2016 Lexus NX 200t Review: Driving Lexus’s First Turbocharged SUV
After a one-year hiatus from the Lexus NX 200t F Sport, we’ve returned to the compact crossover for a week-long review and a road trip to Wisconsin on the schedule. Being that this is the smaller sibling to the sensational RX 350 F Sport, there’s a lot of pressure on this voracious little luxury SUV to outperform and for us to determine why it might be superior to its big brother.
While buyers are impressed with the redesigned RAV4, especially in hybrid trim, Lexus has had its hands full proving that upgrading to something that starts at $38,365 is worth plopping down the extra dough. It has more power, loads of luxurious accouterments, and far more aggressive styling, but for the money the new RAV4 still has numerous desirable features in it that largely dismantle the need for upgrading to the NX. The gap between the luxury segment and regular automakers has grown so slight that buyers are often left wondering which direction to turn — it was this conundrum that sparked the launch of our weekly column, Buy This Not That.
But there’s a social stigma associated with driving a Lexus that helps it top a Toyota: F Sport engineering and performance gains can only be had by upgrading. So with that in mind and a refreshed viewpoint on what was a favorable first drive impression, I delved into the NX not realizing that it was about to impress, infuriate, and befuddle me all within the period of just one week.
Visually, the NX 200t is a very suave and somewhat sadistic looking crossover, especially when outfitted with the optional LED headlamps. It has the hooks and sharp bends found in every new Lexus, along with a bowed roofline that’s fairly obvious from either side. Sprayed in a pearl-heavy coat of Ultra White and rolling on a set of 18-inch alloys, our tester was a standout in stop-and-go traffic, but a blur on the radar when cruising through Wisconsin farmland.
Exterior pros and cons
+ There’s nothing soft looking about the NX, a strong selling point for anyone wanting something unique and statement-making.
+ Triple-beam LED headlamps, hooked DRL lights, and matching tails all illuminate the night beautifully.
+ The integrated trapezoidal exhaust, two-tone lower air dam, and streamlined roof rails all look stellar.
– Some cars don’t look too shabby with unpainted plastic fender trim pieces; the NX will never be one of them, as it fools the eye into thinking that there’s more wheel gap than there actually is.
– Some people really despise Lexus’s new look, and the NX is a defining carrier of the design language.
Eco-, Regular-, and Sport-setting compatible and always ready with a torque-monitoring all-wheel drive system, the NX has proven to be an excellent turbocharged starting point for the automaker. It’s a very functional, predictable powertrain, and even though it isn’t as potent as its re-tuned brethren (the IS and RC 200t) you don’t really find yourself wanting much more, either. It may not be the nastiest turbo four-banger out there, but it is reliable, refined, and pretty damn quiet.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ Sport mode is all “go” and pleasantly rewarding, the Regular setting is around-town predictability at its best, and riding in Eco limps you down the interstate on vapors and just enough overtake oomph.
+ Having the ability to lock the center differential is a great perk, and the “Dynamic Torque Control” AWD system felt quite focused, regardless of what sort of terrain was beneath.
+ Turbo lag may be virtually nonexistent, but do you know what else is missing? Engine vibration and noise.
– Compared to other turbo 2.0-liter motors out there, the powerband is lacking a little.
– No optional traction modes, and there’s no way to run on just two wheels in order to save fuel.
– Always requires Premium at the pump.
Oh Lexus, you sexy beast you. Taking a healthy dollop of performance influence and infusing it into all things F Sport, the brand has re-crafted its interiors to be equal parts track-inspired and sensuous. There are acres of nice leather areas, soft touch padding, and aluminum additions that make for a great car; yet even with all that, the NX almost feels dated in certain areas when compared to the larger, and nicer RX.
Interior pros and cons
+ Leather-bound everything, heated seats and steering wheel, power adjustability on both sides, artful diametric plastic trim pieces, and a cabin that’s Lexus-quiet.
+ The bolstering in these seats is surprisingly pronounced and also quite firm, sharp corners can be enjoyed at a greater pace.
+ A few small touches include an emergency med kit, paddle shifters, power steering adjustability, an upgraded 10-speaker sound system, and a button layout that is easy to learn and navigate around.
– Storage space in the rear cargo area is somewhat limited.
– Padding behind soft touch materials is notably less plush than what Nissan/Infiniti offer, and the rear seat doesn’t get much outside of a couple of air vents.
– The central console, a few control knobs, and areas of the center stack look dated and cheap.
Tech and safety
This car serves as a prime example of how perfectly good technology and loads of nice safety features can be overshadowed by another piece of instrumentation. The MID may not give you a digital speed read-out, but it does show you all kinds of nifty stats, like driving directions, turbo spool specs, and G-force figures. Outside of having a five-star federal crash rating, safety features include things like variable cruise, forward collision warnings, and blind spot monitoring. Tech-wise, almost everything on the NX is solid, all the way up until you realize it has been outfitted with a Remote Touchpad, and that the navi doesn’t exactly instill you with confidence that it knows what it’s doing.
Tech pros and cons
+ Safety-wise, the NX gets high scores for its preventative accident tech and stout engineering.
+ Leafing through the MID will keep you equal parts entertained and informed, and there’s more where that came from in the center stack.
+ Hands-free communication and controls via Bluetooth along with variable cruise control help make a strong case for high-speed safety.
– Lexus’s Remote Touchpad is very temperamental. Overly sensitive one moment and clueless the next, it’s a relief knowing the brand is moving away from them.
– While syncing one’s phone to the Lexus Enform App Suite is a big win, the dated-looking and misaligned control settings within the touchless display screen could be frustrating, and the Qi wireless charger refused to charge Android or Apple phones.
– Regardless of whether the navi was focused on the fastest route, it insisted on taking me on routes that added an hour to my arrival time, and in Chicago it would randomly take me off the interstate just to put me back on it again.
After spending several hours behind the wheel, I have to say that from a driving perspective, it offers a good look at what is possible in this increasingly popular segment. It may not have the adaptive damping of the hybrid model, but you don’t really feel yourself needing it with F Sport-tuned suspension and tight steering feedback at your disposal.
It throttles well and gives you more kick than expected when in Sport mode, and although Normal settings are pretty straightforward, flipping the Eco switch on the open road returns some nice fuel gains and a comfortable driving experience. The paddle shifters also like to pop through all six gears nicely, and for the most part the F Sport badge lives up to its namesake, with a very tranquil cabin quietly reassuring you that yes, this is still a Lexus.
Wrap up and review
Engineered to be more than just another LED-clad face in the crowd, Lexus’s NX 200t F Sport gets high marks despite my misgivings about some of its interior amenities. This is because all of these things will more than likely be addressed in an upcoming refresh, where it will likely — and hopefully — take some notes out of the redesigned RX’s playbook.
If you don’t mind the center stack and twitchy touchpad controls don’t bother you much, definitely check out the current model. From a drivability and amenity viewpoint, the NX is a great option to consider if a luxury badge is mandatory. It will more than likely brake, accelerate, turn, and handle the way you want it to, and will look pretty good while doing so.
But having driven the bigger, V6-equipped RX, I feel that for $46,440 you might as well drop the extra three grand (over our tester’s price of $43K) and get the superior F Sport SUV. It gets 26 miles per gallon on the highway, has a nicer interior and tech layout, and comes with adaptive dampers and an unexpectedly engaging driving experience. This isn’t to say that the NX isn’t a solid car; it just might be a good idea to drive them back-to-back at the dealer in order to test out their differences in person.