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First drive: 2019 Lexus UX [Video review]

by Drew Johnson

Lexus bets big on the small SUV.

As it turns out, the urban jungle is the final frontier. At least it is when it comes to SUVs.

After years of making SUVs capable of climbing over mountains, automakers are now designing SUVs specifically for city dwellers -- the kind of people that want the tough image of an SUV, but in a smaller and more refined package. And that strategy is working -- nearly 70 percent of new vehicle sales in the U.S. are now SUVs.

Not wanting to be left out of the small SUV boom, Lexus is now rolling out an urban crossover of its own known as the UX. Come with us as we take a closer look.

What is it?

The UX is Lexus' smallest SUV offering, slotting beneath the current NX. In terms of physical dimensions, the UX is about five-inches shorter than the NX in both height and length.

The UX is offered in two basic configurations -- the gas-powered UX200 and the hybrid-powered UX250h. Both models use the same 2.0L naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine. The UX200 is good for 169 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque, while the UX250h, with its additional electric motor, is rated at 181 horsepower. Lexus does not release torque figures for its hybrid models.

All UX models use what Lexus calls a 10-speed Continuously Variable Transmission. That name is a bit misleading since CVTs don't have gears, but the system in the UX is designed to mimic the operation of a conventional 10-speed automatic. The UX's transmission is also unique in that it has a fixed first gear that eliminates the rubber-band feeling associated with CVTs during low-speed acceleration. If that system sounds familiar, it's because Toyota uses the same CVT in its Corolla hatchback.

The UX200 can only be had in front-wheel drive, but Lexus says an all-wheel drive system is under consideration. The UX250h, meanwhile, is only available with all-wheel drive, with an electric motor powering the SUV's rear wheels. It should be noted, however, that the UX250h's electric motor only operates at speeds up to 43mph, so after that the UX250h is actually front-wheel drive.

According to Lexus, the UX200 can accelerate from 0-60 in 8.9 seconds and return 33mpg in mixed driving. The UX250h, with its additional electric motor, can scoot from 0-60 in 8.6 seconds. The hybrid model is good for 39mpg in mixed driving, which Lexus says is tops for any SUV without a plug.

The UX200 and UX250h utilize the same basic brake and suspension systems. The UX200, which weighs 3,300 pounds, undercuts the UX250h by about 300 pounds, but that difference isn't perceptible on the road. You can, however, tell a difference when it comes to trunk space; the UX250h's load floor is four-inches higher than its gas-powered counterpart due to the hardware associated with its hybrid system.

There's a couple different trims for each model line -- Premium and Luxury -- as well as a sporty F Sport package that can be had on gas and hybrid UX models. The F Sport packaged doesn't add any more power, but it does bring a sport-tuned suspension, unique wheels, dark trim and a gauge cluster inspired by the LFA supercar.

The UX follows Lexus' latest design language, which includes a blend of sharp lines and creases. Overall we think the UX looks good and will easily stand out from the crowd but, as always, your mileage may differ.

And the inside?

The interior of the UX is a typical Lexus design, just on a smaller scale. The steering wheel and gauge binnacle are reminiscent of the LS sedan. Like most modern Lexus models, the UX uses a high-mounted widescreen infotainment display, complete with an integrated analog clock. Climate controls are logically arranged just below and take the form of easy-to-use toggle switches.

Luckily Lexus hasn't tried to reinvented the shift lever in the UX, but they have taken some liberties with the SUV's infotainment controls. In typical Lexus fashion, the UX's infotainment system is controlled via a console-mounted track pad that's not always intuitive to use; we'd far prefer the option of having a touchscreen to use.

The UX also features a new control layout for things like volume and radio tune -- those controls are integrated in a horizontal wheel design just in front of the center armrest. Although that placement means the controls fall easily to hand, they aren't very natural to use. You might get used to the setup if you actually owned the car, but we found it awkward to use during our day with the UX.

Apple CarPlay comes standard in all UX models, but Android users are left out in the cold -- there's no Android Auto connectivity, at least for now. All UX models are also Amazon Alexa compatible, so you can use your UX to control your Alexa-enabled devices and vice versa (you can ask Alexa things like, "Is my UX locked?"). Lexus' Safety System+ 2.0 -- which includes emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist, among other features -- is standard on all UX models.

Materials in the UX are quite good, especially if you spring for the Luxury trim, which includes a "Washi" textured dashboard and some interesting interior color options, like a blue and white two-tone treatment.

Despite its diminutive size, the UX offers plenty of front seat room. More impressively, the UX also has a reasonably spacious backseat that can accommodate two normal-sized adults. As mentioned before, the UX200 has more trunk space than the UX250h, but both models have a load floor that is high given their small stature.

On the road

Although Lexus refers to the UX as an SUV, it's really more of a high-riding hatchback. As a result, the UX doesn't have the commanding seating position associated with most SUVs. However, the UX's lack of vertical height, which can cause body roll in the corners, does make it sportier to drive than your average SUV.

The suspension in the standard UX does a good job of blending athleticism with typical Lexus comfort. The F Sport's sport-tuned suspension is firmer, but only just. Unless you're driving a regular UX back-to-back with an F Sport model, we doubt you'll be able to tell the difference.

Steering in the UX is light and devoid of any road feel, but it's at least direct. Better steering would go a long way in making the UX more of a driver's SUV.

Despite having a relatively meager 169 horsepower, the UX200 moves along just fine. Moreover, the CVT's fixed first gear makes the most of the engine's 151 lb-ft of torque from a stop, so there's plenty of punch off the line.

The UX250h feels quicker, but not dramatically so. And keep in mind that over 43mph the UX250h has essentially the same drivetrain as the UX200 but with 300 more pounds to drag around, so the gas model is probably quicker from 50-70.

The UX is Lexus' least expensive model, and you get the sense that some of that savings came at the cost of noise isolation. The cabin of the UX isn't excessively loud, it's just not the kind of quiet and serene environment we've come to expect from Lexus.

Wind noise is kept mostly at bay, but tire noise has a tendency to penetrate the cabin. The biggest offender, however, is engine noise. The 2.0L is loud under acceleration, and the noise it makes isn't very becoming of a luxury vehicle.

Pricing

The 2019 Lexus UX is priced at the heart of the compact premium SUV segment. The UX200 starts at about $33,000, which includes destination. The UX250h will carry a base price just over $35,000. The F Sport package tacks on $2,000 to either model.

Leftlane's bottom line

With the UX, Lexus has created one of the most appealing urban crossovers on the market. The UX is the right size for city environments with decent around town grunt and excellent fuel economy. It's also loaded with available tech and boasts a surprising amount of cabin space.

Cargo space isn't a UX strong point, and the lack of all-wheel drive in the gas model seems like an oversight. But other than those shortcomings, the UX makes for a solid offering in the fiercely competitive small SUV segment.