Hy­brid SUV ploughs its own fur­row in a bid to tempt buy­ers away from the Volvo XC40, Jaguar E-pace, BMW X1 and Audi Q3

Autocar - - THIS WEEK - TESTED 4.9.18, SWE­DEN ON SALE OC­TO­BER PRICE £35,000 (EST)

There is a very good rea­son why Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Volvo and plenty more be­sides have hur­ried to in­tro­duce com­pact SUVS in re­cent years: no other pre­mium mar­ket seg­ment is grow­ing at a faster rate across Europe just now. Lexus wasn’t about to sit back and watch its ri­vals grab fist­fuls of mar­ket share, which is why its line-up of SUVS is now three-strong, rather than two. The new UX slots in be­neath the mid­sized NX, which it­self sits one rung be­low the flag­ship RX.

Lexus reck­ons some­thing like 80% of UX buy­ers in Bri­tain won’t have owned one of the brand’s cars be­fore, which means this dis­tinc­tive cross­over serves a dual pur­pose: earn rev­enue in the short term and bring new life­long cus­tomers into the fold beyond that. The com­pany’s mar­ke­teers have aimed it di­rectly at 30-some­thing city dwellers, a group that it refers to as “cre­ative ur­ban ex­plor­ers”, but it ac­cepts that a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of buy­ers will also be older cou­ples down­siz­ing from full-sized SUVS. Who­ever the UX is aimed at, the car it must prove it­self against is the Volvo XC40, our cur­rent favourite com­pact SUV.

The UX is clearly the most car­like of all the XC40’S chal­lengers, for it is a mere 68mm taller than a Volk­swa­gen Golf but some 129mm lower set than a Jaguar E-pace. With a very low-slung seat­ing po­si­tion within that fairly squat body, the UX even feels more hatch­back than it does SUV. Those buy­ers who are look­ing for a lofty seat­ing po­si­tion and a

com­mand­ing view of the road will be well ad­vised to con­tinue their search else­where.

The pay-off, of course, is that the UX doesn’t have the tee­ter­ing cen­tre of grav­ity of a more con­ven­tional com­pact SUV, which means it should han­dle with the poise and agility of a hatch­back. With that same goal in mind, Lexus’s en­gi­neers worked es­pe­cially hard to make the car’s struc­ture as rigid as it could be – which also im­proves re­fine­ment and safety – while the use of com­pos­ites for the bootlid and alu­minium for the door skins helps to keep weight down. At 1620kg, the two-wheeldrive hy­brid UX isn’t as hope­lessly over­weight as it might be.

What Lexus calls a “brave de­sign” oth­ers might de­scribe as over­wrought – there are sharp an­gles and creases wher­ever you look – but it all seems to be part of a wider ef­fort to make the UX stand out from the count­less other small pre­mium SUVS. Even its driv­e­train is some­what un­usual (see sep­a­rate story, above right), at a time when most other car mak­ers seem to be con­verg­ing on more or less the same pow­er­train tech­nolo­gies. Lexus might well be fol­low­ing the herd with the UX, but it will not be caught dead copy­ing its ri­vals whole­sale.

Of­fi­cially, only the petrol-hy­brid model – which isn’t a plug-in – will be sold in the UK for the time be­ing, al­though if there does hap­pen to be a buyer out there who wants the petrol-only ver­sion, Lexus will de­liver. It ex­pects the vast ma­jor­ity of UK buy­ers to opt for the front-wheeldrive model, al­though the four­wheel-drive ver­sion, which uses an ad­di­tional elec­tric mo­tor to drive its rear axle, will also be avail­able.

In typ­i­cal Lexus fash­ion, the UX’S cabin is a fes­ti­val of creases and folds and an­gu­lar forms, with more dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als and grades of plas­tic than you could count in a life­time. It all seems to be built with the in­tegrity and so­lid­ity we have come to ex­pect of the mar­que, though, and the switchgear feels first-rate. What of the rat­tles and squeaks from the dash­boards of both cars we drove? Given that the test cars on the launch were pre­pro­duc­tion ex­am­ples, we’re pre­pared to over­look those short­com­ings for now. Rest as­sured, if full-pro­duc­tion cars rat­tle and squeak in the same way, we will not be so for­giv­ing.

The com­pany’s wil­ful at­tempt to stand out from the crowd reaches as far as the UX’S in­fo­tain­ment con­trol de­vice, which isn’t a con­ven­tional touch­screen or a ro­tary dial but a small hap­tic track­pad close to the gear­lever. As you clum­sily jab a fin­ger at the track­pad and watch the cur­sor on the in­fo­tain­ment screen dart around ap­par­ently of its own ac­cord, you’ll think it com­pletely un­fath­omable, but within a few min­utes, it be­gins to make sense and even­tu­ally you’ll won­der why you ever doubted it.

And the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence? There’s very lit­tle to doubt about the way this car finds its way down a road. Sit­ting on 18in wheels and op­tional adap­tive dampers – Adap­tive Vari­able Sus­pen­sion in Lexus speak – this top-of-the-line F Sport model rides with com­po­sure and ma­tu­rity. Its steering is a lit­tle vague and oddly elas­ti­cated around the straight-ahead, but with some lock on, it be­comes crisp and ac­cu­rate. On the open road, the UX com­bines its pre­cise steering with good body con­trol and re­silient grip to feel quite keen in cor­ners. It doesn’t flop around in the way a taller SUV might, but nor is it par­tic­u­larly fun.

The UX’S pow­er­train may be un­usual but there’s plenty to like about it

The stuff it doesn’t do so well could be out­lined in a tweet. The brake pedal, for one thing, has as many steps through its travel as the car’s cock­pit has ma­te­ri­als. That’ll be the hy­brid sys­tem jug­gling re­gen­er­a­tive brak­ing with con­ven­tional re­tar­da­tion. Tyre roar at mo­tor­way speed is quite pro­nounced, al­though the very hard-wear­ing Swedish roads on the test route are known for that.

The UX’S pow­er­train might be an un­usual one, but it’s by no means bad. In fact, there’s plenty to like about it. Un­der hard ac­cel­er­a­tion, the peaky, nat­u­rally as­pi­rated petrol en­gine does sound rather strained, paired as it is with a Cvt-style trans­mis­sion, but the hy­brid sys­tem means the car is rea­son­ably ac­cel­er­a­tive in a straight line. With no cogs to swap through, the pow­er­train is oth­er­wise very re­fined, and at low speeds, you can slip along in near-silent EV mode for short dis­tances with­out trou­bling the en­gine at all. The gear­box doesn’t suf­fer from that dis­tinc­tive and ir­ri­tat­ing stringi­ness that has given CVTS such a bad name, al­though the man­ual gearshift mode is pretty hope­less. Lexus claims 65.7mpg for the hy­brid UX, and over the course of the test, we man­aged a rea­son­able 52mpg in mixed driv­ing.

Pric­ing will not be an­nounced un­til the Paris mo­tor show in a cou­ple of weeks, so for now we have only a vague steer. The en­try-level model might yet sneak un­der £30,000, but this hy­brid F Sport ver­sion will cost about £5000 more. There could well be a very fine four-star car in the UX, but un­til we know for sure that pro­duc­tion car cab­ins do not rat­tle and squeak the way the launch cars’ cock­pits did and that it is priced keenly against its very ca­pa­ble ri­vals, the UX is not quite there just yet. Rest as­sured, it is wor­thy of your con­sid­er­a­tion at the very least. If we handed out star rat­ings based on in­di­vid­u­al­ity alone, this quirky­look­ing Lexus would surely be de­serv­ing of the full five.

F Sport test car, on 18in wheels and op­tional adap­tive dampers, rode in a ma­ture and com­posed fash­ion

Hatch opens onto a de­cent-sized boot al­though there is a small load­ing lip

There’s an un­com­mon abun­dance of ma­te­rial types in the cabin and the in­fo­tain­ment uses an id­iosyn­cra­tive but ef­fec­tive track pad

UX sports dis­tinc­tive, eye-catch­ing body­work and, for an SUV, a rel­a­tively low sil­hou­ette

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