The new 2015 Lexus NX 200t gets a lot of things right on paper that make it worth your attention. There's the styling, which is perhaps the most dramatic (and perhaps, most complete) interpretation of the Lexus' L-Finesse design language. Personally, I like the look, but your mileage may vary.
The NX is also packing the automaker's first-ever turbocharged engine, which is also the first such engine from Toyota Motor Company since the Supra's 2JZ-GTE was abandoned back in 2002. The cabin tech uses a trackpad like the one on your laptop and connects to the Internet via your mobile smartphone.
The NX, then, almost screams, "Hey, look at me! Lexus is cool now!" Fortunately, once it has your attention, the new NX 200t follows up with a class competitive performance.
Lexus' first turbo
The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine uses a version of the automaker's D-4S system that has been optimized for use with the twin-scroll, intercooled turbocharger. The D-4S system combines port and direct injection systems to gain the benefits of both fuel injection technologies dependent on the engine speed and temperature. The stated output is 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque -- not an amazing amount of power for the 4,050-pound crossover, but enough to put its performance head and shoulders above the Toyota RAV4, with which it shares a platform, and on a par with the competition from Acura and the like.
That engine is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, the only gearbox available for the 200t. Aside from the standard shift program, there's also a manual shift mode that allows the driver to fire off an up- or downshift by nudging the shift lever to and fro. Paddle shifters would make that manual shift mode more useful, but our example was not equipped with the F Sport package that would have added them.
From the trans-axle, power flows to the standard 17-inch front wheels where it meets the road. Our example features the automaker's optional all-wheel-drive system, but it is an on-demand setup that still defaults to a front-drive configuration under most conditions and only engages the rear wheels when additional traction is required, when slip is detected, or during cornering.
The all-wheel-drive system's on demand nature means that it doesn't have much of an adverse effect on fuel economy. At 21 mpg city, the AWD models is just 1 mpg lower than the front wheel-drive model. The 28 mpg highway and 24 mpg combined fuel economy estimates are the same regardless of configuration. I averaged exactly 24 mpg during my week of testing, which is spot on with that estimate. For reference, pretty much within 2 to 3 mpg of the Acura RDX AWD, Lincoln MKC 2.3L Ecoboost, Audi Q5 2.0TFSI, and BMW X3 xDrive28i.
Drivers looking for more of an emphasis on economy should perhaps wait for the Lexus NX 300h with its hybrid powertrain that should be good for up to a claimed 35 mpg in the city.
Drive modes and performance
At the front of the center console is a knob that allows the person in the hot seat to toggle between three different drive modes. Normal is the baseline -- switching to Sport sharpens up the throttle response for more immediate acceleration and adjusts the transmission program to allow higher revs and better access to the stated power at the expense of a few mpgs. On the other hand, the Eco mode makes the opposite changes to those systems, keeping the revs low and the throttle light.
Lexus has done a fairly good job with the NX 200t's handling despite the tall crossover chassis and the weight that comes with it. No one's going to mistake the NX for a sports sedan, but the performance reminds me of the old Acura RDX Turbo, yet without that car's sometimes skittishly rough ride over mid-corner bumps. It's not so much that the Lexus feels fun to drive (though I did enjoy tossing it around), rather it's more that the small SUV feels planted and confident when cornering or jaunting around an unexpected bit of debris on the highway.
On the other hand, the turbocharged engine is all grins with good acceleration for a vehicle of this size. Lexus says that the NX 200t AWD will hit 60 mph from a standing start in 7 seconds flat, but more importantly for real-world driving is the engine's fairly even power delivery. I didn't notice much in the way of turbo lag, but I did notice a bit of kickdown hesitation from the gearbox when asked to accelerate for a pass. It's nothing that can't be fixed by choosing the Sport program (which really does change the responsiveness of the powertrain), or by preselecting a lower gear using the manual shift mode and then laying into the throttle.
Enform Remote Touch Pad
Just behind the Drive Mode knob is the replacement for Lexus' Remote Touch Controller: the new Remote Touch Pad. This is essentially the same as the trackpad on your laptop computer. You slide your finger across the pad and the cursor on the screen moves; you tap the pad to make a selection.
The Touch Pad retains the haptic feedback of the previous generation by integrating a vibration motor that buzzes your fingertip when the cursor passes across or snaps to a clickable area of the screen. It's a bit odd and it took me a lot of getting used to, but some of my passengers who weren't necessarily familiar with car technology took to the system as if it were second nature.
Anecdotally, the Touch Pad seems to be one of those things that you either get or you just don't. And I just didn't... I found that the Touch Pad seemed to require more eyeballs on the screen time than standard touchscreen or knob-based controllers, due to the need to aim the cursor or even find it on the screen. The cursor's tendency to snap to a clickable option helps, but I think this haptic feedback worked better with the older Remote Touch joystick.
A voice command system can also be used to control the dashboard experience, granting access to many functions via natural language and allowing the driver to enter an entire address in one go without half a dozen prompt-and-waits.
The 7-inch Lexus Enform infotainment suite connected to the Remote Touch Pad is similar to the previous generations of this software, but with an extra layer of polish. The graphics are just a bit crisper, but the organization and functionality is generally the same. The system uses large virtual buttons that are easy to aim for with quick swipes and taps on the pad. Shortcut keys near the Touch Pad provide shortcuts to a customizable three-widget home screen and main menu of infotainment functions.
The system puts a wide range of digital audio sources -- including standard USB connectivity, and more -- at the driver's fingertips. HD Radio and AM/FM radio are also standard and able to be paused and time-shifted for up to 15 minutes with the touch of a button. Meanwhile, navigation features HD Radio traffic data, which can prompt the driver for a midtrip reroute if traffic is detected along the current route.
On top of the local media, the Enform App Suite adds Web-connected radio and services to the infotainment mix. After pairing your smartphone and installing the Lexus Enform app, the drive is able to stream audio from iHeart or Pandora, search for destinations via Bing, Facebook Places, or Pandora, or schedule dinner and a movie with OpenTable and MovieTickets.com. The driver can also store destinations to the app while outside of the car for dashboard retrieval.
Safety tech on our example was limited to the standard rear camera with dynamic guide lines and the optional blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert and the parking proximity sensors. The NX is also available with the automaker's lane departure alert system, full-range adaptive cruise control, and a forward precollision alert system, but our preproduction example was not so equipped.
As the RX continues to grow, it was inevitable that Lexus would need to slot a smaller vehicle beneath it. That said, I'm a bit surprised that it took the automaker this long to start offering something this size. The competing models from Audi, BMW, Acura, and Infiniti have been established in this space for nearly a decade, and the NX 200t will be entering the fray alongside the likes of other newcomers such as the Lincoln MKC.
That said, the Lexus NX 200t is poised to be a solid addition to the compact luxury SUV game and squares up evenly with most of the competition where power, performance, and efficiency are concerned. The Enform tech, despite the quirky Remote Touch Pad, is pretty much what we expect to see from Lexus: not the best in the class, but still very functional and usable. As a whole the NX 200t doesn't blow away its competition, but I think it will be one of the better cars in this class. The upcoming NX 300h hybrid, on the other hand, is the trim level that I really want to drive, and it's poised to really shake things up with its dramatic leap in class fuel economy.
However, it'll be difficult to know where it stacks up on the value scale until Lexus announces the final pricing. A look at the competition's prices and the prices of the models above the NX in Lexus' lineup has me guessing that the NX 200t should land somewhere just north of a $35,000 base price, with options and accessories pushing a fully loaded example into the $42,000 range. We'll be sure to update the review when the automaker makes an official announcement.