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I first drove Lexus‘ boutique crossover alongside Juliet in Sweden two years ago and was left deeply impressed with the UX, specifically the hybrid (I was left scarred, too … Juliet turns into a maniac when she’s piloting a car on foreign roads; there was many a close call on windy roads through dense forests). The UX is refined, beautifully built and uniquely designed – surely winning qualities in the discerning premium-crossover segment?

The South African market, however, didn’t quite respond with the same enthusiasm as I did following the Lexus’ launch last year; UX sales have been middling. That’s been partly due to a compact cabin (effectively ruling the UX out for family buyers), likely divisive styling and high pricing on the sole hybrid model. To boost its appeal, earlier this year Lexus SA added this lower-spec UX250h EX to supplement the flagship hybrid SE, plus two naturally aspirated 2.0-litre petrol options (UX200). The EX costs R690 300, which nevertheless places it at the sharp end of a market sector with roomier alternatives, such as the Audi Q3 and Mercedes-Benz GLA. Does the Lexus’ unique drivetrain configuration afford it a sufficient USP to lift aggregate UX sales?

ALL SLASHES AND SWAGE LINES

Even in a conservative paint colour such as the one worn by our test car, the UX draws eyeballs. It’s a busy design on a small canvass (it’s definitely lower than you might think at 1,52 metres; think tall hatch instead of SUV) that could age sooner than less overtly stylised rivals but I think it looks terrific. Eighteen-inch alloys are standard and fill the arches nicely. LED lights are fitted front and rear – the headlamps are startlingly bright but lack the SE’s auto high beam – as is a token rear spoiler.

The riot of lines continue inside but usability isn’t notably compromised by the design-led approach – the controls are where you’d expect them (I really like the toggles sprouting from the instrument shroud; they’re tactile and easy to reach), including physical switches for the two-zone climate control. Only the Remote Touch Interface (RTI) continues to irk; it’s far too easy to scroll past buttons on the central screen despite haptic feedback. As in all Lexus models that use RTI, the system does a disservice to the rest of the cabin.

The driving position is sound – the steering wheel and pedals are straight ahead, and the seat is widely adjustable (electrically) – and build quality is as impressive as you’d hope from Lexus despite the presence of some hard plastics, especially on the rear doors. However, rear head- and legroom are in short supply; the rear-door apertures are tight, so fitting a child seat will be an exercise in patience; and the 265-litre boot is smaller than most (the hybrid loses just seven litres to the UX200). Like I mentioned, the UX isn’t really a family car.

HYBRID’S WHERE THE MAGIC LIES

I’ve extensively driven the UX200, too, and the UX250h is the one to get. Thanks to a total system output of 135 kW (the 2.0-litre engine contributes 107 kW, as well as 180 Nm), it feels sprightly in day-to-day traffic. Lexus claims 8.5 seconds to leap from 0-100 km/h. The transition between drive modes feels seamless, too, and I was surprised how often I was driving only on electric power. Often, hybrids are a compromise in heavier vehicles where the electric powertrain simply isn’t potent enough to sustain propulsion for more than a few seconds at a time. Here, that’s not the case, borne out by an average fuel consumption of just 5.6 L/100 km over a week’s driving mainly in Cape Town’s CBD. I didn’t even mind the CVT hiking revs and keeping them there during enthusiastic acceleration because the petrol is hushed.

Adding to the UX250h’s impressive urban credentials is a ride that’s well damped and quiet. The 18-inch wheels are shod with 50-profile run-flat tyres that allow enough cushioning to absorb impacts. Lexus says the hybrid UX has a particularly low centre of gravity and it feels that way. Body roll is kept in check but the UX isn’t a sporty drive, nor is it intended to be. It’s stable, refined and fuss-free.

SO THE NEW MODEL’S THE ONE TO GET?

Definitely. It makes the most sense in the UX range, as the UX250h has the best powertrain configuration and is sufficiently well equipped while undercutting the UX250h SE by R65 900. The bigger problem for the little Lexus, however, is that you could have an Audi Q3 Sportback, Mercedes-Benz GLA or BMW X2 for the same price. Certainly, they’d require some speccing to match the UX’s tally, but the Audi and Benz are larger inside and the X2 arguably even better to drive. What they don’t offer – not yet, at least – is a hybrid drivetrain option, which is an essential feature to some buyers in 2020 and beyond. Those people won’t be disappointed at all after signing on the dotted line for a UX, but they’ll likely remain in the minority despite Lexus padding the range.

PRICING

All Lexus models include an industry-leading seven-year/105 000 km maintenance plan and warranty.

Lexus UX200 EX: R654 700

Lexus UX250h EX: R690 300

Lexus UX250h SE: R756 200

Lexus UX200 F-Sport: R785 400

About the Author: Terence Steenkamp
Editor. Car lover. Traveller. Doggy dad. Pinot noir drinker.