2019 Lexus UX first drive review: Small-minded, but not like that

September 13, 2018

When SUVs first bubbled up from the primordial ooze, size truly mattered. From Wagoneers to Land Cruisers to Suburbans, the most popular sport-utility vehicles dwarfed the passenger cars that shared the road. Eventually, they bullied many of them off the streets entirely.

Now size is less a concern. Today’s best-selling crossover SUVs have shrunk. Explorers have been traded in for Escapes, 4Runners for RAV4s.

It’s possible that, one day, the 2019 Lexus UX might be the most popular crossover SUV from Toyota’s luxury arm. And it’s the smallest all-weather hatchback Lexus has ever offered–“SUV” having become shorthand for all-weather hatchback, anyway.

MORE: Read our 2019 Lexus UX review

Sized like the BMW X1, Volvo XC40, and Mercedes GLA-Class, the 2019 UX crossover can’t match the next-bigger Lexus NX for length or interior space, but it’s close enough. And when it comes to premium feel and price, the UX200 and UX250h hybrid ring a value bell the NX can’t seem to grasp.

We give the 2019 UX200 and UX250h a rating of 5.8 out of 10 here at The Car Connection; here’s why.

2019 Lexus UX (UX250h E-Four hybrid)

2019 Lexus UX (UX250h E-Four hybrid)

2019 Lexus UX (UX250h E-Four hybrid)

2019 Lexus UX (UX250h E-Four hybrid)

2019 Lexus UX (UX250h E-Four hybrid)

2019 Lexus UX (UX250h E-Four hybrid)

2019 Lexus UX (UX250h E-Four hybrid)

2019 Lexus UX (UX250h E-Four hybrid)

Lexus UX styling and space

With the UX, Lexus brandishes its current styling sword, and gives its smallest crossover a snarling pit bull face. Today’s Lexus cars and SUVs look nothing at all like the low-key Mercedes knockoffs of the franchise’s first few vehicles, like the LS400. An hourglass-grilled UX stands in huge relief to those circa-1990s cars, with its slits and creases and sharply drawn corners. The finned taillights stand out and off from the rear end and call up distant memories of 1950s iron; it’s up to the beholder to decide if that’s awful or inspired.

The tamer cabin takes a more convincing premium stance than Lexus’ NX, which essentially is a rehashed last-generation Toyota RAV4. No exposed screw heads or glossy grainy trim lives in the UX cabin. It sweeps across an elegantly tamed horizon line, with digital displays and some playful touches of color that can transform the cockpit into a yacht-rock homage in blue and white, or a tasty caramel.

The shapes polarize, but the UX wraps its personality around a cabin that provides better space than in rivals such as the GLA-Class. Power front seats, even in base trim, have grippy texture and softly bolstered cushions. UX F Sport crossovers can wear red-inset synthetic leather on heavily cupped sport seats that bear-hug the driver and front passenger.

Large back-seat passengers will have to rotate their big feet through small door openings, but the UX’s back seat has great room for two tall adults, a pleasant surprise. The petite dimensions yield lots of usable space, but hybrids suffer a bit. The cargo space dips from about 21 cubic feet in the UX200 to just over 17 cubic feet on the UX250h, the space difference consumed by hybrid batteries.

2019 Lexus UX (UX250h E-Four hybrid)

2019 Lexus UX (UX250h E-Four hybrid)

Lexus UX performance

The 2019 UX will come in two configurations in the U.S. The $33,025 Lexus UX200 has front-wheel drive, and the $35,025 Lexus UX250h has all-wheel drive.

The hybrid’s a better deal. Base versions get a 168-horsepower, 2.0-liter inline-4 with entirely pedestrian acceleration delivered through a CVT. Lexus claims 0-60 mph times of just under nine seconds and a top speed of 118 mph. On the way there, the 4-cylinder sound isn’t so premium as the fittings, though most UX crossovers get acoustic glass to damp out the din.

The 176-hp UX250h hybrid delivers better traction, quicker acceleration, and quieter operation. Its all-wheel-drive system has two motors; the rear motor sends battery power to the rear wheels at speeds below 44 mph to provide through-the-road four-wheel traction. Lexus says this model’s three-tenths of a second quicker in the 0-60 mph run. It’s also less thrummy at higher speeds, and it drops what Lexus promises will be much better fuel economy: 38 mpg combined, versus the UX200’s 33 mpg combined (the EPA has confirmed neither yet).

Like most of Toyota’s new small cars, the Lexus UX has better steering and body control than its track record might predict. A new global architecture delivers a stiffer body, and a well-tuned electric steering setup lets the UX track well through corners. Ride is its best virtue, with a supple feel that’s tough to pull off in small cars. American-market UX crossovers won’t get the adaptive dampers sold elsewhere; with them, the UX’s price tag would overlap that of the NX.

2019 Lexus UX (UX250h E-Four hybrid)

2019 Lexus UX (UX250h E-Four hybrid)

Lexus UX safety and features

Lexus fits standard automatic emergency braking to every UX, as well as adaptive cruise control and automatic headlights. Other standard and available features include navigation, premium audio, Apple CarPlay compatibility (but no Android Auto just yet), a sunroof, and in-car Alexa service that (finally?) brings driving and shopping together under one sheet-metal roof.

Base models of either configuration can be padded with Premium, Luxury, and F Sport packages, the latter of which delivers slightly firmer tuning, though all UXs roll on the same 18-inch tires in U.S. spec.

The bottom line? The 2019 Lexus UX pitches itself as the more spacious and efficient alternative to the small German SUVs with the big badges on their front ends. It outpoints them smartly–and in doing so, takes the Volvo XC40 head-on.

We’ll answer that question with a comparison drive soon.

Meanwhile, the $33,025 2019 Lexus UX200 goes on sale in December 2018, with the $35,025 UX250h on sale a month later. Lexus says it will offer the car through a subscription model, but no details have been confirmed.

Lexus provided travel and lodging to Internet Brands Automotive to bring you this firsthand report.

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