SUV Review: 2019 Lexus UX 200 F Sport

SUV Review:  2019 Lexus UX 200 F Sport
Although not as heavily populated or as popular as the compact and midsize luxury crossover segments, the small luxury slice has nonetheless grown over the past five years to include some city friendly, fuel-efficient, boldly styled products, primarily from European automakers, but, for 2019, now including Japanese powerhouse Toyota ’s upscale Lexus brand.

If you’re prone to drinking the marketing Kool-Aid, the brand-new UX is, according to Lexus, “the urban explorer that Canadians have been waiting for” with a style “designed to enable active lifestyles.” That’s a lot of hyperbole to swallow. The brand’s traditional strengths are sumptuous luxury, cosseting ride and silky-smooth engines in just about all of its product lineup, which now come under scrutiny in what has become the gateway vehicle to the Lexus family, and a supposedly sporting one at that.

The biggest issue the UX is going to face — at least the $37,100 (to start) UX 200 — is whether consumers will buy into Lexus’s assertion that it is an actual SUV. You see, unlike the UX 250h (the hybrid version), the 200 is front-wheel drive only. This may not be as big a deal to the downtown snake people with which Lexus hopes to curry favour; this group supposedly more concerned with style, technology and connectivity than they are drivetrains. Being a noted contrarian, not to mention being significantly older than the targeted demographic, I view the UX 200 as essentially a spiffy sort of hatchback, considering its underpinnings are the same as those found underneath the outré Toyota C-HR.

And, for many of us baby boomers, performance still matters. Which brings me to the second-biggest issue for the UX 200 — a big dose of “meh” under the hood. Currently, the small luxury crossover segment consists of the BMW X1 and X2, Mercedes GLA, Audi Q3 and Volvo XC40. The common thread to all of these crossovers, in addition to all-wheel drivetrains, is that they are powered by 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinders. Horsepower ranges from 208 in the GLA 250 to 248 in the XC40.

First Drive: 2019 Audi Q3

The UX 200, meanwhile, is powered by a naturally aspirated 2.0L four-cylinder — the same as in the new Corolla Hatchback — putting out a meager 169 hp. (Anteing up for the UX 250h results in a net system output of just 181 hp from its 2.0L engine and electric motor.) And in both cases, power is routed through a continuously variable transmission, whereas the competition is fitted with regular automatics (or an available six-speed manual in the case of the Countryman). Even tipping the scales at a very trim 1,500 kilograms — partly attributable to the use of aluminum for the doors, front fenders and hood and tailgate frame — one of the UX 200’s strengths will not be scintillating acceleration. Switching from either Eco or Normal to Sport mode does give the impression of a little more urge. At least the engine is decently quiet under normal operation, though, like most small four-cylinders, turbocharged or not, it takes on a coarser edge at higher revs when passing power is called for.

OK, the UX is left wanting in the powertrain and drivetrain areas; thankfully its handling dynamics are up to snuff. It hangs tough in the turns, thanks to a low centre of gravity, not to mention active cornering assist, a function integrated with the vehicle stability control system that helps the Lexus set a tight line through a turn by applying some brake control on the inside wheels, mitigating understeer. There’s a solid weight from the electric power steering as well. And its ride is quite comfortable as well, maybe not RX 350 comfy but more than acceptable considering its shorter wheelbase.

2019 Lexus UX Brian Harper / Driving

The cabin, though not as luxurious as other Lexus products, is nonetheless cleanly styled with a modern yet simple vibe , a counterpoint to the UX’s boldly aggressive exterior. Some controls fall easily to hand, yet Lexus insists on retaining the “remote touch interface” (RTI) track pad — with haptic feedback — to work the functions featured on the centre console touchscreen. Designed, says Lexus, to feel as familiar to use as a smartphone, the RTI utilizes operations such as double tapping, squeezing to zoom and flicking to mimic common phone gestures. This works much better when the UX is stationary, not nearly as user friendly when it’s in motion, any bump in the road making the very sensitive pad frustrating to use. Further complicating things, the volume and tuning knobs for the audio system are now sliders located at the base of the armrest instead of on the centre stack where they can be easily seen.

There’s plenty of room up front for taller occupants, less so for those in the back, a common theme with these smaller crossovers. In the UX, the power-adjustable front seats are heated and ventilated — unless you order the F Sport cosmetic package, a $2,300 option that doesn’t offer any true sporting improvements, in which case the F Sport seat inclusion comes without the ventilation function. (Other F Sport upgrades include a heated three-spoke F Sport steering wheel, F Sport 18-inch alloy wheels, F Sport front grille, auto-dimming rear-view mirror with compass, LED cornering lights and fog lamps.)

2019 Lexus UX Brian Harper / Driving

As for the weekend getaway scenario, the 60/40-split rear seats, when stowed, offer up 614.5 litres (21.7 cu-ft) of cargo capacity (614.5 litres) for luggage, sporting equipment and other accoutrement.

If I were a conspiracist, I might think that Lexus purposely configured the UX 200 the way it is in order to get potential buyers to gravitate to the 250h just for the all-wheel drivetrain — not a bad ideally, really, in addition to the better four-season traction the additional $2,600 for the hybrid would likely be recouped at the gas pumps within a few years. (Fuel economy for my week with the 200 was 9.2 litres per 100 kilometres, with about half of the mileage accumulated on the highway.)

The UX 200 is a quiet, comfortable, pseudo-crossover — as long as strong acceleration isn’t called for — and less expensive than its European rivals once you start padding them with options. The biggest hurdle to its success will be that, unless you are a brand snob, there is a huge choice of larger, more powerful and way more practical all-weather crossovers out there for the same price ($40,050 for the F Sport tester) or lower.
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