Luxury Japanese carmaker Lexus is claiming a world-first patent for the design of the door handles on its new SUV, the hybrid NX – but you won’t find a word about it in the New Zealand press release. The Lexus marketing people at parent Toyota’s compound in Palmerston North somehow overlooked the ground-breaking design, which reportedly took engineers in Japan three years to perfect. Forgetting the important little things is something that ‘Palmy’ benefactor ‘Pam’ wouldn’t have done, ‘Pam’ being the nickname of the fellow after whom Palmerston North is named.The Third Viscount Palmerston, or Henry John Temple, was a 19th century British Prime Minister, a stickler for detail and the architect of many social reforms. ‘Pam’ once gave a speech that lasted five hours. Heaven forbid that the Lexus people should do that, although the NX press release hints at grand-standing. It says: “The NX combines great design with an engaging driving experience that mixes on-road agility with spacious practicality.” Oh dear! And the vehicle has only just arrived New Zealand, too. Although Lexus claims that 58 of the 60 NX models due before Christmas have already been sold. So what are these door handles all about? They are one of a number of clever design touches in the NX that can be called ‘feel-good’ factors. Take the interior cabin lights, for example – they’re touch-sensitive, thus removing the need for switches. Touch them once and the lights come on; touch them again and the lights go off. It’s a Japanese process known in English as ‘sensory engineering’, where emotional values such as ‘fun’ and ‘beauty’ are a higher priority than the traditional engineering indices. Lexus’ designers and engineers wanted to craft a seamless handle, one without the noticeable visual imperfections of a keyhole or electronic door-opening button. An electronic button is still there but you have to look closely to see it. It is almost as if Lexus wanted to camouflage the colour-coded handles against the bodywork. The ‘sensory engineering’ bit kicks in as soon as you grab any of the handles. A line of LEDs around each one’s top edge lights up, telling the touch-sensitive cabin lights to instantly do the same. Lexus says this alone gives the NX “an overall sense of harmony that expresses hospitality.” Open the tailgate and the boot lights up too. It’s on the driver’s side where engineers toiled for three years. Pull the grab handle out by a few centimetres and hidden behind it on the fixed part of the door release is the keyhole, angled slightly towards the ground. Why, you might ask, would Lexus want to do that when pretty much everyone else is adopting keyless entry. The keyhole is there for emergencies, for instance if the electronics die. Slide out the key from the fob and open the door. It’s fiddly but it works. Says NX chief engineer Takeaki Kato: “Each individual item that makes up the NX has endless passion poured into it. The door handle with its hidden key barrel and integrated lighting represents another first for Lexus.” Kato set out to ensure that everything about the NX was fuss-free. For example, his engineers spent ages adjusting the engine mounts to quieten vibration on start-up to one-tenth of what Toyota accepts. They called the refinement programme ‘microscopic force control’, and studied how the movement of windscreen wipers created body shake, how differences in tyre tread effected vehicle geometry. The mid-size NX is the vehicle Lexus has needed for some time to challenge the likes of the Audi Q5 and BMW X3, among others. It is beautifully refined inside and built on a touched-up version of the mass-market Toyota RAV4 platform.
No problem there, carmakers these days use virtual reality software to find all sorts of uses for the one platform. The model that has just launched in NZ is the 300h. There are three variants: the 300h ($81,900) is front-wheel drive, the 300h F Sport ($95,900) and 300h Limited ($95,900) are all-wheel drive. Under the bonnet is a 2.5-litre four-cylinder Atkinson cycle petrol engine mated to an electric motor and generator, a package delivering 145kW/210Nm. Lexus claims town-and-around fuel use of 5.7 litres/100km (50mpg) and CO² emissions of 131-133g/km. Come the new year one and there will be another NX variant, the non-hybrid 200t. The little ‘t’ stands for ‘turbo’ and denotes a boosted 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine generating 175kW/350Nm, considerably more oomph than the 300h. The 200t is the first Atkinson cycle turbocharged engine, one insisted upon by engineer Kato for the NX. Lexus claims fuel use of 7.7-litres/100km (38mpg) and a CO² emissions figure of 178-184g/km. Prices for the NX200t rnage will be known in the New Year.
- ‘Pam’ left a trail of social firsts, many of them good. He ended the shipping of convicts to penal colony Tasmania; made it possible for juvenile criminals to go to reform school instead of jail; helped push through compulsory vaccination for children; introduced a law that stopped employers paying workmen in goods instead of money; paved the way for the courts instead of the church to grant divorces. Not so good was his stand against the British working class getting the vote; his womanising (The Times nicknamed him ‘Lord Cupid’ before he married his mistress); or his opposition to home rule for Ireland. He feared losing to republicans the vast estate he had inherited in County Sligo. Queen Victoria never liked him; but Florence Nightingale did, publicly mourning his death in October 1865, two days before his 81st birthday.