Parkers overall rating: 4 out of 5 4.0

Update 1: Welcome

2020 Lexus UX - self-charging header

Most car manufacturers are jabbering on about electrifying their model line-ups, some with more ambition than others. But all the while, Lexus has been leading the charge (boo) – offering a hybrid powertrain in every single one of its UK models since 2013.

So while Lexus, or rather its parent company Toyota Group, wasn’t the first to the hybrid game, it’s been the most successful, selling more hybrids than anybody else so far. Yet it’s also proved resistant to change, having yet to launch a plug-in hybrid or pure-electric vehicle and continuing on with what it calls its ‘self-charging hybrid’ powertrain.

To see if it’s still fit for purpose, I’ll be running this for the next six months – a Lexus UX. It’s the smallest SUV in the brand’s four-strong range, and rivals cars such as the Audi Q2, BMW X1 or Volvo XC40.

Self-charging hybrid?

I wanted to tackle this term right away, as it can instil rage into even the most mild-mannered of car enthusiasts online. Type it into Twitter and you’ll find page upon page of not-so-reasoned debate.

Critics say that the term is misleading – it suggests that the car is pulling electricity out of thin air, that it will never need to be refuelled and that all it is is a more efficient petrol car. Toyota says that it addresses buyer’s concerns about hybrid cars – namely, the misconception that you can’t buy one unless you have somewhere to plug it in – and it wants to show that its vehicles do not need external power to perform at their best.

2020 Lexus UX rear three quarter

While I can see where the critics are coming from, I don’t really buy that the average consumer is so thick as to believe the car entirely fuels itself. And though I’m not mad on the term, I can’t really think of a better one that extols the virtues of the powertrain while also communicating that it’s different to a plug-in hybrid.

In addition, I think it's a fairly accurate description. While admittedly all of the power comes from petrol in one way or another, the car charges its battery entirely autonomously - either from the engine or through regenerative braking and coasting.

So there. I’ll be calling this UX a self-charging hybrid throughout these reports. Ner ner ner.

So what’s it actually like?

Superficial things out of the way first – the UX’s design is an acquired taste, but I love the combination of Celestial Blue metallic paint and cream leather that our car rocks. It certainly stands out, with bodywork covered in violent cuts and creases, the aggressive ‘spindle’ grille and a full-width element at the rear providing plenty of interest.

This is a base-spec UX, but it’s fitted with two really important upgrades – the Premium Plus Pack and the Tech and Sound pack. These are pricey options, weighing in at £4,200 and £1,900 – though you can’t have the latter without the former.

2020 Lexus UX interior

They add plenty of luxury kit, though, which I reckon is fairly essential on a premium-badged model such as this. In fact, for the £6,100 total you get 25 new features – not a bad ratio. They include keyless entry, all-round parking sensors, heated and electrically adjustable front seats, 18-inch alloy wheels and privacy glass, which are all useful touches.

Naturally, as a bit of a tech geek, I’m more interested in the wireless charging pad, digital dashboard, head-up display and 13-speaker Mark Levinson stereo system. I can confirm that it sounds absolutely mega.

I’ll admit to being slightly less enthusiastic over the prospect of six months with Lexus’ infotainment system. More on that in a future update, but for now, all you need to know is that it took three fairly experienced automotive journalists around 10 minutes to figure out how to turn the sat-nav’s voice commands off.

2020 Lexus UX infotainment touchpad

Our UX also lacks Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, though there’s great news on that front – 2020 model year cars come with the software installed, and it’s an upgrade that will be applied to our car at its next service. Toyota Group has dragged its heels on this smartphone integration for years, and it’s fantastic to finally see it become available.

Speaking of service, Lexus has supplied us with a car with a few thousand miles on to begin with – it’ll require a trip to the dealers during our term with it. This is great, because it means I’ll get to experience Lexus’ legendary service department first-hand and see if it really does live up to expectations.

Any other disappointments?

I’m a bit miffed that this base-spec model still uses halogen bulbs for indicators – they rather spoil the futuristic aesthetic Lexus is going for with the styling, and I think it’s stingy given this car’s near-£30,000 starting price.

Practicality has already proven an issue. The boot is unbelievably shallow, to the point where even a standard-sized bag of shopping pushes into the parcel shelf. The official figures list the boot space as more than 300 litres, which I take with a grain of salt – there’s certainly less usable space in there than in most superminis or even city cars. It’s not a patch on the likes of the Volvo XC40.

2020 Lexus UX boot

The powertrain is often a sticking point with Lexus hybrids – some love its relaxed nature, others find the sometimes unpredictable nature of the transmission a bore. I’m beginning to lean more towards enjoying it, but there are still times when I yearn for the more enjoyable performance you’d get from a similarly powerful turbocharged petrol engine.

First impressions

I’ve gone through just shy of 1,000 miles over my first month with the UX – a mixture of short runs to and from work and longer cross-country trips. It’s given me plenty of food for thought, but overall it’s proven a surprisingly likable car so far.

But watch this space for greater detail, as there’s plenty more to dive into during our six-month term.

Fuel economy: 47.9mpg


Update 2: Performance and handling

Lexus is a brand known for comfort, stunning build quality and impeccable customer service. That’s not to say all of its models are sedate hybrids, though – cars such as the LC, RC F and even the LFA prove that Toyota’s luxury arm can do ‘exciting’ when it puts its mind to it.

2020 Lexus UX long-term - front cornering

So, did any of that expertise get called up when Lexus put together the UX? After all, small SUVs – especially fashion-led ones like this UX – are bought by young, vibrant types... in theory. Certainly from my perspective, as a single 26-year old (albeit somewhat lacking in vibrancy), I'd like a car that's good fun to drive. And happily, I can report that, within its own confines – being a hybrid, automatic SUV – the UX is pretty good.

How good can a hybrid SUV with a CVT actually be?

It’s all about driving within the car’s limits. Put your foot down all the way and you’re in for a rough time. The continuously variable transmission sends the revs spiking as the engine desperately spins up to try and conjure some forward momentum. You could even flick the car into Sport mode and take control of some artificially created gear ratios. But once again, this is a practice full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Instead, I’ve found the ideal level of throttle input. Place your foot at about 70% and the electric motor and petrol engine work in sync to bring progress that’s genuinely rapid, yet refined. It’s rather like riding the wave of torque that you get with a diesel, but without the associated tractor-like thrum.

2020 Lexus UX long-term - Tom driving

In fact, it’s rather easy to trivialise the fact that the UX really is quite a quick little thing. At full chat, 0-62mph comes about in just 8.5 seconds – the same as an Audi Q2 35 TFSI. Not too long ago, that would have been considered hot hatchback pace.

Hybrid handler

The UX certainly doesn’t handle like a hot hatchback, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good fun. It’s remarkably poised in the corners, and you can carry a fair degree of speed without the car feeling as though it’s on the edge of disaster.

The rear end in particular feels surprisingly communicative – a surprise, for a small SUV. As ever, the steering’s remote and over-light, but that’s par for the course among this car’s competitors.

Relaxed manners make cruising a pleasure

Yet the UX doesn’t encourage spirited driving, and so my average pace has steadily dropped back. I still keep up with traffic, but this car benefits more and more the smoother your inputs become. Drive it carefully and you’ll see the little ‘EV’ symbol light up on the dashboard, signifying that the petrol engine’s been switched off and, for this limited period, you’re not using any fuel at all.

In fact it’s immensely satisfying to see how often, and how long I can get the EV light to stay on for. There’s a knack to it – you need to lift off the accelerator just enough, as if you were encouraging an automatic car to shift into a higher gear. The last mile or so of my commute is a straight 30mph cruise through my village, and I’m now capable of doing this reliably on electric power alone. So it’s disappointing that, despite all this battery-powered motion, I’ve yet to crack 46mpg since the impressive first month…

2020 Lexus UX dials

Surprisingly for a hybrid – and I say ‘surprisingly’ because these powertrains are usually at their best around town – the UX is a pleasure to drive on the motorway. The engine has more than enough poke for overtaking at faster speeds, wind, road and engine noise are all well-contained, and the supple ride glides over all but particularly rough surfaces.

The adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist functions aren’t quite as slick as they were on my previous long-termer, a Honda Civic, though. The cruise control is particularly easily perturbed – even with the following distance at its closest setting, it panics and slows the car down long before I get anywhere near the car in front. The lane-keeping aid, meanwhile, tends to spend all its time twitching the wheel, which is very tiring. I’ve had these both switched off for a while in favour of driving ‘analogue’.

Fuel economy: 45.8mpg


 

Update 3: A mid-pandemic service for our Lexus UX

2019 Lexus UX - outside dealership

In line with COVID-19 lockdown regulations (and acknowledging that my job here at Parkers, while important, doesn’t make me a key worker) I’ve been hiding out in my spare bedroom for the last six weeks, working from home and allowing my long-term Lexus UX to gather dust outside but for a weekly trip to the supermarket.

Lockdown couldn’t have come at a worse time either, at least where the car is concerned. It was due its first service, at 10,000 miles or one year old – and I’d just booked it in for March 25 when the country locked down, on March 23. Bugger.

>> COVID-19 - tips for drivers

Of course, a short delay on a service interval is hardly a big deal. This is pre-emptive maintenance rather than a particular necessity, and it’s a very badly built car that will go bang if it misses a single scheduled service. The vast majority of car manufacturers have in fact extended their service intervals for the duration of the lockdown period, promising that drivers don’t need to worry about voiding their warranty for missing a scheduled service.

This act has the additional benefit of freeing up space in service bays for key workers – those still working who may need to drive, and for whom a well-maintained car is particularly important.

Some free slots for service still available

Still, I can only assume that the technicians at the Lexus dealer were twiddling their thumbs, because they called me offering a service slot, should I want it. They stressed that I didn't have to take it, though. Toyota's official stance is it will take a 'sympathetic and flexible' approach to servicing during the pandemic - and if I had concerns, I could delay the service.

I accepted, however, for a few reasons. First, and very selfishly, I desperately wanted to get out of the house – having been cooped up alone for almost two months, the deep but one-sided conversations with my dishwasher were beginning to wear rather thin. Second, I was very encouraged by how seriously Lexus was taking cleanliness and social distancing protocols.

Toyota showroom social distancing protocol

And finally, I intended to sign up to the next wave of NHS volunteers, having already used the car to deliver a few lots of groceries around town – and didn’t want the excess mileage to be a problem.

It’s strange how unnatural driving feels, when you’re back at the wheel for the first time in a while. The trip to my ‘local’ dealer in Cambridge (I live 40 miles away, but my nearby Toyota dealer won’t touch Lexus) took a good hour, and felt deeply weird until I got my head wrapped back around the sensation of speed. It was as uneventful as you’d expect, the UX proving as comfortable and refined as ever.

Social distancing like a pro

Lexus was operating service slots in 15-minute intervals to prevent customers from coming in contact with each other. There’s zero contact with the staff, either – I was invited to sanitise my hands and my car key before placing the latter into an envelope and leaving it on the table. I then collected another envelope with the keys to my courtesy car: another UX, freshly sanitised. Returning was the reverse of this.

The process was quick and reassuring, and though there’s no way to totally mitigate the risks of this virus the procedures in place certainly go a long way to minimising it.

2020 Lexus UX infotainment

As expected, no warnings were thrown up from the service. All went ahead as planned, with the exception of one thing – I’d been assured an update for the infotainment system would be available, adding Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to the UX’s central screen, but this didn’t materialise. It’s a shame, as the drive reminded me how sub-par Lexus’ system is. Even my courtesy car, fitted with an upgraded setup and a larger, higher-resolution display ran the same awkward system, making it no easier to use.

However, as a first-time recipient of Lexus’ legendary customer service, I was left very impressed. Hopefully the next time we meet won’t be under pandemic conditions…

Fuel economy: 43.5mpg


Update 4: Practicality

2020 Lexus UX - boot

One of the key factors that appeals to buyers when opting for an SUV is the promise of space – lots of room in the back seats and in the boot, especially compared with an equivalent hatchback. That’s why in many cases they’ve replaced MPVs in manufacturer line-ups.

Lexus has never sold an MPV in the UK, though, and while many of the brand’s larger cars are immensely practical it’s not a particular brand hallmark in the way it is with, say, Honda or Skoda. Despite this, the UX still falls some way short of the practicality I’d hope to find on a car such as this.

Cramped in the back

Front seat passengers are treated very well, but space in the back is a little more limited. There’s sufficient knee and head-room for adults, but four six-footers will definitely feel cramped. That’s a complaint we can make about the majority of compact SUVs, though.

What makes the UX especially bad, however, is the uncomfortable centre perch, and the high window line and aggressively tinted rear glass that make it very dark and cave-like in the back, despite our car’s light leather.

2020 Lexus UX - rear seat

Passengers have also made a curious complaint – that the subwoofer for my car’s (wonderful) Mark Levinson sound system reverberates through the seat, buzzing against their backs and making even short journeys incredibly irritating. I can’t say it’s an issue I’ve experienced myself, even on the few journeys I’ve spent as a rear-seat passenger – but it might be something to consider if you’re buying this car with the intention of regularly transporting people in the rear.

Any issues with the rear seat pale in comparison to those with the boot, though.

Boot? What boot?

The UX’s boot is laughably shallow, to the point it would probably stop me – even with my limited demands on a car’s boot – from buying one. Overall boot capacity is just 320 litres – smaller than a lot of superminis, and much smaller than the 470 litres of a BMW X2 or 405 litres of an Audi Q2.

It’s a long, wide and flat space, but there’s so little space underneath the parcel shelf that even a small bag of shopping ends up squashed.

2020 Lexus UX - boot

That must be why Lexus opted to fit a flexible, fabric parcel shelf, rather than a rigid one. This conforms itself to whatever’s placed under it, though, leaving a rather unsightly bulge in the rear-view mirror…

The big problem is that Lexus was forced to fit the car’s standard 12V battery back here. It sits just behind the rear wheelarch, and artificially raises the boot floor to this insane level. As a side benefit, you do get a reasonably-sized hidden area underneath the boot floor, but I’d trade that in for more overall height.

At least the seats fold easily and lay almost completely flat, so it’s not as awful at the trademark IKEA run as it could be.

Is it really a problem?

Limited rear-seat room can be disregarded for a lot of small premium cars like this, as they’re often bought by single people or couples who value style over space. The boot, however, is ridiculous – even a supermini can accommodate a weekly shop for two without needing the parcel shelf to be removed.

It’s certainly a feature I’d recommend looking very carefully at before opting to purchase the UX.

Fuel economy: 45.1mpg