Test Drive: Taking the Premium Hybrid Lexus UX for a Spin

Courtesy Lexus

The entry-level luxury car weighs affordability against Lexus' reputation for quality and design.

The Swedish word ‘lagom’ is difficult to translate into English. It is a piece of cultural philosophy explained as “just the right amount” or “not too little, not too much,” with connotations of balance and appropriateness. Folklore attributes the word’s origin to the Viking practice of drinking mead from a horn. A curved horn cannot be rested on a table, so it is passed and shared. When taking one’s turn, it is unforgivably rude to drink too much and deprive your companions. Likewise, it is impolite to drink too little and abstain from the merriment. One must drink just the right amount. Lagom.


Courtesy Lexus

Lexus chose the capital of Sweden, Stockholm, to launch their entry into the compact crossover segment. The Lexus UX is a model hoping to find a middle ground somewhere between an SUV and a coupe or sedan. It is an entry-level luxury car, weighing affordability against the marque’s reputation for quality and design. If those contrasts don’t present enough tension, Lexus additionally claims a focus on safety and efficiency. Sweden and the compromise and balance of lagom seemed most appropriate.


Jeroen Peeters

Engineering Culture

Before I drove the UX, I cornered Lexus’s Paul Williamsen, a fellow gearhead, and we examined an engine and transmission from the car that had been cut away to expose the internals. There are two powertrain options available for the UX—conventional gasoline and gasoline-electric hybrid.

The conventional powertrain features an all-new 2.0 liter, four-cylinder engine with an automatic transmission and front-wheel drive. Efficiency is the name of the game and Lexus pulls out the technological stops to achieve it. Direct injection and variable valve timing are sophisticated but familiar solutions. More esoteric are the intake valve seats where a laser is used to melt and fuse steel particles directly on the aluminum port surface to create an ultra-thin liner. Engines “breath” air, so getting more and cooler air into them improves efficiency. Williamsen claims a shockingly strong overall thermal efficiency of 40% for this engine.

Next, we turned our attention to the automatic transmission which also contains some unique engineering. It is a continuously variable transmission with the addition of a fixed-ratio, direct first gear. Providing a prime example of the “yet” philosophy in action, this solution serves two disparate goals. The direct first gear provides better acceleration feel at low speed without the vagueness characteristic of CVTs. It also handles the majority of the shock loading the transmission is subject to, and so the pulleys and belt of the CVT can be smaller and lighter for increased efficiency.

The hybrid powertrain is the very latest 4th generation Lexus Synergy Drive. Originally developed by Toyota in the 90s, this is the most proven, advanced hybrid system in existence. A modified version of the same 2.0 liter four and two electric motor-generators provide power. Combining those power sources is the planetary gear transaxle, which has been redesigned to create a more compact unit with reduced frictional losses. Out of curiosity, I asked Williamsen what the service interval on the transaxle was—“There isn’t one,” he replied. “You NEVER change the fluid?” I pressed. “No, there’s nothing to wear and dirty it.” A third independent electric motor located on the rear axle is controlled by the Vehicle Stability Control system and provides all-wheel drive. The estimated EPA combined fuel economy for the hybrid is a class-leading 38 mpg.


Courtesy Lexus

Design Culture

As you might expect from Lexus, design is paramount. In the UX, the attention to visual and sensory detail is evident in the contrasting textures of the interior surfaces, abundant stitching accents, and a dash pad inspired by Japanese handcrafted paper. Instrumentation and infotainment are presented on two large TFT LCD panels; however, controls are satisfyingly analog, with not a touchscreen in sight. Audio controls are placed on the edge of the center console palm rest while a laptop-like trackpad in front of the palm rest manages the information display. Features are extensive and include wireless phone charging and Amazon Alexa integration.

The cabin of the UX is grandly spacious. Large windows provide a commanding field of view while the lines of the dash are continued by the hood creases to visually integrate the interior and exterior, which flows from the bold Lexus signature grill flanked by large air scoops and capped by angular LED-accented headlights. Prominent wheel arch flares lead to sweeping body lines that continue in the kicked up lip of the taillights spanning the rear of the car with 120 LEDs. The stance is pure SUV—wide, aggressive, and planted. These aren’t just styling exercises though, the wheel flares reduce turbulence while the shape of the tail lights reduces air pressure at the corners of the car, resulting in a respectable .33 coefficient of drag.


Courtesy Lexus

Driving Culture

Driving the UX, the handling stood out immediately—crisp, nimble, and planted. There was no sloppiness and very little body roll. This was good, because it was summer in Stockholm, or “construction season,” as the locals call it. The navigation system is excellent, with a large screen and prompts on the head-up display projected above the steering wheel, but it was no match for temporary street closures and endless detours. The agile handling and 34.2-foot turning circle (made possible in part by that new, more compact transaxle) were very welcome.

Getting out of the city, I was on the hunt for some dirt-road detours to try out the AWD. I struck out on my first attempt and ended up in a rural suburb, too populated for shenanigans. Picking my way out, I was flagged down and very politely scolded by a Swede (out walking his dog) who revealed a little about his priorities—“You are driving very fast. There are dogs. And children.” Soon I was able to find more isolated roads where I could play a bit. Mashing the pedal at low speed lit up all four tires and the VSC system modulated power as the car clawed its way up to speed in a controlled manner.

Back on the narrow, winding pavement of the countryside, the car took good care of me—the suspension soaking up rough patches while the tech package watched my back. Where there were road markings, lane assist worked well, and the nav warned me of speed limits and even the location of speed cameras. When the road ended at the water, parking assist helped me squeeze onto the ferry for a short crossing. On the freeway back to Stockholm, I accelerated to 150 km/h and the car exhibited no floating or vagueness. I quickly dropped back in with traffic, not wanting to sample the politeness of a scolding by the Swedish police.

When it is available at the end of the year, the UX will be going up against competitors from BMW, Audi, and Volvo. Lexus’ Japanese take on luxury is a very balanced option, and ‘compromise’ can be applied here in the most positive sense—just the right amount.