Lexus placed a lot of faith in its small SUV, the UX. Upon its debut late in 2018, the brand touted its wider aspirations. It mentioned that the UX range would push its growth to new levels, specifically resulting in a new, heightened annual sales figure of over 10,000 cars a year in Australia, or just under 1000 cars a month.
Its ambitions were almost realised, with Lexus going on to achieve a total sales figure of 8819 in 2018, and then 9612 in 2019. During its first full year on sale, the UX ended up with a share of 11.7 per cent of its segment, and a whopping 20 per cent of its own brand model mix.
In 2020, despite the current climate, Lexus has sold 410 units as of April, which represents 16 per cent of its total volume thus far. It’s always better to be late to a party than never turn up, it seems. The small-SUV segment continues to return dividends for brands who decide to play in it.
The UX isn’t just a volume player for the brand that’s keen to grow, however. It represents one of two entry points for the brand; a step-up product from the mainstream. Likely to many a first taste of what the world of Lexus is all about.
Even more fitting is this particular 2020 Lexus UX200 Luxury we have on test, which is not only the cheapest UX available, but also by default the cheapest Lexus SUV you can buy.
It kicks off from $45,050 before on-roads, and is currently on campaign, too, available for $49,888 drive-away nationally.
So, does a sub-$50K Lexus maintain enough of the original reason to buy one in the first place? Or, in other words, is it premium enough to wear the badge?
Its styling suggests so. Lexus has finally found a design aesthetic that’s unique and truly Japanese. Previously criticised for designing safe, too regular cars, it seems the brand – and its parent company, Toyota, for that matter – has stepped out from behind the curtain to offer something distinct.
It isn’t for all, with sharp paper-fold style lines and dramatic edges, complete with gnarly drop-offs, feeling too overt depending on the angle. It doesn’t feel mainstream, however, nor like a glorified C-HR.
You find yourself thinking about craft and admiring its boldness. Proudly Japanese, if you’d agree.
One thing that’s instantly noticeable is the small interior space, or dwindling thereof, when compared to others. The Japanese persist with packaging interiors overwhelmingly; a point that becomes more pronounced when you step out of a UX and pop into an XC40.
The interior space for the driver is a little cramped. You may find yourself poking your knees around the upper footwell area in search of a comfortable location. This point becomes exacerbated when you decide to load the car up with four passengers, and then have to sacrifice your own space for the benefit of those behind.
Small items such as the wee instrument cluster and thin switchgear go on to provide a small sense of scale to the cabin, too.
Ergonomically, however, Lexus has made some real progress with the human machine interfaces found in its cabins. The newer-style infotainment touchpad is actually quite good, and provides haptic feedback upon input. This simple tactile inclusion goes so far in making interactions with the car simple.
It takes some familiarisation, but after a week’s worth of use, I felt comfortable to interact with the car in a manner that was safe to conduct while driving. It also lends to the premium nature of the car, being a step above simple touchscreen operation.
My only gripe with the system is the location of the return key, which should be placed within easier reach of where it is currently, above the touch pad.
It’s also far superior to the old joystick malarkey that weaselled its way into the cabins previously. I struggled to find any discernible difference in method of operation between this touchpad and the system found in newer Mercedes-Benz cars.
The presentation of the cabin is first-rate and fitting for a Lexus. Sitting proud of the dash is a 10.3-inch infotainment system, which now finally features Apple CarPlay plus Android Auto connectivity. The graphics are crisp and sharp, and its response time is on par with other premium marques. However, the Konami arcade-game-sounding audible responses are just a bit strange.
Other materials found are equally nice, even the faux-leather seats do not feel too 'pleathery' and fake. They’re also heated, even in this entry-level variant.
I’d recommend not opting for the A4-paper white colour scheme that our test car featured. The material used is really good at removing debris from your hands, maybe even better than you can do when you wash them. You'll notice high-traffic areas such as the vinyl-clad interior door handles becoming dirty within a day.
Out in the second row, twin USB ports and air vents keep occupants happy and feeling well. Getting in represents the biggest challenge, especially if you’re endowed with a pair of legs longer than the average.
With a seating position adjusted for someone around six foot, you find the front seat backrest ending up deep into the rear passenger area. Visually, you notice this before getting in the back, by being able to partially identify the driver by looking through the rear window instead of the front.
I had to brush up on my contortion skills in order to reside in the second row. Once you’re there, the seat base is spacious, and there’s plenty of glass and head room to temper any thoughts of claustrophobia.
It’s a shame that the front row’s style of seating and thickness of cushioning impede so heavily on the second row. This is an area that Lexus could possibly look to Europe for inspiration. How they manage to achieve a bit more space in the second row with clever packaging, while working with a similarly sized frame.
But, due to the aforementioned large rear seat squabs and a wide door aperture, loading kids and children is easy enough. If you need a larger second row for more frequent adult use, the larger Lexus NX makes for a more logical choice. For managing young offspring, the UX remains a viable option.
The cargo area takes inspiration from the second row, being convenient in ways, but let down in other areas. Given Toyota’s love for a flat floor, a significant portion of space is misused in order to achieve just that.
Its cargo area volume totals 327L, which is over 100L less than the Volvo XC40. Given we’re starting from a low base, 100L makes for a big difference in terms of storage area. The tailgate is manual, with an electric item making up part of an optional package.
Then there’s the fact that the boot is actually quite short, given the high floor. With the petite privacy shade in place, you really have around 50cm of height to play with before you start bulging the thin privacy screen.
At least there’s a convenient place to store the screen, as you’ll likely find that it’ll be stored more than it is used. It shares a place to hide just above the space-saving spare wheel and associated tools underneath the boot floor.
The entry-model UX200 is powered by a naturally aspirated 2.0-litre four-cylinder with a CVT transmission that drives the front wheels only. It’s the same running gear as found in the Toyota Corolla, albeit with a bit more power (up 1kW and 5Nm). In Lexus trim, the engine produces 126kW of power and 205Nm of torque.
It’s adequate for the job, despite moving around give-or-take 120 kilos more than a top-spec Corolla hatch. Acceleration from standstill to 70km/h is fine in busier traffic, but rolling performance from higher speeds, be it 90–110km/h, does require you to stress the engine a little.
Once again, it’s one of those cars that doesn’t beg for any more power. Sure, it's always pleasurable to have more under the pedal, but given the price tag and entry nature of the product, it’s more than satisfactory for the tasks that are likely to be requested of it.
The Direct-Shift continuously variable transmission features the same launch gear system as the Corolla. It provides immediacy to first input – something that isn’t usually a strong point for a CVT.
The only time its stretchy nature becomes apparent is when you begin to feed in maximum acceleration. The revs will flare, the speed will increase, but it’ll sort of hover the RPM in a defined spot that it deems most appropriate.
However, around town, you’d be hard-pressed to notice a difference when compared to a torque converter-equipped transmission. In regular situations, it remains a smooth, pleasant and likeable experience.
The UX’s simple powertrain comes with other benefits, too, such as fuel consumption. On test I achieved 7.4 litres per 100km travelled versus an ambitious claim of 5.8L/100km.
On the road, it continues to remain comfortable and relaxed. The best part of the driving experience is the steering. It’s remarkably accurate and calibrated in a way that loads up naturally. If anything, this is an area where Europe could look to Lexus for inspiration, in terms of making a car’s steering feel quite connected and direct.
Our test car was equipped with 18-inch wheels in lieu of the standard 17-inch wheels, yet the ride remained well sorted. It’s tuned to be supple. It softens out bumpy roads, and rarely gets crashy or unsettled by the really terrible stuff, namely around the outer edges of Sydney.
Harder, faster corners do induce lean, but it doesn’t wallow around. The suspension and related bushes do a good job of controlling and managing its mass, and clearly defining how they react to forces.
Safety while driving is also well catered for with the Lexus Safety System+ coming as standard on all UX models. This includes AEB with both cyclist and pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, lane-tracing assist, speed sign recognition plus blind-spot monitoring.
I found none of the systems to be calibrated in an intrusive way, and all doing their job quite well. The only issue encountered was a bit of runaway from the adaptive cruise-control system, which in a downhill scenario saw the car’s speed rise to 5km/h over what was set.
The Lexus UX also achieved a five-star safety rating from the Australian vehicle crash authority, ANCAP, having been tested in 2019.
If you can look past the lack of space in the second row and cargo area, you’ll find yourself drawn to the proposition of owning a Lexus UX200.
There are other faster, larger, similarly priced cars to consider, such as the newly launched Volkswagen T-Roc, but they might lack the premium nature and feel you were originally seeking.
The Lexus UX does make good on enough of its brand’s promises in order to wear the luxury badge.