WHISTLER, BC, Canada – Lexus never has been known for especially exciting vehicles. Its biggest successes in the U.S. have been the nice-but-dull ES sedan, aka Lexus’ Camry, and the RX CUV, aka the wealthy-soccer-mom-mobile.

But in the past few years, prodded by race-enthusiast Toyota President Akio Toyoda and the continuing performance press of the Germans, Lexus has brought out some relatively heart-pounding product.

The IS F sport sedan released in 2008 is a beloved model in industry circles, the new non-F IS has received above-average reviews, and industry-watchers are salivating over the upcoming RC and RC F coupes.

Even the most sedate Lexus models now look exciting, thanks to the brand’s signature in-your-face spindle grille.

Considering these recent victories, it is with the highest hopes we get behind the wheel of the new entry-luxury NX CUV here recently.

It has the fit-and-finish supremacy Lexus is known for – and the exterior and interior styling flair it isn’t.

But driving the new NX 200t, NX 200t F Sport and NX 300h hybrid leaves us flat, largely because the new CUV is too quiet and pokey off the line.

Achieving better levels of interior quietness and calmness is admirable, and something many automakers should prioritize.

But for this product, in this segment, the NX needs more NVH.

The sound of the twin-scroll turbocharger in the 200t model is nonexistent.

How an engine sounds is a big part of a sporty driving experience.

Lexus realizes this, so to make up for the lack of natural engine sounds it pipes artificial, computer-created noise into the NX’s cabin, via an instrument panel-mounted speaker.

But this artificial noise is high pitched, unnatural and annoying.

NX Turbo Mill Lexus First…Sort Of

The NX 200t’s engine is an all-new design for Lexus, although it benefits from knowledge gained in an experimental turbocharged 4-cyl. done 10 years ago, NX chief engineer Takeaki Kato says.

The all-aluminum, 2.0L I-4 makes 235 hp and 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm) of torque, on par with most competing models but slightly trailing the BMW X3, one of the two vehicles benchmarked for the NX, which has a 2.0L turbocharged 4-cyl. making 240 hp and 260 lb.-ft. (353 Nm) of torque.

The best-selling entry-luxury CUV in the U.S., the Mercedes-Benz GLK, tops the segment in output, thanks to its naturally aspirated 3.5L V-6 that churns out 302 hp and 273 lb.-ft. (370 Nm) of torque.

The NX’s 2.0L turbo adds a new form of variable valve timing, VVT-iW, with the W standing for “wider,” as it allows the cam phasing to operate over a broader range. Under lighter loads, the engine can operate in Atkinson cycle, leading to better fuel economy, while in more aggressive driving the engine is in Otto cycle for improved torque.

But real-world torque is lacking, as the NX in our tests hesitates at step-off, further dinging the sporty claims.

While Lexus says peak torque can come as soon as 1,650 rpm, it feels closer to 3,000 behind the wheel.

This is a stark contrast to the BMW 2.0L, a 2-time Ward’s 10 Best Engines winner for its lack of turbo lag and feels-like-it 1,250-rpm torque peak.

The Lexus NX 300h hybrid, which the automaker expects to account for less than 10% of total NX U.S. sales, uses the ES 300h hybrid’s 2.5L Atkinson-cycle 4-cyl. and 244.8V nickel-metal-hydride battery.

However, as it is available in an all-wheel-drive configuration, the NX 300h adds a third motor to drive the rear wheels. As in the ES, the NX’s first and second motors start the engine and drive the front wheels, respectively.

Still, as with all Toyota and Lexus hybrids, driving solely on electric power is elusive above 20 mph (32 km/h).

The extreme tamping down of NVH is welcome in the NX 300h, as the sound of a motor whining isn’t particularly desirable.

The differences between the available driving modes, Eco, Normal and Sport, also is greatest in the NX 300h, with Sport resulting in a more eager tip-in and firmer steering feel.

The NX is “loosely based” on the Toyota RAV4 architecture, with just 10% carryover parts, Kato says. The same suspension geometry is shared, as is the front floor, dash panel and exterior rocker panels.

The improvements made to the platform, and body, largely are responsible for the tomb-like silence in the interior.

The NX boasts greater levels of rigidity and stability thanks to touches such as a front suspension tower that is joined to the cowl with thick-plate steel; ample amounts of body adhesive between the front pillar and dash panel and the front and rear door openings; laser-screw welding between existing spot welds; and more spot welds, at the back-door opening and No.3 cross-member, Lexus says.

Underbody areas getting more attention include the front bumper, which has been reinforced, and the rear-suspension member brace, now thicker and more-securely mounted.

But Lexus wanted a quieter CUV still so it adds urethane insulator panels in the hood and urethane liners in front fender while thinning out door frames.

The MacPherson-strut front and double-wishbone rear suspensions give a relatively athletic ride, as a slew of measures are taken to boost stability and ride comfort, such as the addition of rigid front and rear stabilizer bars to limit body roll in corners.

But the U.S.-spec NX lacks the adaptive suspension it will carry in some overseas markets. Without it here the CUV won’t have the same canyon-carving credentials of the X3 and Q5.

Not surprisingly, fuel economy is most impressive in the NX 300h, averaging 42 mpg (5.6 L/100 km), obliterating our AWD tester’s projected 32 mpg (7.4 L/100 km) combined rating but reflective of stop-and-go driving in this resort town.

Our next-best number is a not-shabby 36 mpg (6.5 L/100 km) in an AWD NX 200t F Sport, which is projected to average 24 mpg (9.8 L/100 km). A mostly high speed, limited-stop route helps here.

Styling Progressive Inside and Out

The NX’s styling inside and out is progressive, an achievement for Lexus.

The exterior’s creases aren’t wholly original, but they lend a futuristic look to a Lexus lineup largely devoid of much angularity.

The NX’s interior is roomy, with a second row designed to fit taller folks comfortably.

Front seats are a tad wide for thinner passengers, but the F Sport seats are narrower and grip nicely.

The 60/40 rear seats fold flat and have a power-fold option, although we never come across it here.

The manual folding seats are maddening. There’s only one set of levers, on rear seat bottoms, and to get seatbacks fully upright is a two-arm endeavor, requiring moving the lever concurrently with pushing back on the seatback.

The step-like design of the center stack is a winner, as is the layered instrument panel.

Also pleasing is a new human-machine interface in the form of a touchpad in models equipped with navigation, replacing the mouse-like remote-touch controller in current Lexuses. It has two ways to select: pushing down on the touchpad or double-tapping it like a laptop touchpad.

The NX 200t F Sport’s red leather seats with black trim, accented by red stitching, are sharp, matched only by the unique sew pattern on cream-colored seats in the NX 300h.

NX pricing will be announced closer to the on-sale date. But if it follows the competition, expect the CUV to start in the upper-$30,000 range, semi-ridiculous considering these vehicles’ small size though just a notch above the average new-vehicle price in the U.S.

Lexus is strong in CUVs thanks to the midsize RX, regularly the best-selling luxury model in the U.S., car or light truck, with 100,000-plus annual sales.

This position no doubt bolsters Lexus’ confidence to target 36,000 NX sales in the vehicle’s first full year on sale in the U.S.

That would make the NX the No.1 seller in the segment given last year’s pace, when the GLK tallied 32,553 sales, according to WardsAuto data.

The NX likely will attract some RX owners wanting to downsize. By lacking the sportiness it claims, the new CUV may appeal to those who find the X3 and Q5’s rides too firm and engines too noisy.

Still, we’d love to see the NX, in a midcycle change perhaps, go toe-to-toe with the German entrants quick acceleration and growly engines.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com

'15 Lexus NX 200t

Vehicle type 5-passenger, 5-door FWD compact CUV
Engine 2.0L direct-injected and twin-scroll turbocharged DOHC inline 4-cyl., all-aluminum block/head
Power (SAE net) 235 hp @ 4,800-5,600 rpm
Torque 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm) @ 1,650-4,000 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 86.0 X 86.0
Compression ratio 10.0:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 104.7 ins. (2,659 mm)
Overall length 182.3 ins. (4,630 mm)
Overall width 83.9 ins. (2,131 mm) w/ mirrors unfolded
Overall height 64.8 ins. (1,646 mm)
Curb weight 3,940 lbs. (1,787 kg)
Price TBD
Fuel economy 22/28 mpg city/hwy est. (10.7-8.4 L/100 km)
Competition Audi Q5, BMW X3, Mercedes-Benz GLK, Acura RDX, Infiniti EX, Lincoln MKC
Pros Cons
Sporty appearance Performance doesn’t live up to looks
Roomy rear seat Cumbersome manual seat controls
Fantastic hybrid fuel economy Hybrid take-rate under 10%