By Wayne Gorrett, Reviews Editor
One of the strongest growth areas within the current onslaught of SUVs belongs to the premium compact SUV.
Blurring lines with the ubiquitous crossover, UK buyers can’t get enough of cars like the Jaguar E-Pace, Audi Q3, Mercedes-Benz GLA and the BMW X1.
On that crowded dance floor, customers are becoming more and more eco-conscious and hybrid powertrains are playing something of a top-ten tune. Logic might then suggest that a hybrid premium compact SUV ought to be playing all the right notes.
Such is the ambition of Lexus – the premium arm of Toyota – with its all-new Lexus UX hybrid compact SUV. Its arrival positions it as the gateway model to the Lexus SUV range, slotting in below the NX and full-sized RX (itself something of a pioneer, offering hybrid drivetrains since 2004).
The UX is built at the Lexus plant in Kyushu, Japan, and a total of 3,900 units are destined for the UK market this calendar year (17.4 per cent of which are sold), with an anticipated 6,000 units planned for 2020.
Last month, I joined Lexus UK in the Spanish riviera town of Sitges, west of Barcelona, to test drive the new Lexus UX, and ascertain if all those right notes are indeed in the right order…
Riding on the new GA-C platform, which also supports the latest generations of the Toyota Corolla, Prius saloon and the funky C-HR crossover, the Lexus UX is fronted by the brand's trademark 'spindle' grille, which thankfully isn't as in-your-face as that on the larger Lexus NX.
With its de rigour plastic cladding around the oddly-shaped wheel arches and aerodynamic creases and flicks all over the body, its styling won’t suit all tastes. To be honest, I find it refreshingly bold and very stylish, but by far the best visual element is the three-dimensional rear light clusters joined by a fashionable, full-width LED light bar that is undeniably slick at night.
The inside story
The interior design of the UX follows on from the exterior. There are plenty of varied angles and design features across the multi-layered dashboard and, despite being a gateway model, the high quality of the materials and the excellent fit and finish are as impressive as any of the company’s larger and much pricier cars.
There are no analogue dials behind the steering wheel – instead there’s a sharp-looking seven-inch TFT digital screen which offers customisation of information as desired by the driver.
The front seats are wonderfully supportive and offer all the adjustment required for drivers to find their ideal driving position and be comfortable at the same time.
The infotainment system remains a source of frustration like it does in other Lexus models. The large screen is set atop the dashboard and offers crisp and easy to read graphics. The good news is it’s not a touchscreen. The not-so-good news is there is no rotary controller like you’ll find on any BMW.
What you do get is a frustratingly slow operational touchpad located on the centre console. It requires a steady finger and much greater precision than a rotary controller or touchscreen and can be quite distracting when on the move.
Up front there is plenty of space for both driver and passenger, but the same can’t be said for those in row two where passenger space is somewhat less generous. While head and leg room are adequate, there is enough space for two adults, but ideally not three.
Trim grades and equipment
The Lexus UX will launch in the UK with three trim grades: UX, F Sport and Takumi.
On the range-entry UX, standard equipment includes 17-inch alloys, Lexus Safety System+ (LSS+), e-Call, a seven-inch multimedia system incorporating satnav and DAB radio, bi-LED headlamps, LED fog lamps, dual-zone air conditioning, heated front seats and roof rails.
Walk up the range to F Sport and the kit list expands to include 18-inch alloy wheels, rear privacy glass, heated and powered front seats, heated steering wheel and an exclusive F Sport interior featuring front sports seats and F Sport pedals.
The Takumi trim grade is an ode to the highly skilled takumi craftsmen and women and offers leather furniture, integrated front seat heating and cooling, a 13-speaker Mark Levinson surround sound system, a larger 10.3-inch multimedia display, 360-degree camera, front and rear parking sensors, a wireless phone charger, colour head-up display, sunroof, power tailgate, smart keyless entry, a blind spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert with braking function.
Rear boot space compromises the UX’s practicality somewhat, and even more so if the E-FOUR all-wheel drive option box is ticked: With the rear seat uprights in place, luggage space to the roof is given as 438 and 401 litres respectively. With row two lowered load space increases to 1,231 and 1,194 litres, again to the roof.
The rear bench splits 60:40 to offer a little more versatility, but the steeply raked rear window could well diminish the carrying potential of the UX.
Engine and transmission
The more astute will have noticed the singular here as there is just the one powertrain offered at launch on the Lexus UX, called the 250h. It is a non-plug-in petrol-electric hybrid made up of a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine that works with an electric motor to give a combined output of 176bhp.
This set-up comes with an automatic (CVT) gearbox. There is no petrol-only engine option, nor is there a manual gearbox offered.
The only real choice for buyers is whether you want two- (front) or all-wheel drive which Lexus have dubbed the E-FOUR. It uses an additional electric motor to drive the rear axle.
Choose the range-entry UX or the top-line Takumi version and you get the same basic suspension setup.
The F Sport version comes as standard with a revised sports suspension that uses various upgraded parts and you can upgrade your F Sport with an optional adaptive suspension system that lets you firm things up or soften things off according to how sporty you’re feeling.
Whichever mode you pick, though, it doesn’t feel as smooth or as comfortable as the standard suspension, and when you do firm things up, it doesn’t result in a massive improvement in the handling.
Underway, the Lexus UX is rather impressive and affords enough compliance to keep all life in the cabin comfortable and calm and, at the same time there’s enough control to reduce body roll to a minimum through the twisty bits.
Being the nature of a CVT transmission, there are no cogs to swap and the powertrain is rather refined and at low speeds you can slip along in near-silent EV mode for short distances without troubling the engine at all. The ‘gearbox’ doesn’t suffer from that distinctive and often frustrating noisy laziness that has given CVTs such a negative reception in recent years.
The car feels secure with plenty of grip and the steering is pleasingly responsive and nicely weighted. For a bit of extra on-road traction, you can opt for the E-FOUR four-wheel drive, but to be honest, you probably won’t notice the difference, even in extreme driving situations.
During the two-day launch event south west of Barcelona, my co-driver and I covered around 280km over mixed roads and shared driving. We achieved around 54mph, which isn’t too far removed from the official Lexus tally of 65.7mpg, which could well be attained when driving normally and not trying to catch the car out – because it’s our job to try and do so.
Over the years, Lexus has acquired an enviable reputation for safety and reliability, both of which have become key brand attributes.
The UX offers the brand's Lexus Safety System+ package, which includes autonomous emergency braking and active cruise control with pedestrian recognition, lane-keeping assistance and lane-departure warning, road-sign recognition, automatic headlights and auto-dipping headlights.
There's a semi-autonomous mode for driving in stop-start traffic at up to 18mph and the active cruise control can be set to automatically comply with speed limits posted on roadside signs. Optional Parking Support looks out for traffic crossing when you're pulling out of a parking space, and there's a rear-view camera to aid manoeuvring.
The Lexus UX was not included in the latest round of Euro NCAP’s rigorous crash-testing regime, but there seems little reason that it shouldn't match the mechanically similar Toyota C-HR's performance, which acquired the top five-star rating.
That Lexus UK have ring-fenced £9.3m for the marketing of the UX in its first – shortened – year of sales, is a measure of how important the model is to the Japanese automaker.
Ideally, the new Lexus cub will suit those looking for the style and desirability of a premium compact SUV, but who also want something a little bit different to the more mainstream choices. It offers striking styling, a super smooth ride, handles exceptionally well and is very comfortable – at least in the front.
The hybrid power train also gives the UX a unique selling point in this class and helps make the UX a compelling proposition for small families, or more so if you’re a company car driver.
Orders for the new Lexus UX opened earlier this year, with first deliveries to UK customers scheduled for around March end.
Browse our latest top leasing deals on the all-new Lexus UX compact SUV.