The lines of what defines a new hatchback, wagon or SUV are increasingly blurred; Lexus’ soon-to-arrive UX compact SUV is a prime example.
Remove the over-styled black plastic wheel arches and the low-slung entry point to the Lexus range could easily pass as a five-door city runabout.
That sentiment is reinforced by the seating position, which is relatively low in the cabin, legs more in front rather than the upright stance of so many SUVs.
Not that the circa-$45k UX has any aspirations of heading beyond the sanctity of bitumen.
Its moniker denotes “urban explorer”, something reaffirming it’s more about bustling from brunch at a Northbridge cafe to slow afternoon drinks at Cottesloe.
Sure, there’s a four-wheel- drive model available but think muddy winery carparks or icy winter roads rather than anything likely to stare down a LandCruiser.
To be fair, that’s what owners of luxury compact SUVs are demanding: more city flair and less rugged hardware.
Key to the UX’s appeal is its design: edgy on the outside with lightweight aluminium panels for the doors, bonnet and front guards.
It’s certainly more adventurous in its look than its prime rivals such as the BMW X1, Audi Q2 and Mercedes-Benz GLA.
Inside is sophisticated, the angled centre stack indicative of its focus on the driver.
A sizeable colour screen dominates the dash, dialling up Apple CarPlay or Android Auto for the first time in a Lexus.
While the entry-level Luxury model has basic luxury accoutrements, the F Sport adds more flair, including unique wheels and grille and a larger customisable digital instrument cluster for more visual zing.
By the time you get to the Sports Luxury there’s a quality 13-speaker Mark Levinson system and 8.0-inch display, as well as more up-market finishes.
Other highlights include twin USB ports in the rear, while upper models get wireless smartphone charging and air vents with LED illumination powered by wireless induction.
Blended in with the tech overload is some traditional craftsmanship, the optional washi-inspired dash trim a refreshing Japanese-infused relief from the woods and leathers that dominate in luxury land.
Plus, there’s the latest iteration of Lexus’ Remote Touch which controls the infotainment navigation. The improvements to the touch pad don’t quell its frustrating operation, which makes it difficult to pinpoint points on the infotainment screen.
The standard Safety System+ incorporates auto emergency braking and blind spot monitoring, as well as auto braking in reverse.
Those choosing the UX200 get a new 2.0-litre engine, sourced from parent company Toyota.
The ground-up design makes the right numbers on paper — 126kW and 205Nm — but its character is variable depending on how you drive it.
At the global launch, we were on the roads in and around Stockholm, Sweden.
Accelerating hard from a standstill, there’s some noticeable vibration coursing through the body, backed up by the thrum of what is a rorty engine.
As revs top out and it slinks into its next ratio things calm down, at least until revs quickly rise to a high, almost constant threshold.
Blame it on the tricky transmission, a mix of old- school automatic and modern CVT (continuously variable transmission).
At low speeds it engages a regular mechanical first gear which delivers crisp responses to throttle applications.
What seems like a shift into second gear is actually a seamless handover to the CVT, providing an infinite spread of ratios matched to the conditions.
It’s a seemingly complex solution but one that brings genuine benefits, working well in the real world — with the exception of the early vibes.
Opt for the more expensive UX250h and electric motors are brought into the equation, the hybrid utilising a less powerful but more efficient tune of the same 2.0-litre engine paired to electric motors.
Jumping into the hybrid reveals a very different experience.
From the moment the electric motor surges to life there’s relaxed, almost effortless acceleration, plentiful torque pouring on in short bursts and the petrol engine chiming in to perk things up nicely.
While the petrol engine is the same basic unit as in the UX200, in the 250h it’s running an Atkinson cycle, which changes valve timing to divert the emphasis to fuel efficiency, in turn taking its toll on outright power.
Instead, it’s up to the electric motor to fill the power void, the two combining to create 131kW.
But it’s the mid-range urge that defines the hybrid system, its fuel consumption a bonus.
Those wanting all-wheel- drive can option it with the UX250h. Additional electric motors power the rear wheels, in turn taking some away from the electric motor up front.
Performance for that all-paw model, then, is slightly worse with its additional 55kg the culprit.
Whichever wheels are being driven, there are some hybrid quirks.
A mild whirr accompanies a low-speed start, for example, and the brakes are not as clean and consistent in their pedal feel as the UX200, leading to some head nodding from passengers if you don’t put extra effort into regulating the application of your right foot.
The hybrid also lacks the aural fizz of the petrol-only engine, instead bringing refinement to the table, something that arguably suits the car’s character better.
None of which detracts from its appeal, reinforced by playful dynamics.
At low speeds there’s a firmness to the suspension that reinforces the city thinking, albeit with enough compliance to live up to the prestige promise. Tyre noise is occasionally an unwanted companion.
Ramp up the pace and there’s more compliance over undulations, only grates or potholes catching out the 50-profile 18-inch run-flat rubber.
Steering is alert and responsive, the thick-rimmed three-spoke wheel a handy tiller.
Elsewhere, there are obvious compromises in the UX, especially with space.
More reach and height adjustment to the steering wheel would tailor the seating position better for some people but the relatively flat stance makes for a driving location that’s more sports car than SUV.
Despite being longer than key rivals, less impressive dimensions in other directions have crunched sprawling space. Even the boot is shallow and compact.
Engineers prioritised front- seat comfort, ensuring generous space and supportive seats.
It comes at the expense of room in the rear, the roof too low for taller adults and legroom at a premium.
For singles and couples it’s ideal but families won’t be rushing in.
In some ways that sums up the UX.
While it’s playing the SUV card hard, it’s trying to do so while keeping a close eye on its sporty side.
The hybrid is its point of differentiation, the styling a welcome distraction from the more formal German alternatives.
Combined with a reputation for longevity and Japanese attention to detail it makes for a worthy (late) arrival to the small SUV party.
Models Luxury; F Sport; Sports Luxury
Prices From $45,000 (estimated)
Engines 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol; 2.0-litre four-cylinder hybrid
Outputs 126kW/205Nm; 131kW (hybrid torque TBA)
Transmission CVT automatic