Luxury Japanese carmaker Lexus has launched an all-new compact SUV it's calling the UX (short for Urban Crossover), but it's late to the party that already includes a host of high-tech European models with significant traction in the market.
Audi has the Q2 it launched a couple of years ago, while BMW has both the X1 and its sportier sibling badged X2. British brand Jaguar competes with the E-Pace, and Swedish manufacturer Volvo recently launched its much lauded XC40.
Even Mercedes-Benz has a place at the table with its GLA, though it’s more of a slightly raised hatch than a purpose-built compact SUV like the rest of the competitive set.
Still, Lexus has high hopes for its smallest SUV, and is planning to use it to catapult the company’s Aussie sales tally to over 10,000 per annum – meaning it will need to be selling nearly a thousand each month. Either way, the success of this small SUV is key to the overall growth of the brand here in Australia.
When we say it’s a new vehicle that might be true, but from a design and build process, the Lexus UX had been 40 months in the making. And that’s on a lightweight global platform (GA-C) that was already in play with vehicles like the Toyota C-HR, which gave the UX a bit of a head-start.
Clearly, Lexus is going after the millennials with what is a thoroughly modern and uniquely styled SUV, with plenty of tech on board to satisfy this specific buying group. It’s also available in either front- or all-wheel drive, but is that enough to win favour over its closest competitors?
Love it or hate it, Lexus has gone with the latest version of its familiar spindle grille from its flagship LS500, which features a new block-shaped mesh pattern that creates a three-dimensional shape from certain angles.
There’s no doubting its on-road presence, but that distinctive front end also encompasses fresh LED lighting tech up front, including the standard single projector dual-beam or an ultra-small three-projector unit, which may or may not be optional when the production models land in showrooms later this year.
Out back, the UX is even more distinctive with its full-length tail-lights creating a unique night-time light signature from a series of 120 LEDs that taper in the middle, where it measures just 3mm thick.
Moreover, Lexus tells us that these rear combination lamps also serve as an aerodynamic device, as does the flat underbody and wheel arch mouldings that claim to reduce turbulence and lift.
As is now the norm with Lexus, F Sport styling packs will be available across the UX range, bringing even more visual appeal to the proposition – both inside and out.
In another move that goes against the grain of its rivals, the UX ditches turbocharged engines in favour of a pair of naturally aspirated 2.0-litre powertrains. The entry-level model makes 126kW of power and 205Nm of torque, while the more powerful of the two is coupled with a new fourth-generation hybrid drive system providing a welcome boost to 131kW and around 250Nm give or take.
We sampled both drive units at the international launch in Sweden, albeit briefly, and while there’s certainly sufficient ‘go’ in the entry-level, you’ll need to be in Sport or Sport+ (if fitted with adaptive suspension) for any real urgency off the line – or indeed pulling out of a busy intersection.
Merging onto freeways requires a solid prod of the throttle just to keep up. But that highlights a few other issues with this powertrain – like the total lack of mid-range punch where it's most needed, and the subsequent racket from the engine that sounds like it’s under stress.
It’s not a pleasant note either. Rather, it's harsh and noisy – hardly synonymous with an SUV in the luxury space, even at the entry level. Much of that we can put down to the fact the UX utilises a unique type of CVT transmission, instead of the standard torque converter automatic or dual-clutch ’box found in most of its competitors.
The Lexus unit is different to other CVTs, as it employs a mechanical gearset to move the car from standstill before handing over to the continuously variable transmission. Yes, it’s a more linear acceleration feel, but quickly reverts to the pulley system, which seems more like a compromise in this instance.
You only have to look at the competition to realise the UX is largely outgunned when it comes to drivetrains in this segment. For example, even the entry-level Audi Q2 with its 1.4-litre turbo comes with more torque (110kW/250Nm) and a quick-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch ’box.
Step up to the 2.0-litre TFSI Sport quattro and there’s a whole lot more grunt on offer with 140kW and 320Nm using the same seven-speed gearbox.
The gap is more significant should you find Volvo’s XC40 more appealing. The entry-model T5 Momentum makes 185kW and 350Nm from its 2.0-litre turbo petrol through an eight-speed auto, while Jaguar’s E-Pace P250 punches above its considerable weight pumping out a range-topping 183kW and 365Nm from the same 2.0-litre displacement but with a nine-speed automatic.
BMW’s X2 petrol model is somewhere in the middle with 141kW and 280Nm via a seven-speed dual-clutch, whereas the Mercedes-Benz GLA250 packs even more with 155kW and 350Nm from its 2.0-litre turbo and similar seven-speed dual-clutch auto.
It’s a significant disadvantage for the Lexus, particularly if it should take up the role of the principal family chariot with all the related kit it may need to haul, be it prams, boards or boxes.
Now remember, Lexus as always is billing the UX as a luxury vehicle, despite its compact proportions and entry-level status – no different to any of those propositions in its competitive set.
But, here’s the issue. Ride comfort, even on the softest setting in the UX250h with adaptive variable suspension, was still on the firm side, especially over Stockholm’s larger speedbumps that popped up with alarming frequency in some parts.
The ride was firmer again on the F Sport-equipped models without adaptive suspension, which is replaced by specific springs and stabiliser bars for "more feedback and greater engagement" according to the press kit.
Without back-to-back testing, we can’t say that’s the case, because both the Q2 and X2 are relatively dynamic performers within the segment, as well as offering a more compliant ride over poor surfaces than the Lexus.
Some of that comes down to the standard 18-inch run-flat tyres with their stronger sidewalls – on all variants bar the entry-level version that gets 17-inch tubeless tyres, which should provide a more compliant ride, but wasn’t available to try at the launch.
We pointed this out to several senior Lexus officials, and were told that vehicles we drove were in fact hand-built prototypes and that changes were already being made throughout the car and that the development program was ongoing.
That said, the UX is an easy thing to manoeuvre in tight spaces. U-turns are a piece of cake given its 10.4m turning circle. Vision is good, too, thanks to the engineers who have reduced the A-pillar mouldings, as is the low-set driving position with inherently comfortable seats throughout. It feels more like a hatch to drive than any SUV, which is by careful design according to Lexus.
For instance, entry and exit are certainly made easier through optimal placement of the hip joint and unique shape of the seat cushion. The same can be said of the distinctly driver-centric dash. All the instrument stalks and controls are within easy reach of the driver, and the touchpoints feel premium.
Entry-level status aside, the three-spoke steering wheel and standalone analogue clock are lifted straight from the flagship LS model. Even the air vents have received special attention with single-knob control for airflow and direction, and depending on what trim you order, they are infused with LEDs that are wirelessly powered.
The soft-touch leather upholstery feels superb to the touch, and there’s a new material that formed part of the dash in our test models called washi, and inspired by the grain of special Japanese paper. It’s both interesting and more luxurious than the leather itself.
Lexus is also talking up the tech with the UX, and there are plenty of examples, such as the 8.0-inch LFA-inspired instrument cluster complete with sliding bezel ring that’s also customisable.
Our press cars also had the 10.3-inch infotainment screen that’s unfortunately paired with Lexus’s next-generation touchpad-style controller, and while haptic feedback is improved, it's just as pointless and unintuitive as the previous version.
Thankfully, the audio controls have been moved to the base of the palm rest and can be used while on the move, but again, not as efficient as a single volume knob on the dash in our opinion.
Moreover, Lexus is planning to launch the UX here without Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, which it plans to roll out across multiple models in 2019. We’re not sure that’s a great idea given the relatively young buyer group this vehicle is intent on targeting.
Cabin space is decent, at least as far as front and rear passengers go. Luggage volume, though, is a lot less than we would have expected from a vehicle whose overall length (4495mm) is greater than that of the Volvo XC40 (4425mm).
In fact, even the more spacious 2.0-litre petrol UX variant can only manage to free up a maximum of 312L, whereas the hybrid version makes do with just 265L. That’s in stark contrast to the Volvo’s 460–517L of storage space. It’s an important consideration for new families and those weekend sports warriors.
Safety kit, on the other hand, is extremely well catered for aboard the Lexus. For starters, there are eight airbags as well as all the active systems like all-speed radar active cruise control, pre-collision system with pedestrian and cyclist detection, and lane-keep assist with lane-departure alert with steering assist. There’s also road sign assist, adaptive high beam, and intelligent high-beam headlamps with automatic high beam.
There’s also the seamless Lexus ownership experience that includes four years'/100,000km collection and return of your car from work or home with a loan car if needed, along with the brand’s enviable reputation for trouble-free motoring for years.
In fact, Lexus has led the Roy Morgan customer satisfaction index for the last four years, and that counts for plenty when it comes to the luxury car market.
But, Lexus is not only late to the party with the UX, it also faces some intense competition from all sides. Pricing and packaging will be crucial to the model’s success in Australia, as will the final production models and how they perform in local conditions.