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2019 Lexus UX Hybrid Test Drive Review
The 2019 UX effectively replaces the canceled CT 200h as the least expensive way to buy a Lexus. It may be based on the same platform and mechanical components as the Toyota C-HR, but it comes with a unique wrapper.
Small luxury vehicles that lack a special value proposition have never made any sense to me. For example, I understand the BMW 2 Series, which is a rear-drive, sport-tuned, enthusiast driver’s delight. But the pedestrian Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class, with its awkwardly penned design and supposed promise of luxury and envy, has always mystified me. Like that Benz, the new 2019 Lexus UX Hybrid has me scratching my head; unless you’re absolutely in love with its looks, I can’t find a rational reason for buying one.
Look and Feel
The new UX Hybrid is a decent-looking little vehicle, shouting “LEXUS!” with its oversized grille and razor-sharp character lines. Any controversy starts and ends with that grille, and while an argument could be made that its flanks possess too much flair, given the youthful audience that Lexus expects to attract with the UX, I’d say the rest of this car is appropriately edgy.
Inside, the UX Hybrid adopts some now-familiar Lexus design themes. Given that UX means “user experience,” it is entirely inappropriate that this new Lexus has the company’s irritating touchpad infotainment system controls. They represent the antithesis of UX among automotive technologies. And there's a small pod that houses the stereo controls near the center armrest, which my wife likened to a Sony Walkman, circa 1985. However, I thought it was a decent solution to a problem that could otherwise be resolved by adding a volume knob, a tuning knob, and a row of radio station preset buttons on the dashboard.
Aside from the mess on the center console, the UX’s interior looks good. Just don’t look too long and hard at some of the plastic used in parts of the cabin. It clearly is not up to snuff, especially given my test car’s $39,000 price tag. And with less than 2,000 miles on the odometer, the materials on the doorsills and lower door panels were already scuffed beyond what a wet rag could remove.
There are two very different versions of the Lexus UX. The first is the UX 200, a front-drive 5-door hatchback priced from $32,000 before you add the $1,025 destination charge. The second is the UX 250h, the same vehicle, but with a hybrid drivetrain that effectively gives this Lexus all-wheel drive (AWD), and which, in turn, technically qualifies the car as a crossover SUV. It starts at $34,000 plus destination.
My test vehicle was the UX 250h, dipped in Silver Lining Metallic paint and equipped with Birch NuLuxe faux leather. It also had the Premium Package, a blind-spot monitoring system, and a navigation system with a 10.3-inch widescreen display. Add a carpeted cargo floor mat, and the price scooted up to $39,005 including the destination charge.
Equipped with a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, an electric drive motor, a battery pack, and a continuously variable transmission (CVT), the Lexus UX 250h makes a grand total of 181 horsepower. Lexus says it will accelerate to 60 mph in 8.6 seconds and return 39 mpg in combined driving.
It has AWD, thanks to a 7-hp electric motor embedded into the rear differential. The traction-control system activates this rear motor if it detects front-wheel slip. Driving on wet mountain roads, I found the sudden torque provided by the rear wheels obvious but not unpleasant. Rather, it was reassuring. However, AWD is available only at speeds up to 43 mph, which is not reassuring whatsoever.
On my mountainous test loop, I got 33.8 mpg while cycling between the UX 250h’s various driving modes, mixing Eco, Normal, and Sport depending on the situation.
Normal mode was my favorite, as it typically is. Sport definitely made the UX 250h feel more responsive, but it added an unnatural amount of weight to the steering. Eco just made me want to go to sleep. There is also an EV mode that allows the UX 250h to travel purely on electricity at low speeds and for short distances.
Lexus says that the UX 250h learns how you drive and automatically adjusts the powertrain to maximize fuel economy. Sure enough, by the end of the week and about 400 miles of driving, the Lexus was performing better, averaging 37.1 mpg. That’s still short of expectations, but not by much.
Thanks to the instantaneous torque from the electric drive motor, the UX 250h feels lively. You’re not going to get pressed back in your seat, but you also won’t worry when merging onto fast-flowing freeways. At 75 mph on the expressway, the UX is reasonably quiet. When it comes time to stop, the regenerative braking system is mostly agreeable, feeling grabby only on occasion.
Lexus builds the UX on the latest Toyota global architecture, which was purposely engineered with a low center of gravity to support energetic driving. This, in combination with a heavy battery and electric drive motor, helps the UX handle decently. In fact, its 18-inch run-flat tires proved to be the weak link more than any other aspect of the car.
Nothing about driving the UX bothered me, but nothing excited me, either. Owners with low dynamic expectations who use the UX Hybrid as an “urban explorer” will like how it drives, they’ll like its gas mileage, and they’ll like its extra AWD sure-footedness when the weather turns bad.
Form and Function
If you’re single, a pre-kids couple, or empty nesters, the Lexus UX will probably serve you well. Anyone planning to carry people in the back seat on a regular basis—or larger items in the trunk—will want to shop for something else.
Despite its narrow cabin, the UX has comfortable front seats, offering plenty of adjustment combined with proper cushioning and support. People who prefer real leather will be disappointed that Lexus doesn’t offer it in the UX, but the company’s SofTex simulated leather certainly is soft. The UX also sits higher off the ground than a typical car, which makes entry and exit easier.
Backseat space is cramped. Also, the SofTex upholstery traps sweat and—combined with a lack of rear dark-tinted glass—can make riding in the back even less enjoyable. Lexus does provide air-conditioning vents, though, so that might help.
Storage space is lacking, and a wireless smartphone charger is a $75 upgrade. The lid on my test car’s center console felt loose and squeaked, giving me yet another reason to question the UX’s validity as a Lexus.
Cargo space is nothing to get excited about, either. At 17.1 cubic feet, the UX's capacity is small even for little SUVs, and it doesn't have a cargo cover to hide your valuables. This is even more irritating given the lack of dark-tint rear glass, which exposes your stuff to anyone who looks into the windows.
You can fold the rear seats down to expand space, but Lexus hasn't provided a maximum cargo measurement.
Lexus refers to the touchpad that controls the infotainment display as a Remote Touch Interface (RTI). The company claims that it mimics common smartphone gestures and provides haptic feedback to help control the cursor on the display.
In theory, this should be intuitive. In practice, I have found the setup lacks accuracy. Also, after selecting a menu item, the cursor does not move to a new, logical position on the screen, given the expected next input from the user.
Frankly, the only apparent benefit of this design is that Lexus can embed the display into the dashboard, right under the windshield, where it would not be accessible as a touchscreen. In recognition of the user-experience challenges posed by modern automotive technologies, I can understand the automaker’s intent with RTI. Unfortunately, the execution leaves something to be desired.
The standard infotainment system comes with a 7-inch display screen, while versions with navigation get a more sophisticated 10.25-inch display that is more appropriate for a luxury vehicle.
Apple CarPlay is standard, but Android Auto is unavailable, calling the company’s claim of “unprecedented connectivity” into question. If you have an iPhone, you can connect and access Google Maps, Waze, Spotify, and more. The system is also smartwatch-, Amazon Alexa-, and Google Home-compatible and comes with a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot connection.
A 6-speaker premium sound system is standard, but not particularly impressive. An 8-speaker system adds a center dashboard tweeter and a cargo-mounted subwoofer. We hope, given the youthful audience at which Lexus aims the UX, that upgrade will provide a richer audio experience.
Every 2019 UX offers the Lexus Safety System 2.0 (LSS 2.0) as standard equipment. It installs adaptive cruise control and forward-collision warning with pedestrian and cyclist detection, although cyclist detection is available only during daylight. Buyers also get automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, lane-centering assist, automatic high-beam headlights, and a road-sign recognition system.
As impressive as that is, blind-spot monitoring, arguably one of the most important safety systems developed in the past decade, is a $500 option.
The LSS 2.0 lane-departure and lane-keeping systems work in conjunction with the dynamic cruise control. During the week I drove the UX, Southern California got whacked with winter storm after winter storm, so I did not use the cruise control much. When I did, the lane-centering assist technology was sometimes irritating, prompting me to cancel those functions.
One of my favorite things about the Lexus UX, no doubt in part because I am a father of four daughters, is that it comes with a free 10-year subscription to Safety Connect services. They include automatic collision notification, SOS emergency calling, instant access to roadside assistance, and more. In my opinion, this generous complimentary offer is one of the best reasons to buy a Lexus UX.
As this review is published, crash-test results are unavailable from the federal government and from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), so I cannot speculate upon how well the UX will protect its occupants in a collision. As long as it performs well, the UX will maintain its reputation as a safe car.
Any financial advisor would probably tell you that a Lexus UX is not a cost-effective solution to your transportation requirements. You’re paying for a brand, expressive design, and maybe a better ownership experience compared to a mainstream model—but not much more. If cost-effectiveness is important to you, your money would go farther if you chose a loaded or larger mainstream model or elected to get a certified pre-owned (CPO) luxury vehicle from Lexus or a competing brand.
Should you choose to disregard this opinion, know that within the UX lineup, the UX Hybrid is the more cost-effective of the two models. For just $2,000 more, you get low-speed AWD for extra traction and a more powerful hybrid drivetrain that is supposed to provide 6 extra mpg.
As far as how the UX 250h compares to its competition, the Audi Q3 strikes me as higher in quality, while offering more driving enjoyment and value. However, when the redesigned 2019 Q3 goes on sale, it will probably cost more than the remaining 2018s on your local dealership's lot. Meanwhile, both the BMW X1 and Volvo XC40 are simply more practical when it comes to carrying people and cargo, and the BMW offers free maintenance for four years. Infiniti's QX30 is high on style and is based on the Mercedes-Benz GLA, whereas the Lexus UX shares its guts with a garden-variety Toyota. The UX 250h's hybrid powertrain and impressive fuel efficiency are positives, though, as are the brand's legendary reliability record and tendency to retain strong resale values.
Really, though, it’s hard to make a logical argument in favor of getting almost any entry-level subcompact vehicle. When it comes to tiny cars from luxury brands, desire is what drives consumer interest. People must want to be seen in the Lexus UX, must want to drive the Lexus UX, must want the Lexus UX to reflect who they are and what they stand for. They must want to be a member of the Lexus “tribe,” so to speak.
Aside from its expressive exterior styling, intriguing interior design, and the Lexus badge, little about the new UX evokes a positive emotional response.
This is not to say that the Lexus UX is an inherently bad vehicle. With a $10,000 price cut, it would make a swell little Toyota, the perfect thing to compete against a Mazda CX-3 Grand Touring. Which is what you really ought to buy if you're looking for an upscale little SUV on the cheap.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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