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Lexus challenges the notion that there is insufficient demand for plush small cars

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The Lexus LBX sets out to make one wonder 'why couldn’t you have a small luxury car?'.

After all, even if you’re not burdened with a lot of people or stuff to carry, you might still want something with high-end interior materials, sound insulation and ride comfort, while also enjoying the zippiness and easy manoeuvrability of a compact car.

It sounds like an obvious idea, but it’s one that very few manufacturers have ever put into practice, and fewer still have been able to make a commercial success of.

Only Mini has really been able to convince sufficient numbers of buyers to pay more for a small car. The first generation of Audi A1 did quite well, but the second generation struggled to repeat that success and is now unlikely to be renewed for a third run. The Audi Q2 has equally failed to set the sales charts on fire. Vauxhall tried to convince us it was a premium manufacturer for a short minute with the Adam, but few people bought either the claim or the car.

The modern-day Toyota Motor Company is bold and won’t be deterred, so it has come up with the Lexus LBX. Loosely based on the Toyota Yaris Cross, the LBX isn’t just a see-what-happens experiment. LBX informally stands for Lexus Breakthrough Crossover and the model is the first Lexus to be developed specifically with European tastes in mind. As such, Lexus hopes it will appeal to younger buyers than most of its cars, targeting 6000 UK sales a year.

The range at a glance

Models Power From
Hybrid FWD urban 134bhp £29,995
Hybrid AWD Takumi 134bhp £39,555

The LBX comes with only one basic powertrain: the 1.5 full hybrid. It is normally front-wheel drive, but a small motor on the rear axle can be added for all-wheel drive. This is a £1300 option, but only on two top trims (Takumi and Takumi Design), hence the large price difference.

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There are no fewer than seven trim levels, but apart from paint and wheel choices, there are no separate options.

DESIGN & STYLING

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lexus lbx review 2024 02 side panning

If you were to refer to the LBX as a leather-lined Toyota Yaris Cross, Lexus’s engineers would probably take offence, because they have done rather more to the shared bones than that. Naturally, it uses the same TNGA-B platform (the last letter indicates the B-segment) and a version of the same hybrid powertrain, but engineers claim the two were developed separately.

Indeed, just the powertrain, which you might assume to be exactly the same three-cylinder hybrid as in the updated Yaris, exhibits a few key differences.

The TNGA-B platform was modified to ensure the LBX handled like a Lexus, with the firm citing the 1989 IS saloon as a benchmark

The LBX’s electric motor produces 9bhp more (if no more torque) than the Yaris’s, and to make sure that there’s enough juice for the motor, there’s a larger battery with one whole kWh of capacity (versus the 0.76kWh in the Yaris) and a different chemistry: nickel-metal hydride instead of lithium ion. Lexus says that its new ‘bipolar’ battery is well suited to rapid-charge and discharge demands in non-plug-in hybrids, and the higher electric power of the LBX.

‘E-Four’ four-wheel-drive versions will join the range later in 2024 and feature a 6.3bhp (no, not 63bhp), 38lb ft induction motor on the rear axle. Evidently, it does little for performance (the four-wheel-drive version takes 0.4sec longer to reach 62mph) and is simply there to provide additional traction in slippery, low-speed circumstances.

The 1.5-litre naturally aspirated three-cylinder engine has the same power and torque output as in the Yaris but gains a balance shaft, which produces ‘negative’ vibrations to cancel out those of the engine and thus make it smoother.
That’s the first in a list of tweaks to make the LBX a proper Lexus in terms of NVH refinement. The noise of the doors closing has been tuned with damping sheets inside the panels, and there is additional sound-deadening material in the roof and underbody. The top trim levels (Takumi and up) also get acoustic glass and active noise cancelling.

Unlike the Mini (with its multi-link rear suspension), the LBX largely follows the small-car playbook with MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam at the rear, although the four-wheel-drive version trades the latter for double wishbones. The steering column features an intermediate shaft with an expansion/contraction mechanism that helps absorb vibrations.

And while the obtuse all-modern-cars-look-the-same crowd might disagree, the LBX is a very different car on the road from the Yaris Cross, sharing no body panels with the Toyota. The LBX has a 20mm-longer wheelbase for 10mm greater length overall. It adopts a new generation of Lexus design, which tones down the ‘spindle grille’ a tad and integrates it more into the front mouldings.

Compared with the Yaris, the A-pillars are set further backwards for a longer bonnet, and with a bit of goodwill you can even see the flared wheel arches Lexus’s literature mentions. Unfortunately, the resulting drag coefficient is rather high, at 0.34.

INTERIOR

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lexus lbx review 2024 11 dash

The first thing you notice when you open the door to the LBX is that Lexus has absolutely succeeded in making the interior feel very upmarket, just shrunken down from, say, the Lexus RX.

The design is restrained and modern but not reductionist and simplistic like a Tesla or a recent Range Rover, while the materials are appealing, with copious soft-touch synthetic leather that’s indistinguishable from the real thing. The 9.8in touchscreen doesn’t dominate because it is nicely integrated into the dashboard architecture and there’s a fair selection of physical buttons, such as for the temperature, driving mode and auto hold. Some climate controls are accessed via the screen, but they are displayed permanently.

If this were a more typical Lexus, one might take issue with the slightly insubstantial temperature rockers and the satin metal-effect plastic centre console, but the feel of the LBX’s interior still seems like a cut above what you would find in the (larger, more expensive) Cupra Formentor or Mercedes-Benz GLA.

The ‘shrunken-down’ aspect is equally significant. The LBX’s calibre of plush materials causes some sort of cognitive dissonance with the narrow centre console and how close you are to your passenger. You do get used to it because it is simply a function of the car’s exterior dimensions, as is the slight shortage of passenger space. Taller testers had to slide the driver’s seat all the way back to get comfortable, which precludes anyone other than small children sitting in the back. But to regard this as a major failing of the LBX would be to miss the point of a deliberately small car. The boot, on the other hand, is surprisingly deep.

While the LBX offers a mostly convincing luxury car experience, it falters with some unnecessarily annoying tech. First up are the nannying bings and bongs to warn you of various things one shouldn’t need to be warned about. Do you really need to be reminded that the door is open or that there might be someone on the rear seat? Pressing ‘agree’ or ‘not agree’ to some legal verbiage every single time you start the car gets tiresome as well.

The ‘touch tracer’ steering wheel buttons (on Premium Plus trim and up) were likewise found to be a little annoying, at least by some of our testers. The idea makes sense: they are unmarked but configurable, and when you touch them, a legend pops up in the gauge cluster or head-up display. You can also switch between two presets for each side using the button underneath. 

In practice, however, the limited choices you get for mapping them are not very useful, and the standard selection is poorly thought out: when using cruise control, you are locked out of switching the display layout. The buttons are also not very responsive and usually require multiple presses to engage.

Multimedia system

The LBX uses the same multimedia as other recent Lexus and Toyota models. It’s a fairly rudimentary interface that works well in a Yaris but doesn’t feel entirely appropriate for a luxury car. Unlike in a Mercedes-Benz or Genesis (where the system does share its bones with cheaper Kias), the interface, fonts and functionality don’t feel like an extension of the Lexus brand.

You might simply default to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto (the latter requires a cable), but this presents issues as well. You always need to agree or disagree to terms and conditions first and, due to the lack of a permanent home button or shortcut bar, exiting CarPlay to adjust the car’s settings is cumbersome.

If you do choose to use the native interface, the menus are logical enough and respond quickly. However, the native navigation system isn’t particularly clear.

The six-speaker sound system that was standard on our Premium Plus Design test car sounded mostly unremarkable. A 13-speaker Mark Levinson system comes on Takumi trim and up.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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lexus lbx review 2024 23 engine

Toyota’s full hybrid powertrain is simultaneously simple and complex. The core concept that goes back to the first Prius is a supremely elegant piece of engineering, because it puts the petrol engine and two electric motors (one larger drive motor and one smaller motor that works as a generator and to vary the gear ratio) in a planetary gearset to create a hybrid powertrain that behaves like a CVT, and where all components can work together without having to engage or disengage.

It’s too complex a concept to explain fully here, but the end user can simply put petrol in the tank, select D and squeeze the accelerator to go. As a stress-free way to power what is supposed to be a stress-free car, it has a lot going for it. Indeed, while dual-clutch automatic gearboxes can be less than smooth, the LBX’s CVT is impeccable.

If you take it gently, the three-cylinder engine is quiet too. The clever throttle mapping in Eco mode inspires a relaxed driving style without getting the feeling that the power is being artificially limited, as Eco modes often do. You can do plenty of miles and rarely even hear the engine. Put your foot down and the LBX can be surprisingly brisk too: 8.4sec to 60mph is perfectly acceptable for a car like this.

However, it is possible to catch it on the back foot. Successive demands for hard acceleration that don’t give the car much chance to regenerate energy can quickly deplete the battery, which means the electric motor can’t deliver full power. As a result, subsequent 0-60mph runs took 8.8sec, 9.5sec and 10.6sec. This isn’t just a product of the test track: you can feel it during spirited driving on a B-road, or when you need to accelerate after having pootled through town on mainly electric power. The three-pot then starts to sound coarser and noisier.

Braking is by wire, and while the pedal is a bit too light and sensitive for our liking, it is possible to attune to and achieve smooth stops. Repeated emergency stops are unproblematic in terms of stability and stopping distances. However, the very noisy pump (we are unsure whether this is the pump for the ABS or the one that generates the brake pressure itself) and excessive suspension pitching make the experience more startling than it ought to be.

RIDE & HANDLING

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lexus lbx review 2024 24 front cornering

With a powertrain that is smooth, relaxing and economical but has little sense of fun, you might imagine that the engineers would have gone for an equally smooth and relaxing chassis set-up.

They haven’t – not entirely. The LBX is a surprisingly firmly riding car and the medium-speed ride is busier than we would like. However, fairly tall-sidewalled tyres and well-controlled damping mean that the ride still feels quite plush and expensive, and even though the firmness felt wrong at first, the more we drove the car, the more the togetherness of the chassis made sense.

Given the firm suspension, it’s not a complete surprise that the LBX can serve up a fair bit of entertainment when you drive it with more commitment. It grips relatively hard, and the nose bites into corners with plenty of enthusiasm. Lift off in a corner and the chassis is quite keen to rotate positively, before the electronics bring it into line at least.

Our initial impressions were that the steering was a tad oversensitive around the dead-ahead despite its generous 2.7 turns lock to lock, but we got used to it. You never get much of a sense from the steering of how much grip there is, however.

Comfort & Isolation

So, the LBX rides a bit too abruptly for its luxury car brief, but what about the rest of the refinement picture? Well, despite promises of additional sound deadening, the LBX still seems to suffer from its small-car underpinnings. Noise refinement at speed is fair, but no more than that. While 68dBA at 70mph is good for a car of this size, we expected Lexus’s refinement objectives to be loftier with the LBX. 

Higher trims come with active noise cancelling and acoustic glass for the front windows and windscreen. We have yet to try one of those, but it might make a meaningful difference. Even on our test car, vibrations – whether from the powertrain or the suspension – were all but absent.

Toyota and Lexus tend to get seat comfort right, even on entry-level trims, and the LBX is no different. They are padded supportively and come with adjustable lumbar support. A cushion tilt function was absent on the manually adjustable seats of our test car, which is unfortunate, but thigh support is still adequate. The seat is set medium-high for a crossover-appropriate driving position, and the steering wheel comes with plenty of adjustment.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

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lexus lbx review 2024 01 front dynamic

Prices for the LBX start at £29,995, rising to £35,605 for a mid-spec Premium Plus Design and £40,005 for the range-topping Original Edition.

That’s a lot of money for a small car, especially when you could drive out of the same dealership with a Toyota Yaris Cross for £25,530. But that would entail quite a few sacrifices in terms of refinement, power and perceived quality. With similar equipment, an Audi Q2 demands about the same outlay as the LBX, a DS 3 or Peugeot 2008 slightly less. Bigger cars such as a Cupra Formentor or Mercedes GLA are evidently more pricey.

With its proven hybrid drivetrain, you can expect an LBX to be economical, although it does depend strongly on the kind of driving you do. In our 70mph touring test, where there was no regenerative braking, our test car returned only 45.2mpg.

Over the course of the complete road test, it did better, at 52.7mpg. Given that included performance testing and plenty of motorway driving, you can expect even better in the real world, particularly if you do a lot of suburban and town driving.

As usual with a Lexus or Toyota, there is the reassurance of the company’s strong reliability record. As standard, all Lexus models come with only a three-year/60,000-mile warranty, but a year and 10,000 miles are added with every service, up to 10 years and 100,000 miles.

VERDICT

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lexus lbx review 2024 26 static

The idea of a car that is small but not cheap is an appealing one. Small cars may not be practical in the load-lugging, people-carrying sense, but they are practical in plenty of other ways, and injecting some luxury makes a lot of sense.

The LBX ticks some but not all of the boxes we hoped it would. Its interior ambience and perceived quality are convincing, and the smooth and economical hybrid powertrain is ideal for gentle cruising. Its road manners take a bit more warming to. While we feel that Lexus could have done more to make the LBX feel comfortable and refined, the surprisingly dynamic chassis and firm but well-damped suspension do hold someappeal as a more controlled- and resolute-riding route to refinement.

Although the LBX avoids feeling wilfully techy when it comes to driver assistance and infotainment, some of the systems lack the attention to detail that would make them more user-friendly. But with that greater attention and care applied not only to the software, but also the car’s suspension tuning and equipment levels, the LBX could easily yet become the rounded, well-resolved small luxury car we hoped it would be.

Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.