We test Lexus' new NX SUV range

By Matt Greenop

This luxurious Lexus will set you apart from the crowd

The Lexus NX 200t F Sport at the Canadian launch. Photo / Supplied
The Lexus NX 200t F Sport at the Canadian launch. Photo / Supplied

It might be a bit late to the party, but Lexus' new NX compact SUV is certainly tooled up to make the most of it.

This end of the SUV market is a mega-growth area, with intense competition from all quarters -- including Lexus' parent company Toyota.

It's long been a strong player in the SUV space with its excellent RX and the monstrous LX - but the wait for the NX has been worth it.

Launched last week in Canada, the NX range is impressive and New Zealand will be cherry-picking models to suit the market. With smaller SUVs here, there's a definite bias towards front-drivers, and with three spec levels and two engine options, Lexus is tailoring its offering to suit.

The good news is, we won't be seeing the pointy-nosed styling disaster the American market gets - we get the more aggressive, slab-fronted machine that emphasises the broad shoulders and tricky angles that have moved from concept to reality without giving it all away.

Lexus has finally shed the chains that come with being part of a global monolith like Toyota with the formation of Lexus International last year, and it shows with the freshly launched softroader.

Now, technically at least, Lexus is its own brand, developing its own vehicles and with the likes of the stunning IS sedan and now the stylish NX, it's the master of its own destiny. It's still obligated to dip into the Toyota family parts bin, but recognises that Lexus needs to be given the licence to build vehicles that are more than a rebadge and develop the brand's own personality.

This delivers in spades - the beige boxes of the brand's early days are a distant memory and it's becoming exactly what a premium brand should be.

There's even a brand-spanking, Lexus-developed 2-litre turbo engine in the mix, which gives the NX the go to match its looks; and it joins an already-excellent hybrid drive system to cover the potential buyers that it needs to.

New Zealand will see three different spec levels, with a mix of two and all-wheel-drive across the base model and the lux Limited and undeniably cool F-Sport - a line-up that Neeraj Lala, GM of product planning, describes as "one of broadest even".

There will be a 2WD base model that is likely to make a huge impact for Lexus sales, with a solid specification to further divorce it from the Toyota SUV line-up - including pre-crash safety system that recognises impending doom and takes measures to protect occupants, often before they're aware of danger.

"Even entry models will have the option of 'pre-crash'," said Lala, "showing that we're continuing with our commitment to provide models with full specification instead of having a very large selection of options."

"An entry level model will be available in both hybrid and turbo to provide customers with the broadest possible choice," he told Driven. "I would assume the 2WD turbo entry level would be the base model in the line-up but until pricing is confirmed I can't really comment."

The Limited and F-Sport derivatives will both have a few more showpiece technologies on board, but the attention to quality and detail is obvious on all of the variants that we tested at the Canadian launch.

Adaptive cruise control, 360-degree camera systems and easily selectable driving dynamics to switch between economical driving and a sportier approach are just a small part of Lexus' attention to detail. Touches like a light tube between the taillight section on the boot and the rear corner of car - to avoid breaking up the line when the stylish red lights are on at night - show a real commitment to giving Lexus drivers what they'd expect from a premium offering.

There are several infotainment systems across the range, including a new Mark Levinson range-topping system that adds the technology to improve the quality of compressed audio formats like MP3 to CD-quality. A wireless phone charging system that almost all mobile makers have adopted, called Qi, means the phone literally needs to sit on a pad in the console and drinks its power without need for cables. Apple is, true to form, not signed on to the Qi system, but there are cases available for iPhones that give it this ability.

On the road the most impressive version to drive was certainly the top 2-litre turbo version, with paddle-shifted automatic, and road-holding ability that puts it at the sharp end of the market for SUV handling.

The average compact SUV buyer isn't looking for a sports car, rather for something that's easy to drive around town but still quite happy to head for the hills in the weekend.

It's very much aimed at the urbanite with a taste for some occasional action outside the concrete jungle. It makes no overtures to being an off-roader, more a flexible, fun and very highly specified SUV for those looking for creature comforts and the latest technologies to set their vehicle apart from the Joneses.

The NX is something that's been missing from the Lexus range, and demand is expected to be very high as a result. It may have been at the back of the queue when it comes to offering something in the toughest market segment there is. But Lala is predicting that it will, as perhaps the most important new model on the dealer's showroom, make an immediate impact in New Zealand.

"NX is a key model for Lexus here," said Steve Prangnell, GM of sales. "The SUV sector of the luxury segment is now around 36 per cent of the total sales. It's very hotly contested but we're still anticipating NX making up 25-30 per cent of our total sales in 2015."

It's a big call, but Lexus has picked the market well, and will be taking the fight to every other compact SUV here next year.

- NZ Herald

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