The SUV market is going strong, with every maker dipping its oar into the high-riding car world. In its smallest SUV to date, the Lexus approach of eye-catching design and well-equipped specification for the asking price - as we've seen in the RX and NX before - continues in the UX.

Unlike many of its competitors - the Audi Q3 being a key one - the Lexus UX 250h opts for a hybrid powertrain, meaning an on-board battery that recuperates through braking and helps lower fuel consumption (and therefore emissions) and cut the amount of tax you'll need to pay per year.

But in a market that is now so competitive, does Lexus' difficult-to-use on-board tech hold it back from reaching as wide an audience as it could?

Eye-catching design

The Lexus UX's exterior design is likely to provoke a reaction in either positive or negative camps; its striking looks and angles make for a distinctive and arresting aesthetic. Lexus is really grabbing attention and making a design statement, while exercising enough restraint to avoid this SUV looking as downright wacky as a Toyota Prius. Not everyone will like it, but we think it's far more interesting than another BMW or Audi.

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There are plenty of points to admire. The rear lamps ooze hi-tech, connecting together in a full-width strip; the auto-illuminating front LED lights kick into action based on ambient light levels and give the agressive front an even more poised stance; then there's that huge front grille that almost wraps around the front, which is unlike anything else on the market.

Open the door and you'll be met with an impressive base interior spec too. Sure, you'll see better finishes elsewhere - but to get the on-dash stitching and soft-touch covers on the elbow rest would mean adding additional 'packs' to many competitors. In an Audi, for example, you'd expect to end up paying hundreds to thousands of pounds extra. This is one area where the UX delivers strong.

Sat in the driver's seat and the centre tunnel does protrude slightly, but otherwise the UX is a very comfortable place to be. These seats are wonderfully comfortable for short or long rides, while rear space is reasonable for additional passengers too. But it's up front where you'll feel king.

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The only real letdown is the overall visibility isn't great either, as the rear windows close inward, the pillars are large, and it's not easy to get a sense around the car. However, there is a reversing camera, while proximity sensors feature as standard - see, we said you got a lot for the entry-level spec - so it's safety first when it comes to technology-based visibility.

A smooth-driving hybrid

If you're buying into the UX thinking it's a full-on hybrid, then hold your horses. This is a mild hybrid with self-charging - so no plug-in to worry about - with a battery tucked out of sight that gains charge through regenerative braking.

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When there's enough battery energy it's possible to pull away on electric only (EV) power, while an EV Mode can prevent the 2.0-litre combustion engine firing into life. Problem is, an SUV such as the UX isn't exactly a light vehicle - it's about 1,600kgs - so to pull away on electric alone means being very gentle with the pedal. Often the engine will kick in to take over, as is required for faster acceleration to motion this chassis along at greater pace. But in a car park you could easily stick to electric alone, for example.

The battery capacity isn't large either, so it will deplete rapidly. During our five days of driving, more often than not the pure EV Mode was unavailable, due to limited recuperation and that small capacity. Thus, in this example, the point of a hybrid is less about massive fuel-cutting costs or emissions busting, it's about small benefits to economy and your bank balance - with lower tax compared to combusion-only rivals being one benefit. The benefit is there, but it's relatively slight.

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Accept the fact that you won't get loads out of the UX's electric motor, however, and the 2.0-litre engine has enough pep (181bhp combined) to get this little SUV moving along at fair pace. It uses a CVT gearbox, which in other Lexus SUVs hasn't offered the most immediate delivery of power - but in the UX feels like the most successful implementation yet. It's not whirry or moany, nor is it loud in the cabin. It connects smoothly and whips this little SUV along with gusto, making for the best CVT that we've driven to date. Good job.

Tech lacks, er, UX...

So it's very comfortable to be in, it delivers more pep than other CVTs, and there's a fair chunk of tech included in the price. Can the Lexus UX put no foot wrong? Well, here's where the name becomes a little bit comedic. Because, while Lexus sees 'UX' as meaning 'Urban Crossover', we think of UX as 'User Experience' - the standard used term in tech and design circles. Which is ironic, because using the UX's tech is irksome to use.

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It's frustrating because there's scope here for far greater results. Take the sat nav, for example, which is at times borderline unusable. It's one of those older postcode-based systems, where it's not possible to search by, say, house or road number first. The database also seems limited in what's loaded, so we sometimes hit hurdles where it wasn't possible to enter a destination. Thus we typically used Google Maps or Waze on our phone instead, ignoring that car's built-in system. The final straw was when driving through London and being sent into the Congestion Charge zone without warning (bye bye £14) due to voiced announcements occuring too late. There's no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto either, despite there being two USB ports available.

Then there's the controls to tackle, which we think most people - unless you're already familiar with them as a died-in-the-wool Lexus user - will find hard to use. To the centre tunnel is a mousemat-like controller, which is touch-sensitive and used to select options on screen. It's fiddly - the slightest of movement seems to see it jump from one option to another - but the haptic feedback, a deft hand and plenty of practice makes it tolerable. This system feels finer tuned than in previous Lexus vehicles - or maybe we're just getting that used to it? - but it's still a hurdle we think the Lexus needs to resolve.

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That said, we're on board with the UX's panel of physical buttons below the dash, offering controls for climate and more. That's one area where other makers - Audi being one particular example - have gone overboard by burying such settings into touchscreens. The Lexus approach is more direct, more tacticle and more successful in our view. If only the main controller and interface were as usable.

We're also rather fond of the digital driver screen, which is used to display driving information, speedometer and so forth. It's not possible to display secondary information here, such as music and navigation, but it is possible to adjust the appearance of the screens and information available in Sport and Eco modes, which gives a different look and feel to the driving experience. There's also a head-up display (HUD) with sign recognition that's really handy for line-of-sight information and is the sort of tech that makes driving that much more seamless.

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Overall, then, the Lexus UX falls short on, well, its tech UX. It doesn't lack the tech itself, it simply misses out on offering the most modern ways to interact with it. The brand is advancing though, with the 2020 RX facelift showing off newer tech. Which, if the UX gets in line to receive, we could see making all the difference in this otherwise charming little SUV.

Verdict

While this small-scale Japanese SUV is eye-catching and well-equipped for the money, the on-board tech is fiddly to use - ironic given the 'UX' namesake that we can't help but read as 'user experience' - which, in a car such as this where the driving experience isn't the be-all, is a hurdle that Lexus needs to overcome.

That said, we think the bold design language offers something different to the market - we think it's the best-looking Lexus SUV to date, especially with the grille implementation and rear light strip - while the interior feels like a genuinely luxury and highly comfortable place to sit. As a hybrid with CVT gearbox goes, it's the best implementation that we've seen too. If only the tech matched all of these high points, Lexus would be onto a little winner.

Also consider

Pocket-lintAudi Q3 2019 review image 1

Audi Q3

Pay a little more and you'll get better interior tech from one of Audi's smaller-scale SUVs. There's no hybrid benefit.