When you drive a Lexus, you expect it to be something special. Something luxurious or sporty or fast, or all three. What you don’t expect is a car or SUV that, aside from premium features, is pretty much ordinary.
That was my experience driving the 2021 Lexus UX 200 F Sport, a compact crossover that, despite its load of technology and comfort features, came across as fairly mundane overall. The only thing that actually stood out was the firmer suspension and sharpened steering that came with the F Sport package, which accentuated its handling.
First off, UX 200 is a decidedly unattractive alphanumeric name, sounding more like the designation for a Soviet-era army tank. The UX stands for Urban Explorer, according to Lexus, which put that spin on this model when it arrived for 2019 as a vehicle reputedly designed for tackling the wilds of city life.
Sure, it’s easy to park, especially with the tech gear that essentially parks it for you, but other than that, the UX doesn’t seem any more focused on urban exploring than any other compact crossover, of which there are many choices in this red-hot segment of the auto market.
The Lexus was my press car for Monterey Car Week, and while its comfortable seats, smooth ride and awesome audio system were well appreciated, the UX did not impress as any kind of top-drawer vehicle from Toyota’s vaunted luxury division. From Lexus, I expected more.
But don’t get me wrong. I didn’t dislike the Lexus UX. I found it pleasant to drive with good controls that were easy to use (mostly) and well-adapted for what passes for urban driving in Monterey, California.
What I found most lacking, though, was the drivetrain. The engine, a 2.0-liter inline-4, was just not up to snuff, with just 169 horsepower delivered at a lofty 6,600 rpm, with too much harshness as it climbed up the revs, unbefitting a Lexus. The sparse 151 pound-feet of torque also took some revving, not hitting its max until 4,800 rpm.
In other words, this Lexus is slow.
Making matters worse is the continuously variable transmission, which even though it had the equivalent of 10 speeds when manually shifted (paddle shifters are included in the F Sport package), seemed lumpish and slow to react. Getting on the gas for passing and hill climbing ran the engine up to an unpleasant and unceasing roar.
On the other hand, fuel mileage is great, estimated by the EPA at 29 city, 37 highway and 32 overall.
The F Sport gear includes a prominent dial on the upper right of the gauge cluster which shifted between Normal and Sport. What I found was that the Normal setting was OK for cruising around, but when in traffic or anywhere that you wanted quicker response, the Sport setting made a big difference. Still not fast but more on the ball.
The test Lexus was a front-wheel-drive UX 200. A gas/electric hybrid model is available, named UX 250h.
The bold “spindle grille” on the nose of the UX 200 proclaims its Lexus lineage, and with the F Sport package, the grille gets a special treatment in black and chrome, and an exclusive bumper with imbedded LED fog lights with L-shaped moldings.
The styling with its multi-faceted creases and curves looked interesting, and I particularly liked the perky little tailfins sticking up from the taillights. Lexus calls them Aero Stabilizing Blade Lights. So be it.
The test UX was brightly painted in Ultrasonic Blue Mica, a gregarious shade that made the wagon look friendly and fun. The paint was set off with the F Sport’s darkened trim pieces and 18-inch spoke alloy wheels.
Also part of the F Sport package are truly excellent sport seats up front, which Lexus says are formed from a “highly supportive integrated foaming technique first developed for Lexus F models.” They really are very nice, trimmed in leather and designed so that the driver can remain in driving position while working the various controls.
Other F Sport features include a sport steering wheel with a perforated-leather rim, a leather-trimmed shifter knob, 8-inch color video display, and aluminum pedals, door scuff plates and footrest.
The center console of the Lexus is dominated by a touch-control similar to that on a computer keyboard, which takes some getting used to but functions well enough once it is mastered. I didn’t quite master it in my short time behind the wheel, but I got fairly good at it, and I expect that in time, I would be able to use it without looking.
Still, I would prefer to have the kind of control knob that’s become a typical feature in well-equipped vehicles. The touch-pad interface comes across as gimmicky and overly sensitive.
And while the dashboard boasts a well-designed array of physical switches for climate control and such, too often simple tasks require a deep dive into various video-display menus to accomplish.
Naturally, the Lexus was loaded with just about every feature imaginable, including a multi-media system with voice activation and Alexa compatibility, as well as navigation with Dynamic Voice Command; optional head-up display; intuitive park assist to help ease into a curbside space; multiple cameras and warning buzzers to keep you on the straight and narrow; and a great-sounding 8-speaker audio system.
The interior is pleasant and cozy, although maybe too cozy with extra-high window sills that give the impression of sitting too far down. While cruising with the windows lowered in the cool California weather, I found it impossible to rest my arm on the sill. And I’m extra tall; a shorter driver would have no chance.
There was another clinker on the Lexus dashboard that bothered me. Included in the center array next to the video screen is an attractive little analog clock, as befitting a premium vehicle. But it comes across as a slightly incongruous afterthought in this overtly high-tech array, and its location to the left of center means that the driver’s view of it is partially blocked by the steering-wheel rim.
Overall, the Lexus UX 200 was mostly pleasant to drive, supremely comfortable and a good companion during Monterey Car Week. Not a bad little SUV, just not a great one, as one might expect from Lexus. And with a price tag surpassing $42,000, one might expect more.
2021 Lexus UX 200 F Sport
Vehicle type: 5-passenger, 4-door crossover SUV, front-wheel drive
Base price: $34,900 Price as tested: $42,250
Engine: 2.0-liter inline-4, 169 horsepower @ 6,600 rpm, 151 pound-feet of torque @ 4,800 rpm Transmission: “10-speed” continuously variable
Wheelbase: 103.9 inches Overall length/width: 176.9 inches / 72.44 inches
Curb weight: 3,304 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 29 city / 37 highway / 32 combined
Assembled in: Miyawaka, Japan
For more information, visit the Lexus website