Lexus does its CUV just right

BY Haney Louka. Mar 24 03:00 am

The Toyota RAV4 placed third in a three-CUV comparison I wrote earlier this month. Chief among the reasons it didn’t measure up were its driving dynamics, or lack thereof, and its low-rent interior appointments, relative to those of its contemporaries.

What does this have to do with the upscale and sporty Lexus NX 200t, you ask? More than you might think: this dashing Lexus actually shares a few parts with the more mainstream RAV. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

This is platform sharing in the 21st century, and everybody’s doing it. There is obviously no common sheetmetal between the two and engines are completely different as well. But the wheelbase and basic suspension geometry are shared, as are other front-end components under the skin.

The surprising thing about this situation is not that the RAV4 and NX 200t are related, but how completely different the two vehicles are, whether looking at them curbside or hustling them down the road.

Essentially, the NX addresses my RAV4 beefs. It looks great inside and out and drives more like a performance hatch than a crossover. It has such things as responsive handling and satisfying driving dynamics. There are great seats to keep the driver and front passenger comfortable. The turbo four under the hood is refined and has satisfying grunt.

But of course, there’s a cost. The NX 200t starts at $42,750, which happens to be just beyond where the RAV4 tops out. Our tester was augmented with the F Sport Series 3 package, which added $12,250 to the sticker. The package includes all sorts of F Sport-themed trim bits, but most meaningful to this top-tier model is the addition of adaptive variable suspension.

And there’s also a price to pay in terms of utility: despite having the same wheelbase as the Toyota, the swoopy shape of this Lexus results in a 30 per cent decrease in passenger volume and a 50 per cent cut in cargo volume behind the rear seat.

Not that I expect folks to cross-shop these two, but this does demonstrate that the company could have put some of this appeal into the RAV4. Alas, you’ve gotta pay to play.

Within its class, the NX’s tight quarters are par for the course, because it competes against similarly pint-sized entries such as the Audi Q3, Infiniti QX50 and BMW X1. And it certainly holds its own here, if you can warm up to its daring design, punctuated in this case by its Solar Flare paint.

And you can count me among those who like its styling; the trademark spindle grille is smoothly integrated and gives it a commanding presence that visually increases its size. But inside is where I really connected with the NX. This is a true driver-focused cockpit with all controls placed for intuitive use while driving.

In particular, the seats proved form-fitting and comfortable. I didn’t even notice that the upholstery wasn’t real leather. But what I tend to focus on when behind the wheel is how satisfying the driving experience is. And this is where the NX shines.

The 2.0-litre turbocharged four generates 235 hp and a stout 258 lb-ft of torque. After just a hint of turbo lag, the force-fed mill gets the NX up to speed in a jiff; the six-speed automatic crisp and purposeful in its shifts.

Driving taste can be accommodated via the Drive Mode Select knob, which allows the driver to select Eco, Normal, and Sport. Our tester put the variable suspension to good use, and a Sport setting further enhanced the customizable driving experience.

I’m a big fan of touch screens for the most intuitive way to control secondary functions while on the road, so I met Lexus’ Remote Touch Interface with some skepticism. It’s essentially a track pad that controls a pointer on the screen. The pad is placed very naturally; the arm and palm rests could not have been planned better. And Lexus has engineered haptic feedback into the pad, so it’s easy to snap between selections on the screen without taking too much focus off the road.

There should be a quick way to get to the navigation system though. If audio is displayed on the screen, there are two steps required to get to the map, and the track pad is required to get there.

And despite its painstaking design, I still found the system a bit too cumbersome to use. It’s fortunate that most common functions can be accessed without the need for the track pad, and that in itself speaks volumes. Speaking of which, there are honest-to-goodness knobs for volume and tuning, and there are dedicated buttons for other audio functions, as well as climate control.

But these are minor quibbles that any new owner can learn to love, if the rest of the vehicle does what it should. And the NX does just that.

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