Road Tests

Drive Review: Lexus UX (2018) does different, well

Lexus’s first compact SUV. But hasn’t every other brand in the world already launched one of those? Almost, but the Lexus UX genuinely brings something new to the table. One with so many cuts, creases and shiny details in its exterior design it can’t help but stand out. Lexus certainly hopes so, expecting the UX to become the brand’s top seller, quickly outgunning its mid-size NX and large RX SUV big brothers.

The 2018 Lexus UX is longer than any premium compact SUV rival, lower than all but the Infiniti QX30 and in the middle of the pack on width – the Audi Q3 and Jag E-Pace are wider, the BMW X1 and Merc GLA narrower. Those proportions give the Leux UX a much more hatchback/crossover feel, rather than boxy and upright, like the Volvo XC40.

The Lexus UX will be sold as the UX200 with a normally aspirated 126kW,250Nm 2.0-litre with CVT and the 130kW UX250h with a new hybrid thingymajig for better power and range. it’s due to go on sale in South Africa in 2019, but there will probably be some spec shuffling and repackaging until that point to squeeze it into SA’s condensed and hybrid-averse market.

If you’re expecting a petrol-electric hybrid from Lexus to beat any BMW X1 around corners, forget it. However, the Lexus UX is firmly part of the newer generation of Lexus cars – from the LC to the forthcoming new ES – that really do drive better than their predecessors.

With a seating position lower than other SUVs, the new Lexus UX feels more car-like to manoeuvre. Combine that with lightweight aluminium and composite panels and Lexus claims the UX has the lowest centre of gravity in its class. Either way, there is a surprising agility to the car when twisty roads appear, improved further by Active Cornering Assist, which monitors the vehicle’s trajectory through curves and applies the appropriate braking on the inside wheels to suppress understeer.

Every Lexus UX gets Drive Mode Select – a twistable knob unusually situated on the side of the driver display cowl but easy to access – with three settings. Beyond Normal, throttle responses are tempered in Eco, or quickened in Sport and steering feel is increased in the latter mode as well. On F Sport models there are five modes – Eco, Normal, Sport S, Sport S+ and Custom – which up the ante again plus there’s the option of adaptive variable suspension, which irons out road lumps and bumps well, and is worth ticking.

For those who’ve experienced the sonic schizophrenia of the NX’s sometimes odd acceleration noises and the CT’s early whining, Lexus now offers Active Sound Control, generating better aural effects akin to the up and downshifts of a geared automatic, while Sonic Interaction Design boosts the sound again for Sport S+ mode.

But let’s not swerve the main point of the Lexus UX. In eco-conscious family vehicle mode on a brief city-plus-suburban test, 4.2l/100km was our real-world result, exactly the same as Lexus’s official combined estimate. Driving vigorously in Sport+ we almost halved that good work, though, recording 8.2l/100km. Reality is, Normal or Eco are sufficient for most UX driving scenarios and you can now coast in EV mode up to 110km/h for short stretches.

The front of the UX’s cabin is where Lexus plays one of its trump cards. Smart, (mainly) logical and less cluttered than its bigger brother NX, the space feels generous and welcoming. Material quality is excellent and original in places too, notably in the optional dashboard covering that resembles textured Japanese washi paper.

Indeed, Lexus is stressing its superior craftsmanship – called Takumi – and named its top UX trim after it. Below that sits F-Sport.

Annoyingly, the UX’s remote touchpad tech borrowed from other Lexus models for the infotainment screen (7in as standard, 10.25in on F-Sport) is still fiddly. Even at its slowest setting the cursor moves too fast, which makes it easy to overshoot within menus and click the wrong item. Zooming in and out within the map function is also tricky, and embedded too deep within the system to find easily. Practice helps a bit.

Further minus points include rear seat space which only feels okay for taller passengers and material quality which, especially around the rear door trims, takes a dive. Boot space remains unconfirmed for now, but looks small with less room in the hybrid under the load floor (compared to the petrol-only unit available in other markets).

The Lexus UX may not handle better than a BMW X1 or look as smart as a Jaguar E-Pace, but for urban-focused drivers this capable crossover is a compelling choice.

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