First drive: Lexus NX

By GEORGE WONG | 3 November 2014


Oh, look at the black bear down below.

With legs dangling freely on the open chairlift as the three of us made our way down the mountain, we spotted the lumbering beast foraging for food mid-way on the slopes, with another nosing around a few hundred metres away.

We were glad we were high enough, held up by steel cables, in the slow descent to the foothills. With frigid air blasting into us, we shivered but managed to fish out cameras and clicked away at the unusual spectacle as excitable tourists are wont to do.

This part of the high country occasionally sees bears bumping into human communities but attacks are rare. The omnivores tend to stay away from people unless food is scarce.

No one was a target of hungry bears that July in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia.

Lexus NX

READ ALSO: Lexus NX test-drive in Malaysia

We were in Whistler – two Malaysian writers and a Lexus rep – enjoying the interlude before the drive of Lexus’ new baby, the NX, the next day.

Whistler, 125km north of Vancouver, is a ski resort better known as the venue of the 2010 Winter Olympics. It apparently takes its name from the hoary marmot, a type of mountain squirrel, which makes a whistling sound whenever it alerts the rest of the colony to danger.

Whistler is also famous for its 4.4km peak-to-peak cable ride between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, said to be the longest and highest cable car ride in the world, providing a stunning view of snow-draped volcanic peaks and coastal forests from over 2,000 metres up.

It’s quite a charming place to explore.

For 16 years, Lexus cruised along with RX, GX and LX SUVs. Then compact versions started sprouting up to become one of the fastest-growing segment, with the Range Rover Evoques, Audi Q5s, BMW X3s and Porsche Macans providing affirmation. And Lexus realised as far back as 2009 that it was missing out on a golden opportunity to bolster its cashflow.

Lexus NX
Driving the NX 200t F Sport.

Well, no longer. With Lexus now wielding the NX, a gap in the line-up is plugged. For Toyota’s luxury division, it’s better late than never.

Unlike the NX Concept, the production NX is less flamboyant but still cuts a stance that is stylistically attractive for some, while others may not concur.

No matter how you dice it, the sculpted lines, creases and flared wheel arches on the bodywork conspire to deliver a striking image.  The oversized spindle grille, flanked by new LED headlamps and daytime running lights, offers the most distinctive “face” in the current Lexus line-up.

The rear design featuring L-shape combination lamps and LED lighting complements the spindle grille treatment.

With such an attention-grabbing bod, Lexus is betting the NX, and its overall packaging, would strike the younger set as cool enough to start throwing cash its way instead of to the usual Euro suspects.

Lexus Malaysia will be offering the 2.0-litre NX and a 2.5-litre hybrid early next year, and bookings are now open for the five variants. Another Lexus, the RC sports car that we have tested in New York in September, is set for launch next month. Indicative prices for the NX ranges from RM300,000 for the 200t to RM390,000 for the hybrid.

All are expected to be all-wheel drive vehicles and the hybrid will have an electric motor each for the front and rear axles. It shares the same platform as the Toyota RAV4 but Lexus is quick to say that 90% of the parts are NX-specific.

What’s also notable is that the NX is the first Lexus to be turbocharged; a non-turbo version is destined for China and Russia.

We spent more time with the 200t and less than an hour with the hybrid, a front-wheel drive Luxury grade version for North America with a “US face”, which differs from the “global face” version. (Fog lamps, for instance, are different and the US version sports a grille that is not as deepset and has a better approach angle to meet US regulations.)

For the better part of the journey, we drove along Route 99 on the way to Vancouver. The route aka Sea to Sky Highway hugs the coast and, soaring mountains on one side and ocean on the other, provided a picturesque setting that would have roadster owners and bikers hitting the road to embrace the great outdoors.

Lexus NX media drive in Whistler, Canada 2014
The NX 200t F Sport with the global face. Note its differently-shaped fog lamps and lower bumper.

The Lexus NX for US market has a diffee

The Lexus NX for US market has a different front for a better approach angle to qualify for US classification as a light truck.

In F Sport trim, the 200t projects a sportier image than the base 200t, characterised by a mesh grille insert, bold front bumper, machined-finish wheels, black exterior mirrors, interior ornamentation, paddle shifters, aluminium pedals and sport seats.

The interior of the 5-seater is cosy and expresses the Lexus signature DNA of premium comfort. As car-like SUVs go, one sits a little higher up with seats that are firmly supportive. Space for rear passengers are not shabby with enough legroom and headroom.

Boot space isn’t the biggest we have seen but it’s respectable. Steering wheel is meaty in the hand and there’s plenty of soft touchpoints around.

A two-dial cluster is standard across the board and a two-tier centre stack defined by silver surrounds houses various controls and that analogue clock to add some edgy contrast.

On the lower tier is a Drive Mode Select button and a touchpad to access features on the 7-inch display up above. The touchpad isn’t as precise or intuitive to use especially if you are in a hurry.

A detachable vanity mirror in the centre console will score with women drivers.

It’s an agreeable space to be in even if the test vehicles were prototypes, whose fit and finish may need further tweaking.

On the move, the all-wheel drive NX exhibits composure, in part due to a highly rigid body and extensive underbody reinforcements. The F Sport’s uprated dampers come in handy to enhance handling stability and agility without sacrificing passenger comfort.

As the first of its kind for Lexus, the 200t has a refined engine that displays little turbo lag but is a wee bit slow on take-off; its punchy sweet spot is to be found in the mid-range for smooth acceleration onwards.

Drive Mode Select go hand in hand with the mood of the moment. You can always stick to Normal mode for city driving or go Eco for a bit of fuel savings.

Or switch to Sport if you are feeling a little frisky. The F Sport is equipped with what the BMW M5 also has – an artificial engine sound piped into the cabin to kick the sporty notes a few notches up.

There’s decent feedback from the wheels and the NX reacts quickly to steering inputs. Brakes are up to snuff and there wasn’t any noticeable flaw in the braking performance.

16-NX200t-global face

The 300h hybrid touts a mileage of around 5 litres/100km and appeals to the eco do-gooders and high mileage advocates but its steep pricing locally will make it a tough sell; Lexus Malaysia knows it and is banking on the more powerful yet cheaper 200t to drive NX sales.

With 194 horses on tap, the emphasis is on fuel economy, while performance is credible.

The electric motor is by nature torquey, making for peppy acceleration from a traffic stop.

The 300h calls upon extra acceleration when needed from a kickdown switch.

An electric-driving mode lets the hybrid go a short distance before there’s a perceptible switchover to petrol-electric propulsion. On long ascents, the CVT and engine tend to get busier to overcome drag.

On balance, the NX’s distinctive looks and kit plus more-than-average performance should get it off to a running start once it arrives in Malaysia.

We reckon many will find it compelling in the same way we once relished a certain Canadian café’s sticky toffee pudding.


ALSO READ: Lexus NX launched in Malaysia and Malaysian first drive
 Lexus NX media drive in Whistler, Canada 2014