2019 Lexus UX first drive review

Connectivity or drivability? The Lexus UX was born to do both

The Lexus UX fulfills the mission of delivering tech-fluent, stress-free motoring.
The Lexus UX fulfills the mission of delivering tech-fluent, stress-free motoring.
The Lexus UX fulfills the mission of delivering tech-fluent, stress-free motoring.

Highs

  • Smart tech
  • Seamless hybrid powertrain
  • Comfortable ride
  • Robust set of safety features

Lows

  • No non-hybrid AWD
  • Lacks driving engagement
  • HMI takes getting used to

The books, movies, and television shows that predicted what life would look like in the 21st century overlooked one key aspect of the 2018 landscape: the crossover.

Crossovers are in every neighborhood, every parking lot, every rental car fleet, and on every freeway in America. Motorists buy them faster than car companies can build them. It makes sense, then, that Lexus replaced the aging CT hatchback with a high-riding soft-roader named UX. Call it a sign of the times.

The UX stands out as one of Lexus’ most important product launches since its inception in 1989. It’s the brand’s entry-level model both in terms of size and cost. The Japanese firm isn’t ready to discuss pricing information yet but Cynthia Tenhouse, the general manager of product and consumer marketing for Lexus, told Digital Trends the UX will start at $32,000. That figure corresponds to the entry-level, front-wheel drive model. The all-wheel drive hybrid variant will cost $34,000. Neither figure includes a mandatory $1,025 destination charge.

2019 Lexus UX Review
Ronan Glon/Digital Trends

Full information (including the complete list of standard and optional features) will be released in the weeks leading up to the UX’s on-sale date in early 2019. We already know the base model will be front-wheel drive only; stepping up to a hybrid will be the only way to get all-wheel drive.

More than meets the eye

Design is subjective so we’ll play it safe and try to stick with the facts. First, Lexus stylists clearly favored a provocative, love-it-or-hate-it approach when they drew the UX. Second, it’s immediately recognizable as a member of the Lexus family. The familiar spindle-shaped grille dominates the front end while angular lights with checkmark-shaped LED inserts illuminate the road ahead. Creases and scallops break up the UX’s visual mass when it’s viewed from the side. Out back, finned lights connected by a light bar and a roof-mounted spoiler add a finishing touch to the overall look.

The UX is convenient; it’s for buyers who view the basic concept of personal transportation as another app in their lives.

It’s a simple coincidence that the fins are shaped like the letter L. They wouldn’t look any different if officials had chosen the name Zexus or Bexus when they secretly met to take Toyota upmarket because they’re functional. Lexus pointed out they improve airflow by reducing turbulence around the back of the car, which helps keep it stable at higher speeds, especially in crosswinds. Think of them as scaled-down versions of the winglets becoming increasingly common on airplanes.

Lexus created two new colors called cadmium orange and nori green (pictured on our test car), respectively, for the UX. They will later spread to other members of the brand’s lineup.

The UX makes a good first impression from the driver’s seat. The steering wheel resembles the one found in the LS, a simple but effective trick to make the model look like a more expensive car, and most of the materials feel like they belong in a luxury car. The UX won’t blush when compared to other upmarket crossovers like the Volvo XC40 and the BMW 1 Series. We also like that the interior is on the same design pane as the interior. You’ll love it or you’ll hate it, like we said before, but at least it’s congruous.

The switches and buttons are right where you expect to find them with the notable exception of the drive mode selector, which sticks out from the right side of the instrument cluster housing. The drum on the left side of the housing is a switch that turns the traction control on and off, an action the average UX owner will perform precisely zero times during their time with the car. These two drums create a visual link between the UX and the range-topping LC coupe.

They also remind us of the bolt lodged in the neck of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. There. We said it.

The techista’s crossover

Extensive market research shows the average UX buyer cares more about technology and connectivity than about horsepower and handling. It doesn’t need to channel decades of racing heritage or make the driver feel like he’s behind the wheel of a LMP1-spec prototype. It needs to be convenient; it’s for buyers who view the basic concept of personal transportation as another app in their busy, connected lives.

The UX optimizes it’s drivetrain performance by analyzing real-time traffic info, driving habits, and navigation data.

Base models come with a seven-inch screen mounted on top of the dashboard. Buyers who pay extra for navigation also receive an eight-inch screen. Both units are controlled via a touchpad not unlike the one on your laptop. It’s located on the center console, next to the gear selector. We’ve criticized this setup in the past because it’s as intuitive as using a laptop with your feet. Lexus is the surprising exception to the rule.

Navigating the UX’s infotainment system with the touchpad isn’t anywhere near as straightforward as it would be with a touch screen, but Lexus made the setup as user-friendly as it can be. It helps that the screen displays clear, vibrant colors and responds to input almost immediately. The menus aren’t always shallow but every option is legibly arranged in a list that pops up on either side of the main screen. Alternatively, the front passengers can adjust the climate control and entertainment settings using hard buttons found either on the center stack or on the center console.

Ronan Glon/Digital Trends

Amazon Alexa compatibility comes standard. Buyers with an Alexa-enabled device (like an Echo or a smartwatch) can use simple voice commands to lock or unlock the UX’s doors, start the engine, or check the fuel level. They can also communicate with their house on-the-go. “Alexa, turn on the living room lights.” “Alexa, close the blinds.” “Alexa, prepare a tuna casserole.”

We may have made that last one up.

Lexus doesn’t try to pass off the UX as an SUV; it’s a crossover.

Another trick tech feature goes by the name predictive eco drive control. Offered only on the hybrid model, it analyzes real-time traffic information, the user’s driving habits, and navigation data to optimize how the drivetrain generates and dispenses electricity.

For example, imagine you come to a stop at the same intersection every day. The software learns this behavior and triggers more aggressive regenerative braking when you ease off the gas pedal to send more electricity back to the battery pack. Of course, this requires tracking the user. Motorists concerned about privacy can turn the function off. Those who choose to keep it on enjoy a segment-exclusive function.

The list goes on. Apple CarPlay compatibility comes standard. Lexus shunned it for years, forcing buyers who wanted the feature towards the competition, but Tenhouse admitted it finally caved due to overwhelming demand. The UX doesn’t support Android Auto yet, though Chad Deschenes, a product trainer at the Lexus College, told Digital Trends the company is open to offering the software in the coming years. In other words: not now, but never say never.

Four USB ports come standard, too. Options include an in-car Wi-Fi hotspot and a large head-up display. We didn’t test the former, but we found the latter easy to read even in bright sunlight. We like that it displays a power meter in the hybrid model. You can tell whether the battery pack is receiving or dispensing electricity without taking your eyes off the road and adjust your driving style accordingly.

Laid-back comes standard

Lexus offers the UX with two powertrains. The base UX 200 comes with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 169 horsepower at 6,800 rpm and 151 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm.  Those figures are on the low side for the segment; Volvo, BMW, and Audi offer more standard horsepower. The 200’s four spins the front wheels through a complex gearbox that’s essentially a continuously variable transmission (CVT) fitted with the conventional first gear from a regular automatic. Hiroyuki Ohta, one of Lexus’ vehicle evaluation specialist, told us engineers took this route to achieve a balance between a CVT’s superior fuel economy and an automatic’s better drivability.

We spent most of our time driving the gasoline-electric UX 250h, whose 175-hp drivetrain teams an Atkinson-cycle 2.0-liter four-cylinder with a pair of electric motors that draw electricity from a nickel-metal hybride battery pack sandwiched under the rear bench. It promises improved efficiency and a smoother driving experience.

2019 Lexus UX
Ronan Glon/Digital Trends

One electric motor helps the four-cylinder spin the front wheels through the same CVT found in the 200 model, while the second zaps the rear axle into motion as soon as the UX requires additional traction, such as when the front wheels hit an ice patch. It’s a through-the-road all-wheel drive system, meaning there is no mechanical connection (e.g., a driveshaft) between the front and rear axles. Lexus notes the battery pack stores enough juice to power the UX on its own for the briefest of distances.

Lexus doesn’t try to pass off the UX as an SUV. It’s a crossover, one built on the same basic platform as Toyota’s Corolla Hatch and C-HR, among other models. These roots make it decidedly car-like to drive around town, where its light steering and its tight turning radius make maneuvering through narrow streets a breeze. Suspension parts tuned with comfort in mind deliver a compliant ride, though it’s not as soft as other Lexus models like, say, the ES. In an urban environment, the 250h’s two power sources work together seamlessly like a band that’s perfectly in sync. The engine is the frontman and the electric motors are the supporting musicians. To continue our analogy, we’ll call the transmission the drummer.

The UX is comfortable at all times. It wouldn’t be worthy of wearing the oval Lexus emblem if it wasn’t.

The direct-shift transmission feels like a standard automatic at take-off. There is none of the droning or rubber-band like feel normally associated with a CVT. That comes later, when the transmission switches from gear to belt operation. It’s not the worst CVT on the market but it’s still a CVT and it behaves like one, especially when the driver summons more of the engine’s power to merge, pass, or go up a hill. Most competitors, including the XC40, offer a conventional automatic transmission.

Take the UX out on a country lane with sweeping turns and you’ll find it’s pleasant to drive without being exhilarating. It delivers composed, laid-back acceleration that’s strong but won’t pin the driver to the back of the seat. Remember: technology over horsepower. Connectivity over handling. The built-in driving modes don’t drastically change the UX’s behavior, especially since American-spec models won’t receive the adaptive suspension offered in many other markets around the globe. It’s never too soft or too hardcore.

The UX maintains its composure on the highway. On-center feel is good and the brakes are adequate. We like the lane-keeping assist technology, which keeps the car centered in its lane rather than sacrificing it as the ball in a ping-pong match between the two sides of the road. It’s quiet, too; we managed to have a conversation with our co-driver at about 75 mph without shouting over the four cylinders.

2019 Lexus UX
Ronan Glon/Digital Trends

All told, the UX is comfortable at all times. It wouldn’t be worthy of wearing the oval Lexus emblem if it wasn’t. The ride is smooth, the seats are plush, and the cabin is spacious, even with four people on board. The hybrid model offers 17.1 cubic feet of trunk space, a figure that’s on the lower end of the spectrum for the segment. It lacks the XC40’s trick storage solutions, too.

We didn’t spend enough time behind the wheel to measure real-world fuel economy for either model and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hasn’t released its results yet. We noticed the hybrid’s electric-only range is largely symbolic, however. The battery’s charge lasts a few short miles at best and keeping the four-cylinder quiet requires giving the throttle the lightest of inputs.

Peace of mind

Every UX regardless of trim level or powertrain comes with dual front, front knee, front side, and curtain airbags in addition to traction and stability control systems. Lexus also includes its Safety System+ 2.0 suite of driving aids, which bundles a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, lane tracing assist, road sign assistance, and automatic high beams. In other words: the UX has your back when you need it most. Its robust suite of safety features makes up for some of its shortcomings in less important areas like driving dynamics.

Lexus hasn’t released warranty information yet. It’s reasonable to assume the UX will come with the same coverage as every member of the company’s lineup. It includes a basic warranty good for 48 months or 50,000 miles and a powertrain warranty that lasts 72 months or 70,000 miles. Additionally, Lexus covers the components that make up the hybrid system for eight years or 100,000 miles.

The challengers

The UX primarily locks horns with the surprisingly clever Volvo XC40. Neither model has serious enthusiast-friendly pretensions; you won’t find them doing hot laps before their daily commute. Instead, they both dress a different kind of table with technology and a fresh approach to design as the guests of honor. In this respect, the XC40 is the UX’s most direct rival.

Other options include the Audi Q3, the BMW X1, and the Mercedes-Benz GLA. The UX inevitably overlaps with higher-end variants of the Mini Countryman, too, and it will need to fend off the Cadillac XT4, a promising up-and-comer.

How DT would configure this car

Lexus hasn’t released full specifications about the UX yet so we can’t comment on the options we’d choose and the ones we’d leave out. We’d select the basic, non-hybrid model unless we truly needed all-wheel drive to regularly power through snowy roads and we’d add navigation.

Conclusion

The Lexus UX fulfills the mission of delivering tech-fluent, stress-free motoring at the expense of a thrilling driving experience. It’s a combination that meets the needs of most motorists, and the all-in-one Lexus Complete Lease program represents a convenient alternative to buying or leasing. Don’t be surprised when you begin seeing UXs pop up on your daily commute.

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