Stockholm, Sweden - One thing that Lexus has learned in almost three decades of making luxury cars, is that you can’t out-German the Germans.
So the all-new Lexus UX compact crossover is very much its own car, nothing like the comparable offerings from the Teutonic Triumvirate; it’s aimed at young, urban millennials, says Lexus, hence the name - ‘Urban X-over’ - and is intended to be not only their first Lexus but also their first premium car.
The spindle grille dominates the front end of the car, but here even here it’s all about the detail. The individual elements that make up the grille mesh change in size and shape as they radiate out from the Lexus badge in the middle, so the mesh looks distinctly different from various points of view.
But the strangest design feature on this car is the tail-light clusters, extended upwards to form little free-standing winglets at the base of the C-pillars (ostensibly to direct and smooth airflow around the most turbulence-prone section of a two-box body shape) and tied together by a tapering black stripe across the tailgate with an even narrower red LED lightstrip.
Distinctly Japanese interior
The interior is also distinctly Japanese, featuring leather trim with a surface texture designed to resemble the handmade Japanese paper called Washi, and stitching patterns in the seat upholstery drawn from the sashiko quilting technique used in martial arts uniforms.
The 18cm virtual instrument display sits in a low, deep binnacle, leaving a wide sweep of dashboard that lines up exactly with the surface of the bonnet to blur the distinction between inside and outside - just as well, because the interior is more compact than it looks at first glance; there’s a definite knack to getting in and out of a UX that’s fitted with the high-bolstered F-Sport seats and thick-rimmed F-Sport steering wheel.
Once in, however, it’s very comfortable indeed, with eight-way electrical seat adjustment, duaL-zone climate control that uses the seat heating and ventilation systems to boost the aircon’s efforts whenever maximum heating or cooling is called for. All the controls, with the exception perhaps of the parking brake switch (you have to know where it is to find it) fall readily to hand in a very effective ergonomic layout that includes a touchpad under a palm-rest with four ‘short cut’ buttons in its rim.
Offset towards the driver’s side of the centre stack is an 18cm colour display (26cm if you opt for the optional navigation system) that includes a classy inset analogue clock. The navigation system is one of the best we’ve used, with clear maps and concise, accurate voice prompts - and better pronunciation of Swedish street names than we could manage!
More options include an eight-speaker audio system instead of the standard six-speaker set-up (or a superb eight channel, 13 speaker, 668 watt Mark Levinson surround sound system) adaptive suspension (in conjunction with the F-Sport package) and a head-up display, while pre-collision warning and auto braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, adaptive cruise control, active lane-keeping assist and intelligent high beams are all standard.
Nuts and bolts
The 2019 UX is the first Lexus to be based on the new, lightweight Global Architecture Compact (GA-C) platform, which it shares with the Toyota C-HR, sacrificing a little of the ground clearance that characterises the crossover genre in favour of a lower centre of gravity, a more refined ride and, specifically, a very tight turning circle (just 10.4 metres kerb to kerb) for agility in the urban jungle.
It will be available in a choice of two drivetrains, starting with the UX200, featuring an all-new, high-revving naturally aspirated two-litre petrol four, rated at 126kW at 6600 revs and 205Nm at 4800Nm at 4800, driving the front wheels via what Lexus calls a Direct Shift constantly variable transmission. This has a conventional belt-and-pulley drive supplemented by a mechanical first gear, to prevent the soaring engine revs on take-off that are the worst feature of CVTs.
It sounds like an ingenious answer to a question that should never have been asked, but it works remarkably well; take-off is brisk and direct, the change up to ‘second’ is smooth but distinct and from then on the drive is fluid and relaxed, CVT at its best.
The range-topping derivative is the UX250h which uses a slightly ‘softer’ version of the same engine (107kW at 6000 revs, 180Nm at 4400rpm), allied to not one but two motor-generators, one slightly higher geared than the other, each on its own axis rather than side by side in the transfer case, to make the whole transmission lighter and more compact
Together they deliver 130kW and 250Nm, driving via the same Direct Shift transmission, storing the necessary am ps in a nickel metal-hydride battery under the rear seat, leaving space for a full-sized spare under the floor of the rather shallow boot.
On the road
Our first drive was in a UX200 fitted with the F-Sport package which, in addition to the aforementioned seats and steering wheel, includes stiffer springs and anti-roll bars, and 18 inch alloy rims in place of the standard 17 inch hoops, as well as a rear performance damper. The ride was distinctly sporty (read: firm but not harsh) the steering a little remote but almost clinically accurate, and the seating position well-nigh perfect (once I was in, that is) giving you a good feel for where the corners of the car were, which made parking a whole lot less stressful for both car and driver.
The utterly luxurious ambience was a little spoilt, however, by the intrusive soundtrack of the high-compression two-litre four under acceleration; I’m a biker and I’m used to riding by ear, but the UX200 sounded as if it was working hard under acceleration, and the harder I pushed it the more stressed it sounded.
All of which would be perfectly acceptable, even required, in a high-performance roadster, but detracted appreciably from the luxury ambience Lexus is trying to achieve with this model. And it’s likely to be even more apparent when measured against its all turbo-powered German competitors at altitude in Gauteng, where the vast majority of South Africa’s luxury cars are sold.
The UX250h, in contrast, lived up to its premium billing in every respect. It was smooth, quiet and effortlessly swift on the open road, unobtrusively electric when floating around the Abba Museum parking lot looking for the way out, and superbly comfortable everywhere, even on the narrowest of country back roads.
A lot of that is probably due to the quieter operation of the more softly tuned engine, but at least some of it was thanks to the noticeably better sound insulation of the more expensive model.
ETA in Mzansi?
Expect to see the UX in your local Lexus showroom during the first half of in both 200 and 250h format, with the F-Sport package available in either case, although the latter has yet to be confirmed by Lexus SA. Pricing, and the final model line-up, will be announced closer to the South African launch date.