SEATTLE — Lexus is a conservative auto brand but it seems to have thrown that philosophy out the door when it comes to its new UX small crossover.
First the UX is the luxury brand’s fifth and smallest CUV. They account for almost 70 percent of its sales. Thus, creating another one for a market dominated by crossovers is not necessarily a risk.
But very name badge denotes the target customer. U stands for urban and X denotes crossover. I don’t know of any luxury auto brand that so overtly goes after this market. To be candid, urban used to mean black and it used to mean poor, but not anymore.
Although they say they want to appeal to young buyers, Lexus wants the UX to be relevant to their lifestyles. That is psychographic and it means urban black, white and Spanish-speaking buyers. That is unabashedly aggressive, open and it just might be really smart.
I’ll never forget what a marketing executive told me years ago. You can place an ad in a general market publication and get some response from your ethnic target buyers. But place the same ad in media that they read or watch and it says I’m talking to you.
The Lexus UX will have a digital launch involving social media, internet advertising and marketing when it goes on sale at the end of the year and that tells me they intend to speak directly to their target buyers.
What they’re trying to sell is the 2019 Lexus UX 200 and Lexus UX 250h.They are both small luxury crossovers with wheelbases of 103.9 inches, an overall length of 177 inches and a width of 72.4 inches. With or without roof rails or shark fin antennae, they stand at roughly 60-inches tall.
The UX 200 will go on sale in December. It had a 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine that made 169 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque. The UX 250h is the hybrid. With its 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine and two electric generators, it makes a total of 181 horsepower.
The gasoline UX 200 had a 10-speed direct shift CVT while the hybrid UX 250 gets a two motor-generator hybrid transmission with planetary power-split device (read CVT).
Anyway, Lexus takes another risk, I think, with what goes where. The gasoline engine powered UX 200 has front wheel drive only and the Hybrid UX 250h has all-wheel-drive only. What’s more, Lexus expects sales to be 50-50. Most often automakers do not plan for the hybrid to sell the same as the gasoline powered version of any vehicle but Lexus does.
No matter which vehicle consumers choose they will get a Lexus with the distinct spindle grille with a UX twist. It featured a new block-shaped mesh pattern with individual elements that gradually changed in shape as they radiated out from the central Lexus emblem. The grille created a three-dimensional appearance that changed with the viewing angle, said Lexus. I don’t know about that, it looked the same to me and that was good from any angle.
LED daytime running lights arranged in an arrowhead motif above the headlights complemented the Lexus L-shaped lighting signature. These appeared like brows above the standard single-projector dual-beam LED headlights or the optional ultra-small 3-projector LED units. The front lighting fixture had the same overall look until I looked closely and saw the DRL over the headlight instead of under it as with other Lexus models.
The rear lights covered the width of the automatic opening back hatch. Lexus said the lights formed a distinctive nighttime signature with LEDs tapering toward the center, measuring just 1/8” thin at its narrowest point. The crossover’s basic form flowed out from the lines of the signature grille to envelop the cabin.
Crisp, prominent sculpted surfaces and flared front and rear fenders reflected a robust look, while an aerodynamic profile, large wheels pushed to the corners, and the front fascia created an agile, sporty stance. That’s what Lexus said and the UX did look good.
Inside, the interior was driver focused. I thought it was pretty nifty that the center console opened towards the driver or towards the front seat passenger. There was an arrowhead pattern on the interior fabric.
There was a large – 10-inches wide — floating infotainment screen. It was set back on the dash, thus it was not a touchscreen because it was just too far away from the driver. Thus, The Lexus Remote Touch Interface (RTI) with haptic feedback was more important.
It was a black pad embedded in the console beneath the center stack. Lexus said it can recognize numbers and block letters when typing a search name. The touchpad surface had haptic vibrations that indicated when the cursor was moved, making it easier to align it with the desired function button. We never tried it.
More interesting though was that the audio controls were embedded at the tip of the center arm pad. They were barely noticeable and aided the minimalist look of the interior.
Although in the press material Lexus still refers to the controls as a center stack, they were organized horizontally and the vertical space between controls was such that I never got a sense that it was a stack. Some interior design cues were adopted from the flagship LS 500, like the levers beneath the climate control bar.
We took a 40-minute ferry ride from Seattle to Bainbridge Island for a brief test drive of the Lexus UX. Once there, we test drove the Lexus UX on various routes. I found the car had adequate power and handling was good.
The hybrid was a little smoother than the gasoline powered UX and it was heavier by 150 pounds. That gave it a more solid road feel. The regenerative brakes of the hybrid gripped early in relationship to pedal depression.
We found two things to quibble about. I thought the UX could have used a little bit more low-end torque. While it didn’t have trouble getting up a long steep hill, I thought acceleration up the incline could have been better.
The rear seats were close. My driving partner noted that the UX’s target buyer was young urbanites. That psychographic usually travels in groups and he questioned whether backseat passengers could be comfortable in the UX.
None of that mattered to the writer who drove the same routes we did. She was the UX target buyer. A native New Yorker, she was 32, single, childless and loved the 2019 UX so much that she said she wanted to buy one. Her only question was which one to get. Since she lived in New York I recommended the hybrid because she would get better mileage in the stop and go traffic.
The 2019 UX 200 had an EPA rating of 29 mpg in the city, 37 mpg on the highway and 33 mpg combined. That wasn’t bad but the hybrid is better. It had an EPA rating of 41 mpg in the city, 38 mpg on the highway and 39 mpg combined.
The 2019 UX had Lexus’ pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, all-speed dynamic radar cruise control, and lane departure alert with steering assist and lane tracing assist, road sign assist and intelligent high-beam headlamps.
There were three drive modes: normal mode provided an optimal balance between driving performance and fuel efficiency; ECO mode maximized fuel savings across all driving conditions by smoothing the throttle response and by moderating air conditioning operation; sport mode delivered quicker throttle response and increased power steering feel.
The UX 250h debuts Predictive Eco Drive Control, Lexus said it is a world-first system that, coupling with the navigation system, learns driving habits, predicts the expected roadway ahead and analyzes real-time traffic reports to optimize charging and discharging of the hybrid battery. The more miles the UX 250h is driven, the more data is gathered to help optimize fuel consumption. The system can be turned off.
Our test vehicle also had the usual lineup of creature comforts: a navigation system, satellite radio, heated and cooled front seats, and Bluetooth and voice control.
The 2019 Lexus UX 200 will have a base sticker of $32,000, while the UX 250 hybrid will start at $34,000. The F-Sport package will cost $2,000 and freight costs will be $1,025. The UX will also be offered through Lexus’ first subscription-type plan in four test markets: Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami.
The luxury compact utility market gets a new viable player in the 2019 Lexus UX.
Frank S. Washington is editor of AboutThatCar.com.