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Luxury driving with a small footprint
With the UX, Lexus is targeting 'urban explorers,' also known as millennial hipsters
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Friday, September 14, 2018 – Page D4

STOCKHOLM -- 2019 Lexus UX


Engines: 2.0-litre four-cylinder, 2.0-litre four-cylinder/two-motor hybrid Transmission/drive: Direct-shift CVT or Hybrid Planetary Drive/FWD. or AWD Fuel consumption (L/100 km): TBA

If you're not familiar with Japanese language, be advised that Chika is a female name. We mention this because the chief engineer of the new Lexus UX crossover is Chika Kako - the first female to hold that post in the history of Toyota Motor Corp. For a major Japanese car company, that is as unconventional as it is commendable.

Unconventional is a word that also comes to mind when we ponder the UX itself. This is a crossover bred for a natural habitat could not be more distant from the great-outdoors theme of traditional crossover marketing.

Officially "UX" is distilled from Urban Crossover (X-over), although Lexus publicity uses the term "urban explorer" a lot - hence, the global media launch centred in Stockholm. The youthful, creative capital of Sweden mirrors the UX's mandate to attract "the modern urban explorer seeking a fresh, contemporary and dynamic take on luxury driving," as Kako puts it.

Many of those urban explorers are expected to be buying not just their first Lexus, but their first luxury vehicle, period.

So if the task is to recruit youthful, new customers to the brand, what is the tool? It's a bit of an odd one really. In broad strokes the UX competes in the luxury subcompact category against the Audi Q3, Jaguar E-Pace and Volvo XC40, though arguably its low build puts it closest to the coupeish BMW X2 and Mercedes GLA.

You could also look at the UX as a replacement for the CT200h, which went away after the 2017 model year. Lexus hasn't revealed UX pricing yet, but the 2017 CT started at $32,750, whereas the UX's "obvious" rivals start in the high $30,000s. Where will that leave the UX? The competition are mostly all-wheel drive and/or turbocharged, and the base UX is neither, which suggests it should start below $35,000 - even with standard amenities that include a moonroof, heated and ventilated eight-way power front seats and a comprehensive package of automated driver-assistance features.

We'll know soon enough, but for now let's focus on the product.

The UX is the first Lexus based on the brand's GA-C architecture, a.k.a the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) that underpins the Prius and C-HR.

The base 200h will be frontwheel-driven by a hyper-efficient 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine paired with TMC's novel DirectShift continuously variable transmission. Uniquely among its peers the UX is naturally aspirated (did someone just say "no turbo, no trouble"?) which leaves it well down on power (168 horsepower) and torque (151 poundfeet) versus the competition's 200-plus on both measures.

While the 200h is likely to deliver class-leading fuel economy, it clearly isn't pitched as a performance car. But the UX is supposed to be a luxury vehicle, which makes the engine's lack of refinement a let-down. Hopefully, production versions will be less raucous than the prototype we drove.

The 200h will get shoppers into the showroom, but most buyers are expected to leave at the wheel of a 250h hybrid. In the 250h, the gas engine is modified to run on the Atkinson cycle, gains a balance shaft and is paired with the latest evolution of the Lexus twomotor-generator hybrid transmission. Total system power is quoted at 175 hp.

An E-Four (AWD) version adds a small motor-generator to drive the rear wheels in traction-challenged situations where the fronts can't.

The 250h is a little quicker than the 200h, but the real appeal is its vastly superior engine refinement. Plus, of course Prius-like fuel economy.

If straight-line speed clearly isn't a priority, engaged drivers should enjoy the chassis. First impressions indicate the UX's road moves are taut, athletic and surefooted, the steering direct and nicely weighted. I'd like sharper on-centre response, but the goal was to provide steering character consistent with the rest of the Lexus family, explained vehicle evaluation specialist Hiroyuki Ohta.

Sportiness can be dialled up somewhat with F Sport packages available on the 200h and he 250h E-Four, as well as selecting "Sport" on the standard drive mode select knob.

Even more than usually, this first-drive on foreign soil leaves a lot undetermined. The test samples were prototypes, they weren't exactly to Canadian spec and the drive route hardly gave the car a serious workout.

We can say that if you regret not buying a new CT200h while you still could, the UX will be an excellent alternative. And either way, this new Lexus is an intriguing proposition for urban hipsters who like their luxury served up with a small footprint - the antiEscalade, if you like. As Chika Kako puts it, the UX represents "luxury measured in unconventional terms" and we can't argue with that.

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval


LOOKS Longer and lower than most peers, the UX has a confident stance to go with its muscular contours, while the latest evolution of the Lexus "spindle" grille is distinctive without being overpowering.

INTERIOR A low-slung driving position feels more sport-sedan than crossover, yet without unduly compromising visibility. The available "Washi" (parchment) trim material is unusual and attractive. Few of us liked the haptic-feedback touch-pad that interfaces with the 7- or 10.3inch display screen, but there are real buttons for the HVAC and basic radio controls, the latter cleverly integrated into the centre-console palm rest. Rearseat room is cozy even by the modest standards of its category.

PERFORMANCE Even if you're not a stop-light drag-racer, you'll want the 250h, which launches more briskly (0-100 km/h in a claimed 8.5 sec versus 9.2 for the 200h) and delivers satisfying surges of passing power. It's much more refined, too, than the basic 2.0, which foregoes a balance shaft to save weight. Chassis-wise the UX corners flat and feels well planted, though we wish the steering was a little livelier on-centre.

TECHNOLOGY Lexus's Enform connectivity/ telematics suite now includes Apple CarPlay, in addition to such features as traffic incidents, automatic collision notification and stolen-vehicle locator - all standard. Also standard, Lexus Safety System+ 2.0 includes all-speed adaptive cruise control, pre-collision system with pedestrian and bicycle detection, and lane trace assist.

CARGO It's a modest 481 litres on the high-decked base 2.0 (which has a spare tire below) and on the Hybrids (which house hybrid componentry underneath). The 2.0 F Sport, however has a tire inflator kit, which enables a lower deck for a more competitive 615 litres of cargo volume.

At least with the high deck the seatbacks fold flat and flush.

VERDICT 7.5 A promising proposition for a certain unconventional demographic, but more wheel time and Canadian pricing needed for a firm verdict

Associated Graphic

The 2019 Lexus UX will be offered in a base 200h model and the higher-end 250h.


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