Lexus like other automakers, had a bit of a conundrum when it came to the task of luring in young millennials to its model lineup. How do you create something that comes jam packed with technology, style, and sophistication but in the compact dimensions that are needed for a urban commuter? While the Lexus RX is still a venerable nameplate (the bewildering RX350L excluded.) Its bigger size does not bode well for buyers in urban environments, and the Lexus NX can be a bit too extreme for other buyers. Lexus thinks it has finally hit the sweet spot with the compact UX CUV. But can the UX (“Urban Explorer) fulfill its role of being a tidy urban commuter for young tech centric buyers?
Aggression In A Compact Package:
When one first looks at the Lexus UX, the confident swagger that is baked into its sheet metal will be the first thing that many buyers will notice. The front grille adopts the spindle shape that has defined other Lexus offerings, and while it is a massive bug catcher, it does allow the UX to have more aggression in its flanks, and it certainly allows it to stand out versus some of its more mundane competitors. Other attempts at spicing things up include kinked black wheel arch cladding on the wheel arches, as well as aggressively honed lights on the front fascia, with the blade treatment in the headlights not only helping to boost its aesthetic game, but to also boost the UX’s aerodynamic profile as well (a very nice blend of form and function.) The rear fascia continues this aggressive overtone, but here, the look does stumble somewhat, with the unified lightbar looking rather awkward when meshed with the UX’s compact dimensions.
F Sport models like our tester feature several unique trim exclusive touches to make them stand out from other UX models. These include special F Sport designed wheels, tweaked exterior accents, as well as several interior upgrades that we will elaborate on later. Looking at the UX’s presentation at face value, it’s very clear that Lexus is doubling down on its attempts to lure in young buyers. However, we are concerned that this bold approach may drive away older buyers that like the UX’s compact size, and the design as a whole might not age very well when the UX enters the second hand market. Despite this, the UX still has a leg up over rivals like the Infiniti QX30 and the Volvo XC40, but it still has some ground to make up aginst the BMW X1 and the Mercedes-Benz GLA.
Ergonomically Impaired Controller Crimps On Style And Function:
Unlike the bold exterior styling that does an admirable job of raising the UX ahead of its competitors, the interior is a decidedly more disjointed affair that lacks some of the cohesion seen in some of its rivals. Before we get to that though, we might as well as highlight some of the things that it does well. For starters, the cabin in our tester did a good job of checking off the typical requirements that define a Lexus cabin. This included banishing the majority of road and wind noise during our jaunts with it, as well as featuring technology that is slowly evolving to mimic some of the features that were once exclusive to smart phones. Like other recent Lexus offerings, the UX comes equipped with a touchpad that controls the infotainment system. Like the awful mouse style controller that Lexus pitched for this layout, the touchpad is still a distraction to operate on the move, with the unit performing at its best when the vehicle is parked. The touchpad allows users to pinch and zoom on the map, and can even recognize block letters and numbers in searches (with mixed success.) However, the pad is also overly sensitive, and we often found ourselves inadvertently overshooting icons when trying to access them. Voice commands help relieve the frustration to a degree, but Android users are out of luck since the UX comes out of the box with Apple CarPlay only (Android Auto is coming later.)
The rest of the cabin layout is more streamlined and attractive than the bigger NX, but the UX’s approach to streamlining is, to say it best, interesting to say the least. For instance, instead of having controls for radio volume, tuning, and media controls in the stack like others in its target market, Lexus engineers decided to put them in a controller that sticks out of the center armrest. The idea here is that the controls fall seamlessly into your fingers, with your middle finger for example operating the tune knob, and your thumb operating the volume knob. There’s even a mode button, but we question the whole point of even adding this setup to begin with since all of the fore-mentioned functions can also be used (more easily we might add) via the steering wheel controls.
That aside, the rest of the cabin features sensible yet comfy ergonomics, with the bulk of controls and switches angled towards the driver. As mentioned earlier, our tester was an F-Sport badged model, with our car featuring the eight inch dynamic digital instrument cluster that still wows the eyes thanks to the cool way the floating tachometer moves to the center when Sport mode is engaged. The sportier seats that accompany this trim offer more support, but thankfully, the additional bolstering does not ruin the good amounts of comfort that are abundant in the seats themselves. Even rear passengers have commendable amounts of comfort, though the seats back there do little to hide the tight amounts of headroom and cramped legroom that are equally as abundant.
Naturally Aspirated And Proud Of It:
Unlike other subcompact CUVs, the UX does not take advantage of a turbocharged engine even when equipped in its sportier F Sport guise. Instead our tester like the rest of its family is powered by a 169 horsepower 2.0 liter naturally aspirated four cylinder engine. This choice certainly bucks the trend, especially considering that less luxurious entries like the Hyundai Kona feature an optional turbocharged offering. However, the biggest surprise here is the CVT that helps send power to either the front or all four driven wheels. Wheras other CVTs tend to have a rubber band like quality to them that robs them of the ability to fully replicate a true automatic transmission, the software in the UX’s gearbox is perhaps the best we have ever seen. Lexus claims that the UX has what they call a 10-speed direct shift CVT with built in paddle shifters.
But how can a CVT which traditionally has one gear can suddenly develop nine extra gears? The answer lies mostly in the software that is added to this particular CVT, with the UX’s application using a special gear set that prevents the engine from endlessly droning when you mash the throttle. When used this way, it shifts almost like a traditional automatic transmission, otherwise at cruising speeds it behaves like a CVT constantly adjusting to various inputs. The effect is virtually seamless, and unless you are really keeping a keen ear out for it, the CVT’s behavior blends in with the rest of the driving experience, which should please buyers looking to use this model as a urban commuter versus a formal sport offering. While we do miss the authoritative snap that a turbocharged engine delivers, the lightweight architecture that underpins the UX as well as its CVT allows the tiny CUV to deliver an impressive 33 mpg on the freeway, as well as a respectable 29 mpg in city driving (33 mpg combined for those looking to simplify the math a bit.)
Handling in the UX is nothing to write home about, but the tiny Lexus does deliver a very balanced performance, with the body roll in our tester being very manageable, and braking being smooth and consistent. When compared to a few of its rivals, again the UX stands out from the Volvo XC40 and the Infiniti QX30 but still loses out to the BMW X1 in the battle for weekend road supremacy. Thankfully, the UX is easy to park, and with the urban markets that Lexus is targeting with the UX, these buyers should be pleased with the UX’s ability to squeeze into all but the tightest of parking spots.
Pricing for the Lexus UX starts at $32,150 for the base UX 200. A hybrid version dubbed the UX 250h is also available, but it starts slightly higher at just over $34,000. Moving back to the non-hybrid UX the pricing does gradually creep up as you cruise through its other trim levels. Our lightly optioned F Sport tester serves as the middle ground in the UX trim family, and our Cadmium Orange tester had a base price of $34,000. The fore-mentioned options also played a role in shooting up the price of our tester, with goodies such as the $2200 navigation system, $975 F Sport Premium package, and the $600 power operated rear liftgate all playing a key role in this regard. As a result of all this, our tester managed to ring in at a whopping $41,285 which is a bit pricey for a vehicle as small and compact as the UX. But on the flip side though, this pricing ladder does make the UX cheaper than the BMW X1 and the Mercedes GLA which boast bigger price tags to cover their more powerful engines, and decidedly more refined interiors. The pricing could also draw more empty nesters to the UX versus the young demographic that it aims to appeal to, but with the right packaging and option lineup, the UX can be a good value focused purchase for certain buyers.
With a potent combination of size, luxury, and enough youthful energy to draw plenty of attention to itself, the 2019 Lexus UX has the goods to be a potent choice when tasked with various types of urban and big city commuting. Hopefully, the addition of a turbocharged engine offering later in its production life, as well as revising some of its attempts at streamlining certain interior functions will help transform the UX into a true disruptor in the compact luxury CUV segment.
Carl Malek has been an automotive journalist for over 10 years. First starting out as a freelance photographer before making the transition to writing during college, his work has appeared on numerous automotive forums as well as websites such as Autoshopper.com.
Carl is also a big fan of British vehicles with the bulk of his devotion going to the Morgan Motor Company as well as offerings from Lotus, MG, and Caterham. When he is not writing about automobiles, Carl enjoys spending time with his family and friends in the Metro Detroit area, as well as spending time with his adorable pets.