Lexus NX 200t vs. Toyota RAV4 Limited: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide

2015 Lexus NX 200t

Lexus’ take on the RAV4 platform masks the RAVness, adds MADness…

Introduced to at least a portion of U.S. media in the hip, urbane environs in and around Seattle, the intentions of the Lexus PR team were immediately obvious (as – admittedly – they are in any number of automotive intros): Plug the Lexus NX 200t – the carmaker’s first compact CUV – into the Seattle consciousness, and hope a vestige of the Northwest cool (without the still-obligatory grunge) would permeate the NX. While in this first model year it may be too early to tell if the Lexus suits have pulled it off, in back-to-back drives with the NX 200t and Toyota’s RAV4 the Lexus product seems almost too hip, while its less-expensive corporate sibling seems closer to Topeka than Tacoma. A tale, then, of two CUVs…if not two cities.

In what Lexus describes as its ‘breakthrough design’ almost precludes the traditional walkaround. Instead, you’re essentially stopped dead in your tracks by the design team’s exaggerated take on what has become Lexus’ signature grill treatment. We were reasonably comfortable with the spindle initiative as given to the IS redesign, and somewhat comfortable when applied to the larger GS and LS sedans. In this application, where bigger/bolder seems to have been ‘writ large’ in the design studio, the end result seems to be polarizing…at best. This is a schnoz only a mother could love; at that, it’s perhaps one of the very best arguments – EVER – for child abandonment. It’s a gaping hole in all three NX variants, but made even more so in the F Sport tested. And not only is it big, but the front fascia is pushed forward, serving to magnify the front overhang at a time when many manufacturers are working hard to reduce front overhangs, especially when designing what are ostensibly all-road vehicles.

2015 Toyota RAV4

Among Cute Utes, RAV4 remains one of the cutest.

So, we don’t like the NX’s smiling face, but what about the rest of the sheetmetal? As it’s based on the platform supplied by Toyota’s RAV4 (albeit with the appropriate number of internal mods necessary to make it a Lexus), know that your cleaning staff – arriving in their 10-year old RAV4 – will never confuse the NX with one of theirs, and (by extension) you with one of them. Whether looking at the aggressive treatment expended on its profile, or a rear hatch with more cosmetic ‘sculpting’ than the late Michael Jackson, know that hints of the RAV4 are well hidden within the platform’s recesses. In the right color (dark gray or a metallic black) the overt design elements are better nuanced, but our test vehicle was ‘Eminent White’; on light surfaces the sculpting stands out like a full frontal pic of Kim Kardashian. Yup…full frontal/Kim Kardashian.

Inside, the revamp is no less ambitious, but certainly less polarizing. The F Sport buckets are, per the descriptive, blatantly sporty, but don’t confine to the degree seen – as but one example – on Ford’s Focus ST. The instrumentation is complete, with a tach occupying the same square footage as your speedo; that’s perfect for your frenetic paddle shifting, but may be seen as overkill when making a weekend run to Target. And while alloy pedals provide a SEMA-esque sheen, they prove less than practical when stepping from frozen precip on the street into driving mode behind the wheel.

Once you are driving, however, your consciousness shifts from RAV to REV. Most of the dollars expended to differentiate the small Toyota from the small Lexus were spent under the hood. Out goes the RAV4’s normally aspirated 2.5 liter four boasting – if that’s the word – 176 horsepower and 172 lb-ft of torque; in goes Lexus’ first turbocharged powerplant, a 2.0 liter four delivering 235 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. These aren’t over-the-top numbers, but fully competitive with others in the segment. And despite competitive horsepower and torque driven through only the front wheels, Lexus engineers have done a fine job of minimizing torque steer; unless paying real attention (and who does that?), you’re hard-pressed to tell where – exactly – the power is directed.

With that, we still have a preference for all-wheel drive in our SUVs (North Texas received 7 inches of snow on one March day – typically 7 inches would be a total for the entire winter season), and that remains on the option sheet. Three modes are provided for your driving pleasure: Normal, Sport and Eco. Normal is, uh, normal, while Sport gets you moving and Eco gets you snoozing. When gas returns to $4/gallon we won’t go ‘Eco’, we’ll go diesel or hybrid. Until then, we’re firmly committed to ‘Sport’.

Our RAV4, enjoyed over a longish weekend, was outfitted in Toyota’s Limited kit, with optional all-wheel drive. Having grown up but one generation removed from a Nebraska cornfield, I have an abiding affection for lack of affectation; the RAV4 exceeds my desire for sameness. This isn’t, by any stretch, an unattractive 2-box design, but neither does it strive to stand out. Instead of Kim Kardashian we have Bruce Jenner, offering a still-athletic footprint with a (now necessary) sprinkling of femininity. And there’s – of course – nothing wrong with that; it simply won’t go well with your McCain/Palin bumper sticker.

Inside, the Limited’s leather seating surfaces do a reasonable job of holding you and yours in place, while not going to the lateral extremes provides by Lexus’ F Sport mantra. And while the RAV4 instrument panel doesn’t boast the overstuffed visage of the Lexus, it has an obviously convenient place to stash the iPhone. We had to hunt for it in the Lexus, concealed – as it was – by the center console armrest. Also of note: Toyota’s RAV4 does a far better job of supplying ‘utility’ in a sport utility. There is over 38 cubic feet of space behind the RAV4’s second row, versus just 18 cubic feet in the NX 200t. Fold the second rows down and you have 73 cubic feet in the RAV, 54 cubic feet in the Lexus. Of course in the Lexus you won’t be making extended drives – you’ll have Flex Jet.

The Toyota goes about its business with the implicit simplicity of a normally aspirated 2.5 liter four. With relatively modest horsepower and torque you’d think there would be a boost in efficiency, but the RAV delivers essentially the same EPA rating of the NX 200t; the Toyota garners a 22/29/25 EPA estimate, while the Lexus boasts 22/28/25. For both, real world driving netted low 20’s in stop-and-go driving, mid-20’s on the freeway. Of course, you can buy a lot of Exxon (gas or stock) with the $14K difference in window stickers, but if all other things were the same I’d rather have 235 horsepower.

Were it my money, I’d enjoy the chance to buy Toyota’s RAV4 with the turbocharged 2.0 liter four, all-wheel drive and a Lexus waiting room. While lacking the vault-like solidity of the NX, the RAV4 isn’t deficient in either build quality or substance. Also, we believe turbocharged powerplants will be making their way to Toyota showrooms soon. If the bump in spec could be done for something less than $14K, we’re in…and will bring our own coffee and bagel.

Specifications continued on next page…