Tested: 2021 Lexus UX200 Nearly Pulls Off the Luxury Transformation

·4 min read
Photo credit: Michael Simari - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Michael Simari - Car and Driver

In the tech world, UX refers to user experience. If a janky app makes you want to hurl your phone at the nearest brick wall, that's a UX that needs improvement. And if a subcompact luxury crossover costs $42,945 but gets dusted by sub-$30,000 cars such as the Subaru Crosstrek, that's a Lexus UX200 that needs improvement—or at least a lot more horsepower.

Riding on the same platform as some of our least favorite Toyota products—such as the Prius hybrid and the C-HR SUV—the 2021 UX200 employs a thick layer of Lexus to hide its mainstream roots. Now in their third model year, the UX200 and its hybrid UX250h twin continue to serve as the entry points to the Lexus brand. Although many SUV buyers might be turned off by the UX's size—it's really more of a compact hatchback than a crossover—combining luxury trappings with wieldy dimensions isn't a bad idea. Lexus brags that the UX200's turning radius, 17.1 feet, is the tightest in its class. It'll be the darling of Manhattan garage parking attendants.

Photo credit: Michael Simari - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Michael Simari - Car and Driver

Whatever your opinion of its styling, the UX200 looks the part of a Lexus, its front end dominated by the brand's signature spindle grille. The interior's quality is convincing, and your friends will likely never guess that the soft leather upholstery is actually NuLuxe, a synthetic hide. The digital gauge display is shielded by a hood with knobs protruding from either side—one for the UX's drive modes, the other to toggle its stability control on or off—as is done in most other Lexus cars and SUVs. Unfortunately, Lexus also included its console touchpad, a device that both asks and answers the question, "How would you like to use a computer mouse while driving?"

Proletariat Powertrain

The UX200's 169-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder drives the front wheels through a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). To get all-wheel drive you have to opt for the pricier UX250h hybrid. Despite having 10 simulated gear ratios, the CVT still causes the engine to drone during heavy throttle inputs, which happen frequently enough to take us right out of the luxury fantasy that the UX tries so hard to achieve.

Photo credit: Michael Simari - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Michael Simari - Car and Driver

The UX200's 8.5-second run to 60 mph is well off the pace of rivals such as the Audi Q3, the BMW X2, and the Mercedes-Benz GLA-class. Getting up to highway speeds and performing passing maneuvers requires a heavy foot and some patience. The quarter-mile is covered in a lengthy 16.6 seconds at 86 mph, and the UX200 needs 5.6 seconds to accelerate from 50 to 70 mph, which is well off the passing pace of the BMW and Mercedes.

While it certainly could use more power, the UX200's dynamic traits aren't all bad. Its compactness also translates to a low, 3360-pound curb weight, which helps provide a reasonably agile, carlike driving experience. The UX200's ride is refined and handling feels more spry than we expected. But its lack of sporting ambition is belied by its indifferent grip—we recorded a rather lackluster 0.80 g on our skidpad.

Photo credit: Michael Simari - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Michael Simari - Car and Driver

Premium Price Tag

Our Nebula Gray Pearl test car came with the $4700 Luxury trim package, which adds a power rear liftgate, memory settings for the driver, and air-vent knobs with subtle illumination. A host of standalone extras punctuated the UX200's interior too, including a wireless smartphone charging pad ($75), a color head-up display ($500), a heated steering wheel ($150), and illuminated door sills ($425). The priciest option, upgraded LED headlamps, inflated the price by $1660. A pair of tall roof-rack cross bars added $400 and created additional wind noise but might have helped the UX better impersonate an SUV.

Our nearly loaded UX200 wore a price tag of $42,945. That's not an abnormal price tag for the luxury realm. But compared to fully loaded versions of similarly sized non-luxury crossovers such as the Hyundai Kona and the Mazda CX-30, it represents as much as a $12,000 markup. Those models don't offer the cachet of the Lexus brand name, nor do they quite match the UX200 in a feature-for-feature comparison, but they both deliver more engaging driving experiences. And, with their optional turbocharged engines, both are significantly quicker.

Photo credit: Michael Simari - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Michael Simari - Car and Driver

In the abstract, the Lexus UX is inoffensively fine. But as soon as any competitive car is considered, its flaws become glaringly evident. Similarly priced rivals are invariably much better to drive, and plenty of more affordable mainstream crossovers are larger (and better to drive). Most crossovers try to appeal to a broadest possible swath of the buyers, but the UX200 is laser focused on a niche buyer who is willing to pay extra for a small, but still premium, product. We aren't quite convinced, but a more refined powertrain with 100 more horsepower would probably do the trick.

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