the Urban Explorer
Although most city-dwellers never have a reason to go off-road, the SUV has become an incredibly popular family vehicle. The drawbacks of compromised handling, and a heavy and expensive four-wheel-drive system that impacted fuel efficiency were readily overlooked in the face of qualities such as roominess and an increased ride height that conferred a more secure feeling and better view of the road. Most of all, the SUV exuded lifestyle; here was a vehicle that conveyed a sense of excitement and adventure not found in the saloon or sedan.
Still, the SUV has started to seem at odds with the 21st-century lifestyle. A growing movement of modern urbanites find it once again over-engineered: the size is unwieldy for the congestion that is an inescapable part of city living, and the consumption at odds with the urgent environmental concerns of today. Overall, the SUV seems a bit much for the uncluttered, optimised living of today — the type where cloud storage space is more important that house storage space.
Enter the crossover SUV: a more compact and practical vehicle that retains the aesthetic and identity of the SUV, while reducing size, consumption and the unnecessary four-wheel drive. And there is a new player in the segment, in the Lexus UX.
The UX is the Japanese company’s first luxury compact crossover and was revealed to press in the city of Stockholm, Sweden. The location might seem a whimsical choice at first, but Stockholm is just the type of affluent, modern city that full of the type who would be interested in the UX — stylish, tech-savvy, younger urbanites with drive and curiosity.
It is also an ideal environment to showcase of the UX’s compact convenience. The city can be cramped, with old and narrow one-way roads crowded with cars, busy with pedestrians, and throttled by buses and trams. The UX is not a large vehicle, with back seats clearly meant for young families, but the inches of freedom gained on either side are a great comfort when weaving in and out of traffic. The smaller size also translates into quick and sharp handling, much closer to a sporty hatchback than a floaty SUV. The class-leading turning circle of 10.4m helps get into and out of tight spaces.
Europe as well is intrinsic to the design of the UX. Its chief engineer during development, Chika Kako, spent a good part of her career there, examining the nature of what the continent appreciates in luxury. Kako found that the European mindset was more sensitive towards a perceived lack of harmony in design; this differs from the Japanese who tended to take contrast as necessary for functionality. “I took a lot of feedback from Europeans, so my own sensitivity and awareness of these issues has increased as well," she explains of her own outlook. “The ratio of the areas that stand out were more important to Europeans, and that was a very profound discovery for me. It’s about consistency, continuity and controlled contrast." These fresh perspectives she then combined with Kansei engineering, a Japanese design philosophy that prioritises the emotional responses and connections of the user, to create an approach that is entirely her own.
This is chiefly expressed in the people-first interior. The seats encourage a natural posture with more support under the thigh for greater comfort over longer periods. The seating feels low, but the road view is a touch more commanding than the typical sports car; this, combined with the encapsulating feel of the cabin and the bevy of high-tech features, imparts a cockpit-like feel. There is also a new interior trim offering, which is textured after washi—a type of traditional Japanese paper—that is a refreshing and meditative breakaway from the wood and leather options ubiquitous in the luxury market.
The aforementioned high-tech features plant the UX firmly in the modern age and is where Lexus is at its best. The 7-inch electronic instrument cluster is animated and highly legible, supported by an ever-useful heads-up display. Controls for the radio and driver assistance systems are a thumb-twitch away on the steering wheel, and next to the gear shifter is the Remote Touch Interface. This is a touchpad which operates the central console, one of a new generation which is larger and sports a better response, as well as handwriting recognition and vibration feedback. It takes a bit of effort to become familiar with, but once learned becomes an intuitive and powerful tool. This could be said of the UX’s tech features at large. When used as a package, they become quite the convenience that seldom require the driver’s eyes to leave the road.
Many of the driver assistance and safety features are also debuting as the latest, improved versions. Radar sensing provides pre-collision detection, with automatic braking assistance if necessary, as well as the distance-measuring cruise control. A camera monitors lane drift, while parking is assisted by radar and ultrasound; there is also a blind-spot monitor for lane-changing.
The cleverness continues with the powertrain. The front-wheel-drive UX200 model sports an all-new engine of unprecedented thermal efficiency, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder inline-four capable of 168bhp. It also has a new transmission that mates a fixed first gear to a CVT. This offers a more traditional and responsive feel for taking off, parking and low-speed acceleration, before transitioning to the CVT and the associated smoothness and economy.
“The total coordination, the sum of all parts, is much more important than any individual component," Kako says. This is fully evident in the gestalt entity of the UX, which is a prime example of the 21st century city vehicle: compact, nimble, intelligent, and an indispensable part of contemporary living, while introducing a generation of technologies that will doubtless become a mainstay of the Lexus line-up in the near future.