Driving the 2015 Lexus NX on the Gorgeous Roads of Whistler BC
"My favorite element of the NX has to be the steering. For a system which utilizes electric power steering, it manages to feel incredibly direct and precise. "
And when I got a chance to talk to NX Chief Engineer Takeaki Kato at the press launch, the first thing I wanted to know was how his team was able to deliver a vehicle which looked so close to the concept. He's a super approachable guy who daily drives an MR2 turbo and has a full driving simulator rig in his house. If you truly love cars and the experience of driving, he's exactly the kind of guy you want making the important calls on a vehicle. Now, I know there have been loads of advances in manufacturing techniques in recent years, that alloys are stronger and stiffer than they have ever been, and that we're living at the dawn of the era of 3D printing. So I expected technical points would dominate his explanation--but they didn't.
It turns out that most of the credit for the sexy sheet metal can be attributed to a team of young engineers who worked closely with the production team to insure every element of the bold design would make it to the production vehicle. There was some trial and error, he explained, but every time he was about to make a concession, the production team would ask for another shot. And every time they delivered.
So we know the 2015 NX looks great. It's obvious if you're one of those people who can see out of your eyes. My gut says this baby will set sales records based on its exterior alone. But how does it drive?
Quite well, actually--the beauty of the NX is more than skin deep. I got to sample three versions, the 200t--in both standard and F SPORT trim--and the 300h, and I came away pretty impressed. Kato's team used the IS as a benchmark during testing, and while the elevated view from the windshield means you're never going to forget you're in a crossover, the fun driving dynamics of its sports sedan sibling have definitely been transferred to the NX. I opted to work my way up the ladder, so I started with the base NX, moved up to the hybrid and then spent most of the afternoon flogging the F SPORT model. All the variants performed well, and I particularly appreciated the kickdown feature in the hybrid's new six-speed transmission, which provides the kind of feel you'd expect from a conventional power plant during the hard acceleration.
Unsurprisingly, the F SPORT was the most fun to drive. While the NX is based off of RAV4, lessons learned in building the IS--including the use of laser screw welding and advanced body adhesive--have made for a chassis that's 20% stiffer than the one found in its Toyota cousin. The urethane sealant used to hold the windshield in is actually rigid enough that it allows the glass to act as a load-bearing part of the structure and resist twisting when cornering.
During the pre-drive presentation, Kato used the analogy of trying to hold a 2x4 in your hand and simultaneously drive a nail through it to illustrate the important role rigidity plays regarding performance. I thought it was easy and effective enough that it's now my go-to way to explain the concept. The 2.0-liter turbocharged engine puts out 235 horsepower and 258lb-feet of torque, and while it's not going to set your hair on fire with blindingly quick 0-60 times, it has enough grunt to insure that the NX never feels pokey or slow. One of the features of the F SPORT that I really got a kick out of was the Active Sound Control. Basically, it used a dedicated speaker to allow the driver to adjust the amount of engine noise that's delivered into the cabin. Turn it off and the NX is typical Lexus library inside the womb quiet, but crank the dial up and you can suddenly hear the little mill going to work, and it's pretty cool.
Now, I've been skeptical of these systems in the past--particularly when BMW put a similar setup into the M5--but I genuinely enjoyed playing with it. My sole complaint regarding the ASC was that it couldn't go louder. I wonder how long it will take for some new owner to hack it so can be adjusted to a block-rocking volume? But my favorite element of the NX has to be the steering. As with other vehicles in the Lexus line up, switching between the various driving modes--normal, eco and sport--makes for a decidedly different feel, and for a system which utilizes electric power steering, it manages to feel incredibly direct and precise. While a direct connection to the front wheels might be going the way of the dodo, the level of confidence and feel the Lexus engineers were able to get out of the system is excellent and bodes well for the future of Lexus' entire performance line.
All the vehicles had a prototype disclaimer--stating that some of the materials and fit and finish might not be up to production standards--on the sun visor, I found everything to be universally Lexus excellent. One of the details which I though communicated the level attention the marque pays to even the smallest elements of its cars was the fact that the cup holders all had non-slip surfaces in the base. Put a beverage in there, and you can twist off the cap without having to hold the bottle. It's the kind of smart, simple touch which makes you wonder why companies haven't been doing this for years. The NX is set to hit American showrooms in the early fall, and I predict it'll be a big hit with the mid-30s first-time luxury buyers Lexus is targeting. Expect to see a lot of these babies on the road next year.