2015 Lexus NX

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Lexus invented the luxury midsize crossover way back in 1998. It was an idea that quickly blossomed into one of the hottest segments in the luxury ranks and within a few years Lexus was faced with serious competition for its groundbreaking RX 300. But Lexus remains the midsize sales champ rolling on with the ever-popular RX 350.

This time Lexus is not first to market, but don't be surprised if by this time next year it becomes one of the top selling vehicles in the burgeoning small luxury crossover market with its all-new NX, which should hit showrooms around the first of the year. Competition is stiff with the likes of the Acura RDX, Audi Q5, BMW X3 and the Mercedes GLK.

Loosely based on the Toyota RAV4 — Lexus officials say there's not much the same — the NX carries distinctive styling that we think will catch the eye of many prospective buyers. Its copious
creases, angles, and bulges and its prominent Lexus signature nose definitely stand out from the crowd. The thing here is that while some will find it way cool, others may be turned off. In any case we applaud Lexus, which normally turns out rather conservative designs, for its step away from the traditional.

Beyond styling, we found the driving experience engaging on roads and highways in and around Nashville.The NX comes in three configurations. What should prove the most popular is the 200t, powered by Lexus' new turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder making 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. It has more than adequate acceleration, measured in about 7 seconds from 0-to-60. The power delivery is smooth and quiet for a four-cylinder. Don't be disappointed by the lack of a V-6. This engine gets the job done.

But if you want just a bit more, Lexus offers a F-Sport edition with a sport-tuned suspension, higher-effort steering, 18-inch aluminum wheels, and a very engaging sound control which synthesizes engine sounds according to throttle angle when the drive mode selector is in Sport. During the pre-drive briefing we thought this as just another gimmick. But the sound is addictive. If you, indeed, want a bit of sportiness in your crossover experience, consider the F-Sport.

Both the standard 200t and the F-Sport come with a six-speed automatic and both can be configured with all-wheel drive. Gas mileage is decent mileage according to Lexus estimates (EPA figures haven't been announced). Lexus expects the crossover to be rated at 22 mpg city, 28 highway and 24 combined in front-wheel mode.

The third configuration is a hybrid, the NX 300h, which has a total output of 194 horsepower from a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, a nickel-metal hydride battery pack and two electric motors in front-wheel configuration and three with the available all-wheel. Lexus estimates mileage of 35 city, 31 highway and 32 combined.

The NX interior is spacious for four adults, which could be a big consideration for empty nesters who enjoy taking their neighbors out to dinner in comfort, or for a small family. Back-seat leg room is generous and the seats sit occupants up high for a good vantage point of their surroundings while providing excellent head room. The shortfall here comes in cargo space, which lags some competitors' offerings. There's 17.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the seats, and 54.6 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded. That's probably plenty for most family's needs.

Lexus paid a lot of attention to detail in the cabin with top-notch materials that feel rich and with some neat color schemes. Such things as contrast stitching, wood trim and an analog clock are tasteful and well executed. The NX with navigation uses a new touchpad like found on a laptop computer rather than a mouse-like joystick that has adorned recent Lexus offerings. We found the joystick very distracting, and the touchpad is no improvement.

In addition to a long list of standard equipment, Lexus offers such options as heated and ventilated seats, a heated steering wheel, leather upholstery, a sunroof, driver memory functions, a power-folding backseat, a power liftgate, a wireless phone charging tray, automated parallel parking, blind-spot warning and lane-departure warning. We think blindspot warning should be standard in all cars, especially those costing north of 30 grand.

Pricing has not yet been set on the NX.

Lexus, we think, has produced a very competitive vehicle in a growing segment that should appeal to a wide variety of buyers. We like the edgy styling, but it remains to be seen if the public warms to it.

— Jim Meachen