2020 Lexus UX 250h review: Space is at a premium
The 2020 Lexus UX 250h makes a very strong first impression. The sharply styled exterior design looks amazing -- especially in my example's cadmium orange paint -- and the hybrid's generous fuel economy claims are worth a double take. Yet it's hard to fall in love with Lexus' smallest model.
While efficient, the powertrain is a bit breathless at speed, and there's surprisingly little room for cargo, passengers or car seats in the UX's cramped cabin. And even with the 2020 model year tech updates, the littlest Lexus' cockpit tech can be a bit confusing to use.
Gorgeous and angular, the UX is probably the best execution of Lexus' SUV design language and, in my opinion, one of the best-looking vehicles in its class. The sharply creased sheet metal plays better with the UX's subcompact proportions than those of the larger RX and NX models. I particularly enjoy the chunky, RAV4-esque wheel arches and the three-dimensional design of the taillamps, which protrude a bit from the body like little aerodynamic diffusers.
Measuring 177 inches from nose to tail and standing just 60.6 inches tall, the UX isn't that much larger than the CT 200h that it technically replaces as the entry point Lexus' US lineup. The slightly elevated ride height and all-wheel drive are basically the only traits of its design that define the UX as a small SUV rather than hatchback. To be fair, that's usual in this class.
That said, even among its Lilliputian peers, the UX's cabin feels particularly claustrophobic. There's not much legroom to be found in the cramped second row and precious little volume for cargo. Between the sharply raked roof and the hybrid's battery pack, which raises the rear hatch floor, the UX 250h only offers 17.1 cubic feet of cargo space, about 4.6 cubes less than the non-hybrid. That's total cargo space with the seats folded flat. That puts the UX hybrid among the worst in its class, with less cargo capacity even than the liftback Hyundai Ioniq.
What's more, the high load floor and small hatch opening make it difficult to load bulky items. Squeezing a not-too-big 8.25-cubic-foot box in the back even proves to be a challenge.
Fortunately, the front row is fairly comfortable with a reasonable amount of head- and legroom, as well as supportive seats. The UX's dashboard features high-quality materials that are as pleasing to the eye as they are to the hand. Despite a few puzzling design choices for the tech, I really like the Lexus' cabin aesthetically and ergonomically.
Lexus Enform with Remote Touch
The dashboard is home to the only real changes for the 2020 model year. The UX now features Android Auto smartphone connectivity via USB. Of course, Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa compatibility also carry over from last year. Like the larger Lexus RX, Android Auto makes full use of the UX's optional 10.25-inch ultrawide screen, filling the display with a split-screen interface that showcases navigation and audio data at the same time.
Beyond the third-party tech, Lexus' Enform infotainment system with Remote Touch controller is… not great. The console-mounted touchpad is easy enough to understand, but can be imprecise and awkward for fine selections or when driving. That may be one reason why Lexus blocks all but the most basic infotainment interactions when the car is in motion, but it also means you can't have a passenger input a destination for you.
The UX also boasts what has to be the most awkwardly placed volume dial that I've ever seen. You'll find it -- after some searching -- slotted into the side of a palm rest aft of the Remote Touch pad along with shortcut buttons for audio source selection and radio tuning. The tiny knob requires multiple swipes for quick volume adjustments and can be hard for passengers to reach without contorting.
It's a little ironic that a vehicle called UX has such poor user experience (UX) design.
Lexus Safety Suite 2.0
Thankfully, the UX's advanced driver-assistance tech makes a more solid showing with standard Lexus Safety Suite 2.0 for all models. That means standard forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control with traffic jam assist, lane-departure warning and very decent lane-tracing assist -- checking all of the boxes out of the box. The UX also features standard automatic high beams and road-sign detection, which showcases posted speed limits in the navigation and instrument cluster displays.
My example also features the optional park assist with automatic rear cross-traffic braking ($595), the upgraded triple-beam LED headlamps ($1,660) and a full-color head-up display ($500). Other creature comforts adding to the bottom line: a heated steering wheel, all-weather floormats and a few more odds and ends.
Hybrid Synergy Drive performance
The Lexus UX 250h features a version of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive with standard all-wheel drive. Matching a 2.0-liter gasoline four-cylinder engine with an electric motor sends a total of 181 horsepower (and an unspecified amount of torque) to the crossover's front wheels. Meanwhile, a dedicated 7-hp electric motor-generator on the rear axle splits 40 pound-feet of torque between the rear wheels on demand at speeds up to 45 mph. This is basically the same low-drag AWD-e setup you'll find in the updated Prius.
The UX features Normal, Sport and Eco drive modes, accessible via stubby stalks above the instrument cluster, and a limited EV drive mode button on the center console. Though the hybrid can technically slip into EV operation at up to 71 mph, such speeds are only really attainable when coasting downhill. In practice, the EV mode is for creeping in and out of driveways or around parking lots.
Around town, the UX 250h feels pretty good with decent thrust off the line and a responsive accelerator backed up by electrified torque. The UX's suspension and steering are taut, which makes the tall hatchback feel fairly nimble around urban obstacles. You'll need that nimbleness to dodge potholes; the UX's slightly too-firm suspension can be punishing over rough patches of road.
At higher speeds, unfortunately, the UX's hybrid powertrain seems to run out of juice. Highway passes and merges lack the oomph that you feel around town, while spirited driving -- where you'd want to capitalize on the responsive steering and suspension -- are met with wheezy, laggy acceleration. The optional F Sport trim may prove to be more fun with its sport-tuned suspension and paddle shifters but, without any extra power, I doubt it. This isn't a sports car; it's an eco car with sporty leanings.
The UX hybrid is pretty good at being an eco car, returning an EPA estimated 39 miles per gallon combined, 38 highway mpg and up to 41 mpg in the city. That's not bad for an all-wheel drive hybrid SUV, essentially matching the Ford Escape AWD Hybrid and Toyota's own RAV4 Hybrid AWD. Expand your net to include front-driven models, though, and the Kia Niro's 49 combined and 51 city mpg blow pretty much everything else in this class away before the plug-ins join the fray.
Pricing and competition
The 2020 Lexus UX 250h is available in base ($34,500), F Sport ($36,500) and Luxury ($39,700) trim levels. The base model nets you most of the creature comforts and the Lexus Safety Suite 2.0 technologies; with a few extra options, there isn't really a need to go beyond that. F Sport models feature some suspension and chassis tweaks, more aggressive styling and paddle shifters. Finally, the top Luxury trim rolls in creature comforts like memory seats, steering wheel and mirrors, a power moonroof and improved audio. As tested, my Luxury model with premium paint, triple-beam LED headlamps, HUD, parking assist and other features rolls out at $44,700 including a $1,025 destination fee.
The UX is an odd little bird. Its precarious balance of style, luxurious appointment and efficiency comes at the expense of any real utility. Toyota's own RAV4 Hybrid is more powerful, more spacious and equally efficient for much less money. Honda's CR-V Hybrid, despite its quirks, is a more engaging drive. The frumpy-looking Kia Niro is far and away the most efficient SUV I can think of without a plug. And yet, those aren't "luxury SUVs" like the UX; none offers the top-end creature comforts or quality of materials that Lexus does.
Some people with a little extra cash seeking a stylish urban runabout that stands apart from the crowd may find the UX 250h to be exactly what they're looking for. For most, I think, the tech annoyances, the cargo space compromises and the luxury tax may not be costs they're willing to pay.