2019 Lexus UX

SEATTLE — Small is now big in the ever-growing crossover game and that's just fine with us. We have always been drawn to small, maneuverable vehicles — tossable little guys, if you will — and so its not surprising we were attracted on first drive to Lexus' new sub-compact entry into the luxury crossover segment — the UX. UX standing for "urban crossover" according to Lexus.

The UX is constructed on Toyota's new Global Architecture Compact (GA-C) platform, giving it a solid, well-planted feeling — a fun car to drive. Toyota has created a true small luxury crossover that slots below the compact NX in the Lexus lineup. It competes against such nameplates as the Audi Q3, Volvo XC40 and BMW X1.

The UX comes in two forms —the UX 200 with a gas engine and the UX 250h hybrid with the same 2.0-liter engine and two electric motors. An F Sport performance package is optional for both. While the F Sport adds nothing to engine performance it comes with unique wheels and interior and exterior cosmetic accents as well as a sport-tuned suspension. All-wheel drive is only available on the hybrid model.

We liked the UX more and more throughout the day as we tooled around Bainbridge Island near Seattle, discovering its willingness to tackle curving roads and its pleasing interior environment. Our only disappointment was the lack of open highway to test the car's merging and passing capabilities. But Lexus has proclaimed the UX an urban "city" car, so it's in that environment that that we drove.

The UX carries off the current funky Lexus design theme as well as any member of the family. The polarizing signature Lexus grille, though sharing its basic form with other models, is unique to the UX. It features a new block-shape mesh pattern with individual elements that, Lexus says, gradually change in shape as they radiate out from the central Lexus emblem.

The UX cradles its passengers in a well-crafted interior that includes considerable technology including a digital dash cluster and an optional 10.3-inch infotainment display that we recommend. The padded dash can be ordered in several different textures, including one that looks like fibrous paper called "washi" in Japanese. The UX carries the Lexus touchpad controller, which we have found distracting since the first time we encountered it years ago. Apparently Lexus thinks it's the best way of going about accessing infotainment screen information. We did like the rather unique tuning and volume audio controls placed on the center console.

Toyota is known for putting "just right" engines — never a pony more than absolutely necessary — in its vehicles and so it is with the UX, which is powered by a 168-horsepower 2.0-liter four cylinder. It produces 151 pound-feet of torque routed through a continuously variable transmission that comes equipped with a mechanical first gear to generate quicker and more natural-feeling acceleration from a stop using a traditional gearset. Once the vehicle's speed increases, the transmission switches to the variable gearing of a belt-and-pulley system. To Lexus' credit, the transition from the first gear to the CVT is seamless.

But why not simply use a modern traditional six- or seven-speed transmission and why not give the little Lexus a more substantial, luxury feel with more output? Most of the UX competitors come with 4-cylinder engines making 200 horsepower or more.

Perhaps part of the reason is fuel economy and we applaud the EPA-rated UX 200 for its 33 mpg in combined city and highway driving. The UX 250h hybrid generates 175 horsepower with the same 2.0-liter engine but with two electric motors while realizing a 38 mpg mileage rating.

Lexus officials say the target customer is more concerned with fuel economy and technology than performance. If that's the case, Lexus has hit the mark. In addition to most of the standard technology now found on luxury vehicles, the UX hybrid has a unique feature that has the ability to learn driving habits, predict braking patterns and — using the navigation system and real-time traffic data — optimized hybrid battery charging. If this is more than you want, the system can be turned off.

The UX will come well priced when it reaches showrooms late this year starting at $33,025 including destination charge for the UX 200 and $35,025 including destination for the UX 250h.

The extra $2,000 for the hybrid is worth the cost. We drove it on another event the next week and found it more energetic than the base 4-cylinder, providing an instant surge from a stoplight and quicker acceleration up to highway speed. Factor in the better gas mileage and the fact it can be purchased with all -wheel drive and you have a winner.

We think the UX provides an excellent, reasonably priced way for buyers to move into a luxury vehicle.

— Jim Meachen