STOCKHOLM, Sweden — If you’re like me, you’ve probably been wondering what the heck’s been going on at Lexus the past few years, what with the giant spindle grilles, Death Star interiors, stiffened suspensions, and all the other ways you can experience amazing. The 2019 Lexus UX may finally provide us with some answers. Its all-new, entry-level crossover seemingly pulls most of these threads together into one neat bow.
The UX, which replaces the CT as least-expensive vehicle in the Lexus lineup, is aimed at young buyers, meaning young by human demographics (under 35) as opposed to Lexus demographics (under 85. We kid, sort of). While it has similar underpinnings and dimensions to another youth-oriented compact crossover in the Toyota universe, the CH-R, the UX gets additional welding and adhesives to further solidify its structure. Also like the CH-R, the UX 200 will be front-drive only. The UX 250h hybrid, however, is all-wheel-drive-ish. It has an electrically-powered rear axle similar to that of the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, but it only works up to 45 mph. That’ll be a bit of a mind-bender for some of us—myself included—so we’ll let those thoughts percolate for a few minutes and talk about styling.
If you can get over the spindle grille as I believe I have, then you’re likely to find the UX an attractive vehicle. Its sheet metal is adorned with just the right number of black-plastic-clad slashes, with more black plastic on the fender arches to give it the SUV-ish feel that its long-and-low hatchback profile wouldn’t otherwise provide. Overall it has the look of a baby Lexus NX, which I’m 98 percent sure is what the designers were going for. Color choices are notably vibrant, including bright blue, arrest-me red, and an intriguing (if slightly unsettling) metallic olive green.
The interior might not appeal to those who subscribe to the wood-and-leather school of luxury, but there are serious improvements over other Lexus models. Instead of buttons for the climate controls, the UX employs piano-style toggles which are easy to identify and use. Audio controls now consist of tiny buttons and dials grouped around a palm rest on the center console. Unconventional? Not necessarily; Mazda and Mercedes put their audio controls on the center armrest as well. Like the air conditioner, I found this system intuitive and easy to use, and I like how it allows for the dash to be de-cluttered. Unfortunately, the UX still uses the Lexus Remote Touch interface, a finger-tip touchpad for the infotainment system that I have grown to loathe (there is no way to use it without staring at the screen, when your eyes should be on the road). Apple CarPlay is standard, but Android users are out of luck. (The explanation? Some 80 percent of Lexus customers use Apple phones.)
While all UXs feature a black dash, there are several bright color choices for the upholstery, all with color-coordinated stitching on the dash and shifter boot. The dash top is textured to resemble washi, a traditional Japanese paper. All in all, this is one of the better cabins in the Lexus lineup.
Enough about how it looks; let’s talk about how it drives. The UX follows the ethos of other recent Lexus models, with a suspension that can find its way around the corners with surprising rapidity but doesn’t seem to enjoy it much. There are plenty of positives: Good grip (helped by the summer tires on our European-spec cars; U.S.-bound models will get all-seasons, but the suspension tuning is the same), good control of body movement, and excellent bump absorption—all with a steady and comfortable ride. F-Sport models have stiffer shocks, a stiffer rear stabilizer bar, and a body-mounted “performance damper,” but I didn’t notice much difference between it and the regular UX. Overall, I found the driving experience to be pleasant, but I can’t say I had a whole lot of fun.
Actually, that’s a fib: I did have a lot of fun, because I was driving through the Swedish countryside blasting ABBA on the Mark Levinson stereo (which, for reasons not quite properly explained, will not be offered on U.S.-spec cars). All I’m saying is that the UX’s handling, competent as it was, was not nearly as strong a contributing factor to my stupid grin on my face as were “Mamma Mia” and “SOS.” To be clear, I can’t fault the UX’s driving dynamics; I just can’t get enthusiastic about them.
The narrow streets of Stockholm drove home the point about the UX being a good city dweller, however. This is a surprisingly tight and tidy car, all the more remarkable because it doesn’t feel at all cramped on the inside. The steering is light and the turning circle is very tight, which came in handy when I made the inevitable wrong turn and wound up exploring a Swedish industrial park. (Much to my disappointment, they look much like industrial parks anywhere else.)
The gasoline-powered UX 200 gets the same powertrain as the Toyota Corolla Hatchback, with a 168-hp 2.0-liter naturally-aspirated four and a continuously-variable automatic tranny. The latter features a real-live low gear, an ingenious idea that eliminates the rubber-bandy-feel of a CVT under hard, low-speed acceleration. When speeds rise and loads lighten, the transmission shifts to the CVT’s pulleys. It’ a setup that provides snappy, responsive starts then lets the CVT get on with its fuel-saving job.
The UX 250h deploys an Atkinson-cycle version of the 2.0-liter engine mated to the Toyota (er, Lexus) Hybrid Synergy Drive and an additional electric motor driving the rear wheels. But the AWD system only works at low speeds—power to the rear axle begins to ramp down at about 6 mph and falls to zero by 45 mph.
Acceleration from both powertrains is adequate. Lexus claims 0-60 times of 8.9 seconds for the UX 200 and 8.6 seconds for the UX 250h. Off-the-line response feels fine, but passing a Volkswagen Golf plodding along at 70 (km/h, that is) whitened my knuckles more than I would have liked.
The UX’s biggest fault may be cargo space, or rather the lack thereof. I’d love to say the UX is sized for parking rather than packing, except that I already used that zinger in an article about the Corolla hatchback. Cargo space is identical in both 200 and 200h models—the hybrid’s battery pack is under the back seat—but the trunk floor is extraordinarily high. I expected to find hidden storage space under the floor, but no such luck. The rake of the hatch lid limits how much you can pack in, and big suitcases will require folding the rear seats. No wonder Lexus says the UX is sized for couples—if you have young kids, things would get cramped in a hurry.
Lexus has priced the entry-level UX 200 at $33,025 (including a $1,025 destination fee) with the hybrids going for $2,000 more. The two UX models will be available with Premium, Luxury, and F-Sport packages that up the equipment levels and the price. Lexus also plans to dip its toe into the subscription space with Lexus Complete Lease, which will give buyers in Boston, Chicago, L.A., and Miami (for starters) a chance to obtain a UX with leasing costs, insurance, and maintenance all rolled up into one yet-to-be-announced monthly payment.
Quick it isn’t; pulse-quickening it isn’t; and practical it may not be, but at the end of a day of driving I was surprised by how much I ended up liking the little Lexus UX. It helps that this is the first new Lexus with styling that I really get, and I’m impressed by how the designers have executed the idea of Lexus-style luxury in a small, efficient package. Competition is sparse at the moment, primarily the Infiniti QX30 and Mercedes-Benz GLA near-twins, the prices of which neatly bracket that of the UX. In my opinion, the UX’s youthful decor puts the significantly-cheaper Mazda CX-3 in the running as well. If Lexus can find buyers willing to spend entry-level-luxury money for a small SUV—and who don’t mind driving the same brand of car as their grandparents—I predict a bright future for the new UX.
2019 Lexus UX 200 and UX 250h Specifications
|ON SALE||December 2018 (UX 200), January 2019 (UX 250h)|
|ENGINE||2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4 /168 hp @ 6,600 rpm, 151 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm (UX 200); 2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4/143 hp @ 6,000 rpm plus 3 permanent-magnet electric motors (UX 250h)|
|TRANSMISSION||Continuously-variable with low gear (UX 200), power-split planetary (UX 250h)|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD/AWD crossover SUV|
|L x W x H||177.0 x 72.4 x 60.6 in|
|0-60 MPH||8.6-8.9 sec (est)|
|BATTERY||Nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH), 24 kW|