The NX comes with two powertrain options, though Lexus expects more than 90 percent of all NX models to use the standard setup. That's the model known as the NX 200t, which uses the brand's first-ever direct-injected and turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
Unlike several of its competitors--the Audi Q5, BMW X3, and Mercedes GLK among them--the Lexus NX has no option for a six-cylinder engine. That helps cut weight, and likely let the designers package the long, sloping nose, but it means this new luxury compact crossover has to be driven hard to obtain the best performance and response.
The standard 2.0-liter turbo four produces 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. It's mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, with front-wheel drive standard and all-wheel drive optional. Lexus notes that the engine has been tuned to vary between the conventional combustion cycle and the more efficient Atkinson cycle, which has previously been used only in hybrid powertrains, for greater fuel efficiency. Drivers won't notice any difference in engine note behind the wheel, but with luck, it should help cut the pain at the fuel pump: Both front- and all-wheel-drive models of the NX 200t are rated at 24 mpg combined.
The NX 200t has been tuned for fuel economy in its Normal mode to such a degree that on the road, quick acceleration takes a second or two as the transmission shifts down to a lower gear--once if not twice. Turning the knob to the "Sport" setting changes its personality: It holds higher revs longer and makes the acceleration significantly crisper, potentially at the price of lower real-world gas mileage. You can largely ignore the "Eco" setting unless you're on flat roads and surrounded by slow traffic, preferably in nice weather so the reduced climate control settings aren't noticeable.
Roadholding of all NX models is clearly better than the larger RX; occupants sit lower, and there's much less body roll. It's also a stiffer body shell than the Toyota RAV4 with which it shares some structural components. We'd have rated its driving qualities higher if drivers didn't have to put quite so much effort into getting acceleration out of a turbo engine and transmission clearly tuned for fuel economy over immediate power.
The F-Sport option is the one to have if you really enjoy the act of driving. The combination of its retuned suspension, more performance-oriented wheels and tires, and the "Sport" driving mode produces the one NX version that proved rewarding to throw around curving roads. We drove an F-Sport fitted with 18-inch alloy wheels and lower-profile 235/55R18 summer tires, which delivered a noticeable improvement to roadholding.
The alternative powertrain used in the pricier NX 300h model is a 154-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine paired to the Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive system, which combines two electric motor-generators that can power the vehicle alone--at low speeds, under light loads--recharge the battery, or supplement engine torque with electric power.
Total output of the engine and electric motors combined is 194 hp. All-wheel drive is an optional on the hybrid NX too, but rather than the mechanical system used in the NX 200t to distribute engine torque to all four wheels, the NX 300h adds a 50-kW (67-hp) electric motor on the rear axle to provide torque to the rear wheels when the drive control system senses power is needed.
The low-volume NX 300h hybrid model drives like a smaller version of the hybrid RX mid-size crossover--no surprise there--with its engine noise almost entirely muted by the noise suppression and luxury features. In addition to the Normal, Eco, and Sport modes, the NX hybrid has an "EV" mode that powers it only on electricity (at speeds below about 30 mph) as long as the battery holds out, generally less than 1 mile.
While Lexus has put a lot of work into giving the NX hybrid a more "natural" acceleration feel and minimizing the engine's tendency to spool immediately up to maximum speed and noise, it still doesn't really have enough electric power to accelerate in brisk traffic on the electric motor alone. So, like the larger RX, its engine usually switches itself on to provide power when accelerating. That said, the noise suppression is so good that drivers will have to watch the power meter to determine whether or not the car's stayed in electric mode--engine turn-on is all but imperceptible.
Lexus has added what it calls a "kickdown switch" in the hybrid 300h to deliver immediate extra power when required; it works well enough, at the price of some increase in engine noise. The NX 300h earns EPA ratings of 33 mpg combined for the front-wheel-drive model, dropping to 32 mpg if you specify all-wheel drive. Whether the NX hybrid will match those numbers in real-world use remains to be seen, as the larger RX has been the subject of some owner complaints for underachieving on its gas-mileage ratings.
In the end, if you're the new, younger buyer that Lexus hopes to attract to the NX--and you actually enjoy driving--the F-Sport model is the one to choose. It can deliver spirited response and rewarding on-road handling, though you'll need to turn the drive selector to the 'Sport' setting to get it.