➤ Great looks, exceptional interior quality, impressively refined. ➤ Until the NX200t 6-speed auto arrives later, there’s only the CVT.
It’s little secret that over the past several years, the compact SUV market has become one of the fastest growing segments in the international automotive industry.
Nissan drew first blood in 2007 by unwittingly creating the compact SUV segment with the ubiquitous Qashqai. Unwittingly, because Nissan UK executives openly admitted at the time that they had little if any, idea how the Qashqai would be received by the buying public, let alone if it would sell with any measurable degree of profitability. With hindsight, their likely insomnia was unwarranted. With 1.43 million Qashqai’s sold worldwide and the model now well into its second-generation, I have written so many words about it that I’m just happy to finally be able to spell it without having to look it up.
Easier to spell is the all-new Lexus NX compact SUV. Lexus pioneered the premium, mid-sized SUV segment with the original RX back in 1998. Sixteen years on, the NX is rudely late to the party. It is, however, an altogether different proposition for buyers.
An discernible sigh of relief echoed throughout the automotive world when the final production images of the Lexus NX were revealed. Stung by some rather forthright criticism, designers revisited the wildly linear LF-NX concept car from the 2012 Frankfurt Motor Show, ironed out some of the crazy creases and signed it off – but still with a hefty ‘look-at-me’ attitude.
Frankly, the Lexus NX looks fantastic and if there’s an SUV in today’s market with more road gravitas, I’ve yet to meet it.
The car retains a futuristic aesthetic that sits comfortably atop the style ratings in a busy market segment. The new Lexus ‘spindle grill’ forcibly takes pride of place up front. On other Lexus models it looks proportionally good, quite smart, even. But when stretched like bread dough to fit on the front of a compact SUV, the visual aesthetic doesn’t work.
➤ The interior
On this inside the drama continues with plush furniture and fittings which have a premium feel, even on the ‘poverty-spec’ 2WD S-grade models. The NX is spacious with good room in the back and a decent boot.
The new NX raided the Toyota RAV4 parts pantry where it made economic sense to do so. The two compact crossovers share the same wheelbase and Lexus says the NX uses the RAV4’s front floor pan and cowl-and-dash structure as well. Various other drivetrain components are also shared, but Lexus claims that 91 per cent of the NX’s content is model-specific.
➤ Trims and Prices
There are five trim levels in the current NX300h line-up: S, SE, Luxury, F-Sport and Premier. Only the S is available in 2WD – all other grades are 4WD. Prices start from £29,495 for the S grade, peaking at £42,995 for the Premier specification.
The Lexus NX is the first of the brand to feature a pre-crash safety system and adaptive cruise control as standard on all versions. Other firsts for any Lexus include a wireless charging tray for easy charging of smartphones and a new ‘remote touch interface’ with a touch pad control that replaces the awkward mouse controller. However it only comes on top versions.
➤ The Powerplants
Lexus doesn’t do diesels and there isn’t one available in the NX range, either. And that’s a big shame, to be honest. Instead, the marque offers an NX300h hybrid which couples a 2.5-litre petrol engine with an electric motor. Efficiency was the intent with a claimed economy of 54.3mpg and emissions of 116g/km CO2.
With a total of 197bhp and a 0-62mph time of around 9.5 seconds, the NX 300h looks good in print. However, its Achilles heel is the CVT ‘gearbox’ which makes for an unpleasant and noisy driving experience unless you’re feather-footed or exceptionally patient. Even gentle acceleration is accompanied by continuous engine whine. It is not for the more engaging or enthusiastic driver and I found it as inviting as news of a George Bush Jnr. speaking tour.
Later this year, a new turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine makes its UK debut on the NX200t and will be linked to a proper six-speed automatic and AWD. The engine is the first to be turbocharged in a Toyota Group product since the mid-1990s Celica/Supra. Rated at 235bhp, the four-cylinder unit promises good throttle response rather than ultimate performance, with due deference given to reduced emissions and low fuel consumption.
The NX200t when it arrives, will only be available as a higher performance version in F-Sport trim.
➤ On the Road
On the road the NX exhibits exemplary road manners with much less body roll than expected of a compact SUV. The accurate steering is light but not overly so and the suspension was well set up for Austrian roads.
If you’re expecting the NX300h to drive like a smaller version of the RX, you’re likely to be disappointed. The ride is firmer, the steering is more responsive and body motions are more controlled when driving around turns or going over bumps and dips.
The lazy CVT aside, when it does get going the NX is one of the best handling and driving Lexus models around.
A meander around the scenic Austrian countryside, plus an 11-mile excursion into Hungary to assess the suspension setup over their truly atrocious roads, confirmed that the brand’s latest small crossover is an altogether different proposition than the ageing RX. I wouldn’t expect many current RX owners to be drawn to the appearance of the spindle-faced compact sibling, but Lexus is banking on the aggressive up-and-at-‘em appearance of the NX to attract buyers looking to move from mainstream brand sedans and small crossovers.
The UK will be ‘good country’ for the new NX and its arrival should be welcomed. I have already seen several on my local roads here in south Hampshire, which comes as little surprise as it is an extraordinarily good car and a refreshing alternative in a busy compact SUV market.