Toyota’s premium brand Lexus has moved into the baby crossover sector with a new model slotting in below its two more established SUV offerings.
On the road
On the road
Lexus is a brand still pushing to increase traction in the UK marketplace, with Toyota’s premium arm having been in the UK since 1990 and now offering a range of nine different vehicles comprising saloons, hatchbacks, SUVs and coupes.
All feature the hybrid powertrain systems that Toyota and Lexus have become renowned for, and that’s the key point for the newest member of the clan, the UX.
1. Lexus's cabin quality really sets the UX apart as a high-quality proposition
2. Once it's been pointed out, it's impossible to un-see the fact that the front and rear door handles don't line up. It's a styling point that could irritate people who like things to be orderly.
3. It's a frustrating bit of nanny-state-ness that you can't set the sat-nav on the move, even as a passenger, especially as the voice-control system isn't up with the best.
The UX is a small crossover – the major growth area of the car market – and gets below 100g/km for CO2 emissions thanks to the combination of 176hp 2.0-litre petrol engine and electric motor capable of powering the car in isolation for short periods on light throttle. In Lexus-speak, it’s a “self-charging” hybrid, meaning that it doesn’t need to be plugged in, but instead charges using energy recouped under deceleration or by the engine topping up the battery.
It’s at its most effective in low-speed urban scenarios because the system requires a light touch; any significant prod of the throttle will instantly cause the engine to start up to help out.
Previous generations of Toyota’s hybrid powertrain have been criticised for the amount of engine noise they offer while generating forward motion, and the new system is a big improvement rather than a complete cure.
Response is now much better from the 184hp system, and although the engine is still far from quiet when asked to work, it emits less of a droning noise than previous incarnations. But what it does emit is significantly less CO2 than its conventional internal-combustion-engine rivals. It’s a funny sector, because the front-drive UX doesn’t line up with all rivals in a logical fashion: the Audi Q3 and Jaguar E-Pace have comparable power outputs but only with four-wheel drive, which increases their emissions figures, while Mercedes seems to have dropped the diesel models from its GLA crossover range. However, the BMW X2 – the sportier-styled sibling to the X1 – is a much more direct rival.
There is also a four-wheel-drive UX, which adds another £1250 to the price on most models, as well as adding 6g/km to take it up to 103g/km, although the majority of buyers are expected to go for the more efficient front-drive model.
Lexus offers the car in three trims levels, the base UX, mid-level F-Sport and top Takumi of our test car, although the pictures feature the F-Sport model. There are significant price walks of £4000 and £5200 respectively between the trims, but as could be expected, the equipment levels take equally significant steps up. While all cars get adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, lane-keep assist, intelligent high-beam assist, LED headlamps, dual-zone climate control, rear camera and sat-nav, the F-Sport adds alloys up an inch to 18-inch, front and rear parking sensors, privacy glass, heated front seats and a variety of F-Sport-specific styling additions including sports seats. The top-spec Takumi gets head-up display, wireless phone charger, Mark Levinson premium audio system, powered front seats and larger 10.25-inch screen.
The UX looks smart from the front and back, but the side view is more controversial, with the cheap-looking plastic wheelarch cladding that is rounded to one side and squared to the other looking both confused and like it has partly been stolen from a Jeep. There’s also a metal crease line that doesn’t quite meet the crease in the front wheel’s plastic cladding, although it gets close enough to look like it should, and the front and rear door handles don’t line up which, once spotted, can prove an irritation every time you look at the side of the car. However, the alloy wheels on the two higher trim levels are both pretty designs.
There’s no doubting the level of the interior as soon as you enter the cabin, especially the sweeping dash top, and all the key areas are right up with the best in class for feel and quality. But get past the first impressions and there are a couple of oddities, such as the switch to turn off the traction control being a large circular knob at eye level on the edge of the instrument binnacle. It’s seems more than a little strange to have a button that will be used so infrequently, if ever, so prominent.
But that’s nothing compared to the first experience of Lexus’s trackpad-controlled infotainment system. Although improved over early incarnations, it’s incredibly difficult to use on the move, where the driver needs to take their eyes off the road for much longer than is advisable to change functions on the screen, and it’s a real weakness of the car when all rivals have a significantly slicker systems. Minor additional complaints by comparison include the fact that the pad’s pulse sensation to tell the operator they are hovering over a function feels like a mini electric shock, and that at this stage neither Apple CarPlay nor Android Auto connectivity are available.
And while we’re on the UX’s negative points, the boot is massively hampered by the battery packaging, and can offer less than half the capacity of some rivals’ with a supermini-like 220 litres. Anyone needing good boot space needs to look elsewhere, and it’s not helped by the flimsy fabric parcel shelf that feels at odds with the more expensive quality of the car throughout the rest of the cabin.
As mentioned earlier, the hybrid powertrain is improved over previous incarnations, although it still suffers some issues concerning refinement under acceleration. But it’s also been improved in the speed at which the battery will run the car on its own with the engine shut down, now peaking at 71mph on long downhill sections. When not under significant throttle, the engine refinement is significantly less of an issue, while the silent running of the car on electric mode at low speed is therapeutically relaxing.
Ride quality is also a forte, with bump absorption and higher-speed ride quality both commendable, and the steering is a well-balanced weight.
However, where the UX scores most highly is on paper, as is usually the case with Lexus. Though the driving experience is improved, the key reason for choosing a UX over its polished rivals is the company car tax case, where the sub-100g/km emissions figure makes a huge difference to the amount of a driver’s wages that are diverted to the Treasury every month. Compared to a BMW X2, which is the next best of the key diesel rivals, the Lexus will save a 40% taxpayer £118 per month – which is a huge amount.
And from an outright-purchase perspective, residual values are good, as are servicing, maintenance and repair figures, and the efficiency means that official fuel economy also outpoints any of the diesel rivals. Finally, the whole-life cost case gives the Lexus a big advantage over any competitor in pure monetary terms.
This all makes for a hugely compelling case that the accountant will be delighted with.
The UX is a complicated offering. It’s excellent in many areas, including interior quality, efficiency and, from some angles, the styling, but it’s well adrift of premium rivals in others. Indeed, its flaws seem so obvious that it’s almost that Lexus has shot itself in the foot – the main avoidable issues are the poor infotainment system that’s way short on usability, and a boot so tiny that it may be a deal-breaker.
But there’s really no arguing with the numbers on BiK or whole-life costs, and it’s a handy time to be coming into a growing baby crossover sector with a car that’s leading the market in those key financial areas.
The new Lexus UX completes the Japanese premium brand’s moves down the SUV and crossover segments that started in the late 1990s with the RX large SUV. That car is now about to receive a mid-life revision to its fourth generation and also has the RX L seven-seat alternative.
In 2015, Lexus added the NX mid-sized SUV (pictured, right), which immediately became the brand’s best-selling vehicle in Europe.
Next up is the new UX, which stands for Urban Explorer. This is available with a cheaper petrol powertrain in other markets, although there are no plans to add that to the petrol-hybrid model on sale in the UK.
The company says the UX will act as a conquest vehicle, with many customers being new to the premium brand sector, as well as new to Lexus, and it’s a crucial part of the firm’s ambitions to hit an annual 100,000 sales in Europe by the end of next year. According to Lexus, key target groups are customers with young families, as well as downsizing households where children have left home and couples whose travel mixes business and leisure. Consumer moves in to SUVs at the expense of saloons and hatchbacks are deemed key to hopes for success.
What they said
What They Said
“The UX is a brand new model that has taken us into a fiercely competitive segment where customer demands for quality, efficiency, practicality and costs all have to be balanced."
“It’s a great car to drive, thanks to the quality of the Lexus Global Architecture platform, and its efficient and reliable self-charging hybrid electric powertrain delivers a best-in-class BIK rating. Fleet managers and company car drivers can enjoy big savings compared to all the UX’s rivals, plus the best customer service in the business from our Lexus Centre network.”
Stuart Ferma, General Manager Fleet Operations, Lexus GB
Need to know
Three things we like...
Dashboard is impressively high-quality in material and feel
The hybrid powertrain is a big step forward from earlier technology
...And one we don't
Touchpad that controls the infotainment set-up is too awkward for use on the move
There’s still more noise than forward motion, although the drivetrain is better than before, and the UX handles tidily enough.
The hybrid powertrain’s big benefit is a huge emissions advantage, although the gap closes on fuel economy versus diesels, so journey patterns are key to benefit.
The presence of hybrid batteries massively hampers the boot space, while rear passenger space is adequate at best.
Kit levels are good across the range and key options are wrapped up into packages.
There’s good and bad to the styling. Front and rear views are smart, but the side is a little odd with various lines that don’t meet up and the part-round, part-square plastic wheelarches.
Comfort and refinement 6/10
The hybrid powertrain is much improved over previous efforts, but still offers plenty of noise under acceleration. It runs nicely on electric-only in short bursts.
Generally very high quality and plush, it’s an impressive cabin.
The lack of Apple CarPlay/Android Auto becomes minor once you try and engage with the touchpad. It just doesn’t work in a car. And the voice activation is below par.
Whole life costs 10/10
Lexus is peerless for whole-life costs thanks to the hybrid powertrain’s advantages and decent residual values.
CCT opinion 7/10
Hits and misses, but the UX makes a lot of sense for company car users.
The UX stacks up brilliantly for business drivers, but has practicality issues and some styling and especially usability nuances that would improve the car if ironed out.