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More car-like than most, with quirky styling and a hybrid powertrain that sets it apart from rivals such as the Volvo XC40

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There’s a very good reason that BMW, Audi, Jaguar, Volvo and plenty more besides have hurried to introduce compact SUVs in recent years: no other premium market sector is growing at a faster rate across Europe just now.

Lexus wasn’t about to sit back and watch its rivals grab fistfuls of market share, which is why its line-up of SUVs is now three rather than two-strong. The new UX slots in beneath the mid-sized Lexus NX, which itself sits one rung below the flagship Lexus RX.

On the open road the UX combines that precise steering with good body control and resilient grip to actually feel quite keen in corners

Lexus reckons something like 80% of UX buyers in Britain will never have owned a Lexus before, which means this distinctive crossover serves a dual purpose: earn revenue in the short term and bring new lifelong customers into the fold beyond that. The company’s marketeers have aimed it directly at 30-something city dwellers, a group that it refers to as ‘creative urban explorers’, but it accepts that a significant number of buyers will also be older couples downsizing from full-size SUVs. Whoever the UX is aimed at, the car is must prove itself against is the Volvo XC40, our favourite compact SUV.

The UX is clearly the most car-like of all the XC40’s challengers, for it is a mere 68mm taller than a Volkswagen Golf but some 129mm lower-set than a Jaguar E-Pace. With a very low slung seating position within that fairly squat body the UX even feels more hatchback than it does SUV. Those buyers who are looking for a lofty seating position and a commanding view of the road will be well advised to continue their search elsewhere.

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The pay-off, of course, is that the UX doesn’t have the teetering centre of gravity of a more conventional compact SUV, which means it should handle with the poise and agility of a hatchback. With that same goal in mind, Lexus’s engineers worked especially hard to make the car’s structure as rigid as it could be - which also improves refinement and safety - while the use of composites for the bootlid and aluminium for the door skins helps to keep weight down. At 1620kg the two-wheel-drive hybrid UX isn’t as hopelessly overweight as it might be.

What Lexus calls a ‘brave design’ others might describe as overwrought. There are sharp angles and creases wherever you look, but it all seems to be part of a wider effort to make the UX stand out from the countless other small premium SUVs. Even its drivetrain is somewhat unusual, and that at a time when most other car makers seem to be converging on more or less the same powertrain technologies. Lexus might well be following the herd with the UX, but it will not be caught dead copying its rivals wholesale.

Officially only the petrol-hybrid model - which isn’t a plug-in - will be sold in the UK for the time being, although if there does happen to be a buyer out there who wants the petrol-only version, Lexus will deliver. It expects the majority of UK buyers to opt for the front-wheel-drive model, although the four-wheel-drive version, which uses an additional electric motor to drive its rear axle, will be available, too.

How does the UX compare to other crossovers?

In typical Lexus fashion the UX’s cabin is a festival of creases and folds and angular forms, with more different materials and grades of plastic than you could count in a lifetime. It all seems to be built with the integrity and solidity we have come to expect of the marque, though, and the switchgear feels first-rate.

What of the rattles and squeaks from the dashboards of both cars we drove? Given that the test cars on the launch were pre-production we’re prepared to overlook those shortcomings for now. Rest assured, if full production cars rattle and squeak in the same way we will not be so forgiving.

The company’s wilful attempt to stand out from the crowd reaches as far as the UX’s infotainment control device, which isn’t a conventional touchscreen or a rotary dial, but a small haptic track pad close to the gearlever. As you clumsily jab a finger at the track pad and watch the cursor on the infotainment screen dart around apparently of its own accord you'll think it completely unfathomable, but within a few minutes it begins to make sense and eventually you’ll wonder why you ever doubted it.

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Does the UX deliver out on the road?

And the driving experience? There’s very little to doubt about the way this car finds its way down a road. Sitting on 18in wheels and optional adaptive dampers - Adaptive Variable Suspension in Lexus speak - this top-of-the-line F Sport model rides with composure and maturity. Its steering is a little vague and oddly elasticated around the straight-ahead but with some lock on it becomes crisp and accurate.

On the open road the UX combines that precise steering with good body control and resilient grip to actually feel quite keen in corners. It doesn’t flop around the way a tall SUV might, but nor is it particularly fun or thrilling to drive.

The stuff it doesn’t do so well could be outlined in a tweet. The brake pedal, for one thing, has as many steps through its travel as the car’s cockpit has materials. That’ll be the hybrid system juggling regenerative braking with the conventional sort of retardation. Tyre roar at motorway speeds is also quite pronounced, although the very hardwearing Swedish roads that made up the test route are known for it.

The UX’s powertrain might be an unusual one, but it’s by no means bad. In fact, there’s plenty to like about it. Under hard acceleration the peaky, naturally-aspirated petrol engine does sound rather strained, paired as it is with a CVT-style transmission, but the hybrid system means the car is actually reasonably accelerative in a straight line.

With no cogs to swap through the powertrain is otherwise very refined and at low speeds you can slip along in near-silent EV mode for short distances without troubling the engine at all. The gearbox doesn’t suffer from that distinctive and irritating stringiness that has given CVTs such a bad name, although the manual gearshift mode is pretty hopeless.

Lexus claims 65.7mpg for the hybrid UX and over the course of the test we managed a reasonable 52mpg in mixed driving.

Does the UX look like good value?

The entry-level model just sneaks under £30,000, but this hybrid F Sport version will cost in the region of £34,000.

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There could well be a very fine four-star car in the UX, but until we know for sure that production car cabins do not rattle and squeak the way the launch cars’ cockpits did and that it is priced keenly against its very capable rivals, the UX earns a solid 3.5 stars.

Rest assured it is worthy of your consideration at the very least. If we handed out star ratings based on individuality alone, this quirky-looking Lexus would surely be deserving of the full five.

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Lexus UX First drives