Review: Plenty riding on shoulders of Lexus NX 200t and Lincoln MKC crossovers

The Lexus NX200t skews younger than the Lincoln MKC with its edgy styling, but that doesn't make it better

Lexus and Lincoln, the moneyed offshoots of Toyota and Ford, are the latest automakers to enter the hotly contested compact crossover segment.

But despite cooking the same dish, the Lexus NX200t and the Lincoln MKC use very different recipes.

Both are all new, aimed at the fastest-growing segment in the luxury space. Market share for compact crossovers has more than doubled since 2009, according to new vehicle registration data from Polk.

The growth will continue, as empty-nesters and young newcomers to the luxury world are drawn to the higher seating position, cargo-eating utility, smooth ride and increasing fuel economy offered by these $30,000 to $50,000 vehicles.

Each of these brands has a lot riding on its new crossovers. Lincoln, fighting to stay relevant, needs a sales hit, especially with younger buyers. Lexus, which practically invented the segment with its first RX in 1998, has been leaving money on the table for several years by not having a compact crossover.

The Lexus skews younger than the Lincoln with its edgy styling and sporty interpretation of what a compact crossover should be and do. But that doesn't necessarily make it better.

The NX's 2.0-liter inline engine makes 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. It's hooked up to a six-speed automatic transmission and standard front-wheel drive. This combination is good for a 7.2-second zero-to-60 mph run, and a 22 miles per gallon city rating and 28 mpg highway rating, Lexus says. During a week of mostly city driving, we averaged 22 mpg.

That engine provides ample power for the little NX, which is small in stature like the RAV4 it's based upon, and it does so smoothly and quietly, though its transmission is awkward and balky on the downshifts. The ride is sporty and firm, but not jarring.

The exterior may prove a hurdle for some buyers. The aggressively angled nose on the NX, riding over an extreme version of Lexus' signature spindle grille, does a great impression of a robotic anteater.

The interior includes beautifully designed front seats similar to those in the Lexus IS sedan, and the NX is more comfortable for tall adults riding in the back seats than the MKC. The two crossovers have about the same amount of cargo space, and the rear seats on both fold flat to swallow extra gear.

But the risky interior design of the Lexus is a mash-up of angles, surfaces and textures competing for attention, likely to appeal more to a young drivers who have grown up around DVD players and Wi-Fi than it will their parents.

The complex dashboard is part of a package of amenities. The model we tested came with leather, a navigation system, LED headlights, collision-warning system, blind-spot monitoring, heated and cooled front seats, a moon roof, a wireless charger and power tailgate.

Pricing on the NX200t starts at $35,405. All-wheel drive is a $1,400 option, and the 300h hybrid starts at $40,645. The model we tested costs $44,275.

More conservative crossover customers will prefer the Lincoln MKC, and may be willing to spend a little extra to own one. Maybe that's why Lincoln is using new spokesman Matthew McConaughey to sell it.

Though the MKC is based on the Ford Escape, Lincoln did an excellent job of making it a truly luxurious vehicle. The smooth ride, eager engine and plush interior combine to create a crossover that's a study in serenity.

The base MKC features front-wheel drive and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine with power similar to the Lexus.

The model we tested boasts a 2.3-liter, EcoBoost four-cylinder power plant ripped out of the new Ford Mustang. In the Lincoln, it makes 285 horsepower and 305 pound-feet of torque and is hooked up to a six-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive.

This AWD model is rated at 18 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway. We averaged 20.5 mpg in a week of mixed driving.

This engine does everything right and has more than enough power for daily driving. The transmission is decent, though it gets a little frantic in sport mode and changes gears too often.

Like all MKCs with AWD, this one included adaptive, adjustable suspension with three modes. Though it won't dance like the Lexus and its seats won't love you like those in the NX, the MKC is plenty capable and responsive.

The cabin's clean layout is straightforward and intuitive. (Though, at this price point, it relies too heavily on flat plastics.) Lincoln bowed to critical and consumer pressure and replaced the useless touch-sensitive panels on earlier models with knobs and buttons for the stereo and climate control.

There's a lot to control. Our loaded model, with dreamy soft leather seats and a massive panoramic moon roof, included a full suite of tech-based safety features like adaptive cruise control, self-parking and pre-collision braking.

Outside, the Lincoln's styling is crisp and handsome. The split-wing grille and squinty headlights have been slapped on numerous recent Lincoln cars and crossovers, but the look finally feels mature on the MKC. This is the best-looking Lincoln in at least a decade, and it sets a promising course for future products.

The MKC starts at $33,995, but goes up fast. Upgrading to the 2.3 liter EcoBoost engine adds $1,140 to that MSRP. The model we tested costs $49,465.

Will consumers have trouble choosing between the two? Probably not, despite competing in the same segment. A Venn diagram for the Lincoln MKC and the Lexus NX 200t would have very little overlap.

But if it's our signature on the check and we're forced to pick one of these two, it's the Lincoln.

Sedate and confident, the MKC doesn't need McConaughey's help. It's plenty good at selling itself.

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