Payne: Hot-hatch Lexus UX F Sport vs. VW GTI, Mazda 3, Kia Soul GT
The Age of Ute is upon us, so it was inevitable that we would start to see SUV hot-hatches. Consider the Lexus UX 250h F Sport that just swaggered into my driveway.
Is it worthy? I put it to the test with some iconic hot-hatchback cars: Volkswagen Golf GTI, Mazda 3 and Kia Soul GT.
Compact hot-hatches, as readers of this space know, are my favorite class of car. They're fun, utilitarian and affordable. Pound per dollar, they are the best all-around cars on the market. But this sport-ute craze has me worried.
Sedans are falling under the SUV tidal wave, their high-performance variants getting swept away with them. With the Ford Focus sedan has gone the Focus ST and Focus RS. So long Ford Fiesta means adios to the 197-horse Fiesta ST, a mainstay on my Top 10 list of best cars.
Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Mazda deep-sixed its Mazdaspeed 3 a few years ago to concentrate on sport utilities. The only silver lining in the Chevy Cruze's burial is it didn’t take a hot hatch with it. Because there never was one. Happily, foreign makes are bullish on five-door performance hatchbacks.
Now Lexus throws its all-new, alphanumeric-nightmare UX 250h F Sport SUV into the fray. Is it worthy? I put it to the test with its car peers.
First, some rules.
A hot hatch has five-doors. Jetta GLI, I love ya, but you’re a sedan. The Golf GTI meets the criteria. Qualifying as a pocket rocket isn’t just a wardrobe change, it’s a performance upgrade with a steroid boost that gets your right foot tingling and your eyes sweeping the landscape for twisty roads beyond the metro grid.
Hell, Michigan, here I come!
And it’s gotta be affordable. That means $40,000 or less. Sorry, Mercedes AMG GLA 45 with four-zillion horsepower and a $50,000-plus price tag to match. You’re out.
No worries. That leaves a lot of stuff like the Hyundai Veloster N, Hyundai Elantra GT N, Mini Cooper S, Fiat 500 Abarth, Honda Civic Type-R (oooooh, somebody open a window it’s getting hot in here) ... and our competitive test set: Golf GTI, Mazda 3 and Soul GT ute.
The $40,910 Lexus — injected with hybrid torque — certainly makes a first impression: Darth Vader grille. Scalloped bodywork. Ultrasonic Blue. Pocket rocket-fans crave look-at-me styling. It’s also an all-wheel driver like the retired Ford RS — um, to a point.
Adopting the same philosophy as the Toyota Prius AWD-e, the rear wheels get their drive from an electric motor which only works up to 45 mph. Why 45? To maximize fuel efficiency, and ... wait, what? This is where you begin to realize the F Sport may not have its heart in this hot-hatch thing.
Combined with a 1.4-kWh nickel-metal hydride battery, the 2.0-liter four-banger makes just 181 horsepower — which is well off the $36,890 (as tested) Golf GTI’s ferocious 228 ponies.
The 2019 GTI is a joy to drive hard. The turbo’s 258-pound-feet-of-torque is sensational at low revs but never overwhelms the front paws. On a long trip to Road America race track in Wisconsin the GTI was both a comfy cargo-hauler and an attack dog for lunchtime track laps.
The Lexus is based on Toyota’s sporty TNGA platform, which is the most athletic Toyota-Lexus platform yet. With suspension bits upgraded from the standard UX, the F Sport is marvelously tossable through turns. But step on the gas and its kinship with its big-brother RC F Sport coupe suffers.
The UX 250h smothers its ambitions with a continuously variable transmission. Lexus tries to spice up the ol’ noodle with simulated gear steps and the (oddly inconsistent) rev match on upshifts and downshifts. The battery-tranny combo doesn’t provide the one-two punch of the GTI’s turbo-manual (6-speed auto optional).
The compact VW is the premium car here with more performance and room over the pricier-but-smaller subcompact UX. The GTI even shines in the style department where its timeless lines are complemented by signature, low-profile wheels.
Like the Lexus UX’s all-wheel drive for winter? Bring in the 2019 Mazda 3 hatch which features all-wheel drive for the first time. I bend the rules for the Mazda a bit since it no longer offers the MazdaSpeed performance upgrade. But the 3’s 186 horses make it one of the most powerful standard engines in segment and beats the Lexus to 60 by a whopping 1.7 seconds.
That, and the 3’s handling and looks are top shelf. Its aesthetics have no peer. Dress it in Soul Red and it will melt snow.
But the real revelation of our test is the 2019 Kia Soul GT, the original hot-hatch SUV.
This funk-mobile has outlasted its boxy brethren — the Nissan Cube and Scion xB — with smart marketing and a fun-to-drive vibe. A subcompact ute, it mirrors Lexus in available features (save AWD) — blind-spot assist, adaptive cruise-control, smartphone-app compatibility, lane-keep assist — but for just $28,965.
I escaped with the Soul through the rural roads of east Virginia’s Northern Neck and had a ball.
The box is driven by a smooth dual-clutch transmission that the Lexus would die for. Nail the throttle and the 201-horse turbo 1.6-liter practically rips the front wheels out of their fenders. It’s a live one, this animal.
The last-generation Soul marketed itself with rapping hamsters, but this generation feels higher up the food chain. Soul’s more sophisticated wardrobe includes boomerang taillights and thin Camaro-like LED headlights. Gone are the goggle-eyed hamster peepers.
I found the Soul’s sci-fi look more premium than the Lexus but still with plenty of, well, soul. The feeling continues inside. Both the Soul (circles everywhere) and the Lexus (slashing lines like its exterior) are funkadelic. But the Soul’s console touchscreen outclasses the F Sport. Like other Lexi, the UX screen is controlled by a touchpad that will have you cursing like Yosemite Sam.
Consarn rassa-frassin’ racka-frackin’ varmint!
My biggest complaint about the Soul is its uncomfortable front seats — but in the roomy rear, your giraffe-legged reviewer could sit behind himself.
We in Club Hot Hatch are pleased to have new members, and the Lexus UX 250h F Sport is a welcome addition. But it has work to do to catch its mainstream brothers.
2019 Lexus UX 250h F Sport
Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5-passenger, subcompact hot-hatch SUV
Price: $37,025 base including $1,025 destination fee ($40,910 as tested)
Powerplant: 181 horsepower, 2.0-liter inline-4 cylinder hybrid with electric-motor assist
Transmission: Continuously variable transmission
Performance: 8.6 second zero-60 (Car and Driver); 110 mph top speed
Weight: 3,605 pounds
Fuel economy: 41 mpg city/38 mpg highway/39 mpg combined
Highs: Dramatic style; good fuel economy
Lows: fussy infotainment controller; more muscle, please
Overall: 2 stars
2019 Volkswagen Golf GTI
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5 passenger, compact hot-hatch car
Price: $28,490 base including $895 destination fee ($36,890 Autobahn trim as tested)
Powerplant: 228 horsepower, 258 pound feet of torque, 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder
Transmission: 6-speed manual; 7-speed automatic
Performance: 6.0 second zero-60 (Car and Driver); 125 top speed
Weight: 3,186 pounds (manual); 3,256 (automatic)
Fuel economy: 24 mpg city/32 mpg highway/27 mpg combined (manual); 25 mpg city/31 mpg highway/27 mpg combined (automatic)
Highs: Roomy hatch; torque-tastic
Lows: Stop/start system ruffles otherwise smooth drivetrain (happily, it’s not on the manual)
Overall: 4 stars
2019 Mazda 3 hatchback
Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5-passenger, compact hot-hatch car
Price: $24,495 including $895 destination fee ($31,930 as tested)
Powerplant: 186 horsepower, 185 pound feet of torque, 2.6-liter inline-4 cylinder
Transmission: 6-speed automatic, 6-speed manual
Performance: 6.9 second zero-60 (Car and Driver, est.); 130 top speed
Weight: 3,255 pounds (AWD hatchback as tested)
Fuel economy: 25 city/35 highway/29 combined (FWD manual); 24 city/32 highway/27 combined (AWD auto, as tested)
Highs: Easy on the eyes; luxury-class interior design
Lows: Blind spot the size of New Hampshire; bring back high-horse MazdaSpeed, please?
Overall: 3 stars
2019 Kia Soul GT
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger, compact hot-hatch SUV
Price: $28,495 base including $895 destination fee ($28,495 as tested)
Powerplant: 201 horsepower, 195 pound feet of torque, 1.6-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder Transmission: 7-speed, dual-clutch automatic
Performance: 6.3 second zero-60 (Car and Driver); 130 top speed
Weight: 3,036 pounds
Fuel economy: 27 mpg city/32 mpg highway/29 mpg combined
Highs: A step up in sophistication from previous hamster-mobile; sci-fi look
Lows: Not as athletic as its peer group; hard front seats
Overall: 3 stars
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.