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The 2017 Lexus NX200t is the best value in the subcompact luxury SUV segment

Mack Hogan | CNBC
Key Points
  • The Lexus NX200t offers the best value in the cross-over SUV segment.
  • It's sharp looking and offers a luxury interior
  • It also doesn't sacrifice as much as other vehicles in the segment

The world of subcompact luxury SUVs is new and, typically, most cars in the category are disappointing. Luxury carmakers, in their attempts to bring their brands downmarket and to appeal to a younger audience, often dilute the very things their brands stand for in the first place.

The same, I assumed, was true of the Lexus NX. On paper, it isn't overly well equipped or particularly well-powered. Its humble roots are shared with the Toyota RAV4, a car not known for its luxurious character. And carrying a sticker of $40,773, my tester wasn't even particularly well equipped.

So I was expecting a dumbed-down version of the Lexus experience, a futile attempt to bring the brand closer to the millennial buyer.

Boy, was I wrong.

Exterior: Your alien monster awaits, sir

Mack Hogan | CNBC

I'm starting to quite like the Lexus spindle grill. I know, I know. Call it Stockholm syndrome. Maybe it just wore me down. Either way, I'm digging the look and I'm only slightly afraid to admit that on paper.

I especially like the new design language in expressive colors, and my car's "blue vortex" metallic hue did a fantastic job highlighting the creases of the bodywork. Plus, there's plenty of metallic flake in the paintwork to make the car look even more dramatic in direct light.

Mack Hogan | CNBC

The only angle I'm not sold on is the front three quarter's view, where it looks too pointy and shark-like for its own good. If that's a deal breaker, you can always step up to the F Sport model which comes with an entirely different, vacuum-cleaner-of-death look.

Two completely different front ends should help ensure that you find one you like, but styling on both is controversial.

I'd like to give the NX five stars here, but a truly great design wouldn't be nearly as contentious — some people truly hate the look of this thing. It looks good, but it's not one of the greats.

Interior: Nice to sit in, not to use

Mack Hogan | CNBC

The two-tiered dashboard is a different approach, looking unique in a segment that often comes up bland. It's not the most beautiful setup by any stretch, but material quality is excellent and the car exudes quality.

The seats in my tester were NuLuxe, Lexus' fake leather substitute. Many in the industry aren't fans of synthetic leather, but I almost always find it feels and wears better than low-quality, genuine leather. I'm particularly fond of NuLuxe, which is soft and luxurious feeling.

But the whole experience becomes soured when you use Lexus's ill-conceived entertainment system. While Lexus cars of yore used a mouse-based system, the NX200t features the newer touchpad systems.

Mack Hogan | CNBC

Trying to pick between the mouse and trackpad systems is like picking between multiple bacterial infections. I'd like neither, please and thank you.

The problem is that the trackpad snaps to the closest menu option, but then floats freely on certain screens, like in the navigation app. You can never accurately predict how it's going to behave, and using it while driving is an excellent and efficient way to cause an accident.

Driving experience: The Lexus experience, for less cash

Mack Hogan | CNBC

This is where it all starts to make sense. Though I've never had the opportunity to fully review this car's prime competitors, I have spent some seat time in the Mercedes GLA and BMW X1. Those cars always left me home, because they felt like the companies had sacrificed their core values to hit a price point.

For example, since the BMW X1 made the switch to a front-wheel-drive architecture, it's hard to call it an "ultimate driving machine" with a straight face. Lexus, though, has effectively brought the brand downmarket without destroying the experience.

Mack Hogan | CNBC

The NX200t has the characteristic Lexus smoothness, with superb ride quality over rough pavement and a quiet ride at freeway speeds. The only chink in its armor is a bit of busyness in the suspension when you get near and above 70 miles per hour, but that's mostly a factor of the shortened wheelbase.

While Lexus is moving towards active safety equipment as standard, the NX is one of the last cars to get the treatment. As such, my car lacked any advanced safety features — even blind spot monitoring wasn't optioned on this particular example. If these features are important to you, which I think they should be, I'd wait until the 2018 model year when they're set to become standard kit.

Finally, I was disappointed in the fuel economy. Even with a pint-sized, 2.0-liter turbo engine, the NX200t I tested managed a meager 20 miles per gallon over a week of mixed highway/city driving. For a car this small, that's unnecessarily thirsty.

Value: Full-fat luxury at a cut-rate price

Mack Hogan | CNBC

What I really enjoyed about the NX was the fact that I never felt like I was being punished for taking the cheap seats. Sit in a base GLA, and it's very clear that Mercedes wants you to aspire to a higher model in the range. But my NX, though nearly base, never felt like a budget option.

It rode well, it was equipped with most of the technology you want every day and it always felt high quality. I'd be a bit more generous with the option-box ticking if I was doing the ordering, but pound-for-pound I think the NX is the best value in the segment.

Final thoughts

Mack Hogan | CNBC

I had almost no expectations for the NX200t, and I came away deeply impressed by what Lexus has done here.

To grow, luxury brands need to keep striving for younger and more niche audiences. That Lexus has found a way to do that without diluting what it stands for — luxurious ride, quiet manners and impeccable quality — is deeply important to the future of the brand.

It's a fantastic car.

You can use the money you save over a German car to enroll in anger management, as the infotainment system demands extreme patience. If you can get over that, and the controversial styling, I can't think of a reason not to get one.

Exterior: 4
Interior: 3
Driving Experience: 4
Value: 5
Overall: 4

Price as configured: $40,773

Mack Hogan | CNBC
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