Lexus tries its hand at a smaller crossover SUV

Posted: August 17, 2014

Lexus invented the luxury crossover SUV when it introduced its RX model 16 years ago. For that Edisonesque accomplishment, the upmarket manufacturer was issued a license to print money.

The RX sells more than 100,000 copies a year, making it this country's top-selling luxury vehicle. That many sales of a vehicle that starts at $40,795 translates into yumongous yens, particularly when you're talking about premium-brand profit margins.

Now, it seems, the king of the Lexus showrooms will have to cede a little floor space to a new kid brother, the Lexus NX.

Due in the dealerships in late November/early December, the NX is Lexus' new entry-level crossover, a somewhat smaller, sportier, and cheaper variation on the RX. Unlike the pioneering RX, however, the NX is rather late to the compact crossover party.

"People ask us why we've taken so long," said Doug Herbert, a Lexus executive. "Well, it's because we wanted to get it right."

And I would say they did get it right in the important categories. This newest Lexus enjoys the automaker's characteristic emphasis on workmanship, ride quality, and quietude. It also emerges from the crucible with a lively turbo and styling to match its sporty handling.

The NX is the latest Lexus to embrace the company's relatively recent decision to abandon the often bland, generic exteriors of yore in favor of more stylish and distinctive designs that feature a signature spindle grille.

"The 2012 GS is what really kicked off" the use of the signature grille, said Lexus marketing manager Owen Peacock. "That spindle grille is across the line now. Within two years, we changed the look of the whole line.

"And sales are doing well, so I think it resonates with our customers."

I like the NX's adventurously carved body, but I'm less enthusiastic about its rendition of the wasp-waisted spindle grille, which seems a bit oversized and ever-so-reminiscent of Jaws at lunch. (If you wash an NX, avoid a feeding frenzy or you will be bleeding in your bucket.)

Unlike the 188-inch RX, which homesteads in the border country between compact and midsize, the NX, at nearly a half-foot shorter, is clearly a compact. To more fully understand the size difference, we must consult the bones and entrails of the two vehicles. The RX is derived from the Toyota Camry platform. The NX springs from the Toyota RAV4's structure.

The Lexus operatives have been rather coy about NX pricing. Marketing manager Peacock would say only that it would start under $40,000. He added that it would be "in the ballpark with the competition," which includes the BMW X3, Audi Q5, and Acura RDX. My guess: $37K.

The NX will be offered in three flavors: The 200t, the F Sport, and the 300h, the brand's sixth hybrid model. All of the models are fitted with a six-speed automatic transmission and will be available with either front drive or all-wheel drive.

The 200t, which Peacock thinks will account for more than half of NX sales, is powered by a new 235-horsepower, direct-injected, turbocharged four, Lexus' first gas turbo. A test drive at a regional press introduction proved this engine a lively companion that can get from 0 to 60 in a little under seven seconds. (The hybrid does it in a more leisurely nine.)

The F Sport is essentially a 200t with sportier suspension tuning and styling cues. (The grille and seats are nifty business.)

Both the 200t and the F Sport were a pleasure to drive, and get good mileage by SUV standards. Lexus estimates for the 200t and F Sport to get 22 miles per gallon in the city and 28 highway as front-drivers, and 21 and 28 as four-wheelers. The hybrid FWD is to get 35 and 31, and the AWD 33 and 30.

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