The Lexus UX compact SUV has taken less than a year to comfortably install itself as one of the Japanese brand’s most popular vehicles in Australia.
It has also contributed to Lexus Australia achieving some growth (up nearly seven per cent at the three-quarter mark of 2019) in a market that has gone backwards.
No doubt, the company wishes it had got the UX to market quicker considering this model was first mooted at the start of the decade (and that the larger RX was one of the first luxury SUVs introduced, in 1998).
The Lexus UX sits on the compact version of parent company Toyota’s Global Architecture platform, shared with the Corolla hatch and C-HR SUV. Starting from $44,450, it’s the most affordable Lexus save for the entry-level CT200h hatchback (incidentally, a model so old that Lexus USA has replaced it directly with the UX).
Our $53,000 2019 Lexus UX200 Sports Luxury variant here is quite the price jump over the entry Luxury, though buyers with the extra spend should be satisfied with the additional features over the well-equipped base model.
For the exterior, the Sports Luxury gains rear privacy glass, 18-inch wheels over 17s, ‘3-eye’ LED headlights, the side mirrors form part of the seat memory, there’s a more advanced auto high beam, the front indicators adopt 20 LEDs, and the tailgate features a hands-free function (opening/closing with a kick under the rear bumper).
Inside, the seats switch from Nulux artificial leather to leather-accented upholstery, the electric front seats gain ventilation, there’s a 13-speaker 668-watt Mark Levinson audio system, and higher-grade cabin finishes plus stitching.
Sports Luxury buyers also get a cool Panoramic View Monitor that, at the touch of a dash button, uses the UX’s exterior cameras to provide an ‘x-ray’ 360-degree view around the lower part of the vehicle. It’s very handy for monitoring your proximity to kerbs and avoiding wheel scrapes.
Perhaps because the UX is aiming for a more youthful vibe than other Lexus SUVs, its interior – such as the multi-layered dash and multi-curved doors – features more design flourishes than either the mid-sized NX or large RX SUVs.
Nice embellishments, too, with the curved metal door handles, chrome door lock pins, beautifully stitched and detailed front seats, and the mid-dash trim element Lexus says is inspired by traditional Japanese paper known as washi.
There is absolutely no confusing the UX’s cabin with those of its Toyota cousins, though harder plastics at lower levels (and higher in case of rear door cards) bring the overall level of quality down a notch compared with some rivals.
The relationship to the Corolla and C-HR is more obvious in the rear seat, where the UX suffers from a similar shortfall in knee room. Toe space is also limited, three adults won’t fit across the bench without considerable discomfort, and entry to the back seat is quite narrow. Head room is better if hardly generous, particularly by SUV standards.
No door compartments, either, limiting storage to the centre armrest’s two cupholders and a single map pocket behind the front passenger seat. There are rear vents and two USB ports.
The UX is also equipped with side airbags for the rear, giving it eight airbags in total.
The UX200 Sports Luxury has the biggest boot (371L) in the UX range thanks to: a) not having a full-size spare like the Luxury (it uses run-flat tyres); and b) not having to accommodate a battery pack at the rear like the hybrid versions.
However, it’s still a small boot by class standards – shallow, not that wide, and incapable of swallowing much luggage. A typical pram – such as a Mountain Buggy – will squeeze in, though it won’t leave room for other bags unless you’re happy to block your rear vision.
Some hidden underfloor storage – both to the sides and under the main compartment – helps with smaller items, and there are fold-out bag hooks and a 12-volt socket. The seatbacks fold 60-40, but for bigger lifestyle gear you’re realistically looking at roof-racks or rear carriers.
The UX’s driving position has more in common with a hatchback than an SUV, which is worth noting for buyers looking for the ‘commanding’ seat height. Adjustments are all electric, including the steering wheel.
Vision forward and rearward is good, though the chunky B-pillar makes the standard blind-spot system essential.
The speedo and tachometer are neatly integrated into one central circular digital display, while our test car featured a sharply presented head-up display that forms part of a $3500 Enhancement Pack also including sunroof and smart key. Both displays include speed-sign notification.
All controls/functions fall within easy reach, and the driver is made to feel the focus of the cabin with angled infotainment display and centre stack. Lexus ignores the trend for touchscreens by persisting with its track-pad menu/function controller, but it’s simply proof that such a method of operation is best left to laptops.
It’s just too fiddly trying to select options on the display – easily skipping your desired function or radio station, for example. It’s tricky even if you’re stationary and too distracting while on the move.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto won’t be available until the end of 2019, though existing owners will have the opportunity to have smartphone mirroring fitted retrospectively. In the meantime, the fine-sounding Mark Levinson system is a big drawcard to tempt buyers upwards from the base Luxury model.
The UX200’s petrol engine won’t interrupt your favourite album, either, as it’s pleasantly mannered, including a subtle stop-start system when getting underway from junctions or traffic lights.
Refinement remains intact even if you rev the engine to higher RPM, which is not something that can be said about the petrol engine mated to an electric motor in the hybrid UX250h.
There’s even a hint of sportiness if you’ve chosen Sport mode via the stubby switch to the left of the instrument binnacle, before the CVT dulls things by killing revs (and response). Sport mode may be tempting on a more permanent basis for some drivers, as the CVT can make initial acceleration sluggish in Normal.
The 2.0-litre four-cylinder has humble origins – shared with the Corolla, albeit with marginally higher outputs of 126kW (+1kW) and 205Nm (+5Nm) – and performance is similarly modest, if acceptable. A 0–100km/h time of 9.2 seconds is slow at this pricepoint, where rivals benefit from turbocharged performance.
Fuel economy arguably benefits from the lack of forced induction, though, as we registered 6.4 litres per 100km on the UX200’s trip readout, not far above its official 5.8L/100km.
A hybrid UX has slightly sprightlier performance (0–100km/h in 8.5sec) and slightly lower official consumption (4.5L/100km) in 2WD form, though it carries a $3500 premium.
Rolling refinement is slightly spoiled by the Sports Luxury’s 18-inch Dunlop Sport Maxx run-flat tyres, which generate noticeable noise as soon as you leave smooth sections of bitumen.
They also contribute to a ride that, while mostly comfortable, isn’t as finessed as the Corolla’s (or C-HR’s, for that matter). The UX’s suspension struggles to deal with lateral joins and matters get busier under the wheels if road quality starts to degrade.
The Lexus isn’t a particularly sporty drive, yet it has plenty of composure and none of the more pronounced body roll you would get from a more conventional SUV of similar size. And while the Dunlop tyres aren’t quiet, they provide good grip, chirping only if you’re being aggressive with the throttle.
Well-weighted steering and nicely calibrated brakes help make the UX easy to drive. The steering is at its most accurate with lock wound on, otherwise there’s a wishy-washy feeling around the straight-ahead position.
Running costs are helped by the UX200’s ability to run on regular unleaded.
Servicing costs are good or bad value, depending on how you compare them. Lexus’s $1716 charge over four years is fine by the standards of its segment, but seems excessive when you consider a Toyota Corolla, with which the UX200 is mechanically related, is $700 for the same period.
The brand’s four-year warranty is a year longer than the norm in the luxury market.
The UX’s appeal just shrinks markedly if you’re looking to accommodate a family or carry rear passengers on a regular basis. There are other compact luxury SUVs that cover off practicality far more effectively. Add performance to that, too.
But for buyers focused on the front seats and seeking the Lexus experience in a compact format, the UX is a better execution than either the next-size-up NX SUV or the long-in-the-tooth CT200h hatch.
And while a Corolla or C-HR may steer and ride that little bit more sweetly, the UX200 is an easy vehicle to drive with a decent comfort level. And the Toyotas certainly don’t look as posh inside.