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Hasn’t every car maker launched a compact SUV by now? Almost. It’s true – Lexus is late to the game with its new UX when you consider rivals such as the BMW X1 and Audi Q3 have been on sale for years. 

But Lexus hasn’t missed the boat. The compact SUV segment remains the fastest-growing in Europe with premium versions the most in demand.

And so, it’s not surprising the UX is a fundamental part of Lexus’s strategy to sell 100,000 cars in Europe from 2020. Last year, it sold 76,000 units, which gives you a clue as to how far there is to go and how much is riding on the UX, which sits alongside the ageing CT200h as the entry-level models in the Lexus range. It also completes the now three-strong Lexus SUV range next to its mid-size NX and large RX siblings.

Such is the UX’s predicted impact, its maker reckons 70% of UX buyers will not only be new to Lexus but new to premium brands altogether. 

How does the UX stand out from every other compact SUV?

Despite having many rivals – not least our favourite, the Volvo XC40 – the UX brings something new to the table. It’s a hybrid-only model, plus its many cuts and creases make it distinctly distinctive versus the pack.

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It also has some of the more unusual dimensions among premium compact SUVs, with proportions making it the most car-like of the lot. It’s longer than any rival, in the mid-range for width (the Audi Q3 is wider, the BMW X1 is narrower) and lower than almost everything in its segment. So low that it’s only 68mm taller than a Volkswagen Golf.

The UX is the first Lexus to be built on its new global architecture, GA-C. This is the brand’s equivalent of parent company Toyota’s TGNA platform on which the RAV4 sits. Lexus says it promises a “lightweight yet super-rigid structure, extremely low centre of gravity and refined suspension tuning endowing it with exemplary handling agility and ride comfort, and a distinctive driving character”. Let’s see…

We’re behind the wheel of an F-Sport model, the middle of three trims and the sportiest of them all. That’s thanks to Adaptive Variable Suspension, which is part of a £1800 ‘Tech and safety’ pack, only available on the F-Sport. AVS made its debut on the flagship LC Coupe and can vary damping through 650 levels, all of which is meant to improve ride comfort.

Indeed, on the smooth roads of Barcelona, it’s an option worth ticking, ironing out road lumps and bumps nicely. As we often comment, the system’s worth will be more telling when we get the UX on UK roads in the near future.

Another promising outcome of the adaptive suspension was minimal body roll through corners, which exceeded expectations for a comfortable, compact SUV not built for high performance. Don’t expect the poise going into corners that you get from a BMX X1 but, nonetheless, the UX handles with an effortless ‘I’m not trying that hard but cope fine anyway’ kind of charm. 

Its surprising agility on twisty roads is no doubt helped by the UX’s car-like qualities, including that low centre of gravity, something that is improved further still by Active Corner Assist – a feature on all UXs – which monitors the driver’s line when turning and applies the necessary braking on the inside wheels to suppress understeer. 

There are five drive modes on the F-Sport (and three on the other trims), which are controlled by an oddly placed knob on the side of the driver display. Steering feel is quickened in Sport mode, which marries nicely to the F-Sport, but even in normal mode, steering is relatively direct and light, perfectly suiting the laid-back characteristics of this car.

Those are helped from the offset by the 181bhp petrol-hybrid powertrain, which is gloriously quiet, whether in electric mode or when the 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol is running. It’s paired with a direct-shift continuously variable transmission (CVT) and is the best CVT we’ve yet driven. That’s not saying much given the CVTs of old, but it’s come a long way. All that said, the transmission isn’t as intuitive as it should be and the petrol engine becomes strained under hard acceleration. Despite this, the front-wheel-drive car has decent straight-line acceleration and achieves 0-62mph in 8.5sec.

Lexus reckons that its ‘self-charging hybrid’ can use electric power for an average of 55% of real-world city driving, depending on driving conditions. We can’t prove that here but, driving on a varied route, there were many times when the EV mode kicked in from gentle acceleration to coasting – which is now possible up to 71mph for short stretches.

What's the UX like inside the cabin?

Up against the likes of the XC40 and Q3, the stakes are high for premium compact SUV interiors. But Lexus’s efforts are admirable with quality leather and plastics and neatly designed controls.

A major bugbear is the remote touchpad to control the 10.25in infotainment screen, which is near unusable. Even with great focus, the cursor moves too fast, meaning you end up far from where you want to be. Practice makes perfect, one hopes. Further negatives include boot and rear-seat space inferior to rivals and back-seat material quality falling short.

Let's not forget the UX’s main purpose as a eco-conscious family vehicle. For the target audience, which is city-based and/or tax-focused, the UX’s commendable economy figures will be enough to tempt, at the very least.

The official combined fuel consumption on the WLTP cycle is 53.3mpg, considerably higher than the most green petrol Volvo XC40, the T3, at 39.8mpg. CO2 emissions (on WLTP) are 123g/km on the 18in wheels of our test car, at least 40g/km less than the T3.

When you factor in a starting price of £29,900 (for the entry-level UX, which is due to be the most popular in the UK), in line with the Q3 and cheaper than the XC40, plus the broader running costs, the UX should beat its diesel and petrol rivals on bang for your buck.

As an all-round package, it doesn’t quite have the edge of an XC40, but it’s certainly credible enough to be on the compact SUV shortlist, especially for those who prefer a left-field option in terms of both styling and powertrain. Lexus models have come a long way, and nothing proves that more than the UX.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Lexus UX

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