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and the NX 300h hybrid, which brings the automaker’s number of hybrid offerings to six. Both are available in front- or all-wheel drive.
The sticker price for the front drive NX 300h is $39,720 plus $925 destination charges; the all-wheel drive starts at $41,310.
About the same size as Toyota’s RAV4, with which it shares about 10 percent of structural components, the NX showcases Lexus virtues in a small size. But it’s much more than a breathed-on RAV4. It adds to its MacPherson strut front suspension, high-rigidity components and low-friction moving parts. Lexus notes that a new trailing arm double wishbone rear suspension separates the coil springs and dampers and aims to optimize agility, stability and ride comfort while also providing an unusually low floor for an SUV.
Does the 2015 NX have what it takes to face off against the established rivals and come out on top?
Overall the NX is generally impressive. However, the much-ballyhooed turbocharged NX 200t faces an arduous task of standing out from the crowd when it comes to fuel economy and performance. The 33-mpg NX 300h hybrid overcomes those hurdles with the best fuel economy of any small crossover and delivers performance not expected from a hybrid.
Fuel Miser Powertrain
For the 2015 NX 300h, Lexus updated the hybrid powertrain found in the ES 300h sedan. The 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle gas engine was tuned specifically for the little SUV. The 154 horsepower four-cylinder is paired with the now familiar Lexus/Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive. It combines two electric motor-generators: one that can power the vehicle alone or assist the engine when additional power is needed, the other to recharge the battery. Total system output of the engine and motor is 194 horsepower.
To improve fuel economy and hill climbing, enhancements include a water-to-oil cooler for the electric drive motor and a revised front drive reduction ratio.
There’s also a new automatic transmission with a kick-down feature for greater acceleration performance. The transmission consists of the electric drive motor and electric motor generator linked by a double set of planetary gears. The planetary gearset simultaneously fulfills three roles: as a power split device between the generator and the front wheels, as a reduction gear for the electric motor and, when both work together, as an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT).
The transmission offers sequential shift, which allows maximum power to be delivered on demand and increases engine braking when decelerating.
Drivers can optimize fuel economy by using Eco or Normal modes in Drive Mode Select, or use Shiftmatic in Sport mode to better enjoy a winding road.
To enhance that winding road drive experience, engineers split the nickel-metal hydride battery pack into two 44-pound modules. They are located on each side of the rear seat to improve the center of gravity for better driving control.
Opting for all-wheel drive adds a 67 horsepower electric motor to the rear axle with no mechanical connection to front-mounted engine/motor combination. This is called a “through-the-road” system, wherein the motor/generator is housed in a disparate transaxle that delivers torque to the rear axle when the system detects a loss of traction of the front wheels.
The rear motor also acts as a generator when the NX is in regenerative braking mode, increasing the amount of kinetic energy recovered that’s forwarded to the battery.
Official EPA fuel economy ratings give the NX 300h best-in-class fuel economy bragging rights: Front dive numbers are 35-mpg city/31-mpg highway and 33-mpg combined; all-wheel drive is rated at 32-mpg combined (33/30).
About That Avant-Garde Styling
The new design territory is one that people either really like or really dislike. And that’s a good thing for Lexus because those who make an emotional connection with a vehicle rarely cross shop, they just buy it.
Inside, the design isn’t quite as striking with a blend of Lexus luxury and youthful sportiness. The no-detail-overlooked interior is an inviting place with high quality soft-touch materials meeting fingertips at nearly every touch point.
The instrument cluster of the NX 300h features metal-faced four-dial gauges with a three-dimensional power output and regeneration displays. The hybrid-specific dial changes to a tachometer when the vehicle is in sport mode.
Lexus says the seats were inspired by sports car design and the deeply bolstered front seats securely enfold the driver and passenger. While compact in size, six-footers will find sufficient head- and legroom in both front and rear seating.
Highlights from the standard features list include automatic LED headlights, keyless entry and ignition, dual-zone automatic climate control, eight-way power front seats, a 60/40-split folding and reclining rear seat and a clever cargo cover.
For convenience, there’s a power liftgate available and an optional power rear folding seats, a first for a Lexus SUV.
Standard tech gear includes a 7-inch display screen, multimedia interface, rearview camera, Bluetooth connectivity, Siri-based voice controls, an eight-speaker sound, HD and satellite radio, an auxiliary audio jack and a USB/iPod interface. Available are a head-up display, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and adaptive cruise control.
Smartphone or tablet users will be immediately familiar with the new Remote Touch Interface, which replaces the previous joystick with a touchpad in the center console. An ergonomic palm rest makes it comfortable to use.
And speaking of smartphones, the NX offers an available Qi wireless charging tray inside the center console box. Sadly, as we discovered, it doesn’t work with current-generation iPhones without an adapter.
Our test driver was a well- optioned AWD version that included leather upholstery, 10-way adjustable heated and cooled driver’s seat, heated steering wheel, an excellent 10 speaker audio system, power rear folding seats and liftgate, moon roof, and navigation system. Safety add-ons included blind-spot warning system, rear cross-traffic alert and parking assist. These added $8,779 to the $41,310 sticker price.
I found the ride comfortable even after a few hours behind the wheel, thanks in part to the supportive seat cushion. I particularly appreciated the adjustable steering column and extensively adjustable driver’s seat, which allowed me to find the right driving position and maximize visibility.
If you are like me, and taut, responsive driving is to your liking, you won’t feel shortchanged by the decision to buy a small crossover sport utility. On rural curvy roads, the NX 300h managed to tread the line between comfort and handling that many small crossovers seem to struggle with. With a suspension tuning that combines quite firm spring and damping rates, there was no nasty crashing or shuddering over rough road surfaces.
It’s much the same story around town. The suspension ironed out the worst of urban lumps and dispatched neglected potholes with ease.
Steering felt well engineered and corners could be approached with confidence, and although there was some initial body roll, I never felt like the NX was unsettled.
There was a polished efficiency to city driving and a decisiveness and willingness to work on freeways and two-lane highways. When I wanted the powertrain to hold a gear using the paddle shifter, invariably it did so. Consequently the NX always felt quick and responsive for a hybrid.
Elsewhere, engineering efforts regarding rolling refinement — stiff body structure, insulation, thick glazing — were evident. Wind noise is controlled well, and the engine is mechanically refined.
As for fuel economy, over the years I have found that the Lexus/Toyota hybrid system can be trusted to minimally deliver EPA estimates, usually more. With the NX 300h it was more.
After 289 miles of running around in town and on the freeway, and 40-some miles of frisky driving, the fuel economy readout indicated 35.3 mpg. That’s 3.3 mpg more than the EPA’s estimated 32 mpg combined city/highway.
The Luxury Compact Crossover For You?
Confession: If I were considering a luxury compact crossover, I would buy the NX 300h. The exterior’s sharp creases are alluring and the cabin is, well, it’s a Lexus. The NX hybrid offers just enough driving dynamics to satisfy, and there’s not another small crossover that can match its fuel economy, luxury or mid-market.
While the turbocharged NX 200t faces a number of competent rivals, some with better performance, the NX 300h has only one, well sort of. That’s the BMW Q5 hybrid, officially named Q5 2.0T Prestige Hybrid. While it maintains a semblance of “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” its $52,825 starting price is $10,000 more than the NX 300h all-wheel drive. Plus, fuel economy numbers of 24 mpg city/30 highway/26 combined pale in comparison to the Lexus.
Lexus has taken considerable time to fashion a compact crossover utility, and the NX is a good one. In hybrid guise it has the advantage of no direct competitors plus, the advantage no other car company can offer — the renowned Lexus dealer experience.