2019 Lexus UX first drive review: Just what new premium shoppers want

It's a lede we've published time and time again in recent years: Customers love crossovers, especially ones with luxury badges on the nose, so a premium automaker is introducing a smaller, more affordable one. This time, it's the 2019 Lexus UX, which arrives in the US this December to slot at the bottom end of the company's range.

Like lots of its rivals, the UX is aimed at the type of urban-dwelling young people whom demographers believe want cars for adventure rather than, well, driving. "A vehicle that is flexible for their lifestyle is more important to them than horsepower," says Cynthia Tenhouse, Lexus general manager of product and consumer marketing. And, sure enough, the UX is none-too-exciting from behind the wheel. But its luxurious appointments, generous feature set and attractive price should more than make up for any dynamic downfalls.

Small building blocks, big style

The UX builds on Toyota's GA-C (Global Architecture Compact) modular platform and is closely related to the affordable C-HR. Compared with that crossover, however, the UX's subcompact chassis gets extra laser welding and structural adhesives to increase rigidity. The doors, hood and front fenders are made from aluminum and the liftgate from polymers, all to save weight. At 177 inches long sitting on a 103.9-inch wheelbase, the UX is 5.3 inches shorter than the NX, Lexus' next-biggest crossover.

It's just as pretty as other Lexus crossovers, which is to say the UX is an acquired taste. The chunky, plastic-clad fenders are meant to add some toughness, while Lexus' familiar giant spindle grille dominates the nose. Where so many new luxury cars are offered in black, silver and white, the UX's palette is pleasantly diverse, with such offerings as Nori Green, Cadmium Orange and Autumn Shimmer.

The best styling element are the taillight assemblies. These three-dimensional elements at the side of the body serve as functional air guides (contributing to a good 0.33 drag coefficient) and are connected by a 3-millimeter-thick full-width LED element. It looks especially slick when you follow a UX in the dark. Opt for the F Sport model to nab a different grille design, a different front fascia with inset fog lights and unique 18-inch wheels (plus various interior and mechanical tweaks I'll discuss momentarily).

2019 Lexus UX 250h

The styling is bold from every angle -- especially in a more daring color like this one.

Lexus

Two engine options are offered. The UX 200 uses a 2.0-liter inline-four rated for 169 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque, with front-wheel drive and a continuously variable transmission. As in the Corolla Hatchback from whence this powertrain comes, the unique CVT has a fixed first gear for crisper take-off. The UX 250h, meanwhile, uses a hybrid that combines an Atkinson-cycle version of the 2.0-liter tuned for 143 horsepower, along with two motor-generators, to drive the front wheels; peak output is 175 horsepower. There's another motor that can deliver up to 7 horsepower to the rear wheels at up to 45 miles per hour to endow the 250h with low-speed all-wheel drive.

As with most Lexus models, upgrading to the F Sport package brings no powertrain improvements, but you do get retuned shock absorbers, new anti-roll bars, stiffer wheels and different tires. The US will not, however, get the adaptive damping featured on the European F Sport package.

Whichever powertrain you pick, my experience at the UX's Stockholm, Sweden global launch reveals that this Lexus drives just fine, a judgment that may sound like faint praise. The non-hybrid feels the quicker of the pair on the road, with pleasantly strong midrange torque and smooth power delivery (though neither is especially brisk above city speeds). The hybrid is quiet and slick off the line when it's operating on electrical power, but its engine can both sound and feel strained when asked for more acceleration. 

At least its brake pedal feels almost exactly the same as that of the non-hybrid, impressive given how often regenerative braking results in mushy and unpredictable brake feel.

2019 Lexus UX 250h

Lexus expects an EPA rating of 38 miles per gallon combined from the hybrid.

Lexus

It's really tough to get excited about driving the Lexus UX, even in the F Sport model with the drive-select knob twisted to Sport+, because you always feel mildly detached from what's going on. The UX's chassis is agile and happy to change direction, but not exactly eager to dive into bends. No feedback is telegraphed through the steering wheel, but at least the action is nicely weighted, quick and precise. It's a crossover that will neither annoy nor excite you on the road -- fitting in well with the ethos of most other Lexus models.

Though Lexus claims its UX has the quietest cabin in the class, a notable amount of wind roar comes off the side mirrors at highway speed (which, in Sweden, turns out to be a thrilling 62 miles per hour) and there's a good amount of tire and suspension noise. Still, in traffic the cabin does keep most exterior hubbub at bay.

Fuel economy from both powertrains will be a high point. The UX 200 is expected to return 33 miles per gallon combined (exact EPA city and highway numbers are still being finalized). That's more efficient than rivals like the Audi Q3, BMW X1, Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class and Volvo XC40, though it's worth noting the Lexus is less powerful. The hybrid should post 38 mpg combined.

2019 Lexus UX 250h

The cabin is well-organized and filled with premium materials.

Lexus

High-quality cabin

The inside of the Lexus UX offers plenty of space for your fellow active-lifestyle friends. With the driver's seat adjusted so I could drive comfortably, I had good (if not exceptional) legroom in the second row, as well as plenty of headroom, so fitting four adults should be fine. Though a low cowl and skinny pillars provide a panoramic view forward and to the sides, the UX's stylized C-pillars and somewhat small rear window reduce over-your-shoulder visibility.

Cargo space is a bit tight. The floor is very high (even though there's nothing -- not even a spare tire -- underneath it) and the liftgate slopes, so you get just 21.7 cubic feet of space in the UX 200 and 17.1 cubic feet in the UX 250h. The rear seats do fold down for more storage.

Material choices throughout the cabin are fitting for the UX's price point, and all of the switchgear has a satisfying tactile feel. Daring color schemes include red upholstery and a white-and-blue choice, and there are options for Japanese "washi"-inspired dashboard toppers. A full-color digital instrument cluster presents lots of driver information front and center, supplemented by an optional color head-up display. In F Sport models, the cluster has a moving gauge ring, as seen in other sporty Lexuses.

2019 Lexus UX 250h

These controls on the console make using the fiddly infotainment system a little easier.

Lexus

The UX comes standard with a 7-inch infotainment system, while a 10-inch version with navigation is optional. Unfortunately, both of those screens rely on the same frustratingly obtuse Remote Touch Interface software as found in other Lexus models. Translation? An overly complicated menu structure is operated by a twitchy touchpad on the center console. Unlike some other Lexus models, the heated/cooled seat and heated steering wheel controls have fortunately been liberated from the infotainment display and have physical buttons.

A major improvement in the system's usability is the addition of new controls by the armrest specifically designed for you to use with your right hand while driving. There are seek, tune, volume, radio and media buttons, all of which can be manipulated without taking your wrist off the armrest. It works very well, but the "tune" knob is by your thumb and the volume by your index finger; I'd rather have them swapped as I spend more time adjusting volume than tuning.

Support for Apple CarPlay is standard while Android Auto remains unavailable. Though Lexus officials say they are "still looking at and researching" adding Android Auto, they cited data showing that 80 percent of Lexus drivers own iPhones.

2019 Lexus UX 250h

The 10-inch widescreen display has bright, crisp graphics.

Lexus

The infotainment system also has built-in Spotify internet radio support and Amazon Alexa integration for, say, locking or remote-starting your car by voice command. A Wi-Fi hotspot comes with one year/4 GB of data for free, after which you'll need to pay for a Verizon data plan. You'll also find four 2.1-amp USB ports (two up front, two in back) to charge your gadgets up quickly. A wireless device charging pad is also optional.

Safety gear is in abundance, with the UX featuring the Lexus Safety System 2.0 Plus suite as standard. That decodes to mean pre-collision braking with cyclist and pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control with Lane Tracing Assist, automatic braking in reverse and road sign assist -- that last feature can even show warnings for stop or do-not-enter signs. Blind-spot monitoring is optional.

The right model at the right price

Pricing for the UX 200 will start at $32,000, not including $1,025 for destination, which will undercut the Mercedes GLA-Class, BMW X1 and Audi Q3. The UX 250h hybrid, meanwhile, will start at $34,000. That'll make the new model the most affordable Lexus model in the US, slotting below the $37,180 NX 300. The UX 200 will hit dealers in December with the 250h following in January 2019.

2019 Lexus UX 250h

As is the case with its rivals, the UX is targeted toward urban-dwelling drivers.

Lexus

You'll also be able to subscribe to the UX through a new program called Lexus Complete Lease. Though prices haven't been finalized, the program will bundle lease payments and insurance costs into one fixed monthly sum.

It's easy to write off the Lexus UX; its mostly forgettable driving experience and not-for-everyone styling are tough to get excited about when there are many interesting options in this crowded segment. 

On the other hand, the UX arguably offers a better value-for-money equation than its rivals, with all the technology and style some customers are looking for in what may be their first luxury car. For that reason, it's bound to be a hit with shoppers. These types of vehicles are the hottest thing going -- crossovers and SUVs already account for 69 percent of Lexus sales -- and the 2019 UX is the ideal vehicle to capitalize on that craze.


Editors' note: Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, the manufacturer covered travel costs. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

Discuss 2019 Lexus UX