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The Lexus NX300 F Sport 3 and Infiniti QX50 Autograph.

Jeremy sinek

The births of Lexus and Infiniti 30 years ago didn’t just challenge the European luxury-car establishment, they also marked the beginning of a long-running rivalry between the two upstart Japanese brands.

Judging by their sales, it seems Lexus has done better with its pursuit of traditional, conservative luxury, while Infiniti has engaged enthusiasts with pioneering technology (drive-by-wire steering, for instance) and sportier dynamics.

Do these differences apply here? We borrowed the respective brands’ entries in the hot compact-crossover category and let them go head to head.

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Infiniti QX50

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  • Price: $44,490 base; $57,990 as tested
  • Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo
  • Transmission/drive: Continuously-variable automatic/all-wheel
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.0 city/7.8 highway

Lexus NX300

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  • Price: $44,050 base; $57,200 as tested
  • Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo
  • Transmission/drive: Six-speed automatic/all-wheel
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.8 city/8.9 highway

Looks

The Infiniti offers 20-inch wheels on the top-level Autograph trim.

Jeremy sinek/The Globe and Mail

Infiniti: Both vehicles have their own versions of deeply sculpted body sides, with the QX’s unique styling cue being its rear “crescent-cut” D-pillar treatment. The test car’s top-drawer Autograph trim includes 20-inch wheels.

The spindle grille clearly identifies the NX as a Lexus.

Jeremy sinek

Lexus: While the NX has its own sharper take on body-side sculpting, the bold spindle grille is what tells you it’s a Lexus. Surprisingly, even fully loaded with the F Sport Series 3 package, the NX’s wheels are no bigger than 18 inches.

Interior

The QX50's interior benefits from suede and open-grain wood finishes.

Jeremy sinek

Infiniti: The QX50 feels spacious and airy at the wheel and provides the lofty seating position we expect but don’t always get in an SUV. It also has one of the segment’s roomier back seats (though adult occupants may find the sitting position rather knees-up). The decor makes attractive use of materials such as open-grain wood and suede, but the secondary controls are a confusing mix of two screens, scattered buttons and a twist-toggle-and-tap controller. A compact toggle-style shifter frees up centre-console storage space.

The dark colours of the NX's interior give it a more sports-car-like feel.

Jeremy sinek

Lexus: In contrast, the NX’s cockpit feels more intimate and sports-car-like, an effect enhanced by the dark trim colours. You sit quite low behind a prominent, jutting dashboard, and although there’s generous rearward seat-travel to accommodate lanky legs, headroom is below par. The free-standing display screen (10.3-inch on higher trims) is high and centre on the dashboard, with the heating and air-conditioning controls well-placed just below, but we’re not a fan of the touchpad controller. The shifter is a conventional lever. The rear seat is less roomy than the Infiniti’s, with a similar knees-up posture.

Performance

The QX50 accelerates in a non-linear, sag-and-surge manner when driving in the city.

Jeremy sinek

Infiniti: The QX50’s variable-compression engine is unique and a laudable feat of engineering. But it doesn’t deliver a correspondingly unique experience on the road. Acceleration is competitive but not standout, and its modest fuel-economy advantage in official tests is not apparent in real-world driving. To its credit, the engine is extremely smooth and runs with a distinctive ringing tone that takes on a pleasing urgency when you boot it. But the combination of a continuously variable transmission and variable-compression-ratio engine, not to mention turbo lag, causes non-linear, sag-then-surge progress in city driving.

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The Lexus has a softer and more natural drive than its rival.

Jeremy sinek

Lexus: The Lexus’s test-track 6.9-second, zero-to-97-kilometres-an-hour time places it among the also-rans in its peer group, though it’s closer to the QX (6.5 seconds) than you’d expect, given its 33-horsepower deficit and old-tech six-speed transmission. While the NX’s deficit of ratios may hamper acceleration, the driving feel of its traditional stepped-ratio transmission is a bonus; the NX’s 2.0-litre turbo “four” sounds pleasant enough, though not as silky as the QX’s, and its voice coarsens when you work it hard. Sedate drivers will prefer the softer ride and the natural feel of the NX’s conventional steering over the sharper feel of the drive-by-wire steering option on the QX50 test sample.

Technology

The QX50's infotainment features are spread across a two-screen interface.

Jeremy sinek

Infiniti: Comparing driver-assist and tele-communi-tainment features can be a minefield, but Infiniti appears to one-up the Lexus with available ProPilot Assist, which includes active lane-following (though the need to keep a hand on the wheel reduces it to little more than a party trick), and backup-collision intervention. We don’t see CarPlay or Android Auto on the menu, but the two-screen interface does come with Infiniti InTouch Services with six months of safety, security and convenience services.

The NX's touchscreen has Apple CarPlay compatibility.

Jeremy sinek

Lexus: The Lexus may not go quite as far down the autonomous-driving road as Infiniti, but it covers off most of the same “alert-and-avert” technologies like stop-and-go adaptive cruise, lane-departure assist, precollision system with pedestrian alert, automatic braking and active steering-assist. The 10.3-inch screen works with CarPlay, while Enform App Suite 2.0 is Lexus’s version of Infiniti InTouch.

Cargo

The QX is near the top of its category in cargo space.

Jeremy sinek

Infiniti: The QX is rated to contain 31.4 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 65.1 with the seat folded – both numbers near the top of its category. The sliding rear seat may mean there’s a gap in the seats-folded deck, but the extension is flush and flat. There’s also some hidden storage below the rear deck.

The NX falls far short of the QX50 in cargo volume.

Jeremy sinek

Lexus: The NX isn’t just slightly smaller than the QX, it also has a surprisingly high cargo deck. Combine that with a slightly lower roofline, and its seats-up cargo volume is just 17.7 cu. ft. – barely more than half the QX’s. The seats-folded volume, 54.6 cu. ft., is four-fifths that of its rival’s.

Verdict

The Infiniti’s novel engine technology doesn’t offer much advantage in reality, but over all, the vehicle delivers more for the money than the Lexus; it’s roomier, faster, sharper-handling and available with more technology and richer trim choices. If you don’t need the QX50’s extra space, the Lexus offers more traditional technology, a less edgy driving experience and a plusher ride.

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