• Lexus’ newest and smallest crossover SUV arrives in December
  • Two powertrain choices: gasoline-powered UX 200 or UX 250h hybrid
  • Starting at just over $33,000, this will be the least-expensive new Lexus

 

It was only about a decade ago that compact luxury SUVs emerged as The Next Big Thing for new-car shoppers seeking a premium vehicle that was also practical, bold yet stylish, and not crazy expensive. Since then, luxury SUVs like the BMW X3, Mercedes-Benz GLC, Audi Q5, Acura RDX and Lexus NX have flourished.

Now the spotlight is on an even smaller set. In the past few years, subcompact luxury crossovers like the BMW X1, Audi Q3 and Mercedes-Benz GLA have come into their own. Missing from the party has been a Lexus. That all changes with the 2019 Lexus UX.

As we previously reported around its Geneva Motor Show debut earlier this year, the new Lexus UX will be offered in two primary versions: The standard, gasoline-powered UX 200, or the gasoline-electric hybrid called the UX 250h. Built on a platform used by the Toyota C-HR, the 2019 UX 200 only comes with front-wheel drive. The hybrid UX 250h, however, has all-wheel drive standard thanks to an electric motor that powers the rear wheels.

Until now, details weren’t known about other aspects, such as how it drives or how much it will cost. To answer those questions, Lexus recently invited us to Stockholm, Sweden, to drive pre-production versions of the Lexus UX.

At home in the city

Sweden and automobiles inevitably brings up Volvo, which itself recently launched its own subcompact luxury SUV, the Volvo XC40. But Lexus’ executives said they chose the location -- specifically Stockholm -- to showcase the UX in what they envision as its natural habitat: a busy and vibrant city bustling with young up-and-comers. In other words, the kind of urban setting and aspirational buyers that Lexus is targeting with the new UX crossover. (“UX” stands for “urban explorer.”)

The Lexus UX’s city-centric nature also points to its powertrain philosophy, hence the front-drive nature of the UX 200, with its 169-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. All-wheel drive is reserved for the UX 250h hybrid, which combines an efficient front-drive 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine with a 2-motor electric setup driving the rear wheels. However, the emphasis is on efficiency over stick-to-the-pavement handling or off-road shenanigans. At speeds over 45 mph, the UX 250h hybrid will only send power to the front wheels. Lexus’ logic is that the AWD system is meant to provide the extra traction at lower speeds, when there’s the biggest risk of slippage on slick roads. They say this setup also optimizes the UX 250h for the most fuel efficiency.

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Lexus UX 200 road test

We started our day in the UX 200, which shares a powertrain with the new Toyota Corolla Hatchback, which has impressed us with its CVT that uses a conventional first gear. With this Direct Shift technology, the mechanical first gear hands off power transfer duties to the CVT. This is significant because it nixes one of the worst traits of CVTs – the laggardly, rubber band-like feel under initial acceleration – yet it retains the efficiency for which these transmissions are known. Lexus estimates the UX 200 will earn 33 mpg combined on the EPA scale.

The Lexus UX 200 isn’t very sporty, nor is it intended to be. During a product presentation, Lexus executives freely admitted that this small luxury crossover emphasizes “flexibility over horsepower.” To that end, with 169 horsepower, it significantly trails rivals like the aforementioned Volvo XC40, which packs up to 248 ponies. Lexus pegs the 0-60 mph time of the UX 200 at 8.9 seconds. The Volvo XC40 T5, by comparison, sprints to that benchmark in the low 6-second range.

So no, the new Lexus UX 200 isn’t all that quick. But it also doesn’t feel sluggish. You needn’t fear being the last one up the on-ramp, and if you have adequate space on that 2-lane road, you’ll be fine getting around slower traffic. There is a Sport mode that adjusts throttle mapping and steering sensitivity, but it doesn’t exactly open up the stable for more horsepower. And even in F Sport trim – available for both the standard and hybrid Lexus UX – there’s no added power, just a slightly firmer ride setup and sporty aesthetic touches.

What this small Lexus does best is, well, be a Lexus. By that we mean provide a comfortable, premium ride. In this respect it feels like a smaller Lexus NX, which in turn feels like a smaller Lexus RX. The Russian doll analogy is fitting for even Lexus’ baby SUV. Except on some rougher roads, we found the cabin quiet. And the Lexus’ suspension did a good job quelling said rougher roads.

Also above average is the UX’s maneuverability. Lexus touts its turning circle as a low 34.2 feet, and we can attest to this nimbleness. During a missed turn on our drive route, we were able to rapidly make a U-turn on a tight street to get back on track.

UX 250h hybrid – more of everything for not much more

As an entry-level premium crossover for the urban commuter, the UX 200 is easily recommendable. But we’d urge you to also consider the UX 250h. From our first impression, we think the Lexus UX hybrid is better for several reasons. Thanks to its complementary electrified powertrain, the 2019 Lexus UX 250h is slightly more powerful (total horsepower is 175), more efficient (estimated at 38 mpg combined), and has all-wheel drive standard, a valuable attribute for those living in cold-weather areas.

Moreover, the extra cost for the hybrid isn’t that much of a premium considering the added benefits. Starting at just over $35,000, the hybrid UX is priced exactly $2,000 more than the standard version, about the same as some automakers charge for all-wheel drive alone.

We also found the UX 250h more pleasant to drive. Thanks to its battery-fed electric motor that powers the rear wheels (Lexus estimates the front/rear power split at roughly 80/20), the UX 250h feels like it’s always got a little extra to give versus the standard UX 200. Though the on-paper power difference between the two models is modest, it’s enough to make the hybrid Lexus UX 250h feel almost peppy. That subjective, seat-of-the-pants feel is backed up by numbers. Lexus estimates the UX 250h hits 60 mph in 8.6 seconds, vs. the 8.9 of the UX 200. Again, this isn’t blazing, but the extra oomph is appreciated.

The Lexus UX hybrid also uses a CVT, but it doesn’t have the mechanical first gear like the UX 200. Yet thanks to its electrification, acceleration is smooth and refined.

2019 Car Reviews: First takes on new models

Worthy of the Lexus badge; on sale by year-end

Lexus took a little longer than others to make a subcompact luxury SUV, but the UX proves to be a worthy addition to the Japanese automaker’s stable. We suspect it will find a ready audience. As a de facto replacement for the luxury automaker’s formerly least-expensive car, the Lexus CT 200h that went out of production last year, the UX brings more of what today’s buyer’s want: the higher seating position and practicality of an SUV, available all-wheel drive, the latest safety systems, and technology like standard Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa integration.

We enjoyed our first sample of these pre-production versions of the Lexus UX. The new model is slated to hit showrooms in December, first in UX 200 form. That model is priced from $32,000 plus $1,025 destination. The hybrid UX 250h is to follow soon after in January starting at $34,000 plus delivery. The UX will also be the first vehicle offered in Lexus’ new, all-inclusive Complete Lease program. More details about that subscription program will also be released closer to launch.

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