CAPE TOWN – The longstanding compact model hole at the bottom of Lexus crossover line-up has finally been filled by the striking new UX, but is there enough substance behind its bold styling to woo younger buyers away from the raft of boutique crossovers already prolific in our market? We sample the UX200 F Sport to find out.

What is it?

Spun off the Toyota Group’s TNGA-C platform, which also does duty in the likes of the Toyota C-HR and new Corolla, the UX slots in below its midsize NX sibling, forming a gateway to the firm’s SUV offerings. Aimed squarely at the likes of Audi Q3, Jaguar E-Pace, Mercedes-Benz GLA, BMW X1 and Volvo XC40, the UX trades on a diverse model line-up comprising standard EX, F Sport and hybrid variants.

It’s no shrinking violet

Lexus has done an admirable job of distancing itself from the design norms that characterise its German rivals and eked out an aesthetic language that’s both Nipponese-quirky and upmarket. That sizeable spindle grille which, in the case of the F Sport, features a converging chevron-effect mesh and is flanked by slimline LED headlamps with L-shaped details again dominates the nose. The obligatory black cladding for the lower body and wheel arches is present and correct, and forms a chunky, functional contrast to the soft swage lines and curved roof. Perhaps the most prominent cosmetic feature sits out back; an eye-catching ribbon of brakelamp that drapes ever-so-slightly over the rear haunches is the latest development in Lexus’ styling and will likely begin to filter through to other upcoming models.

The cabin feels classy

The UX’s cabin utilises a driver-centric layout that sites the majority of controls in a close arc around the driver. In the F Sport, the instrument binnacle hosts a TFT display for the speedometer and other ancillaries, while a 10,25-inch infotainment screen crowns the tiered dash. Build quality is exactly what you’d expect of a Lexus, being solid and intricately crafted, and the sports seats are well bolstered without proving constrictive. Although its 2 640 mm wheelbase is about par with most of its rivals’, there’s a decent amount of rear legroom, even if the thin rear glazing and dark trim make it feel a bit pokey back there. Boot space is reasonable, rather than cavernous, with a pair of thoroughly loaded backpacks eating up most of the space on offer.

What’s it like to drive?

Well, on paper there are two potential bones of contention with the UX’s powertrain. First is the adoption of relatively large (2,0-litre), naturally aspirated engines in a segment increasingly occupied by small turbos. And then there are the three letters that often sound the death knell to any semblance of fun driving ... CVT. Thankfully, Lexus’ engineers have at least remedied the latter. The D-CVT ‘box utilises a small torque converter unit for the first gear to counter some of the pull-away lethargy often associated with belt-driven transmissions. It does seem to work, with the UX pulling away cleanly and reacting quickly to throttle inputs off the mark. Once up to speed, the standard CVT unit chimes in and things become a bit more elastic, throttling a bit of the 126 kW and 205 N.m on offer, especially under hard acceleration.

Dynamically, the UX proves a pleasingly balanced package; despite rolling on 18-inch rims, the F Sport’s adaptive damping system does a good job of serving up a supple ride while keeping body lean well in check. The steering, although light, feels precise and responsive, and conspires with that respectable body control to make the UX feel fairly nimble. Less spirited driving reveals the UX to be a refined cruiser, with road and mechanical noise well suppressed at motorway speeds.

Specced to the gills

Even in base-level EX specification, the Lexus UX is a well-equipped car, with the likes of keyless entry and ignition, climate control, sat-nav and wireless phone charging among the number. Going the F Sport route adds a healthy amount of extras to the list, including a 13-speaker Mark Levinson audio system, electrically adjustable leather-upholstered sports seats, powered tailgate and adaptive suspension. F Sport specification also ushers in Lexus’ Safety System+ suite of safety features. This includes adaptive cruise control, auto high-beam assist, lane-departure and blind-spot warnings, a parking support system and a full array of airbags and brake assistance systems. A maintenance plan and warranty, both spanning seven years, are also part of the package.

Verdict

The UX is a polished and dynamically balanced package with just enough cosmetic variety to lift it away from the jacked-up-hatchback trap into which many crossovers tend to fall. Yes, the powertrain isn’t perfect and that low ground clearance and FWD drivetrain mean you won’t be venturing far off sealed roads, but as an engaging, refined and distinctive member of the premium crossover fold, it has all the requisites to do well for Lexus, albeit against some stiff competition.