Lexus NX200t: Australian Hands-On

People love crossovers — they have plenty of space, they sit high above the road, they can handle rougher terrain if they're ever off the blacktop. But people also love sports cars — they want something with a bit of power, sporty suspension and a bit of road-holding. Lexus has combined the two with the brand new NX200t — but how do you turn an SUV into something resembling a sports car?

Campbell Simpson travelled to Canberra as a guest of Lexus.

A SUV, But Sporty

The NX200t is a SUV — an AWD four-wheel drive, with a high seating position and vaguely off-roady credentials — but it's one with a pretense of good handling and good performance. That means sharp steering and dynamically adjustable dampers, sporty styling, and a brand new turbocharged engine. Balancing that against the fact that it's a Lexus — it has to be smooth and refined and free of any untoward noise, vibration or harshness — had to have been a difficult task.

Start-stop means that the car is at home in traffic, rather than sitting there drinking fuel — it's almost mandatory on any luxury car these days. Where the NX200t excels is its mid-speed acceleration, though, once you're moving. Quick shifts and a responsive pedal in Sport mode mean that the Lexus NX200t is at its best on the highway, dealing with speed limit changes and the necessity of dropping down to 60km/h and getting back up to 100km/h — despite nearly 1900kg of mass on the top model.

With a (very limited) bit of gravel- and dirt-road work, as well as a river crossing, the NX200t is relatively sure-footed on less than ideal terrain. It's no mudskipper, but the car doesn't feel like a liability offroad — a lot of that comes from the limited-slip diff on the front wheels, and a smart four-wheel drive system distributing engine power throughout different segments of the corner, that keeps you pointed in the right direction.

A Brand New, Lexus-Only Turbocharged Engine

The NX200t is built around the 8AR-FTS, a brand new engine developed by Lexus over the last seven years. A 2.0-litre inline four-cylinder, the 8AR-FTS develops 175kW around 4800-5600RPM and 350Nm from 1650-4000RPM — not the highest performance turbo four out there, but certainly competitive. Interestingly, it's able to operate on both the standard Otto and the fuel-saving Atkinson cycles, changing its valve timing when possible to prioritise either outright performance or fuel efficiency.

It works, too — think of it as an economical powerplant by default, but one that can open up the taps and deliver a fair bit of power when needed. Turbo lag is minimal even in the lower ranges of the tachometer; Lexus designed its own twin-scroll turbo and used a water-to-air intercooler mounted on the engine itself to minimise pressure loss through piping. Variable valve timing, using Toyota's VVT-iW, also helps out.

Interestingly, although Lexus' Australian boss Sean Hanley wouldn't give any specifics at the NX200t's Aussie launch last week, he did say that the company was investigating using the 8AR in other Lexus vehicles. You probably won't see it moving around a hulking RX in the future, but there's every chance we could see a mid-range sporty IS or hot hatch CT with a variant of the 175kW 2.0-litre mill.

Want More? Pay More

If you want an adjustable suspension system, which stiffens up the shocks and dampers in Sport and Sport+ modes, you'll have to spring for the F Sport or Sport Luxury variants of the NX200t, which can edge up to a $72,500-plus price tag. The base Luxury variant certainly doesn't look or feel Spartan inside — it's a Lexus, for god's sake — but move from one to the other and you'll probably want to spend that little bit extra.

Whether you're in the base or top-spec models, though, you might find the suspension a little firm for such a mid-sized SUV. Being a relatively sporty and performance-focused variant of the NX family — the other is the more environmentally friendly but less hot NX300h — the NX200t has quite a firm ride, and it's not especially compliant when you're on particularly rough roads. Our test drive around Canberra's B-roads showed the SUV was content eating up highway miles, but the suspension stands up well to, and welcomes, a bit of chucking around.

Similarly, fuel economy takes a (relative) hit when you opt for the NX200t. Where the NX300h gets a solid 5.7 litres per 100km combined, the 2.0-litre petrol pushes that out by a full two extra litres, or 35 per cent extra. The AWD, as you'd expect, uses very slightly more than the base 2WD. There's actually not too much of a weight difference between the two — only around 80kg or so — but the difference in performance is substantial.

That turbocharged engine teams up well with the six-speed auto though, which kicks down readily (and smoothly) in Normal or Sport mode but will happily hang on to a high gear in Eco to reduce your fuel consumption. The paddle shifters behind the steering wheel work for temporarily shifting if you feel like giving it a bit of a go, or you can push the shifter sideways to select and hold with either the paddles or the electronic gates on the shifter itself.

The Lexus NX200t is out now, starting at $52,500 for the base Luxury model in 2WD. The step-up F Sport is $63,500, and the top of the line Sports Luxury is $72,500.

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