The all-new Lexus entry-level crossover also has big expectations to meet.
This isn’t Lexus’s first crack at the entry level luxury vehicle game, and it hasn't always gone well. This time round though, Lexus has zeroed in on to the biggest current trend and delivered an entry level luxury compact crossover to slip into the range underneath the NX. The reigns for developing the UX were taken up by Japan’s first female chief engineer, and now Executive Vice President of Lexus International, Chika Kako. According to Kako: "The aim for the UX was not to conform to the established, solid SUV look, but to create a compact design that is both strong and stylish, breaking with the conventions of the segment to deliver something more distinctive and dynamic."
That heaps. Reading through the romanticism and conceptualism of Lexus marketing speak, the aim of the UX is to be a stylish, functional, and dynamic vehicle for the city. On top of that, Kako has a strong belief that the interior is particularly important as that’s where the driver and car connect. We are in full agreement there, but for the driver to connect with the car like that then not only does the interior have to be good but there has to be something to connect with. The car has to be good.
The model we were sent to drive for a week was the hybrid version. It was also well loaded with the highlights including the F-Sport Luxury Package, the Navigation System with 10.3-inch landscape screen as well as the Parking Assist and Rear Cross Traffic Alert options on top of the host of standard safety features.
It also arrived with the Lexus Enform subscription package that includes a suite of things you hope you'll never need such as enhanced roadside assistance, collision notification to get the driver help in case of an accident, location services for if it gets stolen, and always useful things such as real-time information on the vehicle and maintenance alerts. The suite also includes the remote app that allows you to use enabled devices to start the engine, control the climate system and door locks, as well as keep track of the vehicle if its loaned out.
The dramatic styling of the UX begs for an opinion and gets a lot of attention on the road. The hourglass grill, lightning bolt headlights, mixed with its taught and angular front end make a bold and aggressive statement while the sides flow into a more playful rear end featuring an LED light bar that runs the full width of the tailgate. The optional F-Sport package adds a body kit with revised front and rear bumpers, distinctive 18-inch wheels, and a revised grill along with fog lights and F-Sport badges.
While the F-Sport package’s appearance is strong, it’s nice to see that the UX doesn’t need the F-Sport package to be visually striking, and it’s not a downgrade to leave it off. One thing that becames apparent is how the Cadmium Orange paint plays off the contours and edges and shows the UX benefits from a bold color, even though undoubtedly we’ll mostly see white, black, and silver on the roads. Up against its German competition such as the Audi Q3, BMW X1, and Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class the UX does make them look conservative.
Inside, Lexus has pulled of its usual trick of managing to be busy but cohesive and, for the most part, has hit a home run. Build quality is excellent, and plastics all have a matte finish with the accents finished with a machined style texture. It also means none of the smudges and fingerprints that piano gloss plastics attract and it's easy to keep clean. The soft touch plastics are in the right places along with padded areas for elbows, hands and knees. The F-Sport seats are as comfortable as they are good looking, and the style is based around the traditional Japanese embroidery technique sashiko that uses geometric patterns to strengthen garments and quilting for decoration. The F-Sport and Luxury trim also adds a stitched Washi panel to the dash that adds to the layered effect.
It’s not quite perfect though. The controls are laid out well using the piano key buttons in a long row, placing the driving mode and stability control functions up either side of the gauge clusters while laying out the infotainment screen wide and thin. However, it’s clear that the designers ran out of room for things like the volume and tuning knob. Instead of being where you would expect, the basic audio controls are sat behind the touchpad control and protruding the front of the center armrest.
The audio controls are fine after getting used to them, but what became annoying is having the parking brake button tucked down on the dashboard so you have to reach for it when you park, and having to go into the infotainment screen for some of the HVAC controls. Those do become very minor quibbles though once you start having to use the awkward and laggy touchpad system that carries over from other models.
It’s clear when sitting in the UX for the first time that a lot of attention has been given to allowing the driver to adjust the seats and controls to find the perfect position. But anyone who isn’t putting the seat as far forward as it goes reveals one of the UX’s constraints. There’s very little legroom in the back and, although there is headroom, it feels claustrophobic back there with the pillar curving as it does and reaching out to close the door is awkward. Rear passengers are also set upright and it becomes uncomfortable quickly, so this is not going to be ideal unless someone is only buying a four-door just in case they very occasionally need to use the back seats.
Drivetrains for the UX come in two distinct flavors. The UX 200 is front-wheel drive and uses a 169 horsepower inline 4-cylinder engine. That's hooked up to a mechanical gearset to get the vehicle going before a continuously variable transmission (CVT) takes over. The UX 250h runs on the Lexus Hybrid Drive Powertrain with the same transmission arrangement, combining the 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder engine with two electric motors and one small electric motor-generator integrated into the rear differential. This engages to make the UX all-wheel drive when accelerating, cornering or when the stability control detects the car is on a slippery surface. Or, of course, if the driver has made an error that needs correcting before they end up falling off of the road. The net gain is an extra 10 horsepower over the UX 200 but, more importantly, an improved fuel economy and forward traction.
The UX 200 is rated by the EPA at 29 mpg city, 37 highway and 33 combined. The UX 250h is 41 mpg in the city, 38 on the highway and 39 combined. We’ve only managed 35 combined in the UX 250h but that was with only one, albeit long, highway run over the week.
There is only 17.1 cubic feet of space in the hybrid and 21.7 in the standard model. It’s a shallow space in the hybrid and also has the inconvenience of a high lift-over height. Lexus has said the UX is sized for couples, and that’s absolutely the case. Gym bags, laptop cases, and couple's worth of grocery shopping aren’t a problem but loading up a couple of kids and a weekend worth of family luggage will be.
We said earlier that for the driver to properly connect with the car through the interior, the car has to be a good one to drive. We can confirm that from the driver’s perspective it is, and particularly around town. The UX 250h is lively from a standstill and the steering has a reassuring weight without being heavy. Zipping through side streets to avoid traffic quickly showed the UX as a nimble car completely at home in the city and a wrong turn just gives an excuse to enjoy just how tight the turning circle is. The word car is an important one there as well, as the UX doesn’t feel like a crossover to drive.
With the seating position not being high and upright, unless you want it to be, and the lack of passenger space, there’s an argument to be had whether the UX is technically a crossover or a hatchback with a little extra ride height. It very much feels like and drives like a car.
Outside of the city and getting into Sport mode, the sound of the exhaust coming through the speakers was entertaining for a minute. Then, it becomes obvious how fake it is before starting to drone. It’s definitely best turned off.
The F Sport package also gives you paddles to use to shift gears. Except it’s a CVT transmission and doesn’t have gears so they’re completely redundant and don’t feel real. You don’t have to use them though, and if you ignore the paddle shifters the F-Sport tuned suspension does a great job of keeping things stable as you throw it into the bends. What it doesn’t do though is turn in particularly well at real speed, although it is fun for the occasional spirited approach to a quiet road.
A stickier set of tires might change that dramatically, but the UX is more suited to carving through a city than down a back road in the country. With Sport mode also comes a sharper and more lively throttle response that makes the UX playful and zippy to get across town with. The F Sport suspension is unforgiving for lumps and bumps and could be too much for the dedicated city dweller that has to deal with potholes, speed bumps, and ramps in and out of parking lots. However, that’s nearly always the compromise for sporty handling.
The UX 200 starts at $32,000, with the F Sport trim costing $34,000. To step up to the Luxury trim costs $37,200 and that includes added features such as heated and ventilated front seats, a moonroof, memory seat settings, power rear door with the kick sensor, auto-dimming and folding side mirrors, and rain sensing windshield wipers. The UX 250h starts at $34,000, with the Luxury trim starting at $39,200. Essentially, that means it’s an additional $2,000 to get into the hybrid version.
The 250h F Sport comes in at $36,000 and our tester with the luxury and navigation package added along with parking assist and cross traffic alert, wireless cellphone charger, windshield deicer. topped off with the premium paint, brings the sticker price to $43,450 including delivery.
Stacked up against its competitors, the UX offers its own unique flavor in a segment where big choices in compromise have to be made. Lexus has made its choices, and as a result the UX is not a family car and has no pretensions of being one. It’s clearly and squarely aimed at a focused demographic it will serve well. As an entry into luxury crossovers, Lexus has hit a home run for people not planning on starting a family anytime soon. It’s bold on the outside for those that want to stand out among the more obvious choices while the interior is excellent and connects to a car that is a lot of fun to drive.