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First Drive: 2015 Lexus NX [Review]

Its looks aren\'t for everyone, but in most other areas, the NX is an undeniably well-executed small crossover.

Lexus may be arriving late to the small crossover party, but at least its offering - the NX - is dressed to impress.

With angular lines and knife-edged detailing, the NX stands out from the premium CUV crowd like a stealth fighter jet among Cessnas. Of course, it takes more than dramatic styling to play in this segment, so Lexus also loaded the NX up with a full compliment of available luxury trimmings and safety technologies, in addition to the brand's first-ever turbocharged motor.

Eager to find out if the NX has what it takes to challenge established models like the Audi Q5 and BMW X3, we journeyed to Nashville, Tennessee, for a stint behind the wheel.

Making a Style Statement

Underneath its sharply creased sheetmetal, the NX shares platform DNA with the humble Toyota RAV4. While that may cause some luxury purists to turn up their noses, Lexus notes that 90 percent of the overall component content is unique to the NX - and we'd add that the popular ES sedan and RX crossover have shown that Toyota roots are hardly an impediment to sales success.

Speaking of the RX, the NX comes in at 5.5 inches shorter than its big brother, and while pricing has yet to be announced, we'd be surprised if it doesn't undercut the RX's roughly $42,000 starting MSRP by somewhere in the neighborhood of $3-5k. Whereas the RX found more than 100,000 takers in 2013, Lexus has set a more modest sales goal of 36,000 units for the NX, at least for its first year on the market.

For buyers who drive home a new NX, Lexus expects design to be a prime purchase consideration, and - love it or hate it - the NX certainly has the kind of appearance that demands attention. Up front, the pointy prow is dominated by Lexus' gargantuan spindle grille, with boomerang-shaped LED running lights and sharp vertical character lines at either side. The squinted headlights come standard with LED lowbeams, while a full-LED setup is available for an extra cost.

Prominent, black plastic-capped wheel arches jut out from the flanks, which are also marked by a rising beltline and geometric detailing above the side sills. Echoes of the spindle maw can be seen in the character lines around the vaguely Nissanesque fishhook taillights.

Inner Trappings

The edgy design theme carries over to the interior, where it manages to coexist with high levels of comfort and (mostly) excellent ergonomics. Once inside, your eye is immediately pulled past the simple, effective two-gauge instrument panel to the prominent two-tier center stack. Flanked by silver trim, the controls are intuitive and well-placed, including HVAC buttons up top and an abbreviated audio setup below - full entertainment options are found in the seven-inch Enform infotainment screen.

Though blessed with a logical menu layout, it must be said that Enform's graphics seem at least five years behind the competition, and, unhappily, the system is manipulated through either a new haptic-feedback touchpad or, on non-navigation models, Lexus' familiar and fiddly joystick. Both entail a bit of a learning curve. On the bright side, there's a new smartphone app that lets the driver remotely start the car, pre-heat or cool the interior, lock or unlock doors, or locate the NX. In addition to that subscription-based service, the NX also packs Siri Eyes Free integration as well as a wireless charging mat in the console for Qi-compatable phones.

Not forgetting the interior fundamentals while implementing all that tech, Lexus fitted the NX with soft, pleasing materials in most places eyes and hands are likely to linger. Second-row dwellers won't want for head- or legroom, and stowage space is respectable at 17.7 or 54.6 cubic feet with the rear seats upright or folded flat, respectively.

Keeping people and cargo from harm is a range of available safety items, including blind-spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, and a pre-collision system with automatic emergency braking. There's also a compliment of optional convenience aids to keep the driver safe from undue fatigue, including dynamic radar cruise control and intelligent high beams.

On the Road

The NX will be offered in three different forms: the NX 200t, NX 200t F Sport, and NX 300h, all of which can be had with either front- or all-wheel-drive.

Those seeking maximum efficiency will want the NX 300h hybrid, which pairs a CVT with the same 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder and electric motor setup seen in models like the Lexus ES 300h and Toyota Camry Hybrid. With 194 total system horsepower and a zero-to-60 mph time of about nine seconds, the NX 300h isn't a powerhouse, but we think it should be quick enough for most drivers, and mileage is estimated at a commendable 35 mpg in the city, 31 mpg on the highway and 33 mpg combined.

Tick the box for AWD and, instead of a mechanical connection between the front and rear wheels, you'll get an additional electric motor that motivates the rear wheels as driving conditions dictate. Efficiency also falls slightly to 33/30/32 mpg.

The other engine option comes in the form of the NX 200t's 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. Not content with sticking to the basics for its first forced-induction four, Lexus engineered the mill to switch between the standard Otto cycle and the efficient Atkinson cycle as needed, a trick that will be shared with the hot-rod RC F coupe's 5.0-liter V8.

Capable of 235 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque at 1,650 rpm, the turbo four is blessed with plentiful mid-range grunt and can hit 60 mph in seven seconds flat. A brand new six-speed automatic handles the shifting end of the equation (why Lexus didn't spend its development dollars on an eight-speed is a mystery), providing unobtrusive ratio changes and helping to return 22/28/24 mpg (FWD) or 21/28/22 mpg (AWD).

Engines aside, both the NX 300h and NX 200h deliver handling that's in line with Lexus' newly sporting brand focus. Liberal usage of high-strength steel, extra welds and additional body adhesives results in a tight, composed feel, and the MacPherson strut front/multilink rear suspension has been tuned for an agreeable balance of body control and ride comfort. We were pleasantly surprised by the steering; like many other electric-assist units, the tiller is stingy with feedback, but it's also quicker and more precise than we're used to finding in a luxury crossover.

Steering effort, along with throttle response, can be adjusted by the driver with Lexus' Drive Mode Select system. In addition to the default "Normal,” there's also fuel-saving ECO mode, which seemingly hits the NX with a shot of Novacaine, and fun-boosting, response-heightening Sport mode.

Spicing things up further is the NX 200t F Sport, which brings a performance-tuned suspension with firmer dampers, more heavily weighted steering, wider 235/55-18 tires with a summer-tire option, and paddle shifters. The revisions add up to a modest but noticeable increase in agility, though not at the expense of a choppy ride over rough pavement.

Aggressive elements like a model-specific front bumper and mesh grille distinguish the F Sport's exterior, while the cabin benefits from a sporty steering wheel, aluminum pedals, and special "Boost Meter” and "G sensor” readouts for the instrument cluster display screen. An adjustable Active Sound Control system that pipes in synthesized engine music strikes us as overwrought, but it's offset by superb sports seats with the kind of meaty bolsters that encourage spirited driving.

Leftlane's Bottom Line

More than just an eye-catching design, the NX has the kind of comfort and practicality that luxury crossover buyers covet, along with a welcome degree of dynamic accomplishment.

A well-balanced effort aimed at the heart of an increasingly popular segment, we think the NX has all the makings of a hit.

Photos by Nat Shirley.

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