The Lexus UX is a vehicle that makes very little sense. It doesn’t seem to belong in any clearly defined category. And yet, whatever it is, it’s a curiously likeable little thing.
At first glance, the UX’s mission seems obvious enough. It’s Lexus’ entry into the burgeoning subcompact luxury crossover segment. It’s the right size for the job, has a richly finished interior, wears all the appropriate quasi-SUV outerwear, and its starting price of $37,100 is right where it needs to be (that is, with a hefty premium baked in for a luxury-brand nameplate and the allegedly desirable appearance of an SUV).
Look closer however, and the UX starts to get, to put it kindly, non-conformist. The base UX 200 model is front-wheel drive and powered by a naturally aspirated 2.0-litre engine yielding a mere 169 horsepower in a segment where AWD and 200-plus-hp turbo 2.0-litres are the norm. Even the up-level 250h AWD ($39,700) still lacks a turbocharger, instead adding electric motors to turn it into a hybrid in which one of the motors powers the rear wheels to provide a modest modicum of AWD capability. Combined power is still only 181 hp.
Stand next to the UX and it seems more like a car than a crossover. Among its peers, only the Mercedes GLA is shorter. The UX’s 1,520 millimetre roof height is closer to, say, a Volkswagen Golf (1,477 mm) than the 1,600-mm-and-up of most baby crossovers. Ground clearance is a mere 160 mm. (Pause here to remember that the UX name is distilled from Urban Crossover, although Lexus also bandies about the term “urban explorer.”)
Step inside, and the car-likeness deepens. Forget your typical tall-in-the-saddle SUV driving position. The UX positions you low behind a prominent dashboard – in fact, the posture feels more like that of a sports car than a crossover. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s a very nice driving position, and it doesn’t unduly compromise visibility, although some aspects of the minor controls involve a learning curve.
Don’t expect Tardis-like space and utility. Passenger volumes are on the low side among its peer group; cargo volume is a passable 614.5 litres on the UX 200 but a meagre 484.2 litres on the 250h, which has a higher deck to accommodate hybrid hardware.
Out on the road, the sports-car analogy largely extends to the dynamics. Personally, I wish steering response was keener on-centre, although arguably that wouldn’t be Lexus-like. Otherwise, the UX has all the right moves to entertain, albeit not enthrall, engaged drivers: it feels tautly buttoned-down, corners flat and stays nicely balanced while you probe its (admittedly not super-high) cornering limits. And it doesn’t make you pay for it with a beat-you-up ride.
The UX keeps faith with Lexus’s tradition of mechanical tranquility. Sometimes it runs silently in pure electric mode, but even when the four-cylinder engine is on duty, it’s impressively subdued. Neither are you much bothered by the random rpm surges typical of some CVT transmissions.
By benchmark measures, the 250h is a bit of a slug – Lexus claims zero to 100 km/h in a dawdling 8.7 seconds. But that really doesn’t do justice to the calm, relaxed and effortless way the UX delivers real-world acceleration in the ebb and flow of urban traffic. It reminded me of typical turbo-diesel power delivery – casually brisk when you’re not trying hard, but with very little more to give when you do try to wring it out.
Of course, the UX is not a turbo-diesel, it’s a hybrid. So how about that fuel consumption? We saw 7.5 litres/100 km over a mid-March week, so it’s no Prius. But that’s significantly more frugal than the 10-plus litres/100 km we’ve achieved in its peers.
According to its official figures, the 250h is good for 5.7 litres/100 km in the city – much better than the UX 200’s 8.0 – while their highway ratings are a wash at 6.2 and 6.3 litres/100 km, respectively. Either way, their respective combined figures of 5.9 and 7.3 litres/100 km – on regular gas – convincingly out-scrooge the peer group’s 9-to-10 litres/100 km range.
So what are we to think of this odd little (con)fusion of merit and “meh?” First, let’s deal with the price: the 250h base prices for $39,700, and my fully optioned test sample topped out at $49,150.
That’s big money for something so small and slow, even allowing for a boatload of bells and whistles plus Lexus levels of finish, reliability and prestige. And since I’ve never bought into the whole SUV-as-status-symbol scam, the UX’s appearance of an SUV has no value for me – especially with so little utility and limited AWD capability.
That said, the UX 250h does make a good showing in several aspects that I do value, namely refinement, effortless real-world performance, agile handling, a great driving position and – both literally and figuratively – a small footprint on planet Earth.
I really liked driving it. If you think like I do, maybe you will too.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.
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