Text and photos by Kap Maceda Aguila
STOCKHOLM, Sweden. The worldwide predilection for crossovers has undoubtedly reached epic proportions, and there’s no sign of it abating. Even the most of rarefied of brands and those known primarily for heightened performance (i.e., sports cars) have seen the wisdom in developing corresponding entries in the genre. Indeed, studies show that one in every vehicle purchased is a crossover/SUV, and marques which shun the format do so at their peril.
Premium automaker Lexus, truly one of the early entrants to the game, is leveraging its considerable experience and flexes its muscles anew with the addition of a crossover product — growing its portfolio of sport-utes to five.
First revealed to the public in March at the Geneva International Motor Show, the Lexus UX takes its place as the smallest SUV in the lineup — offering the “the brand’s innovative design, luxury features, and advanced safety in a package that combines charismatic new styling elements and ultra-efficient new power trains.” The UX name is derived from the design team’s guiding concept describing the vehicle’s “mission” — hence “Urban plus X-over (crossover).”
The choice of this Scandinavian city for the first drive event for the UX was made carefully. “The reason we selected Stockholm… is because the energy and creativity that this city has is world-class,” said Lexus Asia Pacific vice president David Nordstrom, at the product presentation held at the Delight Studios in Nacka. “It’s often referred to as the world’s biggest small town. It’s lot smaller in size when compared to other European cities like London, Paris, Berlin and Rome. So it gives you a small-town feel with world-class amenities.”
The parallelisms with the UX value propositions are clear. Despite its size, the new crossover is undoubtedly a Lexus — a premium vehicle bestowed commensurate levels of luxuries, features and technologies. Like Stockholm, the UX is comparatively diminutive yet pleasantly surprising. And just as the city is a proven cauldron of bright ideas and worldwide hits like Abba, Ikea, and Spotify, the new Lexus crossover is a product of putting good imagination, industry, and choice materials to full and good effect.
And because it is the newest in the Lexus pantheon, the UX benefits from what Mr. Nordstrom described as a “journey of product and brand transformation” over the last few years.
SPEAKING OF DESIGN
From the air and rapidly getting larger as our plane descends, Stockholm is a lush green with swirls of glistening water. The Swedish capital, comprised of 14 islands sitting on the majestic Lake Malaren, is an inspiring, sparsely populated Scandinavian city accessed mainly by foreign tourists through its modest-sized Arlanda Airport.
“Over the last few years, Lexus has been on a journey of product and brand transformation. You have seen our design language change to become bolder and more distinctive, and hopefully you have experienced a significant change in our driving dynamics that pairs our world-renowned comfort with Lexus’ unique sense of dynamic handling,” continued the executive. “The all-new UX showcases the Lexus design language and highlights our ability to craft luxury interiors. Although the UX will be a gateway vehicle for our lineup, it will soon become one of our core models.”
This vehicle is significant for many reasons. One of them is that the UX design team was headed by the first female chief engineer in the Lexus organization — who is also its first female managing officer. “In developing this vehicle, I drew heavily from my prior experience in Europe,” says Chika Kako in her presentation. “While on overseas assignment at our R&D division there, I got a fresh perspective of the varied philosophies behind luxury and wealth.” The intangibles of time, experience, and beauty appear significantly on the “aspirational” radar, and these are values UX strive to address. Kako and her design team wanted to evoke an “emotional connection with the driver” in this vehicle that is more than merely the sum of its highly detailed parts.
A lot is riding on the UX for the Lexus business in Asia. “We’re confident that the UX will provide a highly attractive alternative to existing products in the market,” declared Mr. Nordstrom, who added that the UX is projected to comprise “23% of Lexus sales” in Asia Pacific. “Including the impact of the all-new ES, overall Lexus sales in Asia Pacific will increase 60% between 2018 and 2019… The UX is going to increase our opportunity to bring new customers to the Lexus brand.”
Lexus could have chosen a sedan for its gateway model, but the UX as crossover expresses the virtues and tenets that Ms. Kako envisioned. “We understand completely that there is a large base of customers who enjoys sedans. But here was a chance to create something new and exciting that we’ve never seen before. So think about something having the driving performance of a sporty coupe, but with crossover looks… That was something I really wanted to achieve. That’s why I went for this body type.”
Muscular in form and brandishing a lot of new technology and features, the UX bears the iconic spindle grille of the brand and expresses a taut, consistent design that is exciting and bold. A sleek sheet-metal execution doesn’t only give it heft and beauty, but serves to lower the crossover’s coefficient of drag.
Inside, accoutrements defy its “entry-level” label. Getting behind the wheel gives you an impression of a luxury sedan — albeit with a higher seating position. “Designers created a feeling of seamless continuity inside the UX. From the driver’s seat, the upper plane of the instrument panel appears to extend out beyond the windshield into the hood and fenders giving the driver an excellent field of vision and a clear sense of the vehicle’s dimensions and tire placement. When viewed from outside the vehicle, the hood appears to connect directly to the instrument panel through the windshield, blurring the boundary between interior and exterior,” reports the company in a statement. The field of vision is something personally noticed and lauded by Toyota head Akio Toyoda himself, said Ms. Kako in response to a question from BusinessWorld.
The UX highlights a so-called “seat-in-control” concept where critical vehicle functions are collected in the driver’s side of the cabin, and the seatback shape allows the driver to operate them while maintaining a comfortable, natural posture. A three-spoke steering wheel and analog clock are exclusive touches previously seen in the Lexus LS flagship. The UX also receives the Lexus Climate Concierge which used to be confined to more premium models. This “automatically links heating and cooling airflow with the heated and ventilated seats to optimize interior temperature comfort.”
The UX is expected to be launched in the Philippines within the year, with final local specifications still pending. But the test units made available boast two main power plants. Powering the UX 200 variant is a 2.0-liter, inline-four engine delivering 168 hp and 205 Nm — mated to a new Direct-Shift CVT which “combines the smooth, fuel-efficient performance of a continuously variable transmission with a more direct driving feel.” The UX 250h, armed with a “new new-generation Lexus Hybrid Drive power train with 175 total system horsepower… the UX 250h is not only the fuel efficiency leader in the UX family, but also the performance leader. This hybrid provides exhilarating driving with high-speed responsiveness and a feeling of smooth, natural acceleration. The UX 250h is available with either front-wheel drive or E Four electric all-wheel drive.”
Driving the F-Sport-specification variant on a pre-programmed short loop here past suburban sections and pristine highways, the UX yielded healthy power on demand — with the Direct-Shift CVT providing motivation without the deadened feel common to some conventional CVT systems. Key controls are indeed within reach of the driver, and one will not be overwhelmed with an assortment of controls. Rather, the UX rewards enthusiasm and sense of discovery with intuitive controls — such as the new scroll wheels just at the tip of the central driver armrest.
Mr. Nordstrom revealed that Lexus envisions the UX as appealing to “loyal Lexus owner looking for a crossover alternative to their sedan,” those who want to “downsize their SUV, upgrade from mass-market brand, or [simply] change their luxury brand.” It’s also generally a younger set — an “even mix of male and female customers in their 30s, with an average household income of $110,000.” These “urban explorers” are “stylish, tech savvy and seeking experiences [as] they make the most of their time and opportunities.”
Text and photos by Kap Maceda Aguila