Car designers walk a fine line when they try to shape an auto body with passion and drama.
On one side of the line are the unavoidable elements all cars must incorporate. All cars need a cabin surrounded by windows, doors, a second big cavity for power equipment like engine and transmission, four corners hollowed out for wheels, plus a few other pieces that make all autos tend toward sameness.
After shaping a car body to cover all of those shared essentials, designers striving to make a model stand out dramatically can go too far. Adding too many extra wrinkles and frilly details might make an auto look comically overwrought.
That’s the line. Too little equals sameness. Too much adds up to silliness.
Designers of the new Lexus UX crossover utility vehicle stepped right to the edge of that fine line. They may even have teetered and swayed a bit, at risk of tumbling over the edge. But in the end they kept their balance expertly.
The result is a small luxury wagon that stands out in a good way. The 2019 Lexus UX has a boldly protruding nose that points powerfully forward, thanks to arrow-sharp headlights and tall, spear-tipped panels that flank its grille. It rides high for its size, on large, 18-inch wheels that are accentuated by matte-black fender extensions shaped as half arches to complement the wavy, upward sculpting of the wagon’s profile, the waves created by prominent creases in its flanks. The upsweep ends at the tail, where a pointy back hatch echoes the spear-tipped nose.
The high-visibility design of the UX made me aware that I was traveling in a distinctive vehicle when I wheeled around town in an evaluation model. The bold color of my test model contributed to its swagger. Lexus calls the lustrous hue “cadmium orange.” It’s a flaming copper shade that is one of several distinctive colors the car company uses to make the new model stand out more. Others go by the titles “ultrasonic blue” and “nori green.”
The interior of my evaluation model was uniform black. It reinforced my sense of distinction, because the fixtures and features inside the UX are arranged and styled with sophistication. The cabin’s front seats nestle into a cockpit-like arrangement, with switches and controls, gauges and meters arrayed around the driver in configurations that give a sense of command. The instruments and controls have a high-tech aspect, while high-grade materials and artful design wrap the rest of the cabin.
A big, tablet-like information and control screen dominates the dashboard, embedded at windshield level at the top of the center stack. It’s operated by a touchpad beside the gear selector on the center console. In front of the driver, just beyond the steering wheel, two rotary switches protrude on horizontal knobs from opposite sides of the instrument panel’s top hood. Their prominence is probably unnecessary, because the simple switches for deactivating stability control and for selecting a drive mode could have been placed elsewhere. But the knobs lend a lot to the techy appearance of the instrument center, so I liked them.
The UX is a new model from Lexus, the luxury-car division of Toyota. When introduced at the tail end of last year, it became the smallest crossover sold by Lexus. The compact, five-passenger wagon starts at a list price of $33,025 for a front-wheel drive version called the UX 200. It’s powered by a 169-horsepower four-cylinder engine, mated to a continuously variable automatic transmission.
All-wheel drive adds $2,000, but it comes with a significant twist that makes the $35,025 list price for the Lexus UX with four-wheel traction seem like a bargain.
The all-wheel drive version, labeled the UX 250h, uses a gasoline/electric hybrid-drive system. Its front wheels obtain power from a four-cylinder gas engine combined with an electric motor, which share propulsion duties. Power at the rear wheels comes from a second electric motor with the solo role of giving the UX added traction in back. It operates only at speeds below 43 miles per hour. But around here, where people consider four-wheel traction a winter driving aid, its lower speed assistance is everything most people need.
The gas/electric power system of the all-wheel-drive UX 250h gives it outstanding fuel economy. The model carries a government fuel-use rating of 41 miles per gallon in city driving and 38 mpg on the highway, which works out to 39 mpg in combined driving.
I did better in my evaluation version of the UX 250h, averaging 43 mpg in mixed driving that spanned seven days and covered 450 miles. What’s more, I appreciated the intermittent low-speed cruises when the UX operated on electric power alone, with the gas engine on standby, shut down and silent. In all circumstances the UX was smooth riding, but during those short, low-speed bursts of pure-electric propulsion, it also was serenely quiet.
The new UX has been criticized for posing as a luxury model while sharing key attributes with Toyota-brand vehicles. For example, online reviews by the enthusiast magazine Car and Driver point out that the fundamental structure supporting the UX is borrowed from the Toyota C-HR, a small mass-market crossover. Similarly, the engine and transmission in the front-drive version of the UX also is used in the Toyota Corolla hatchback.
The littlest Lexus crossover also has been called too little, with its dramatic body shape compromising inside cargo capacity. That critical Car and Driver review calls the UX “little more than a . . . hatchback.”
But you could claim that a whole lot of contemporary crossover utility vehicles are really just elevated and expanded hatchbacks. The Lexus UX may not be expanded excessively, but its size and sculpted shape align with its position as a “fresh, contemporary and dynamic take on luxury driving,” according to Lexus promotional material.
The UX aims to suit the lifestyles of young affluent drivers who will find its entry-luxury price as appealing as its small but swaggering attitude. Its designers reached that line, and didn’t stumble.
Jeffrey Zygmont is an author of fiction, non-fiction and poetry books, and a long-time auto writer. Contact him at www.jeffreyzygmont.com.
2019 Lexus UX
Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger, front- and all-wheel-drive luxury compact crossover utility vehicle
List price: $33,025 to $35,025 (plus options)
Warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles basic warranty; 6 years/70,000 miles powertrain warranty; 6 years/unlimited miles corrosion warranty; 3 years/36,000 miles free schedule maintenance
Base engine: 2.0-liter I4
Power: 169 horsepower at 6,600 rpm; 151 lb-ft. torque at 4,800 rpm
Transmission: continuously variable automatic
Wheelbase: 104 inches
Length: 177 inches
Width: 72 inches
Height: 60 inches
Weight: 3,307 pounds
Fuel capacity: 12.4 gallons
Turning circle: 34.2 feet