Sometimes making one key change transforms a vehicle into something special. Other times, that one key change just highlights the other parts of the model that need changing. Adding the wonderful Lexus Interface infotainment system to the 2023 Lexus UX falls firmly into the latter camp.
Lexus changed more than just that one thing for the 2023 UX. It dropped the gas engine, for example. Now the 181 hp hybrid system and its 2.0L four-cylinder engine is the only model of the UX available. It's called the UX 250h and was such a substantial increase in power and fuel economy (with little change to price) that the UX 200 made little sense.
The luxury automaker also adds a new F-Sport trims to the UX for the first time. F-Sport trim models come with adaptive performance shocks, sports seats, paddle shifters, active sound control and a unique mesh grille on the entry grade, with a 12.3-inch screen with nav, adaptive lights, leather dash, front seat adjustment memory, and more on the F-Sport 2 grade. F-Sports even have a steering rack brace, an effort to help improve steering feel and response, because Lexus is convinced that sport is what its buyers want.
How convinced? The 2023 Lexus UX is more rigid than last year because the company added 20 new spot welds. A lot of time, effort, and probably cost for a change that average buyers might never even notice. We appreciate it, though, because a stiffer vehicle chassis is also one that is quieter and generally more comfortable.
My tester is not either of those F-Sports. This is the new one, the F-Sport Design trim, which gets fog lights, the F-Sport grille and side skirts, and 18-inch wheels. It doesn't have fancy shocks, but it does have ventilated front seats, which might be the smarter move in this category.
Lexus has also added some new safety systems for 2023. The Lexus Safety System 2.5+ gets an upgraded camera as well as tweaked radar that lets the pre-collision system better detect cyclists and pedestrians in low-light conditions. The exact conditions where you are most likely to have trouble spotting them yourself.
The lane recognition function has been tweaked as well. The system is meant to keep you centred in your lane and now it has a smoother operation. But it still wasn’t smooth enough for me to keep it on.
Lastly, the radar cruise control has a new curve speed control function that slows it down based on the upcoming corner. I'm going to get back to this new feature later, but I'll warn you I don't have many nice things to say.
First, back to that one key change. Lexus swore by its touchpad-based infotainment system, while reviewers swore at it. The system is gone, replaced in nearly all Lexus models by a new touch-based system.
The UX is one of the last to get the new system, but it's still extremely fresh. It rolled out from launch to nearly every model in less than two years.
More than new, the system is good. Clear and crisp graphics and plenty of processing power to make sure it is responsive.
The system has natural voice response commands, and they'll make most of the changes you want to make. If the system can't make the change, it will usually at least deposit you in the right menu.
There's Google cloud-based points of interest data, live traffic, and live agent destination assistance. I can't say enough good things about this system.
Remember how I said that can just bring attention to the rest of the vehicle's issues? In the 2023 UX that starts immediately beside the big new screen.
The Lexus UX has a mostly digital dash (it's fully digital on the top trims). The text and graphics match those of the old infotainment interface. They do not match the new one. So the two sets of screens are very clearly mismatched. It's a shocking lack of attention to detail. Was it overlooked, or a cost-cutting measure? Either way, it is not what we expect from luxury vehicle.
Inside the UX is cramped. This is a small cabin, and that's not just because of my well-known large size. A lack of head, knee, and shoulder room will have even smaller passengers wishing for more space. Yes, this is a subcompact crossover, but there are others that don't have tiny cabins.
Trunk space is at a premium, too. Competitors in the segment have 50 percent greater (or even more) space behind the rear seats than the 487 L Lexus offers. Yes, there is a bit more available below the removable floor, but it isn't much. A high load floor and narrow opening make it tough to make the best of the room you do get.
So back to how it drives.
While the UX's driveline makes 181 hp, the little crossover never feels as quick as that would suggest. In my experience, that's common to hybrids, especially models with an eCVT like this one. The same transmission effect means loads of drone when you're hard into the throttle, and that increases cabin noise.
Toyota (the parent of Lexus) has largely remedied this in its latest hybrid system, which debuted in the 2023 Prius. But this model is still on the older system.
Ride and handling are distinctly just to the wrong side of average. The UX 250h is comfortable enough to not be noteworthy, but not enough to coddle. Its handling is predictable enough to ignore, but not enough to inspire confidence. Were it not for the cramped cabin and the noise levels, it would be a completely unremarkable experience.
While that sounds like a criticism, a largely unremarkable experience is likely exactly what the brand's buyers are looking for. A model that gets you from A to B with zero trouble for 10 years.
In the case of Lexus, they want that with some more premium finishes and that L badge on the grille. This one has the L on the grille, but the new screen highlights finishes that aren't quite up to segment standards.
Forget about BMW, Acura, Cadillac, and Lincoln, the UX has trouble keeping up with Buick and even Mazda. The fit and finish offered in a Mazda CX-30 GT
tops this UX, and it's many thousands of dollars less. On the other hand, it's unlikely that a Mazda dealer will touch the level of service offered by a Lexus showroom and its legendary customer experience. There's more to a brand than just its vehicles.
I said I would circle back to the curve speed control function, and here it is. The idea sounds great; if the Lexus system detects you're coming in hot to a sharp corner, the adaptive cruise control slows down ahead of time.
In practice, that's not how it worked. Instead, on divided highways, the system would decide that the speed limit was at least 20 km/h too quick for the bend in the road. In response, it would slam on the brakes.
The kicker was that not only was the braking action abrupt and severe, but it was also nearly always too late. On the majority of occasions, the UX would slow down only after the apex of the corner. The vehicle had already navigated the sharpest part of the bend before deciding to slow down. The feature was irritating, but also completely unhelpful.
I was not happy, my passengers were not happy, and the vehicles behind me were absolutely not happy. They let me know, expressing their displeasure with an extended finger or a horn. Lexus is normally at the forefront of adding driver assists, but this one needs some work.
My sentiments about the UX 250h can be summed up by its fuel economy; looks good on paper, but the experience didn't quite measure up. The official rating is 5.7 L/100 km city, 6.2 highway. My mixed driving returned an indicated 7.8. I'm used to beating the official figures, not falling well below them.
The 2023 Lexus UX 250h will no doubt appeal to buyers who want the easy ownership experience and excellent customer service they've come to expect from the brand. It looks good from the outside, and it has that wonderful new screen. But it is cramped, noisy, and just not good enough in such a competitive arena.
This UX is trading on the equity of its badge, and Lexus can do better. Whether it has to in order to keep bringing in buyers is another issue altogether.
2023 Lexus UX 250h
BODY STYLE: Five-door subcompact luxury CUV
DRIVE METHOD: front-engine, all-wheel drive
ENGINE: 2.0-litre I4, hybrid, 181 hp
FUEL ECONOMY CITY/HIGHWAY/COMBINED: 5.7/6.2/6.0 L/100 km
MIN. CARGO CAPACITY: 487 L
TOWING CAPACITY: N/A
Base MSRP: $41,500
As tested MSRP: $43,800