By Steve & Tamami Laser
Every now and then we get the opportunity to test-drive a vehicle before it goes on sale. Lexus granted our wish with a week in a pre-production prototype of its all-new 2015 NX small luxury crossover.
To say that we were excited is an understatement. We drove it on city streets about three months prior to the official launch. Thus, many folks were seeing an NX for the first time. We received plenty of stares, thumbs-up and comments wherever we went. One guy followed us for blocks until we parked at Trader Joe’s so he could get a closer look and ask questions.
The questions that we answered included:
- What kind of Lexus is this? (See below)
- When does it go on sale? (November 2014)
- How much does it cost? (We don’t know yet)
- What’s with that outrageous grille? (We like it too!)
While any unfamiliar vehicle wearing a manufacturer license plate attracts its share of attention, the polarizing styling of the NX made it tantalizing eye candy. Actually, the market for this class of vehicle is exploding lately with popular entries like the new Porsche Macan, BMW X1 and Mercedes-Benz GLA.
Flashback 25 years, when Toyota launched its Lexus luxury division with plans to compete with vaunted European brands like Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Its first two products, the LS 400 full-size luxury sedan and the Camry derived ES 250 were well-planned products with the LS exhibiting world-class quality that helped put the brand on the map.
Yet both cars blended into the background during an era when luxury sedans were conservatively styled. Now that Lexus has found its groove, we’re seeing it take enormous risks in the styling department. Its signature “spindle” grille that has migrated across the model lineup reaches its zenith on the NX and is flanked by distinctive LED headlights underscored with Lexus swoosh-style turn signals.
When we heard that Lexus was planning a small crossover, we wondered where the platform would come from. The most obvious choice is Toyota’s RAV4. And while they do share some underbody components, Lexus engineers are quick to point out that about 90 percent of the NX was created from scratch.
We imagine them sitting around a bunch of parts analyzing every nut, bolt and cog, and then discarding them because they weren’t up to Lexus snuff. It’s not that there’s anything wrong mind you, it’s just that in the effort to make the NX a true Lexus, it must have a whisper-quiet ride befitting its bigger sibling the RX.
To say that they succeeded is an understatement. Our test car was the NX 300h, which is the hybrid model. When the gasoline engine is switched off while you’re driving, you might as well be in an escape pod from the starship Enterprise. The hybrid powertrain includes a 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle 4-cylidner engine teamed with an electric motor for a combined output of 194 horsepower.
Our tester was the front-drive model. Those who opt for all-wheel drive are rewarded with an additional motor that powers the rear wheels. This is a great solution that eliminates the typically heavy and bulky transfer case and driveshaft.
While we didn’t have a chance to drive it, the NX also comes in a non-hybrid version sporting Lexus’ first turbocharged engine. That one is a 2.0-liter four that puts out about 235 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque. A V6 engine is not on the option list and Lexus has no plans to offer one.
The hybrid uses a Continuously Variable Transmission that gains a new kickdown switch to help eliminate lag and booming engine noise when you step firmly on the accelerator. The turbo model features a conventional 6-speed automatic. Both come with a Drive Mode Select knob on the center console that lets the driver tailor powertrain response by selecting Normal, Eco or Sport modes.
A separate EV button for the hybrid enables the vehicle to run strictly on electricity for a short distance if the sophisticated computer-controlled system allows it. Another unique hybrid feature is sprung weight-damping control that’s designed to reduce pitching on uneven surfaces to help smooth out the ride.
We discovered that the NX 300h is indeed a true Lexus with its smooth and silky ride quality, excellent cabin isolation and finely crafted components. But is it fun to drive? We think it is, but for the hybrid naysayers Lexus does offer the gas-only turbo and an even more aggressive F Sport model.
NX hybrid provides very good acceleration off the line in the Normal mode and even better when selecting Sport. It zipped up the steep hills in our neighborhood with ease and felt secure and planted in the turns.
During our test we averaged 22 mpg, which is good for a small crossover but not quite as good as the smaller Lexus CT 200h hybrid. Of course, we were driving like lead-footed journalists. Official fuel economy figures have not been released.
The cabin is a comfortable place to do business, with the driver surrounded by stylish and functional gauges and controls. Our NX 300h tester featured a hybrid system indicator that displays power output and regeneration in real time. All NX models are fitted with a 4.2-inch color LCD Multi-Information Display in the center of the instrument cluster that changes colors according to the Drive Mode Select setting.
High-tech goodies include new touch-sensitive map lights in the headliner that have no switches. Just touch the light panel surface and it turns on, then touch it again and it goes off.
Lexus has greatly improved the operation of the available Remote Touch Interface on the center console. Instead of a joystick that was a bit awkward to use on other models, the NX gains a convenient touchpad that functions like a smartphone or tablet screen.
Another nifty feature on our tester was located inside the center console. Lift up the armrest and behold a Qi wireless charging tray. It recharges compatible smartphones or other devices without using a cable.
Our tester was graced with a seven-inch center display screen and optional navigation system. It offers predictive traffic information, including detour preview, ETA calculation and low-fuel coordination with nearby gas stations. The Lexus Enform App Suite has 3D and bird’s eye map views plus 3D building views.
Then, there’s Siri® Eyes Free mode that requires a compatible iPhone®. This handy feature lets you call contacts, select and play iTunes® music, and get turn-by-turn navigation via Siri and Apple maps.
We might as well go the whole nine yards and tell you more about the Lexus Enform service. Voice-enabled apps let you search the Internet using Bing™, make restaurant reservations with OpenTable®, get movie tickets via MovieTickets.com™, listen to Internet radio using apps like Pandora®, iHeartRadio™ and Slacker, and even search business reviews on Yelp® and check in on Facebook Places™.
Lexus also offers its latest suite of safety features for the NX. There’s eight standard airbags, whiplash-lessening front seats, a backup camera with dynamic grid lines, LED daytime running lights, Vehicle Stability Control and traction control, to name a few. Our tester included the optional Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Pre-Collision System with all-speed cruise control and Intuitive Park Assist.
While we do know that our tester included the Navigation Package and Premium Package with heated and ventilated front seats and a moonroof, we don’t know at this point how much all this luxury costs. Prices for NX were not released at press time. The NX is certainly going to be lower priced than the RX, which starts out at about $42,000.
Based on our weeklong test drive of this prototype, we predict that the new NX will be another success story for Lexus. It has everything buyers want in this segment wrapped with cutting-edge styling, offering available hybrid and turbo models and the F Sport will please those who may be stepping up from a sporty sedan or coupe to a crossover.
Congratulations Lexus on a job well done. We liked the NX so much that we’re on the verge of naming it our top choice in the small luxury crossover class. However, that will have to wait until we get seat time in an actual production model.
Lexus NX 300h press fleet vehicle provided by Lexus Division. (Prices and vehicle information applies to models sold in the U.S. at the time of publication. All information including prices, features and specifications is subject to change without notice by the automaker.)
Story, photos and videos ©2014 CarNichiWa