To many Americans, a small car isn’t a luxury car. Why pay a lot of money for something small when you could buy something big? Northwest residents, though, have benefited greatly from the explosion of small luxury crossovers. These vehicles combine the sensible size of a city car with a useful amount of cargo room, plus the premium-grade experience and high-end features of a luxury car.
Three recently tested vehicles are potentially appealing members of this class. The newly introduced 2019 Volvo XC40 is a subcompact model that’s fuel-efficient and easy to park. The redesigned 2019 Acura RDX compact brings sporty performance to the mix. And the 2019 GMC Terrain offers some style and polish at a lower price.
2019 Volvo XC40
Until recently, the smallest Volvo crossover was the compact XC60. It brings the posh interior trappings and genteel design of the larger seven-passenger XC90, but not much spunk or driving excitement. Enter the new subcompact XC40. It measures eight inches shorter than the XC60 end to end, and its cheekily boxy appearance gives off a less serious vibe than larger Volvos.
Inside the cabin, the basic dashboard is similar to other Volvos. Most notably, a nine-inch tablet-style touchscreen dominates the otherwise minimalist dash, a look that’s both elegant and modern.
Here too, though, things are more playful than other Volvos. You can get the interior with optional orange carpeting on the floor and door panels. And the overall vibe from the cabin materials is high-quality without other Volvos’ extra dash of opulence — more plastic and less leather, but it’s very nice plastic.
And unlike many subcompact crossovers, Volvo has embraced boxiness rather than low-slung style, which ensures a more spacious interior than the competition. Four adults and a decent amount of cargo fits easily, and a fifth adult can squeeze into the middle seat when needed.
On the road, the XC40’s smaller size than the XC60 brings some extra handling agility. It’s still not as overtly sporty as a BMW X1 or Jaguar E-Pace, but as you’d expect, it responds more eagerly than larger Volvos. It also feels more solidly built than a mainstream small crossover, helping to further justify its price opoint.
The XC40 starts at $35,495 with generous standard equipment and an excellent fuel economy rating of 27 mpg in mixed driving. If you choose the optional all-wheel-drive system, you’re bumped to a turbocharged engine with 248 horsepower instead of 187, and you still achieve 26 mpg in mixed driving (though on premium fuel rather than the base engine’s regular).
Overall, the XC40 combines the boxy utility that defined Volvos of the 1980s and 1990s with the modern luxury found in its brand-mates today. Then it tosses in an endearing character that stands alone among today’s Volvos.
2019 Acura RDX
One size larger than the XC40, the 2019 Acura RDX once traced its roots to the best-selling Honda CR-V. But you’ll no longer find any resemblance in looks or character between the two models. The new RDX stands out for performance and luxury in a very demanding market segment.
Priced from $38,295, the RDX is most notable for a superb balance of a comfortable ride and sporty handling. You feel this Acura snap to attention when you turn the steering wheel, and the suspension has the composure to back this up. That’s nothing like the experience of last year’s RDX, which was pleasant enough but comparatively anonymous.
The redesigned RDX also swaps last year’s V6 engine for a turbocharged four-cylinder. Some critics have grumbled about this trend away from six-cylinder engines among luxury cars, but few could complain about the Acura’s. This 275-horsepower engine provides zippy acceleration, sounds great — a subtle growl that rewards the driver without annoying everyone else — and still returns up to 24 miles per gallon in mixed driving.
Inside, the RDX has comfortable seating for four and decent space for five. The well-appointed interior looks and feels richer than the last-generation RDX, though some will prefer a vibe of user-friendly comfort or elegant decadence; Acura instead goes for a modernist vibe that showcases technology and numerous swoops and angles.
It also uses touchpad infotainment controls instead of a touchscreen, which take a little longer to master. The exterior design aesthetic also goes for edgy more than graceful, but it’s not so aggressive as to risk alienating too many buyers.
Overall, the RDX is less expensive than European competitors like the Audi Q5 and Mercedes-Benz GLC, and is also sportier to drive than those models with tighter steering and more standard horsepower. Meanwhile, the similar-looking and similarly sporty Lexus NX 300 feels less rich than the RDX and rides less smoothly. If the Acura’s aesthetic suits you, check it out in this segment.
2019 GMC Terrain
You might consider GMC to be in strange company amid the luxury brands. The compact Terrain and its Chevrolet Equinox mechanical twin are best known as rivals to humbler compact crossovers such as the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape.
But the Equinox and Terrain elevate themselves above the class norm for quietness and powertrain performance, helping them serve as alternatives to luxury-brand crossovers.
The tested Terrain includes this crossover’s optional 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, whose 252 horsepower exceeds the base engines of many European luxury models. And like the competing Jeep Cherokee, the Terrain gives off a bit more of an SUV vibe rather than a sports sedan with a higher seating position — a difference that will suit some customers better.
Neither the Terrain’s cabin nor its driving dynamics scream true “luxury.” But since a 2018-model redesign, it’s no embarrassment either, especially in the top-of-the-line Denali trim. Think of it as a half-step between mainstream and luxury, both in terms of its qualities and its price tag: It’s neither overly basic nor truly dazzling.
The base Terrain starts at $26,385 without many features and with a quiet but less-than-zippy 170-horsepower engine. But the model range goes up past $40,000 with the top Denali trim.
Other fancy-feeling models that punch above their price bracket include the compact Mazda CX-5 — newly updated with a more powerful engine and more available features — and the midsize Ford Edge.