The Lexus UX positions Lexus optimally in the compact part of the mid-sized premium brand SUV sector. Jonathan Crouch takes a look.
One of the market's most profitable segments at present is that for premium-branded mid-sized SUVs of the more compact sort. Lexus is a late-comer to this sector but in characteristic style, has brought something different to it in the form of this UX model.
The UX competes directly against cars like the Volvo XC40, the Jaguar E-PACE, the Audi Q3, the BMW X1 and the Mercedes GLA. The angular Lexus NX, which previously represented the company against rivals such as these, has been repositioned a little further up-market as an alternative to slightly larger medium-sized models (think Audi Q5s and BMW X3s). So, does the UX stand a chance against such an army of fiercely talented competitors? Well the looks are certainly a little different to what's on offer elsewhere in this sector - and so is the powertrain, a non-Plug-in petrol/electric hybrid. Lexus believes that over 80% of buyers will never have owned one of the company's products before. Will they like this one? Let's find out.
The UX is the first Lexus to be constructed using its brand's latest GA-C global architecture platform, which offers gains in torsional rigidity that enable this car to be far more nimble and driver-orientated than the company's previous compact model offering, the CT200h. The platform also enables the UX to have the lowest centre of gravity of any vehicle in its class. It's surprisingly light for a hybrid too, thanks to weight-saving measures in the body construction, including the use of lightweight aluminium for the side doors, wings and bonnet, as well as a resin material for the back door. To start with, just a single UX 250h petrol/electric non-Plug-in hybrid variant is being offered, a car which uses its brand's fourth generation hybrid electric system that features a redesigned 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and an electronic continuously variable transmission CVT auto transmission. It's available both with front-wheel drive and with Lexus's E-Four AWD system. The engine output is 176bhp, enough to take the car to 62mph in about 8.5s en route to around 110mph. In development, particular efforts were made to reduce any "rubber band" effect in the operation of the hybrid system and transmission, by optimising the level of electric motor assistance and engine rpm to generate a sense of linear acceleration without the engine running at high revs.
Does this look like an SUV to you? For us, it's more of a family hatch than it is any kind of crossover - but maybe that's just the point. Lexus is trying to blur the boundaries here to make movement into this car from, say, a BMW 1 Series or an Audi A3 that much easier. From a stylistic point of view, the Japanese brand says that its aim with the UX wasn't to conform to the established, solid crossover look, but to achieve a strong and stylish silhouette that was more distinctive and dynamic. This design approach can be seen in the way the front and rear wings flare strongly outwards in relation to the car's basic form, which flows out from the lines of the spindle grille to envelop the cabin. At the front, the arrangement of the headlights and the spindle grille are incorporated into a deep, strong shape created by the hood and bumper to try and generate a sense of security. At the rear, a condensed styling treatment contrasts sharply with the flared wings to try and emphasise the UX's crossover qualifications. The UX measures 4,495mm long, 1,520mm high and 1,840mm wide and has a 2,640mm wheelbase. An 870mm couple distance ensures ample space for rear seat passengers in the surprisingly roomy cabin. The instrument panel has a low, unobtrusive design and the slim A-pillar mouldings have been shaped to improve visibility and give the kind of commanding outward view that is expected of a crossover. Out back, the load area is a generous 791mm long.
Both front and all-wheel drive versions of the initially-offered model, the UX 250h, are available and prices start at around £30,000 for the base UX model. It costs around £4,000 more to trade up to the more dynamic-looking 'F Sport' variant - or around £9,000 more to get top-spec luxury-orientated 'Takumi' trim. The base UX grade features the Lexus Safety System+ package of camera-driven kit, plus a navigation system, dual-zone air conditioning and 17-inch alloys. Key features for the F Sport include an F Sport-themed sporty interior and exterior styling features, including F Sport 18-inch alloy wheels and a front spindle grille, plus F Sport front seats with fabric and Tahara upholstery, pedals and steering wheel in the cabin. The specification also includes rear privacy glass, heated, power-adjustable front seats and a heated steering wheel. The Takumi, named in celebration of Lexus's skilled takumi craftsmen, offers smooth leather upholstery, integrated front seat ventilation, a bespoke Mark Levinson 13-speaker Premium Surround Sound system, a 10-inch multimedia display, a 360-degree camera, a driver's head-up display, a sunroof, a Blind Spot Monitor and a Rear Cross Traffic Alert with braking function system. Premium Pack and Premium Plus Pack options are available to add in more luxury.
You might be approaching this UX wanting diesel-style returns from petrol power - and that's pretty much what you get. The hybrid engine delivers 65.7mpg on the combined cycle and a very creditable 103g/km of CO2. As you'd expect, to get the full benefit of the potential efficiency of this Lexus, you've got to do your part as a driver - and that means proactive use of the various modes and systems provided. You'll need to keep a very careful eye on the Hybrid system gauge that replaces the usual rev counter on the dash, making sure that the needle stays as often as possible in either of the blue 'Eco' or 'Charge' zones. Those in a frugal frame of mind will also want to keep an eye on the various graphical screens provided by the fascia's centre-dash colour monitor. Go to the 'Trip Information' part of its 'Vehicle' section and you'll find under 'Past Record' a screen that graphically shows your success - or otherwise - in terms of recently achieved frugality. Another option on this screen is the useful 'Energy Monitor', there to show at a glance at any time what's charging or being driven by what. The graphics for this are provided in simpler form as one of the selectable settings provided by the central instrument binnacle display screen.
You might wonder whether the market really needs another posh little SUV like this, but we would contend that this segment wasn't really complete until Lexus entered it. True to form, the Japanese brand is the only one of the established players in this class to offer the option of hybrid power and that in itself will be enough to garner this UX plenty of sales in a market where plenty of buyers want an alternative to diesel. Obvious rivals are certain to quickly correct this oversight though and it'll be at that point that Lexus' decision not to -initially at least - given this car plug-in technology might be shown to be a little short-sighted. Then there's the styling. Overall, we like it but this car is really more of an ordinary Focus-style family hatch than any kind of SUV - a Lexus CT200h replacement in all but name. Think of it in those terms and it makes plenty of sense. As Lexus models tend to do.