First Drive: 2019 Lexus UX is Nimble on Crowded City Streets

September 12, 2018 by Jaclyn Trop, @jaclyntrop

Lexus credits the launch of its RX 300 in 1999 with the creation of the luxury crossover.

The segment is now one of the fastest growing in the industry. Over the past two decades, competitors such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi have staked their own claims to the category.

The debut of Lexus’ all-new UX subcompact crossover signals there’s still room for growth.

“The UX will become the newest gateway for Lexus on the crossover side,” Brian Bolain, a spokesman for Toyota Motor Corp.’s luxury division, said at the vehicle’s global launch in Stockholm this month.

The subcompact crossover joins a growing cadre of small, funky-looking, urban-inspired utility vehicles from the Volvo XC40 to the Hyundai Kona. The UX also follows the 2014 release of Lexus’ NX small crossover, which neared sales of 60,000 in 2017, topped only by the brand’s perennially popular RX midsize crossover.

Short for “urban crossover,” the UX is expected to attract city dwellers in their 20s and 30s when it arrives in dealer showrooms this winter. It will be positioned as an entry-level utility vehicle with a compact footprint equally suited to congested downtowns and weekend getaways.

It also will be the first Lexus nameplate offered under Lexus Complete, a subscription model the automaker is piloting in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. The service bundles insurance and maintenance costs with customers’ monthly lease payments. (Shoppers can still buy the UX outright or sign a traditional lease.)

The streamlined billing concept is similar to the Care by Volvo program the Swedish automaker launched alongside its XC40 last year.

Built on the same platform as the Toyota CH-R, a subcompact crossover introduced last year, the five-passenger UX comes with a more rigid chassis and a new continuously variable transmission tweaked to provide more direct driving feel.

  • 2019 Lexus UX. (All photos: Lexus)

There will be a 168-horsepower gasoline version with a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine or a 176-horsepower hybrid with electronic all-wheel drive. Either will be available with the F Sport performance package, which includes paddle shifters, aluminum pedals and black chrome trim.

The UX sports a muscular profile that derives from Toyota’s 2012 shift toward a “braver design,” the company’s response to criticism that its vehicles were boring, Bolain said. The fourth-generation GS mid-size sedan spearheaded the transition.

Lexus’ bolder character has since been reflected in the all-new NX, the RC and LC performance coupes, the latest version of the RX, which includes a longer-wheelbase iteration with a third row, as well as the ES and LS sedans.

The UX will compete against popular luxury models, including the Mercedes-Benz GLA, BMW X1, Infiniti QX30 and Audi Q3. Though the market is teeming with new nameplates, Lexus believes there’s plenty of room to spar. The automaker expects industry-wide subcompact crossover and SUV sales to surpass 120,000 this year, up from 20,000 in 2012.

The brand’s current four-model SUV lineup, which spans the compact NX to the full-size LX, has tempered a drop in car sales. Sales of Lexus trucks rose 5.1 percent during the first eight months of the year compared with a year earlier, according to Autodata Corp. This helped offset a 15.4 percent decline of its sedans and coupes during the same period.

Analytics firm IHS Markit forecast the UX will comprise 9 percent of Lexus’ U.S. sales.

Lexus has not announced pricing under the subscription plan, but Bolain said a sub-$1,000 price point is popular among early adopters of car subscription models, especially in cities where insurance costs skew higher. Volvo’s monthly plans start at $650.

Though it’s too soon to gauge demand for subscription plans like Lexus’ and Volvo’s, the model is gaining traction with premium brands, said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with IHS Markit.

“There is a clear appeal in an upfront price that includes all maintenance, insurance and fees,” Brinley said. “Subscription services have potential to become simply another way for consumers to purchase transportation.”

The UX’s purchase price will fall below its larger NX sibling, which starts at $36,185.

Engineers strived to give the new subcompact crossover the toughness of a utility vehicle with the handling of a sporty coupe, according to Chika Kako, chief engineer for the UX. Though SUV customers prefer to sit higher, the team opted to give the UX a lower, hatchback-like driving position for easier access.

“We worked really hard on the driving position,” Kako said.

On a test drive in Sweden, the lower perch didn’t compromise visibility. The windshield granted an expansive view, thanks to “engawa,” the Japanese aesthetic that uses wide windows to connect interiors with nature. Despite the UX’s subcompact footprint, the open, roomy cabin allows enough space for adults in either row to sit comfortably. However, blind spots along the sides sometimes made changing lanes a challenge.

Interior of the 2019 Lexus UX

Interior of the 2019 Lexus UX. (Photo: Lexus)

During the drive around Stockholm, the UX felt secure on winding roads and highways but small enough to navigate the crowded city. Its 34.2-foot turning radius proved convenient while forging deeper into the capital.

Lexus Safety System Plus, the automaker’s suite of advanced driver-assistance features, also was a plus. The pre-collision system with pedestrian recognition, road sign detection and parking sensors for entering and exiting spaces helped us navigate the foreign country.

The infotainment system, long a bugbear for Lexus customers, showed a marked improvement from older Lexus models, with crisper displays and clearer controls. Amazon Alexa and Apple CarPlay were easy to program in a hurry.

The car’s navigation function seemed more straightforward than previous generations of the automaker’s Enform system — until it sent us circling downtown Stockholm during Sunday afternoon traffic while trying to find the Abba Museum.

But even for a driver lost in city traffic, this crossover felt calm and collected in its natural urban habitat.

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