Today’s vocabulary word is “Xenial.” If you know what that means, you know more than I did before flying to Stockholm, Sweden, to drive the all-new 2019 Lexus UX.
Turns out, Xenials are all around us and most of us don’t know it. In fact there may be 25 million of them in the U.S. alone. If you were born in the early-to-mid 1980s, you are a Xenial, and according to Lexus, you had an “analog” childhood and “digital” adulthood.
Lexus knows this because it has been lookin’ at you with dollar signs in its eyes. It has even built for Xenials what it considers to be the ultimate vehicle for urban exploration, the 2019 UX crossover.
Yep, if there’s anything Lexus plans to relentlessly pursue—besides perfection, of course—it’s Xenials. And the new UX is the bait.
The UX is likely to appeal to a far broader range of folks than just Xenials, of course. But to understand them might be helpful when it comes to experiencing the nuances of the UX in relationship to all the other compact crossovers out there, and to understand the reasons Lexus may have made the design and product-related decisions it has.
Born in the early 1980s, Xenials comprise a demographic tucked in between Generations X and Y. Now well into their 30s, Xenials are tech-savvy, as young people tend to be, but they’re not robots; they appreciate the more organic, visceral experiences they might recall from their youth.
As the more professional among them start to make some money in their careers and pay off their student loans, Lexus expects they may be looking for their first “reward” car. This is prime time for full-line luxury carmakers like Lexus to lure them into the fold with a cool entry-level product. The decision to entice them with a crossover and not a sexy coupe, sedan, or convertible was a no-brainer.
For one thing, SUVs and crossovers have been increasing in popularity since Xenials were in grade school, and now comprise a full 58 percent of all new car sales.
Also, Lexus customers are particularly smitten with SUVs. Despite still offering more unique passenger car models than SUVs—six sedans and coupes versus four utility models—the ‘utes make up more than two-thirds of the company’s total sales volume (69 percent, to be exact).
By far, the most popular of Lexus’ four SUVs are the compact NX and mid-sized RX crossovers, which boast a bit more ground clearance, cargo space, and off-road capability than the passenger cars with which they may share much of their structural components. Higher up the price/prestige scale are the rugged but aging truck-based GX and flagship LX SUVs, the latter pushing $100,000.
The new UX 200 and the UX 250h hybrid will slot in below all of them when they arrive in showrooms at the end of the year. And at starting prices of $33,025 and $35,025, respectively (including destination/delivery charges), and another two grand more for the F Sport versions of each, the UX is Lexus’s most affordable crossover, and the company’s most affordable vehicle—period.
It may have been clear to Lexus that it needed a fifth utility vehicle, but what form that vehicle might take was not so obvious.
I can imagine Lexus targeting Xenials with a Jeep Wrangler-like off-road adventure machine, but the UX—U for “Urban,” X for “Crossover”—goes 180 degrees the other way, adopting more of a tall-riding hatchback approach that gives drivers a good view of their surroundings but which has no real appetite for off-road endeavors.
Stylistically, the UX is clearly identifiable as a Lexus, thanks to its extra-huge expression of the brand’s trademark spindle grille. But the UX is also short, squat, and within the Lexus family, quite uniquely packaged. Indeed, it’s barely an SUV.
Like Toyota’s wild-looking C-HR crossover, which some within the company have acknowledged is a rather close corporate relative, the UX keeps your eyes busy processing its various air scoops and swoopy body contours. Occasional crossover conceits like thick-looking front fenders and black trim around the lower body and over the fenders serve to visually elevate the UX and contribute to its proper SUV image projection.
With that said, the UX appears more coherent than the C-HR, whether it is a standard model or a sportified F Sport version. Each gets its own treatment for the spindle grille, the standard model’s front end featuring thick, L-shaped chunks that look different depending on the angle from which it is viewed. The F Sport adopts a mesh of intertwining Ls.
The F Sport also features thick air intake/fog lamp assemblies that bracket the entire front fascia while standard models feature more refined vertical elements in the same location, and lack fog lamps. Equally striking, the headlamps feature linear daytime running lamps diagonally piercing the headlamp assemblies, thus accentuating the UX’s determined gaze. The F Sport variants also receive darkened chrome trim and unique 18-inch wheels.
Out back are several horizontal elements that enhance both its impression of width and aerodynamics. The lower bumper has a diffuser cutout, and the rear spoiler cantilevered over the rear window has a dropped section, too. In the middle is a full-width band of 120 LED taillamps that kicks up on each outer edge into small fins of sorts. Lexus claims that they can help keep air organized as the vehicle passes, thus enhancing directional stability when facing strong crosswind situations or fast sweeping turns.
Despite the UX’s entry-level positioning, cheapness is hard to find in any form. To the contrary, this SUV’s interior is well appointed, and the washi paper-like texture on certain dash panels dresses up the space in uniquely Japanese fashion.
You enter the Lexus UX by simply scooting sideways into the seat, neither dropping down nor hoisting yourself up as you might in lower or taller automobiles. That’s a benefit drivers of all ages can enjoy, whether they’re Xenial exercise buffs after a grueling leg day, or a grandmother running off to bridge club.
From that perch, the view out is excellent, if not as commanding as with a higher-set SUV. Thanks to carefully considered mounting points for the dashboard, steering wheel, and front seats, the seating position itself feels exactly as natural as that of a normal car.
The F Sport’s front seats are unique to that trim and feature aggressive yet comfortable side bolsters. The rear bench seat can fit three adults, but they’ll be quite cozy. Two will be happier.
One of Lexus’ best recent efforts, the UX’s dashboard design includes a subtle bend that brings the elegant, LC-inspired banks of secondary controls into a slightly driver-focused orientation. Situated above them is a long, 10.2-inch information display controlled by a fussy remote touchpad on the center console.
F Sport versions include a larger 8-inch TFT instrument cluster with a sliding round bezel that can either frame the screen-based tachometer in its front and center position, or, at the touch of a button, scoot to the right revealing the contents of a multi-information display. The UX F Sport also includes a G-meter that records and displays the longitudinal and lateral forces exerted as the vehicle is driven.
If the confident handling I experienced on Swedish roads is anything to go on, you might actually experience some g-forces on twisty pavement. The UX’s solid structure and precise steering raised my confidence in turns, and its tight 34.2-foot turning circle made maneuvering through some of Stockholm’s tight alleys that much easier. And all the while, the ride quality struck a nice balance between tautness and compliance.
You won’t feel much force during acceleration, however, regardless of whether you’re in a front-wheel-drive UX 200 or an all-wheel-drive UX 250h hybrid.
A 169-horsepower, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine powers the UX 200, while the UX 250h uses a weaker, 141-hp 4-cylinder engine to power the front wheels and a less powerful electric motor to power the rear wheels. The total combined output for UX 250h models maxes out at 175 hp, though interestingly, the electric motor only works at speeds up to 45 mph, at which point the UX 250h imperceptibly reverts to being a 141-hp, front-drive-only vehicle.
The UX 200 utilizes the same Direct Shift continuously variable transmission (CVT) that Toyota installs in its new Corolla Hatchback. This CVT uses a fixed first gear for launches, yielding natural-feeling acceleration off the line followed by seamless CVT ratio shifting after that. Place it in manual mode and shift with the F Sport’s standard paddles and you’ll find it to behave much like CVTs with fixed-ratio driving modes, which is to say a bit slurry when changing ratios.
What the UX 200 never feels is fast. And apparently no UX is, whether it’s wearing F Sport regalia or not. Toyota estimates that the most strident 0-to-60 mph run in the slightly more powerful hybrid will take no less than 8.6 seconds, with front-drive non-hybrids taking even longer at 8.9 seconds.
These figures make the UX twins among of the slowest vehicles on the market today, regardless of price. That’s not exactly the sort of distinction we see Xenials bragging about on Instagram and Snapchat—and this sort of sluggishness stands in stark contrast to the UX’ alert steering and eagerness to change direction when told.
Unless Xenials never find themselves in much of a hurry, or it proves true that urban exploration endeavors are best done at a snail’s pace, this may indeed be the UX’ greatest vulnerability.
That said, there’s a benefit to being slow: excellent fuel economy. Lexus estimates that the UX will boast the best fuel efficiency of any crossover or SUV that isn’t a plug-in hybrid. In combined driving, the UX 200 should get 33 mpg and the UX 250h is expected to return 38 mpg in combined driving. Reality may well prove different, as underpowered vehicles tend to get flogged harder, which sucks down more gas.
It’s worth noting that while Lexus hasn’t built anything quite like the UX before, many of its competitors have. When the UX goes on sale it will face the BMW X2, Infiniti QX30, and Mercedes-Benz GLA250, each similarly blurring the line between a 5-door hatchback and a crossover SUV, offering token ground clearance and on-road-oriented all-wheel-drive systems of their own.
I can’t say how much better or worse the UX is than those competing models without driving the quartet of cute luxury ‘utes back-to-back. I can say, however, that none of those models have been flying off dealer lots.
Can Lexus break through where the others haven’t quite made a mark? Time will tell. And if it doesn’t, maybe those smart and debt-laden Xenials are more interested in value, travel and investing as rewards for success than any car company really understands.
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