In the years following the Great Recession, automakers discovered an appetite for luxury among small-car buyers.
Never blind to an opportunity to boost profits, they began stuffing their compacts with leather seats, genuine wood trim, terrific audio and assorted driver-assist and accident-avoidance tech.
This trend dovetailed with the rise of the compact crossover. Today, small luxury CUVs comprise a quickly growing segment.
Take Lexus’s newest, the UX subcompact crossover ($32,000). The UX is smaller — and less spendy — than Lexus’s NX ($36,485) that until now was the company’s smallest offering.
Lexus debuted the UX as a concept vehicle in 2016. Its radical styling has been toned down for the production version, but the UX retains much of the show car’s exuberance. Its deeply creased body panels and flowing silhouette set it apart from the rest of cute-ute crowd.
And, of course, there is <ital>that</ital> grille.
Inside, soft-touch surfaces prevail and Lexus uses textures and subtle colorations to dress up the hard plastics. A 7-inch display sits atop the dash; upper trims get a 10.3-inch screen.
The UX inherits the latest iteration of Lexus’s Remote Touch infotainment interface. It employs a touchpad controller that’s substantially easier to use than the old joystick device.
A set of toggle switches that control the heated and ventilated seats and heated steering wheel is a nice touch, but they line up cheek-to-jowl with the cupholders and are blocked by water bottles and lattes.
A choice of powertrains
UX technology highlights include a rearview camera, Bluetooth, smartphone app-based navigation, onboard Wi-Fi, four USB ports, Apple CarPlay and a six-speaker audio system with satellite radio.
The UX is available with a choice of two powertrains. The UX 200 is powered by a 169-horsepower four. A hybrid, the UX 250h ($34,000), makes 179 hp.
The UX 200 is available only with front-wheel drive; the 250h comes standard with all-wheel drive.
The 200 legs it from 0-60 in 8.9 seconds; the 250h runs it in 8.6 seconds.
Evidently, efficiency is a higher priority for Lexus than pizzaz. The 200 earns an EPA-estimated 33 mpg combined; the 250h achieves 39 mpg.
Lithe and lively
In traffic, both powertrains respond eagerly to throttle input. Power builds smoothly through the rev range and the continuously variable transmission in our 250h tester was well-suited to the engine’s torque curve, rarely forcing it to race to catch up.
Ride quality varies according to road quality but generally is quite good. With its short wheelbase, the UX can get jiggly at speed on rough surfaces but unwanted body motions are generally well-controlled.
Though it’s not fast, the UX feels lithe and lively. A Sport drive setting Sport mode quickens throttle responses, changes the transmission shift program and alters the steering assist for added control.
It’s possible to have a bit of fun in the UX, but don’t expect crazy cornering power.
The steering system has good on-center feel and the UX tracks true in its lane. The lightly weighted system builds resistance with speed and cornering loads. It’s precise and responsive but passes along little information from the road surface.
The F Sport edge
The F Sport trim ($34,000) gets stiffer suspension settings and adds unique 18-inch wheels, LED foglights, steering wheel paddle shifters, sport front seats and an upgraded digital gauge cluster.
An available adaptive suspension offers 650 levels of adjustment and delivers optimal ride quality and precise control.
The UX’s tidy dimensions produce a cabin ideally sized for two. Four adults can get comfortable, as long as none of them are six-footers.
The cargo area is smaller than those of the segment leaders.
Standard equipment on both models include keyless entry and ignition, dual-zone automatic climate control, selectable drive modes, simulated-leather upholstery, power-adjustable front seats, LED headlights, heated side mirrors and a 60/40-split folding rear seat.
Driver-assist features include forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist and road sign recognition.
Now that little and luxury are no longer mutually exclusive, the UX looks like the right car in the right place at the right time.
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2019 Lexus UX 250h Luxury
Vehicle base price: $32,000
Trim level base price: $39,200
As tested: $42,775 (includes destination and handling)
Options included wireless charger; windshield deicer; triple-beam headlights with auto-leveling, washers, LED fog lamps and cornering lamps; parking assist with rear cross-traffic alert and braking; heated steering wheel.
EPA rating: 39 combined/41 city/38 highway
Regular unleaded gasoline specified