Lexus UX 2019 first drive What do you get for your money?

Lexus has finally succeeded in making a small car fun.

You wouldn’t have thought it possible after the turgid CT200h hatchback, but that dated hybrid is now last decade’s scraps in comparison to the all-new Lexus UX crossover.

Positioned between the eight-year-old CT and the also-dated, old-RAV4-based NX wagon, the UX rides on Toyota’s new-generation GA-C platform that underpins the charming C-HR, impressive new-gen Corolla and the reigning Drive Car of the Year champion, the Camry. And like those transformative Toyotas, the UX brings class-competitive dynamics and a level of driver appeal completely foreign to every affordable Lexus besides the IS sedan.

The UX is also a complete rejection of wallflower automotive design, though this deliberately polarising aesthetic isn’t for the faint-hearted. With more styling creases than a topographic map of Venus, it favours ‘shockingly modern’ over ‘classically elegant’ and, for the first time ever, makes Lexus’s similarly challenging ‘spindle grille’ appear restrained.

But the UX’s appeal thankfully transcends its love-it-or-hate-it sheetmetal.

Is it right for me?

The entry-level UX200 Luxury might be five grand dearer than the CT200h hatch beneath it but there’s never been a better example of money well-spent. This hatch-like, Subaru XV-style Lexus crossover might be about as off-road friendly as a rickshaw, but as a hatchback alternative it’s bang on the money. Think Mercedes-Benz GLA with a Japanese accent.

In the same vein, the UX also overcomes the luggage-capacity flaws of its new Corolla relative, as well the packaging quirks of a C-HR, though the UX is more of an urban companion than a jack-of-all-trades maestro.

What do you get for your money?

The entry-level Luxury might appear a little plain, with no chrome on its grey-plastic lower body cladding and nondescript silver 17-inch alloy wheels (with 215/60R17 Bridgestone Turanza T005A tyres and a space-saver spare) but those looks are a little deceiving. Three drive modes (Eco, Normal and Sport), auto-levelling bi-LED headlamps, LED fogs and tail-lights, keyless entry and start, an anti-theft system, dual-zone climate control, adaptive cruise control, a power-adjustable steering column, eight-way power adjustable and heated front seats, a 10.3-inch multimedia screen with sat-nav, digital radio, a CD/DVD player and eight decent-sounding speakers are all on the menu.

Safety-kit wise, you get Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) with collision warning, lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, traffic sign recognition, auto high-beam, a rear-view camera, front and rear parking sensors, tyre-pressure monitoring, and a hugely irritating (though switchable, somewhere deep inside the multimedia system) audible speed-limit and school-zone warning voice … even on weekends and public holidays!

Two options packs are available on the Luxury – Enhancement Pack 1 (EP1) with a hands-free electric tailgate, wireless phone charging, cornering lamps, alloy scuff plates, headlamp washers and rear privacy glass (for $1550) or the EP2 version, which adds a glass sunroof to the above (for another $2500).

Over and above the Luxury variant with optional EP1 pack, the Sport Luxury gets dark grey metallic machined-face 18-inch alloy wheels (with 225/50R18 Dunlop SP Sport Maxx 050 DSST run-flat tyres), acoustic front side glass, leather-accented seats with front-seat ventilation, high-grade LED headlamps with adaptive high-beam, sequential LED front indicators, a surround-view monitor, electro-chromatic exterior mirrors with memory, high-grade interior stitching and trim finishes, and a 13-speaker Mark Levinson stereo with 20cm subwoofer. An optional EP1 pack ($3675) adds a smart-key card, a head-up display and a glass sunroof.

The F-Sport gets adaptive suspension damping; five drive modes (Eco, Normal, Sport, Sport+ and Custom); rear performance dampers; Active Sound Control (ASC); F-Sport front and rear bumpers; 18-inch dark grey alloy wheels; F-Sport seats, shift lever, steering wheel and pedals; paddle shifters; an 8.0-inch TFT multi-information display; three exclusive paint colours (White Nova, Carnelian red, Cobalt Mica) and three exclusive interior colours (white, black, and flare red) with black ornamentation.

The F-Sport’s optional EP1 pack adds a glass sunroof (for $2625) while the EP2 pack ($5880) includes the sunroof, as well as a 13-speaker Mark Levinson stereo, a head-up display, a panoramic view monitor and a smart-key card.

How much does it cost to maintain?

Lexus doesn’t have a capped-price servicing program, though its long-held ‘Lexus Encore’ aftersales care remains one of the most generous in the business – spanning the length of the four-year/100,000km vehicle warranty period.

You can get your car collected from your home or office for servicing, then dropped back again, or you can drive a loan car away from the dealership. The warranty also covers breakdown and basic mechanical assistance as well as towing expenses, and even a one-way metro taxi fare up to $150. Plus you can opt in to dinners, golf days and drive days if a Lexus is your passport to a social life.

On Hybrid models, there’s an eight-year/160,000km warranty on the battery.

The Red Book’s three-year resale estimates for the Lexus UX line-up start at 57.8 per cent for the base UX200 Luxury and top out at 58.8 per cent for both F-Sport Hybrids and the AWD UX250h Sport Luxury. That compares to 61.5 per cent for a Mercedes-Benz GLA250 and 56.8 per cent for a BMW X2 sDrive 20i.

Is it well built?

Lexus has a long-held and well-deserved reputation for outstanding build quality and the Japanese-built UX continues that legacy. Excellent trim quality, soft-touch upper surfaces (including the entire dash top), slick switchgear and a generally robust, precision-built feel permeate the UX.

If you had to nit-pick, the interior’s lower plastics aren’t quite to the same tactility standard but they’re neatly constructed and generally harmonious in quality.

Lexus topped the J.D. Power survey in the US for the seventh consecutive year in 2018 – a study that measures the number of problems experienced per 100 vehicles over the preceding 12 months in vehicles that are three years old. Lexus beat Porsche by one point.

Lexus UX 2019 first drive Is it well built?

What are the Standout features?

Definitely the UX’s standard equipment and class-leading build quality, though you could probably also lump its styling into the same category. There are quite a few cars now sporting a horizontal red LED strip right across their hindquarters, but the UX’s 120-LED interpretation is truly striking … for good and not so good reasons.

At best, it’s a visual lighting signature that commands attention. At worst, it’s an intentional, slightly cringeworthy Cylon reference for Battlestar Gallactica fans.

Lexus UX 2019 first drive What are the Standout features?

What does it have that others don’t?

Until its next-generation rivals appear, it’s that battery sitting beneath the UX’s boot floor. Hybrid and all-electric drivetrains are on their way for a bunch of competitors (forthcoming Mercedes-Benz GLA and Audi Q4, to name two) but the UX remains the only SUV/crossover in its class with battery-boosted efficiency.

How practical is it?

In comparison to the Toyota Corolla hatch it’s closely related to under the skin, the UX is really quite practical. With better vision and more useable space, that’s undoubted. But in comparison to some of the all-wheel-drive SUV wagons it’s competing against, the UX is nothing more than a slightly oddball hatchback.

It only offers 160mm of ground clearance – a Subaru XV’s is 220mm – and the all-wheel-drive Hybrid is incapable of being locked in 4WD mode, or towing anything. Only the front-drive UX200 gets a tow rating, and even that is a modest 750kg in braked capacity.

The 1.2-litre Peugeot 308 auto hatch we tested last week can haul 1200kg and carry more stuff than a Lexus UX. So can a Volkswagen Golf.

Lexus UX 2019 first drive How practical is it?

Is it comfortable?

If you’re in the base UX200 Luxury, most definitely. Every car built on the new-generation Toyota New Global Architecture is blessed with almost revelatory suspension suppleness compared to the below-par comfort of the past (and hangovers from that period, like Lexus’s ageing CT200h hatch). And the UX200 Luxury is part of that new wave, feeling absorbent and composed over almost all surfaces. Combined with impressive seating comfort, its ability to pamper occupants is persuasive.

Unfortunately, that dynamic sophistication doesn’t permeate the range. The up-spec F-Sport and Sport Luxury variants both feature lower-profile run-flat tyres, which introduce a brittleness to the UX’s ride that the regular-tyred UX Luxury avoids. Even with the F-Sport’s adaptive damping system set to ‘Normal’, there’s a persistent lumpiness that makes you question whether the premium-priced crossover you’re driving is indeed related to the lovely new Corolla.

This textural ride quality isn’t as pronounced in the heavier UX250h F-Sport AWD – its additional 145-190kg weight gain over the UX200 Luxury, and 60kg increase over a same-spec front-drive F-Sport Hybrid managing to tone down some of the run-flat’s abrasiveness.

Lexus UX 2019 first drive Is it comfortable?

Easy in, easy out?

More so than a regular hatch, less so than a proper SUV wagon like a Volvo XC40. Perhaps the rear door’s sloping window line could be slightly intrusive for some people, but I’d suggest the electric tailgate’s leisurely speed of operation would be a bigger pain in the behind.

Lexus UX 2019 first drive Easy in, easy out?

Space and versatility?

As a four-seat conveyance, even with four adults, the UX is pretty impressive. Deep, amply adjustable electric front buckets and an excellent driving position put the UX in good stead, backed up by an elevated rear bench that delivers expansive vision over the front chairs. And finally in a GA-C-platformed car, the front passenger’s seat gets height adjustment – avoiding the crippling situation for the left-rear passenger in a C-HR.

The entry-level Luxury is trimmed in what Lexus calls ‘NuLux’ – a registered-trademark name for vinyl – and it looks like it sounds. The rear seat trim is very plain while the front seats feature a rather cheap-looking imprinted arrowhead pattern.

The F-Sport and Sport Luxury, on the other hand, get beautifully stitched leather with perforated facings – the front seats with crisp fan-cooling chilling your buttocks. But even the roomiest UX boot – the UX200 F-Sport and Sport Luxury with tyre inflation kits – measures a below-par 371 litres, while the least generous is the base Luxury at just 321 litres. If you view the UX as a hatchback alternative (and hey, any alternative to a CT200 is a good one), then it’s workable, but if you expect the baby Lexus SUV to compete on a versatility level, it fails. And you can blame the hybrid packaging.

The front occupants get the best deal. There’s a clever centre armrest that can be opened either left or right, revealing a deep bin housing a pair of USB ports, and the wireless phone-charging pad sits beneath the centre console and can be switched on or off. The steering wheel is pleasant, the switchgear nice to use and neatly arranged, and the toggle-operation dashboard air vents are both cool to look at, to touch, and to receive air from.

But from there, it’s all steeply downhill. Lexus’s touchpad multimedia control interface is just as hideous to use and frustratingly over-sensitive as it always was, which is a shame because the layout on the 10.3-inch central widescreen is intuitive and attractive. We just wish that someone at Lexus had the balls to fall on a sword, admit the ills of the past and copy someone else’s set-up.

It’s ironic that the UX is named as it is because the User eXperience of this touchpad arrangement is appalling … partly saved by the old-Walkman-inspired dials around the edge of the centre armrest for radio, volume and media. And all those criticisms relate to when you’re operating it at standstill – as soon as the UX moves, you’re locked out of everything. Perhaps just as well.

Both front door pockets can barely squeeze in a one-litre plastic bottle, while the rear doors have nothing – just a small indent where the door pull is. A pair of rear air vents and USB ports are something, though, and the fold-down centre armrest carries a pair of cupholders.

Lexus UX 2019 first drive Space and versatility?

What’s the engine like?

The 2.0-litre direct-injection four-cylinder in the UX200, tied to a direct-shift CVT transmission with a fixed first gear, is pretty much identical to the same petrol engine in the new-gen Corolla, and that’s a good thing. Producing 126kW at 6600rpm and 205Nm at 4800rpm, it’s keen to rev but also relatively smooth and flexible, with enough muscle for most people in the market for a small crossover like the UX.

Thankfully, the UX’s Hybrid drivetrain is completely different to its undernourished 1.8-litre Corolla cousin. Sharing the petrol UX200’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder unit but with a higher compression ratio and an Atkinson-cycle combustion process to enhance efficiency, its lower outputs – 107kW at 6000rpm and 188Nm from 4400-5200rpm – appear less reliant on revs to extract performance. And Lexus claims that, in combination with the Nickel Metal-Hydride (Ni-MH) battery, the Hybrid’s total system power is 131kW, for slightly more performance than the UX200.

In the AWD version, it’s the battery that drives the rear axles, not the engine – hence why it’s an on-demand AWD system only that can’t be locked into 4WD for dirt or sand driving. You can’t turn the stability control off anyway.

Lexus UX 2019 first drive What's the engine like?

How much fuel does it consume?

The official combined consumption of the UX200 variants is 5.8L/100km, whereas the front-drive Hybrid’s is 4.5L/100km – each drinking regular 91-octane unleaded. The AWD Hybrid increases consumption slightly to 4.7L/100km combined.

The UX200 gets a fairly small 47-litre fuel tank (for a theoretical range of 810km), whereas the Hybrid’s 43-litre tank can yield 956km in the front-drive version and 915km in the AWD.

Is it enjoyable to drive?

In its core dynamic potential, the UX is on the money. Accurate steering, poised handling and decent body control all work in its favour, though the Toyota Corolla it shares mechanical DNA with is more entertaining. The Corolla has an adjustability factor in its handling balance that the UX doesn’t really possess.

While the base UX200 Luxury doesn’t have the tyres to exploit its obvious handling potential, neither does the F-Sport on Dunlop run-flats. Up the pace even a moderate amount and they protest loudly, undermining the enjoyment in cornering a UX. Pity.

At least the 17-inch-wheeled Luxury has that aforementioned suspension pliancy and fluidity to lighten the mood. It’s much more calming than the slightly agitated F-Sport.

Lexus UX 2019 first drive Is it enjoyable to drive?

Does it perform as you expect?

Lexus claims the ‘Direct Shift’ CVT-equipped UX200 front-driver is good for 9.2 seconds from 0-100km/h and a 190km/h top speed, which feels about right. It’s an easy performer with proper exuberance when you flatten that right pedal.

However, the transmission calibration can be caught out at times, like when turning at T-junctions after the CVT upshifts from its direct first gear and allows revs to plummet as it tries to grab the tallest gear possible, then realises its mistake and sends the tacho needle flaring towards the redline again. Unless you maintain pressure on the accelerator pedal, the UX200 is doggedly determined to repeat this situation over and over again. Selecting ‘Sport’ mode does lessen this dithering slightly, but you shouldn’t have to go to that extent to find a solution.

There’s also a feature unique to the F-Sport called Active Sound Control (ASC). Activated by an on-off button on the lower-right of the dash, it’s a synthesised induction sound whose artificial whirring makes the petrol engine sound almost coarse. And if you ramp up the modes to Sport or Sport+, it becomes more insistent, to an almost dizzying level. It’s horrible, and a complete waste of the UX’s development budget. Just keep it switched off.

Our favourite drivetrain is the Hybrid. Silkily refined, with a torquey punch off the line, Lexus claims the front-driver reaches 100km/h in 8.5 seconds, or 8.7 for the AWD. It’s far less reliant on commitment to produce acceleration, and it’s this improvement in effortlessness and quietness that sells it for us …. even though the AWD will wheelspin its front wheels from a foot-flat standing start.

So what do we think of the Lexus UX as whole? As an entry-level UX200 Luxury with the EP1 pack and painted in a funky colour (like Celestial Blue or Khaki Metal), there’s some real appeal in this comfortable, well-equipped, beautifully built and vaguely sporty hatchback alternative. If punters can stomach the styling, the UX has a chance of securing a younger audience. And the unique appeal of the Hybrid drivetrain continues to be a winner for Lexus – at least until its competitors finally get their own alternatives ready for sale.

But if this UX is in any way intended to be an SUV for the family, its lack of luggage space compared to a decent small hatch and the detrimental effect to ride quality of the run-flat tyres on Sport Luxury and F-Sport is somewhat disappointing. At the end of the day, having to package the hybrid’s battery has resulted in design compromises that aren’t quite overcome by the drivetrain’s efficiency.