BMW and Lexus Heat Up the Compact-Crossover Market – Wall Street Journal

Posted: Saturday, November 22, 2014
<strong>SOFT-ROAD WARRIORS</strong> | The BMW X4 xDrive 35i and Lexus NX200t offer the stability of a wagon but have higher sightlines and ground clearance.

<strong>Price, as tested:</strong> $65,000 (BMW) | $42,710 (Lexus)

<strong>Horsepower/torque:</strong> 300 hp at 5,800-6,000 rpm/300 lb-ft from 1,200-5,000 rpm (BMW) | 235 hp at 4,800-5,600 rpm/258 lb-ft at 1,650-4,000 rpm (Lexus)

<strong>Length/height/weight:</strong> 184.3 inches/63.9 inches/4,260 pounds (BMW) | 182.3 inches/64.8 inches/4,050 pounds (Lexus)

<strong>Wheelbase:</strong> 110.6 inches (BMW) | 104.7 inches (Lexus)

<strong>0-60 mph:</strong> 5.2 seconds (BMW) | 7.0 seconds (Lexus)

<strong>EPA fuel eco:</strong> 19/27/22 mpg, cty/hgh/comb (BMW) | 21/28/24 mpg, cty/hgh/cmb (91 oct) (Lexus)

THE MEGATRENDS ARE PLAIN ENOUGH: Increasing urbanization and traffic density select for smaller personal-vehicle size, globally, over time. Also putting the potential squeeze on vehicle dimensions, big picture, are spiraling carbon-emission standards due to the relationship between vehicles’ weight and the energy required to move them.

And yet there is no such contraction in consumer expectations for a safe, comfortable, versatile five-passenger vehicle with optional all-wheel drive and reasonable operation costs, across a range of prices. There are only so many ways for product planners to respond to that brief.

So the explosive growth in a vehicle type known as the compact crossover SUV. These little guys offer the raised seating position (H point) consumers love, with higher sightlines and vehicle ground clearance, with the stability and versatility of a car-based wagon (mostly). Some estimates have the segment growing 20% by 2021. At that rate Americans will be issued one at birth.

All the recent panting has been in the profits-rich import-luxury end of the pool, with the arrival of tiny Germans: The dead-cool, rakish Mercedes-Benz GLA; the burgermeister Audi Q3; Porsche Macan; and—seen here—one of our test cars for the week, BMW X4 xDrive35i, which is a raked-roof version of the BMW X3 with a 300-hp, naturally aspirated inline six.

Fresh off the boat is our other test car: the Lexus NX200t F Sport AWD, a highly evolved version of the Toyota RAV4, powered by a hardworking turbo four and smothered with as much Lexus lather as can be raised. Although they look different, the BMW X4 xDrive35i and Lexus NX200t F Sport AWD are two flavors of the same sweet spot in the market.

<strong>2015 Acura RDX ($35,095-$40,195) | </strong> <strong>Powertrain:</strong> naturally aspirated 3.5-liter, 273-hp V6, six-speed automatic transmission, FWD or AWD. Fuel economy: 19/27/22 mpg, city/highway/combined (RDX AWD). Best feature: the ‘super-handling’ all-wheel drive really does work. <strong>Worst feature:</strong> Aside from annoying ‘SH-AWD’ nomenclature, the murky human factors of the navi and infotainment modules.

<strong>Audi Q5 ($38,900-$54,500) | </strong> <strong>Powertrain:</strong> Gas turbocharged 2.0-liter, 220-hp inline four; gas supercharged 3.0-liter, 272-hp V6; diesel turbocharged 3.0-liter, 240 hp V6; gas-electric hybrid 2.0-liter inline four and three-phase AC motor/generator (54hp), system net 245 hp. Eight-speed automatic transmission and AWD. Fuel economy: 18/26/21 mpg, city/highway/combined (Q5 3.0 TFSI V-6). <strong>Best feature:</strong> impeccable cabin as per Audi’s usual with intuitive infotainment, superb seats and a nice steering wheel. Worst feature: Tick all the boxes and you can blow through $60,000, easy.

Audi Q5 ($38,900-$54,500) | Powertrain: Gas turbocharged 2.0-liter, 220-hp inline four; gas supercharged 3.0-liter, 272-hp V6; diesel turbocharged 3.0-liter, 240 hp V6; gas-electric hybrid 2.0-liter inline four and three-phase AC motor/generator (54hp), system net 245 hp. Eight-speed automatic transmission and AWD. Fuel economy: 18/26/21 mpg, city/highway/combined (Q5 3.0 TFSI V-6). Best feature: impeccable cabin as per Audi’s usual with intuitive infotainment, superb seats and a nice steering wheel. Worst feature: Tick all the boxes and you can blow through $60,000, easy.
Audi of America

<strong>Infiniti QX50 AWD ($36,400) | </strong> <strong>Powertrain:</strong> Naturally aspirated 3.7-liter, 325-hp V6; seven-speed automatic transmission with AWD. Fuel economy: 17/24 mpg, city/highway. Best feature: a tie, between rear-drive biased AWD system and yet another handsomely turned out Infiniti cabin. <strong>Worst feature:</strong> Feels a bit dated in this company.

<strong>Mercedes-Benz GLA250 4Matic ($33,300) |</strong> <strong>Powertrain:</strong> Turbocharged 2.0-liter, 208-hp inline four cylinder; seven-speed dual clutch automatic, AWD. Fuel economy: 24/32 mpg, city/highway. Best feature: At 60 inches high the GLA is pretty sleek, with narrow windows and a sexy roofline. Worst feature: with 17.2 cubic feet of storage behind the seats, the GLA’s utility is compromised by all the rakishness.

<strong>Porsche Macan S ($49,900) |</strong> <strong>Powertrain:</strong> Naturally aspirated 3.0-liter, 340-hp V-6; seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic, AWD. Fuel economy: 17/23 mpg, city/highway. <strong>Best feature:</strong> Among compact crossovers, the AWD Macan S, along with the BMW X4 xDrive35i, is probably the most sports-minded and fun to drive. <strong>Worst feature:</strong> The Macan S excels at all the things for which people lose their licenses.

<strong>Range Rover Evoque ($41,100) |</strong> <strong>Powertrain:</strong> Turbocharged 2.0-liter, 240-hp inline four; nine-speed automatic transmission and 4WD. Fuel economy: 21/30/24 mpg, city/highway/combined. Best feature: The huge visual energy created by the upswept beltline and tapering roof, resulting in a dead-sexy silhouette while still retaining a useful 20.3 cubic feet of storage behind the rear seats. <strong>Worst feature:</strong> The Evoque comes with pavement-centric tires. To really get your money’s worth out of the Evoque, you need snow tires. And snow, of course.

<strong>Lincoln MKC ($33,100-$39,965) |</strong> <strong>Powertrain:</strong> Turbocharged 2.0-liter, 240-hp inline four cylinder; 2.3-liter, 285-hp inline four cylinder; six-speed automatic transmission, part-time AWD. Fuel economy: 18/26/21, city/highway/combined (MKC AWD). <strong>Best feature:</strong> A very competitive package, offering a lot of available telematics and driver assist’y stuff with design that puts Lincoln on the consideration list for the first time in donkey’s years. Worst feature: It will forever by known as ‘The McConaughey.’

Beauty Is on the Inside | BMW X4 xDrive35i

BMW is coloring in market white space like a crazed preschooler. The German giant, fully ensconced in North America at its sheds in Spartanburg, S.C., offers an array of like-size cars that vary only subtly in metrics like overall height, H point—H for “hip,” or seating elevation above the ground—as well as the character of the roofline silhouette: sedan, coupe, wagon, even “Gran Coupe,” milady.

Consider BMW’s SUV-ish specimens: X1, X3, X4, X5, X6. They all look sort of different, but they all sort of taste the same. Like pasta.

The X4—a “sport-activity coupe,” according to BMW—is a nut-and-bolt replicant of the X3 “sport-activity vehicle,” except the X4 is a fastback, with a roof 1.5 inches lower (63.9 inches) than the X3s, landing with coupe-y authority at a stubby aero deck. SAC, really? OK, you’re the engineer.

BMW X4 xDrive35i

BMW X4 xDrive35i

Price, as tested: $65,000

Powertrain: Turbocharged direct-injection 3.0-liter DOHC inline six-cylinder with variable valve control; eight-speed multi-mode automatic transmission; all-wheel drive

Horsepower/torque: 300 hp at 5,800-6,000 rpm/300 lb-ft from 1,200-5,000 rpm

Length/height/weight: 184.3 inches/63.9 inches/4,260 pounds

Wheelbase: 110.6 inches

0-60 mph: 5.2 seconds

EPA fuel eco: 19/27/22 mpg, cty/hgh/comb

Cargo capacity: 17.7/49.4 cubic feet (rear seats up/folded)

The slick-ification of the X3’s roofline has the expected effects: The X4 has less head room, front and rear, less rear shoulder room and less cargo capacity, though the boot is a still-generous 17.7 cubic feet (49.4 with rear seats folded). At 4,260 pounds the X4 xDrive35i is a bit heavier than the comparable X3, and it’s $2,500 ($48,000 base price) more than the X3. SAC, indeed.

I think, as an aesthetic matter, the X4 comes dangerously close to being adorable, a kind of shaved-tail, neonatal quality that happens when designers aim the shrink ray at a successful larger vehicle, in this case BMW’s midsize X6. The exterior has a lot going on at the front end, resulting in the collision of the fog-light insets and the bumper-breathing lower grille. Also, the X4 has a couple of swage lines along the fuselage with an unfortunate Mercedes-ness to them.

The why of the X4 is elusive until you climb into the driver’s seat, where a display of BMW’s handsome, rational interior experience awaits you, lined in lustrous aluminum interior trim, nice wood veneers, French stitched-leather dash and door gussets and the best switchgear in the business.

The X4 offers the choice of the company’s exemplary 2.0-liter, 240-hp turbocharged four cylinder (xDrive28i); or the suave, sonorous, rpm-blissed turbo 3.0-liter inline motor, putting out 300 hp and 300 pound-feet of torque as low as 1,200 rpm. Both engines are paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission. According to the company, the 2.0-liter reaches 60 mph in 6 seconds, while the 3.0-liter gets there in 5.2 seconds.

The X4 xDrive35i comes standard with BMW’s adroit, rear-biased all-wheel drive, with the Dynamic Stability Control baked into the software, liaising with the electric-assisted dynamic steering and smart brakes. Buyers who want more feel in handling can get dynamic suspension control.

It all starts to add up. A fully kitted example, with the M Line’s glorious Melbourne red paint, 20-inch wheels and ivory hides, priced out at $62,250 through the consumer website.

I’m not persuaded by the X4 over its siblings. The X3’s packaging is more practical, the roofline less compromised (sight lines, rear passenger ingress), and the X3 is entertaining enough to drive. The X4 is impossible not to like, taking everything good about the X3 xDrive35i and giving it a tick better center of gravity. But the why refuses to stay in focus.

Making a more aerodynamic hedgehog does not necessarily result in a better hedgehog.

The Engine of Change | Lexus NX200t AWD F Sport

If BMW’s hyper-niche X4 fastback asks the question: Why? The Lexus NX2300t prompts the question: What took so long? The midsize Lexus RX has led U.S. crossover sales practically since Toyota’s luxury division introduced it, in 1998. A baby brother seems late arriving.

Now that it is here, the actual car—built on the foundations of the Toyota RAV4—is a challenging bit of drafting, not everyone’s cup of hemlock. Indeed, for some it may require full-on grief counseling. Nearly the entire nose of the NX200t ($34,480) is taken up with the deeply graphic “spindle” grille, limned in brightwork, set between the dazzling LED light spears and narrow, remorseless headlamps. This mug is even more scornful and borderline than the one hung on the new IS and GS sedan. The F Sport version we had (out the door at $42,710) was positively Saturnine. And yet it lands right on the feisty little crossover, and I have to marvel at the fabrication required to make that metal mesh grille inset. The styling is a win.

Lexus NX200t F Sport AWD

Lexus NX200t F Sport AWD

Price, as tested: $42,710

Powertrain: Turbocharged and intercooled, DOHC, 16-valve, 2.0-liter inline four with variable valve timing (Atkinson- and Otto-cycle capable); six-speed, multimode auto trans; all-wheel drive

Horsepower/torque: 235 hp at 4,800-5,600 rpm/258 lb-ft at 1,650-4,000 rpm

Length/height/weight: 182.3 inches/64.8 inches/4,050 pounds

Wheelbase: 104.7 inches

0-60 mph: 7.0 seconds

EPA fuel eco: 21/28/24 mpg, cty/hgh/cmb (91 oct)

Cargo capacity: 17.1/54.6 cubic feet (rear seats up/folded)

Behind that grille is another bit of science fiction: a 2.0-liter, port- and direct-injected, twin-scroll turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine, a first for a Lexus. The intercooler plumbing, turbocharger and exhaust manifold are integrated into the engine’s cast-aluminum head, primarily to reduce turbo lag. Also, thanks to its broad authority over valve timing, the engine can switch between fuel sipping, low-power Atkinson-cycle combustion (like the engine in the Prius) to the more power-rich Otto-cycle, as demand requires.

The result is an engine that doesn’t really have any weakness, from low rpm to its trilling, counterbalanced redline. The 2.0 produces 235 hp from 4,800-5,600 rpm, and hits peak torque—a goodly 258 lb-ft —from as low as 1,650 to 4,000 rpm. That’s pumped through Lexus’s six-speed automatic, as slippery as a bucket of squid, out to a limited-slip front differential and half shafts.

You can up-armor your NX200t with Lexus’s clever all-wheel drive system that allows as much as 50% of drive to be shipped rearward in the event of a loss of traction at the front wheels. The Dynamic Torque Control AWD, as you might guess, modulates yaw rates with brake-based torque vectoring.

If you get all sassy with your bad self, you will order the F Sport package, which includes a harder-accelerating final gear ratio (4.11 vs. 3.88); as well as summer tires, sport-tuned suspension; paddle shifters and very swank leather seating with contrasting stitching. The F Sport package also includes an audio system that will pipe in aurally augmented engine sounds through the speakers. This raises metaphysical questions beyond the scope of our inquiry.

Lexus estimates the NX200t AWD can bundle itself to 60 mph in 7 seconds, which is very respectable energy management for a 2-ton vehicle. The other side of that coin is fuel economy: The NX200t AWD gets commendable fuel economy: 21/28/24 mpg, city/highway/combined, says the EPA.

The NX comes in three flavors: a non-turbo’ed 2.0-liter (not available in the U.S.); the turbo’ed 200t; and the NX300h, a gas-electric hybrid with a 67-hp electric motor between the wheels for dual-mode AWD.

In this segment it will need all the traction it can get.


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