“THAT’S where the money is.” Those are the alleged words of the late US career criminal Willie Sutton, and it’s a sentiment that must have been in the minds of Lexus’ top brass when they decided to greenlight the company’s firstever compact crossover, the UX. If there’s money to be made in the car biz, it’s surely centralised in the lucrative SUV segment.
Model Lexus UX 200 F Sport
Engine 1987cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v
Max Power 126kW @ 6600rpm
Max Torque 205Nm @ 4800rpm
0-100km/h 9.2sec (claimed)
Fuel economy 5.6L/100km (EU)
Price $54,000 (estimated)
On sale Q4
Sutton wasn’t talking about cars – he was talking about banks; specifically, why he robbed them – but his principle nevertheless holds true. Lexus has a golden opportunity to shift the focus away from the homely CT200h that’s been its gateway model up until now and onto a more exciting SUV. After all, that’s where the money is.
FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE
And truth be told, it’s also where the next generation of car buyers are. Lexus needs to get a younger crowd into its showrooms, and the UX is the car tasked with reaching out to millenials and gen-Xers. Forget about the CT200h – the more extroverted UX has the form factor that counts in this day and age, even if its body is more hatch than traditional SUV wagon.
It’s easy to be cynical and dismiss the UX as a cash grab; a hatchback with extra ground clearance and plastic body cladding that’s designed to exploit the tastes of today. The only thing is … the UX is actually rather good. Even if you’re the type who pours scorn on SUVs, a quick drive in the UX should have you at least nodding with begrudging respect. At the conclusion of the UX’s global launch drive in Sweden, that’s precisely what I was doing.
The roads in and around Stockholm are, as you’d expect of a country that deals with plenty of crap weather and more than a little bit of snow, pretty much perfect. Ironed flat and wonderfully cambered, the only real downside to Swedish pavement is the coarseness of its surface. Tyre roar is plentiful, but even a go-kart would waft like a Rolls-Royce on Swedish highways. But to a road-tester, the selection of silkysmooth roads for a car launch rings alarm bells. What are they trying to hide? Tame and unchallenging road loops selected by Lexus PR didn’t help either.
In the F-Sport variants we spent the bulk of our time in, the adaptive dampers of that particular spec (base models will get non-adjustable dampers) yielded a fairly firm ride even on well-groomed roads. We suspect, however, that has less to do with the damper tuning than it does the run-flat tyres and 18-inch alloys that are standard-issue on F-Sport, though we did note that the suspension dealt better with bigger lumps – perhaps because the dampers were more in play, rather than just the tyres.
Deviating from the program eventually netted some tighter and twistier tarmac, not to mention some potholes and ruts that echo those of typical Aussie country roads. We’re not sure why Lexus shied away from these kinds of surfaces, because when the UX’s sharply-creased snout was pointed down more taxing Swedish B-roads it displayed a very different character, one that bordered on genuine sportiness.
The steering is quick and accurate, while the chassis of FWD UX models displays a neutral balance that’s uncommon in the small-SUV segment. A low centre of gravity that hovers just 594mm above the ground imparts an agile feel and keeps bodyroll at bay, which in turn eggs you on to push the UX harder.
A day at the wheel of a basespec car with 17-inch wheels and non-adaptive suspension revealed outstanding compliance that didn’t impinge on handling – in our mind, it’s the winning configuration for everyday duty. It’s a shame, then, that the powertrain line-up is so mild.
The mainstay of the range is the UX200’s 126kW/205Nm, naturally aspirated 2.0-litre petrol, borrowed from the UX’s corporate cousin the Toyota Corolla. It’s a solid engine with a linear power delivery, and happens to boast the best thermal efficiency of any production petrol engine, but clearly doesn’t feel as relaxed or as torquey down low as some turbocharged rivals. It does, however, actually sound surprisingly throaty when at full song. Now there’s something we weren’t expecting from a baby Lexus SUV.
There’s no manual entry version, but that’s okay because the CVT that’s the UX200’s default trans is properly good. Just as in the new Corolla, a mechanical launch gear and torque converter provide crisp take-up when moving away from a standstill, while a smaller, lighter drive belt enables manually actuated gearchanges that are so rapid it’ll probably fool some into thinking it’s a dual-clutch. Floor it in auto mode and it will step through pre-set ratios rather than doing the usual CVT thing of pegging the engine at one RPM, instead reserving the efficiency-boosting CVT behaviour for light-throttle cruising and urban driving.
The hybrid UX200h is less impressive, despite packing 8kW more. It’s also equipped with a CVT, but misses out on the trick launch gear that makes the petrol powertrain so responsive, and its extra 80kg relative to the petrol dulls the dynamic performance. Unless saving fuel makes your heart race, we’d stick with the more engaging UX200.
Happily, your choice of powertrain has no real influence on what kind of interior you get, and that’s great news because the UX’s cabin is one of Lexus’s best.
The seating position is low-slung compared with other SUVs, and it seems the common buyer rationale of wanting to be elevated above traffic may no longer be as true as it used to be. Lexus is banking that the younger customers it’s targeting with the UX value a sportier seating position, and the legs-out-in-front posture you adopt behind the extra-chunky leather wheel is evidence of that.
It’s obvious that Lexus has put a great deal of thought into this cabin and its ergonomics. Even in low-grade guise it has a premium look and feel with abundant softtouch plastics, supple leather upholstery and the especially pleasant optional ‘washi’ trim that mimics traditional Japanese handmade paper. All told, it’s a far more impressive interior than in rivals such as the Q2, GLA and X1.
The report card isn’t so positive in the back half of the cabin.
Don’t expect packaging similar to the UX’s cousin the Toyota C-HR – the UX has a lower seatbase that effectively removes rear legroom. That said, the seat itself is cossetting and fairly spacious, while the view out the rear side glass is also far better than from Toyota’s baby SUV. Boot space is one area where the UX falls down. The Euro-spec cars we drove all had a boot floor that, though flush with the loading lip, is incredibly high, which compromises the height available for luggage beneath the cargo blind. Australian cars will get a lower floor, however capacity will still only be 312 litres.
But the UX has the ingredients of an enticing ‘starter Lexus’, with distinctive design and driver appeal, and if it lands at the expected $45K entry price, you won’t need to rob a bank.
Premium cabin; superb chassis; excellent CVT in petrol version More powerful engines would be welcome; run flats; hybrid CVT
The UX might follow a similar formula to Toyota’s C-HR – as well as sharing the GA-C platform – but Lexus’s compact crossover differs greatly. Beyond its more powerful petrol and hybrid powertrains, the UX also makes greater use of lightweight materials and places the front occupants lower in the body for a sportier, less SUV-like posture. Everything else mechanical, from the steering to the transmissions to the suspension, sports a specific Lexus tune, but the two have at least one thing in common – exceptional, car-like handling.
The UX’s dash vent knobs can illuminate at night, but what’s cool is how the electrons find their way to the middle of the vent. Power is transmitted by a simple inductive loop – a bizarrely high-tech solution to a fairly inconsequential problem.
Lexus infotainment systems have historically been maddening to use, but the UX debuts the latest generation of Lexus’ touchpad control interface that responds quickly and faithfully to inputs.
Compact UX packs in a lot of wluxe – a large colour head-up display, an electronic instrument panel, heated and cooled front seats, a power-adjustable steering column, a wireless phone charger, a heated steering wheel and active cruise are all available.
One of the most affordable options among the compact luxury SUV set, with more low-rev (turbo) torque than the UX, but outmatched by the Lexus in terms of cabin quality.
Lexus’ Japanese rival fronts up with a rebadged Mercedes GLA, but it’s a generation behind the UX and feels it. With 155kW it’s powerful, but that’s the QX30’s only significant advantage.