An edgier Lexus NX shows it's ready for the curves
Despite subtle cosmetic changes outside, new shock absorbers and suspension upgrades make this crossover feel like a sports sedan
Casual observers of the mid-sized Lexus NX crossover could be forgiven for walking by the refreshed 2018 model without taking a second look. Its faithful allegiance to the spirit of the aggressively angular first-generation LX could fool you into thinking nothing has changed.
Not so. Subtle cosmetic changes outside, new convenience and safety features inside and suspension upgrades underneath aim to keep the refreshed NX ahead of a very crowded field of hungry competitors nipping at its handsome butt.
A side-by-side comparison of the 2017 and 2018 models reveals the cosmetic updates. They include new front grilles (which still look as if a shark is about to take a bite) and new headlight and tail-light designs on all models. The hybrid stands apart from other models with a pointy snout and grille treatment. Inside, the eight-speaker Enform audio system is now standard on the base, premium and F Sport Series 1 with an eight-inch display. Steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters have also been added, even on the hybrid with its continuously variable transmission (CVT). (Users of hybrids know CVTs don't actually have gears, but auto makers have created simulated shift changes because consumers reportedly like the feeling. Go figure.)
The Lexus Enform comes with an app suite (Yelp, stocks, traffic, fuel and other information) and GPS link. The Luxury, Executive and F Sport Series 2 and 3 come with a 10.3-inch screen, a very slick navigation system and "destination assist" – which is a live person available any time of the day who can direct you to where you want to go.
The big software improvement on all models, however, is the standard Lexus Safety System+, which includes precollision detection, lane-departure alert, an automatic high beam and dynamic radar cruise control. One trip with this cruise system – which adjusts speed to avoid creeping up on slower cars – spoils you from ever using conventional cruise again.
The entry-level NX 200t has been rebadged the NX 300 (the hybrid is called the NX 300h). And the upgraded interior includes snazzy "flare red," dark rose and ochre shades on its rich leather seats. The tasteful treatment adds a bit more luxury feel for those young professionals who want their Lexus to signal their intent to make a mark on the world.
The NX was introduced in 2014 to appeal to a new demographic, says Jennifer Barron, director of Lexus in Canada. The target was the Top 40 Under 40 set – new and younger buyers who want a vehicle "that reflects their ambition and their own drive." Since introduction, the NX has captured 27 per cent of total Lexus sales in Canada, second only to the RX.
As lovely as the refinements are, the real excitement can be found in driveability enhancements – best experienced, by the way, with the 18-inch alloy wheels that appear at the Luxury trim level. The NX's new shock absorbers and an advanced version of its adaptive variable suspension create a ride that makes this compact utility vehicle (CUV) feel a bit like a sports sedan on the road. Well, at least in the turbo version.
Testing the NX on the twisty back roads in the B.C. Interior near Penticton revealed a tale of two vehicles. The first is the sedate, quiet and dignified hybrid that puts the emphasis on fuel economy. It's so calm, you could serve afternoon tea in it, but that shouldn't be regarded as a fault. Lexus parent Toyota has applied more than two decades of experience with the Prius into making hybrids as good as any on the market. Hypermiler nerds such as me enjoy watching screen images of the two electric-drive motors kicking in and out to boost or take over propulsion from the 2.5-litre gasoline engine, as we climbed and then drifted down hills.
That, apparently, is not what most NX buyers do, however. Barron reports the hybrid has just 5 per cent of total NX sales in Canada.
So "the other" NX – the one with a stouter heart – is the one most buyers prefer. The 2.0-litre, turbocharged non-hybrid sends an impressive 235 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque through its six-speed transmission. On a vehicle that shares its platform with the compact RAV4, that's enough power to make tight turns really interesting. (Even the gasoline model is heavier than the RAV4, however, weighing in at a not-unsubstantial 1,755 kilograms.) Switching into "sport" mode on the F Sport models tightens the steering and stiffens the suspension. And, unlike in the hybrid, the paddle shifters actually do something, allowing you to keep the engine near its 5,000-rpm sweet spot through the turns.
This truly is a fun CUV to drive, but it also faces some mighty stiff competition from Acura, Audi, BMW and Mercedes. The updates effectively keep the Lexus in the hunt, adding a sportier edge to a vehicle that could benefit from mussing its hair.
Nothing in the test drive, however, was enough to convince me the NX will pull away from the pack. The tipping point may in fact be something that can't be measured in a first drive on the back roads near Penticton – the company's reputation for making solid vehicles that spend more time on the road than in the repair shop. Pair that with respectable performance and you have something to truly get excited about.
- Base price: $44,050; as tested: $57,200 (turbo)/$62,700 (hybrid)
- Engine: 2.0-litre, I-4, Atkinson cycle, turbocharged; hybrid, 2.5-litre, Atkinson cycle with two electric motors
- Transmission/drive: Turbo: Six-speed automatic/all-wheel; hybrid: CVT/all-wheel
- Fuel economy (litres/100 km): Turbo: 10.6 city/8.5 highway; hybrid: 7.2 city; 7.9 highway
- Alternatives: Acura RDX, Audi Q5, BMW X3, Mercedes GLC-class
Retains the funky modern look of the first-generation NX, with just enough styling refinements to signal a minor refresh. Pleasant, but not something that will quicken the pulse.
It's a little busy around the instrument cluster. The fit and finish on the interior is immaculate and conveys a sense of class.
The turbo has ample power and torque, and the sport mode on the F Sport series makes this vehicle hug the curves as if it were a sports car. The hybrid, however, has a typically annoying CVT that often has the engine revving urgently, to modest effect.
The Lexus Security System+ is a winner: Once you try the features, you just won't want to live without the precollision detection, lane-departure alert, automatic high beam and dynamic-radar cruise control. The nav system works well and the Enform App Suite is handy, if a bit confusing until you get oriented.
It's standard compact SUV fare, best suited for two passengers and some luggage. With the rear seats folded, space is measured at 500 L.
Comfortable, quiet and spirited – especially in the turbo form – the vehicle conveys a sense of quality workmanship inside and out. You'll like this car if you're a year out of law school and want the world to see your career trajectory is trending just the way you'd like it to.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.