Mountain Wheels: Lexus’s UX Hybrid brings affordability to luxury brand
If years of seeing and hearing about (or perhaps even owning) models from the Lexus family has long created a certain mental image of the attitudes and finishings related to those models, the new UX serves to disrupt those.
It does so not jarringly, cheaply or by positioning things in the unobtainable realm — for that, we’ll get to the truly outlandish new LC and LS models in a few weeks.
Instead, this new, low-roofed, compact-ish crossover creates some new territory for the brand by reinventing the notion of Lexus luxury in a small and somewhat surprisingly austere way.
The UX (“urban explorer,” they say) starts at $32,150 — considerably less than a third of the individual price of each of the aforementioned members of its family. And the 40 MPG-plus UX 250 Hybrid AWD model I drove had a base price of just $34,000, pumped up just slightly to $42,060 with a few options and the destination charge.
While the UX’s hyper-sloped and sloopy design and terrifically aggressive grille are very reminiscent of the newest, high-end Lexuses, stepping inside suggests a considerably more basic experience, commensurate with that price, I guess. It’s certainly more car-like on the outside than the rest of the Lexus crossover and SUV family, with massive wheel arches, and that visually dominating spindle grille, complete with pointy blades that make it all look like a big pinecone. Shrek’s ears have indeed been implanted on the cabin as side mirrors. There’s also lots of busy lines in the rear, including an angular taillamp with a single, body-wide light, not unlike TV’s original Cylons — or a Dodge Durango. Hmmm.
Even inside, Lexus’ strong and distinctive design cues are very much present, including a multi-layered cabin, sculpted wrap-around seats and boldly stylized control surfaces.
But there is, for the first time in my nearly two decades’ experience with Lexus, an actual abundance of plain plastic paneling, such as door panels and controls that look like they might be more at home on a Toyota — not to mention a rattle that persisted during my whole drive. I am guessing you can go deeper on the options list, as there were whole banks of spots for non-existent control buttons on the left side of the dash — Lexus usually have an individual button for practically every function. That all felt a little odd. Designers say the whole thing gets a “less is more” aesthetic. Perhaps this is what they meant.
Other stuff is just plain peculiar. A new audio controller on the center console is a bit like one of those manual baseball or golf scorekeeper doodads — complete with wheels you spin and a few buttons, under a padded palm rest. Money-saving, or supposed to be easier to use? I did not get it at all.
All of which seemed, as I say, disruptive to what is otherwise a smooth-driving, balanced and reasonably comfortable small SUV, though some have noted the vehicle is really more like a slightly rugged hatchback than a pure crossover.
The hybrid version blends a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with battery and electric motors to produce 181 overall horsepower, and my broader mixture of freeway and city driving returned an appealing 42 MPG, higher than the 39 MPG combined suggested by the EPA.
The AWD system is similar to that on the recently reviewed Prius AWD-e, in that rear-wheel pushing power is all-electric, and limited to speeds of just 43 mph. The hybrid system itself can now disengage the engine at speeds up to 71 mph, allowing you to get a huge battery recharge while heading down to Denver.
Pushing the UX to keep up with Colorado’s new informal freeway speeds did drop things rather noticeably; it will get there, but the car has to strain a bit to be really fast.
It’s also mostly silent in operation; the only really noisy times were when the engine alone had to kick in to warm up the heater on one of those heater-to-air-conditioning spring mornings.
Seating position is relatively low and deep, with a low-sloped roofline but sharply angled A-pillars and oversized, large-surfaced side mirrors to help with overall visibility.
You are not going to get a ton of second-row legroom, and the cargo deck is perched at an unusual height in the hybrid. A flimsy, spring-loaded stowaway tonneau cover also seems like an afterthought.
On the dash, the broad navigation screen was surrounded by a patch of faux-hide, rubbery-leatherish material, beneath which lay an extra-wide bank of AC controls and way too many seat and wheel heat-and-cool buttons.
There’s a somewhat difficult-to-use touchpad controller, just ahead of that peculiar audio controller; displays are bright, but you’re not going to experience a hell of a lot of elbow room.
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