The original Lexus RX was an automotive rogue wave when it appeared way back in 1998. At that time, there was nothing else like it: A luxury crossover SUV. Not a pick-up truck converted into an SUV.
Today, everyone — almost literally — sells something like the RX.
So, selling the RX today is not as slam-dunk easy a sell as it was back in ’98.
Which is why Lexus (and everyone else) also sells different takes on the same idea.
Like the NX.
It is a smaller-scale RX, basically.
For the prospect who wants something similar, a bit sportier perhaps — but not as big. And not as expensive.
WHAT IT IS
The NX is a compact-sized luxury crossover SUV — basically a scaled-down RX.
Like the RX, it’s available in front-wheel-drive and all-wheel versions as well as an F Sport version, which gets the usual suspension and wheel/tire upgrades as well as more aggressive-looking bodywork and trim.
There is also a hybrid version — the NX300 (reviewed separately, here).
But it’s about a foot shorter overall and — unlike the RX — the NX comes only with a four cylinder engine (turbocharged and intercooled as well as a bunch of other things) while the RX comes only with a V6 (not turbocharged).
It’s also more affordable: $34,965 to start for the base trim with FWD ($36,365 for the same trim with AWD) vs. $41,900 for the base FWD RX350.
A top-of-the-line NX200 with the F Sport package and AWD stickers for $38,465 — vs. $49,125 for the F Sport/AWD version of the RX350.
Cross-shops include other compact-sized luxury crossovers like the Audi Q5 ($40,900 to start) and the Acura RDX ($35,370 to start) and the new (just launched) Mercedes GLC 300, which replaces the GLK 350 in Mercedes’ lineup. It is priced at $38,950 to start.
The Audi is more expensive, but comes standard with AWD. The Acura costs about the same — but comes standard with a big V6 (getting very rare in this segment and generally).
The Benz, meanwhile, is the only model in this class that’s based on a rear-wheel-drive layout (with AWD available optionally) and can out-tow (and out-run) them all.
The NX was brought out last year as an all-new model for Lexus. The 2016 is pretty much identical except for a slight price uptick and an update of the Enform smartphone integration system. You can use the app to get maintenance alerts and other info about your NX piped directly to your phone.
Get a bit less RX for… less.
More space in the garage.
Lots of Tech.
Newer than aging Q5 and RDX (both last redesigned about four years ago).
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Not as quick as rivals.
Engine requires premium fuel.
Less space for cargo (and passengers) than RX… and same-sized rivals.
Lots of Tech.
UNDER THE HOOD
The NX — and the new Benz GLC — are four cylinder-only deals.
You can still get a six in the Audi Q5 (optionally) and the Acura RDX (standard) but they are older models that were designed before the Crunch of the serious pressure to increase MPGs by any means necessary — the main approach being via reducing the number of cylinders under the hood. Expect the next-generation Q5 and RDX to lose their sixes and become four cylinder-only rides as well.
The NX’s four is 2.0 liters — a size of four that’s becoming very common regardless of make/model in part because of European regulations that impose fines and other costs on engines larger than 2 liters. But also because of pressure (applied by Uncle) to use less fuel…. no matter what it costs us.
The four in the Lexus makes 235 hp and 258 ft.-lbs. of torque, peaking at 1,650 RPM (instead of much higher up the RPM scale, as was formerly usual) due to the miracle of twin-scroll turbocharging, which gets the boost up almost immediately and without lag.
This engine, which is Lexus’ first turbocharged engine, is also a high-compression (10.0:1) engine, unusual because it is turbocharged and usually, the compression is lower when the engine is turbocharged because the turbo is itself a compression increaser. But modern engine management (anti-knock sensors) and aluminum for the block and heads (dissipates heat better than cast iron) and a mix of both direct and port fuel injection makes it feasible to run a high CR and as much as 17 pounds of boost — without the engine grenading itself.
But it does require premium fuel — which has the higher octane (and slower burn rate) a heavily boosted engine usually must deliver to the touted fuel economy and performance.
A six-speed automatic is the only transmission available, but you have your choice of FWD (standard) or AWD (optional).
Either way, the NX200 gets to 60 in 7 seconds flat.
Gas mileage with FWD is 22 city, 28 highway; with AWD it’s almost exactly the same (21 city, 28 highway).
These are good numbers. However, several rivals post slightly better numbers.
The new Benz GLC, the Acura RDX and the Audi Q5 are all noticeably quicker (6.2 seconds to 60, 6.5 seconds to 60 and 6.6 seconds to 60, respectively). The Audi can also be ordered with a stronger (272 hp) V6 that reduces its 0-60 time to 5.7 seconds.
All give you about the same fuel economy, too — including the V6-powered Acura (20 city, 28 highway with FWD; 19 city, 27 highway with AWD) notwithstanding almost twice the displacement and two more cylinders — and without the added plumbing and potential down-the-road (and post-warranty) expense of a turbo and intercooler.
The Acura’s V6 is also ok with regular unleaded. Premium is recommended — but isn’t required.
The NX can tow up to 2,000 lbs. — enough to handle a small trailer.
The Audi Q5 used to be able to pull more than twice that but — courtesy of Uncle — it is no longer available with the diesel engine that made that possible. Interestingly, the much-stronger (and V6 powered) Acura RDX is only rated to pull 1,500 lbs.
The Benz GLC — which is built on an inherently more rugged RWD-based chassis — can pull a class-best 5,300 lbs.
ON THE ROAD
Ordinarily — and not long ago — a 2.0 liter engine in a two-ton SUV (3,940 lbs. for the FWD version of the NX) would have been like taking two of a 747’s four engines off the wings and hoping for the best come take-off time.
Better have a long runway.
But the twin squeeze of high-compression and high boost produces the hp and torque of a much larger engine and — key thing — much sooner.
Note that the almost-twice-as-large Acura RDX’s 3.5 liter V6 makes less torque, 252 ft.-lbs. vs. the NX’s 258 ft.-lbs. — much later (4,900 RPM vs. 1,650 for the Lexus’ four).
So even though the Acura will eventually outrun the Lexus at the end of a 0-60 sprint, the Lexus feels stronger initially — when the light turns green, coming off the line. It also has a strong-feeling mid-range, again courtesy of the lower torque peak.
And horsepower peak.
The NX’s full 235 hp is made at 4,800 RPM while the Acura’s 279 hp doesn’t arrive until a fairly high 6,200 RPM.
Which, incidentally, is several hundred RPM beyond the NX four’s redline.
These small — but heavily boosted — fours may be better suited to the job they’re tasked with (pulling a heavy SUV) than larger (but not turbocharged) sixes that make good power and torque — but higher up, where it’s less accessible. These aren’t sports cars, after all. And then consider the type of driving most people do most of the time. It is not high-speed driving. It’s stop-and-go driving. Short bursts and merges. Engines with strong low and mid-ranges are well-suited for this kind of duty.
The NX isn’t the quickest in the class or even among the quickest but it is probably quick enough.
Benz has one-upped Lexus with its similarity force-fed 2.0 liter four — which makes 273 ft.-lbs. at an even lower 1,300 RPM.
But it probably won’t matter to people shopping the NX, which is a Lexus.
What matters to Lexus People is whether there’s enough power (and strong enough performance) ….and there is.
Lexus is successful because it knows its buyers — and doesn’t try to sell them an Acura or a Benz or an Audi wearing the Lexus swoosh badge. This means a car — or a crossover — that is above all quiet and comfortable.
This is what RX buyers want — and they’ll find it in the NX, too.
Lexus actually had to pump artificial gnarly engine sounds — via the stereo — into the NX’s cabin because the cabin is so well insulated and the engine itself is too quiet. This is called Active Sound Control. ( I wonder whether the system could be adjusted to play the sounds of a Quadrajet’s secondaries opening up?)
F Sports add a little spice to the mix, but not enough to make you reach for a glass of water. The main noticeable difference is sharpened up steering response from the 18-inch wheel and tire package that comes with this one (seventeens are standard otherwise) but the ride isn’t harshened up. You also get a turbo boost gauge — which is the only way to tell there is a turbo in this thing without rooting around under the hood.
Throttle response, steering effort and the shift characteristics of the six-speed automatic can be tailored somewhat via a knob on the center console that lets the driver select Eco or Normal of Sport modes. None of these settings dramatically alter the personality of the NX, which is typical. I’ve never understood why (given the tunability of modern, computer-controlled drivetrains) they can’t — or won’t — set it so that when Sport is dialed up, you get really aggressive — tire chirping — shifts, not just slightly more aggressive shifts… and so on.
It’s fairly easy to get the tires to squeal but the TCS system is more than typically deft at keeping its interventions in the background. In some cars, you’ll feel an abrupt application of the brakes and then a long second of no throttle response as the TCS works to regain the vehicle’s equipoise. The NX doesn’t do this even when pushed beyond the grip limits of the tires.
Or rather, it does it — but not so you feel it.
The seats are an NX high water mark, exceptionally supportive — or so they felt to me.
Your mileage may vary.
I also liked the feel of the grab-handle shift lever. Yes, it’s drive-by-wire and so not physically connected to anything. But it feels like it is — as opposed to the Game Boy toggles that have become common in entry-luxury cars and generally that have no mechanical feel at all.
The NX’s chief “driving” deficit is the finger-swipe (and tap) input controller for the infotainment system. There’s a track pad on the center console and it works just fine when you’re not moving. But when the car is moving, it’s hard to keep your finger steady and sometimes you’ll select GPS instead of Radio. Luckily, there are secondary methods of doing things. The LCD touchscreen being one and there are also knobs for the most essential functions, like adjusting radio volume and changing stations.
AT THE CURB
The NX is about a foot shorter, end to end, than the RX: 182.3 inches overall vs. 192.5 for the RX (just redesigned). It also sits about 3 inches lower (67.7 inches at the roofline for the RX vs. 64.8 for the NX).
So it’s more compact and fits more easily into garages and curbside parking spots.
But it is also more cramped than rivals like the RDX, Q5 and Benz GLC — all of which have more rear seat legroom (37.3 inches, 37.4 inches and 37.3 inches, respectively) than the NX (36.1 inches). Cargo capacity behind the NX’s second row is also not tremendous: 17.7 cubic feet vs. 29.1 for the Audi Q5, 26.1 for the Acura RDX and 20 cubic feet for the Benz GLC300.
But some ground is recovered when the NX’s second row is folded flat, which opens up capacity to 54.6 cubes — which is competitive with the GLC’s 56.5 cubes and the Audi Q5’s 57.3 cubes. The downside, of course, is that you have to choose passengers or cargo. The Audi and the Mercedes give you decent room for both.
The NX is more crossover-looking than the traditional SUV-looking GLC and Q5 — which still have the familiar “three box” silhouette.
The NX’s jutting forth chin is particular distinctive (Jay Leno ought to get royalties). Likewise, it’s hard to miss the massive Lexus spindle grille — which looks proportionately bigger than it actually is because of the RC-F super car-inspired slit-eyed headlights. The side profile is hunkier than the RX’s due to the pronounced fender flares and short (relative to the height of the door) side glass. Visibility is still good — to the sides. But the view behind you is crimped by the too-tall second row headrests, which Uncle has mandated for “safety.”
These can’t be removed, unfortunately.
The center console is gorgeous to look at but the storage cubby is too small and pushed too far back. Accessing the 12V power point and the USB ports — which are located inside the cubby — is awkward.
On the other hand, the console has a wireless charging tray for your phone — and an ergonomic palm rest for your trackpad hand (assuming you’re not a leftie, of course). The trackpad itself has “haptic” feedback — it responds to touch commands with a slight bump you feel through your finger when you select a function.
Oddly — for such a new (and otherwise tech-laden) vehicle — the NX does not have either Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. On the upside, it has a better-than-average satellite radio antenna. Last week, I test-drove the new Nissan Titan XD and lost SiriusXM reception more often and for longer on the same stretch of road. It has to be the antenna. I have noticed this disparity going from car to car each week. The NX has a pretty good antenna.
It’s interesting that, notwithstanding all the technology the NX’s engine has, the end result is only 235 hp and 22 city, 28 highway. That’s a lot of trouble to go to for not-so-spectacular gains. Go back and read what the RDX manages without all the tech (no turbo/intercooler, no DI/PFI).
Yes, the NX gets slightly better mileage.
But that 1-3 MPG difference is all the difference, in terms of CAFE (Uncle’s fuel economy fatwa) compliance. It is why V6s without turbos are disappearing and being replaced by engines like the NX’s micro four. The cost of this transition is not cheap — and is going to become even less cheap (see here) over the next few years, as the CAFE standard frog-jumps from the current 35.5 MPG to 54.5 MPG.
Dunno about you, but I’d rather have the V6 and no turbo and don’t mind losing 1-3 MPG over it if it saves me a couple thousand up front and god-knows-how-much down the road (and post warranty).
THE BOTTOM LINE
The RX stood out more — but it helped that it stood alone. The field is more crowded now — for the RX and the NX.
The NX isn’t a game-changer like the original RX was, but I think it has enough to stay in the game.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos