Everyone wants in on the small-SUV game these days, and our rivals here are two of the freshest in the compact-luxury-crossover segment. Volvo’s XC40, represented here in T5 guise, is also a newly minted Wheels COTY champ – a daunting opponent, then, for the Lexus UX 200 F-Sport that’s laying down the gatlopp (that’s Swedish for gauntlet). Lexus sorely needs to kick some goals with the UX. It’s the brand’s first stab at a small SUV, and its previous foray into somewhat-affordable hatchbacks, with the unloved CT 200h, has proven a struggle. The UX is certainly sized right, based as it is on the versatile TNGA GA-C platform used by its Toyota C-HR and Corolla cousins, and the lineup is incredibly feature-rich.
It squares off against the incumbent Swede in high-spec petrol FWD UX 200 F-Sport guise, but the Volvo has aces up its sleeve in the form of its intelligently designed cabin, bigger, broader-shouldered proportions and more mumbo.
Video: 2019 Lexus UX preview drive
Equipment and value
The UX 200 F Sport comes loaded with standard kit, like a power-adjustable steering column, heated front seats, a 10.3-inch widescreen infotainment display, bi-LED headlamps, various quasi-autonomous driving aids and a hands-free tailgate for a list price of $59,050. Our car came fitted with the innovatively named Option Pack 2, which adds a thumping 13-speaker Mark Levinson stereo, wireless charge pad, head-up display, panoramic-camera view, glass roof and ventilated front seats. All that, and it still costs a few grand less than the $62,710 as-tested price of the XC40 T5 R-Design. Value is a UX strength.
The Volvo counters with a fully digital instrument panel, far superior infotainment software, smartphone mirroring and fashionable 20-inch alloys, versus the 18s on the Lexus. It also comes with all-wheel drive as standard (something that only the hybrid UX offers as an option). But for sheer features-per-dollar it’s the Lexus that edges ahead.
Space and comfort
The Lexus UX is like a sleeping bag – snug and comfy once you’re inside, but getting in and out isn’t the easiest or most graceful process. A low roof rail and seat position mean the traditional SUV advantages of ease of entry/egress aren’t there, and there’s even more stooping required to enter the back seat. On the flipside, the F Sport front seats are exceptionally contoured and hugely supportive, and the driving position is sportscar-like. Cabin quality is also typical Lexus, meaning everything feels rock-solid, and there’s a stylish Japanese-paper trim panel on the upper dash that helps elevate the ambience.
Volvo substitutes some of the glitzier furnishings of the bigger XC60 and XC90 for more understated design, but compensates with clever packaging that maximises storage and occupant space. It’s also comparatively huge. While the Lexus is a sleeping bag, the XC40 is like an expensive studio apartment – still cozy, but open-plan and very premium.
How they drive
It might have the slightly dozy powertrain of the Toyota Corolla behind its spindle-grille, but the UX actually provides more than a skerrick of driving joy, thanks to a finely tuned suspension, light yet accurate steering, and a surprisingly understeer-resistant chassis.
However, its atmo engine must work harder than those of similarly priced rivals, which are universally turbocharged, and that compromises refinement in a car that’s otherwise exemplary in this respect.
While the Lexus is competent, the XC40 T5 is a black belt. We described the T5 as hot-hatch-esque in our COTY issue, thanks to its exceptional handling and rorty 185kW/350Nm turbo four, yet it’s also perfectly happy being piloted through suburbia. And did we mention that it has twice the number of driven wheels of the petrol-powered UX? It might not be quite as refined as the UX 200, but in virtually every other on-road respect the Volvo dominates.
Lexus must be commended for its first, impressive crack at a small SUV, which is by some margin the most compelling soft-roader it has made to date. Even so, it’s not enough to outgun the more powerful, significantly more spacious and infinitely more practical Volvo. The XC40 earned its COTY crown for very good reasons, and Lexus needs to show much more than a strong value proposition to dethrone it.