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2019 Lexus UX First Drive: User Experience

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 9/12/2018 Motor Trend Staff

a car driving on a highway© Motor Trend StaffLexus wants us to read "Urban eXplorer" into its new UX nomenclature, but the target audience of mostly younger, web-savvy folks sees User eXperience when they read those letters. UX in that context refers broadly to a customer's overall interaction with a product or company, with the point of contact—or user interface (UI)—being an especially crucial element.

Unfortunately, one of the main elements of the Lexus UX's UI, the infotainment touchpad, has a lousy user experience. Naming the vehicle thus is a little like if VW had called its last Jetta TDI the Black Cloud Edition. It's a shame because otherwise this new entry-level crossover has a lot going for it.

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a red car parked on the side of a building© Motor Trend Staff

Size-wise it's interestingly positioned a half-step smaller than its NX sibling but a half-step larger inside and out than pint-sized entry-luxury utes like the Audi Q3, Infiniti QX30, and Mercedes GLA. At $33,025 to start in front-drive layout, it's also priced below the Audi, the Mercedes, and most of the other slightly larger entry-luxe utes like BMW's X1 and Volvo's XC40. (Note that the F Sport trim and the all-wheel-drive hybrid drivetrain—available together or separately—add $2,000 each.)

As such, this Lexus makes a strong value case—especially given its standard features list, which includes Apple CarPlay and the Lexus Safety System+ 2.0 (lane keeping/departure warning and forward collision warning with pedestrian and cyclist detection plus emergency braking).

The "urban explorers" Lexus is targeting reportedly care more about "lifestyle flexibility" and efficiency than they do about horsepower and torque, so the new 2.0-liter engine prioritizes its 33-mpg EPA combined rating and achieves original-Prius hybrid levels of thermal efficiency without leaning on electrons. The all-wheel-drive hybrid UX 250h achieves a claimed best-in-class 38-mpg EPA combined. However, the UX accelerates with the enthusiasm of a Prius, too, as horsepower levels fall well short of the turbocharged 2.0-liters powering virtually all of the competition, at 169 hp for the gas front-driver and 175 total system hp for the hybrid.

a car parked on the side of a building© Motor Trend Staff

Both engines come paired with Toyota's new continuously variable transmissions. The UX 200's Direct-Shift D-CVT is shared with the new Corolla hatch and features a torque converter and a fixed 3.377:1 first gear—which launches the car like a normal automatic before handing off to the usual belt and pulleys system (which covers a ratio range from 2.236:1 to 0.447:1 for an overall ratio spread of 7.55).

The hybrid's planetary CVT is rearranged so that the motor generators sit next to each other rather than inline, shortening the overall length of the transaxle. A new rear-axle motor/generator (which is the only option for all-wheel drive in a UX) is 25 percent smaller than those used in the NX and RX hybrids.

We journeyed to the land of ABBA—Stockholm, Sweden—to sample two Euro-spec variants: a loaded UX 250h F Sport and a base UX 200. The pace each set was a bit "Andante, Andante." Indeed, the performance difference between them seemed minimal. Lexus estimates 0-60 times of 8.9 seconds for the base model and 8.6 for the hybrid—that's 1.5 seconds or more off the pace of their turbo competitors.

As with all such systems, switching to Eco mode greatly reduces the throttle responsiveness. Normal and Eco modes don't simulate gear changes, either. In the sport modes, the tachometer ring also changes to orange when you mat the throttle.

2019 Lexus UX 250H 21© Motor Trend Staff 2019 Lexus UX 250H 21

The F Sport version at least sounds quicker when you engage the S+ driving mode, as this makes the CVT pretend to be a 10-speed, with the audio system singing backup to the already decent engine note. The end result is a slightly guttural induction noise that does a reasonable impression of those quicker 2.0T engines.

In the U.S. the F Sport package brings loads of appearance upgrades (grille, fascias, black trim, sport seats, etc.) but fewer functional upgrades. The springs and stabilizer bushings are slightly stiffer. Europe and other markets get an adaptive variable damping system.

It's a pity we don't get the variable dampers, because by swapping almost instantaneously between 650 damping rates, they really kept our Euro-spec 250h F Sport cornering on an even keel in the fastest of bends. The base car rolled considerably more but rode a bit better on 17-inch Bridgestone Turanzas, but sorry! North America only gets 18-inch run-flats. Brake pedal feel in the hybrid was virtually indistinguishable from that of the gas-only model, as it should be but too often isn't with Toyota hybrids.

Lexus claims the UX's interior offers near best-in-class sound levels in terms of "articulation index," or the ability to hear human speech over the various noises entering the cabin. That may be, but a fair amount of tire roar still comes through. Other than that, the cabin is a great place to spend time—at least in the well-contoured and comfy seats, which are also well-bolstered in the F Sport. It's undeniably tight in the back, where shortening the NX's wheelbase by 0.8 inch somehow pruned rear legroom by 3.0 inches. In this segment, only the Audi Q3 offers less legroom.

a close up of a car© Motor Trend Staff

The interior design is exceptionally fresh and innovative. My favorite interior was the base 200h's, which featured two-tone lapis and birch (blue and white) seat and dash trim, with washi-textured blue trim on the dash. Beautiful, not at all derivative, and authentically Japanese. Fancier trims offer diamond-quilted seat upholstery like in a Bentley.

As noted at the top, the infotainment touchpad user interface vexed both my codriver and me, as we frequently overshot whatever icon we were attempting to click. The menu logic needs work, as well—digging through menus to change the volume control of the navigation voice prompts was hardly user friendly.

About those buyers who value lifestyle flexibility over power: They're mostly Europeans who don't think "user experience" when they see UX, and who may even love touchpads.

If you think all this sounds as though Lexus' American product planners didn't have much say in creating the UX, you'd be right. This vehicle was optimized for the European market, where it is expected to account for 25 percent of Lexus sales. Over here, the brand expects UX to rack up only "single-digit percentages" of its 300,000 annual U.S. sales. And that means you can add "rarity" and "exclusivity" to its list of charms.

a car parked in front of a building© Motor Trend Staff

Laser-Clad Valve Seats

The UX engines feature a relatively new innovation that Toyota pioneered on a World Rally Championship Celica race car in the '80s. The aluminum in a cylinder head isn't strong enough to withstand the pounding that occurs every time the valves slam shut, so valve seats of a much harder material (typically a cobalt-chromium alloy called stellite) are pressed into the aluminum head.

That piece and the aluminum required to support it tend to force the intake air runner to make a slight turn as it enters the cylinder. The WRC advance was to use intense laser light to melt a layer of steel onto the aluminum in the valve seat area. This allows the intake runner to straighten out considerably, permitting greater tumble and faster, more complete combustion.

It also means the coolant passages can be relocated closer to the valve, dropping the valve temperatures by a significant 68 degrees. This allows for greater spark advance before knock occurs.

In the '80s, doing this required moving the head around on a turntable while a laser waggled back and forth on control springs as metal shavings were dropped onto the seat. It was so difficult and expensive that they dropped it after that program. But modern computer numerical controls and laser wire-arc deposition of the metal permit economical application of the technology in the new UX engines, in the LS 500's twin-turbo V-6, and soon in the ES.

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2019 Lexus UX
BASE PRICE $33,025-$37,025
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINES 2.0L/169-hp/151-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4; 2.0L/143-hp/133-lb-ft Atkinson-cycle DOHC 16-valve I-4 plus front and rear electric motors; 175 hp comb
TRANSMISSION Cont variable auto
CURB WEIGHT 3,300-3,600 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 103.9 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 177.0 x 72.4 x 59.8 in
0-60 MPH 8.6-8.9 sec (mfr est)
EPA COMB FUEL ECON 33-38 mpg
ON SALE IN U.S. December 2018

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