STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Lexus has long been a purveyor of fine SUVs. The first RX, for example, was launched 20 years ago just as the market for premium crossovers exploded and every manufacturer scrambled for a slice of this profitable pie. In 2014, soon after the RX entered its fourth (current) generation, it introduced the NX, a rival for the Audi Q5, BMW X3 and Mercedes-Benz GLC.
However, with sales shifting to the smaller end of the market and the Q3, X1 and GLA drawing buyers in their droves, Toyota’s luxury arm was left without a suitable contender. Enter the UX, which sits on the GA-C version of the Toyota New Global Architecture that’s impressed us under the scalloped skins of the Prius and C-HR, introduces two new powerplants and condenses the brand’s intricate design language into its most concentrated form.
When the UX hits local Lexus dealerships in January 2019, we’ll be offered both powertrain options – a 2,0-litre, naturally aspirated unit in the 200 and a variation on that engine, coupled with an electric drivetrain, in the 250h – in EX, SE and F Sport trim levels and both coupled with a continuously variable transmission.
We were afforded the opportunity to drive launch vehicles running the gamut of permutations and, for once, I’d argue the hybrid is the one to go for. But more on that later, because no discussion on the UX can start without assessing its design.
Looks ... interesting
Like all recent Lexus models, in appearance the UX is a love-or-leave-it affair. A riot of swathes and character lines punctuate the compact body (it measures just short of 4,5 metres long; think C-HR in terms of overall dimensions and you’re not far off).
Up front, there’s the classic Lexus spindle grille featuring intricate elements that radiate out in size and shape from the central emblem. Opt for an F Sport variant and the grille consists of individual L-shaped pieces that are integrated into a bespoke bumper featuring more L-shapes in the chrome foglamp moulds.
My favourite frontal features, however, are the headlamps, which boast LED lighting in single-projector form as standard and a petite three-unit design as an option.
Round back, a single taillamp assembly stretches the width of the vehicle and contains 120 LEDs that taper inward to a width of just 3 mm. Along the flanks, meanwhile, there are prominent swipes emanating from the wheelarches (housing 17- or 18-inch wheels) that, Lexus says, guards the body against debris thrown up by the tyres and lessens turbulence and vehicle lift at speed.
Great materials, ho-hum space
Jump inside and the cabin architecture could belong only to a Lexus. Representatives of the brand, which included chief engineer (the first woman to hold the position) and executive vice president of Lexus International, Chika Kako, stressed how a UX should feel less like an SUV and more closely resemble a conventional hatchback thanks to low hip and heel points in the driver’s seat. Whether buyers who like an elevated seating position will warm to that approach is another matter, but they’ll definitely appreciate the quality of the construction and finishes.
The designers of this interior had some fun, too. The flat expanse of dashboard can be trimmed in a material inspired by the grain of Japanese paper, washi, which is used in traditional homes. It looks fabulous in cobalt blue, complementing the white and cobalt leather on the electrically adjustable seats (six-way manual toggling is standard on base versions).
In terms of display tech, a seven-inch instrument screen is standard (F Sport variants gain an extra inch in a design first seen on the LFA supercar) and supplements a 10,25-inch central display when linked to navigation. The clarity of the displays is exceptional and the menus easier than ever to understand, but it’s a pity Lexus persists with its Remote Touch Interface trackpad, which is simply not as intuitive as rival systems. Sited behind said pad is a hand rest surrounded by volume controls and shortcuts to the audio functions.
On the topic of audio, as standard UXs will feature a six-speaker system with USB ports fore and aft. This system can be swapped for an eight-speaker version or a 13-speaker Mark Levinson option with a 668 W amplifier. Its sound quality is exceptional.
Unfortunately, the rest of the interior isn’t quite up to scratch. Despite sitting on a competitive 2 640 mm wheelbase, rear legroom is tight and access compromised by small door openings. Headroom, at least, is sufficient for my 1,85-metre frame. The boot, likewise, is minute; no official measurement is claimed, but to my eyes it looked too shallow for family duties.
New tech, old-school feel
But that might not be the biggest hindrance to sales; I suspect the brand-new 2,0-litre engine under the stubby bonnet might dissuade some buyers. Thanks to laser-clad intake valve seats, a high compression ratio (13,0 to 1) and direct injection, Lexus claims this is one of the most efficient engines of its displacement. Which is excellent news if your sole requirement is for your car to be light on fuel.
Buyers of boutique crossovers surely expect some zest, too, and it’s here where the 2,0-litre comes a cropper. Despite the transmission boasting a mechanical gear set employed when pulling away before handing over duties to the CVT – a system that works rather well – the engine feels lethargic, necessitating a heavier foot on the throttle, which in turns sends the revs soaring and hurting the otherwise stellar refinement (and, ironically, fuel consumption).
But the hybrid shows promise...
And that’s why the 250h is the more appealing choice. It has a combined system output of 130 kW thanks to a petrol engine coupled with two electric motor-generators mounted on separate axes rather than inline. The petrol engine can be switched off at speeds of up to 115 km/h, but kicks in unobtrusively when called upon to supplement the electric powertrain. The result is strong, linear acceleration, less noise and less vibration filtered through to the cockpit.
It’s a pity Lexus hasn’t equipped the UX with a more appealing base engine – what about the excellent 1,2-litre turbopetrol from the C-HR? – because the chassis showed real promise on Stockholm’s varying road surfaces. There’s a definite firmness to both models (the F Sport rides on the larger run-flat tyres and has Lexus’ Adaptive Variable Suspension as standard) and I’d like to experience the UX locally to make a definitive verdict on whether the tuning is too taut, but both the normal and F Sport units exhibited good body control and a neutral chassis balance. The electric power steering system is devoid of feel, but is consistently weighted and makes it easy to place the vehicle on congested streets.
In terms of safety – and depending on the model – the UX features eight airbags, pre-collision warning, pedestrian detection, lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise control, among other features.
So, considering the wealth of talent in this burgeoning market segment, has Lexus done enough to ensure the UX will creep onto buyers’ shortlists in 2019? In many of the important ways, yes – the cabin is beautiful to look at, tactile to touch and its infotainment tech is competitive; the exterior looks unlike that of any competitor, so exclusivity is guaranteed; plus it’s a satisfying steer, feeling light on its feet yet solid – but I predict the engine options will be a deterrent to some.
The hybrid is a good one but will likely be priced towards to the upper end of the market when the UX arrives in January, while the UX200 suffers from an ordinary drivetrain. If priced competitively, though, coupled with what’s likely to be strong standard spec, the striking UX may just make an impact in this style-conscious segment of the market.