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Smart rides for trying times

Two affordable options as supply dwindles and demand soars



Fiat 500X

As if the pandemic, political discord and even cicadas weren’t enough, now there’s trouble brewing when trying to buy a new car. Parts shortages of computer chips, rubber, and other supplies mean new-vehicle inventory is down a whopping 40 percent. And with supply so low, demand is ratcheting up. So expect higher prices, along with fewer dealer and automaker incentives. But there are still opportunities out there. This includes opting for less popular models, such as coupes or sedans instead of hot-ticket SUVs and trucks. Or choosing niche models like the Fiat 500X or Mini Cooper Countryman. These two rather off-beat rides may lack the overall room and practicality of larger crossovers, but they perform nicely and are relatively affordable—at least for now.

Mpg: 24 city/30 highway
0 to 60 mph: 8.7 seconds

Buying a Fiat is all about making a fashion statement, combining Italian flair with frugal pricing. The automaker’s decision to reduce its lineup and focus on just one vehicle—the 500X subcompact crossover—only adds to the cachet. Everything about the 500X is charming, including the Lilliputian size, retro exterior and dazzling dashboard with interlocking display gauges. And the name of the base-model adds a bit of whimsy: Pop. There are three other trims—Sport, Trekking and Trekking Plus—but none of them is exactly racy or off-road ready.

Built on the same platform as the Jeep Renegade, the 500X handles fairly smoothly, at least on the freeway. The short chassis makes it difficult to glide over bigger bumps and potholes, and some body sway is noticeable on tight curves. With just 14 cubic feet of back-end cargo space, there’s room only to haul some groceries and such. Still, the four-cylinder turbo engine is perky enough, and the standard all-wheel drive came in handy during a few unexpected downpours. The well-bolstered seats now have updated upholstery, and those funky circular headrests look like something from a Flash Gordon spaceship. There are a surprising number of safety features, including automated emergency braking, blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, and lane-departure warning with lane-keeping assist. And warranty coverage is decent, though there is no complimentary scheduled maintenance. Sure, the 7-inch infotainment touchscreen seems tiny compared with larger displays in other crossovers. But those vehicles cost more, and at least the Fiat comes with smartphone integration and three USB ports. Options include a Beats stereo, heated seats, LED headlamps, front and rear parking sensors, and even a panoramic sunroof. Yes, there’s plenty of personality here and also a decent number of amenities.

Mpg: 23 city/31 highway
0 to 60 mph: 4.4 seconds

For a bit more room and a lot more vroom, there’s the Mini Cooper Countryman. The base model starts at a very affordable $29,200. But the test vehicle that arrived for me to review was the souped-up JCW edition. While it’s definitely pricey, this pocket rocket costs much less than high-performance crossovers from BWW or Mercedes. Yet it’s just as blisteringly fast. The acceleration literally took my breath away, and the guttural exhaust rumble—which was downright primal—turned more than a few heads.

The Countryman is the largest vehicle in the Mini lineup, and for 2021 the exterior gets a tasteful refresh. This includes a flashier grille and bumpers, as well as the clever Union Jack design etched into the taillights. The JCW model boasts larger wheels, more form-fitting seats, rear spoiler and a sport-tuned suspension that helps transform this crossover into a tuner car. Along with keyless entry and power-folding mirrors, there’s also a rear-view camera, ambient lighting and wireless charging. But while Apple CarPlay is available, Android Auto is not. As with the Fiat 500X, the high seating and deft placement of side pillars help with driver visibility. But the Countryman does offer a tad more legroom and rear cargo space. Either vehicle will do, though, if you’re itching to toss in a few overnight bags to simply get away from it all.

Mini Cooper Countryman
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Pride rides

Two models offer strong, confident, inspiring styling




BMW X5 xDrive 45e


As usual, June is bustin’ out all over, with Vice President Kamala Harris making history by joining in the festivities. But the fun doesn’t have to end there. Two fine crossover SUVs show how easy it is to keep the party going indefinitely. I call them Pride rides—strong, confident and inspiring. 



Mpg: 20 mpg (gas only), 50 mpg (electric and gas)

0 to 60 mph: 4.7 seconds

In 2015, back when Gus Kenworthy and Caitlin Jenner came charging out of the closet, BMW was making its own hoopla with the X5 xDrive 40e. This was the automaker’s first plug-in hybrid, an engineering marvel that could shift seamlessly between EV and gas-engine mode. Ride and handling were as good as any traditional SUV. And despite a hefty curb weight, acceleration to 60 mph was a decent 6.2 seconds. 

Fast forward to the X5 xDrive 45e, the next-gen model rolling into showrooms this year. Thanks to the pandemic, this debut has been more subtle. But the enhancements are quite substantial. The new engine—stronger and quieter than the previous model—helps this midsize SUV blast to 60 mph in just 4.7 seconds. Despite being over 400 pounds heavier, the updated X5 is actually nimbler. And the electric-only range is 31 miles, or twice as far as the old model. That’s a good thing, because overall fuel economy is now 20 mpg versus 24 mpg. Luckily, most motorists drive only about 30 miles each day anyway. (Or at least they did prior to the pandemic.) 

Inside, the cockpit design is minimalist chic, but with lots of standard features: faux-leather seats, panoramic roof, two 12.3-inch digital screens, and smartphone integration for both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. All-wheel drive also is standard, even in electric-only mode. Along with all the latest safety gear, there’s active cruise control with a stop-and-go function that can be used at speeds up to 130 mph (yo, for autobahn drivers, not those of us stateside). And during a much-needed weekend getaway with some freeway backups, the traffic-jam-assist feature worked its magic: I was able take my hands off the wheel and relieve a lot of driver fatigue and frustration as the vehicle drove itself. This also was a blessing for my partner, who didn’t have to listen to me swear like a New York City taxi driver. 



Mpg: 20 city/24 highway

0 to 60 mph: 5.8 seconds

For a few more bells and whistles, there’s the Mercedes GLS 450. This full-size SUV has acres of cargo room and can easily seat seven passengers. For a sportier vibe, you can swap out the second-row bench seat for two captain’s chairs. 

A robust six-cylinder engine comes standard and provides plenty of punch. The entry-level GLS handles just as effortlessly as the higher-end V8 model, which adds another $23,000 to the price tag. Both vehicles are smooth operators, with all-wheel drive and a sophisticated suspension that raises and lowers the chassis. There’s even a clever pothole-sensing system to neutralize nasty bumps and enhance the feeling that this hulking SUV is floating on air. As with many BMWs and Mercedes, the GLS now comes with two huge 12.3-inch screens: one for the digital gauges and the other for the infotainment system. 

Various pricey options abound, including five-zone climate control, a tablet to operate the infotainment system, and front and rear massaging seats that can be programmed to apply soothing relief to your back, tush or both. As if such amenities weren’t enough, you can toss in heated and cooled cupholders, as well as a cabin fragrance system with choice of four aromas. Both Mercedes and BMW offer vibrant ambient lighting, with thin strips of interior lights illuminating the foot wells, door panels, dashboard trim, climate control vents, cupholders, speaker rims, center console and more. To tap into your inner rainbow, the GLS has a digital color wheel where you can choose from 64 lustrous hues. You can customize the lighting even further, selecting different colors to illuminate various parts of the interior at the same time. For me, calling up some funky mood lighting and a few rockin’ Pride songs on the stereo is the perfect way to get the party started. 

Mercedes GLS 450
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Fun, four-door sedans

Mixing functionality with professional panache



In this town of celebs and power brokers, sedans are a perfect match. They mix four-door functionality with professional panache, especially when automakers add special trim levels like “Executive,” “Premium” or—in the case of the new Lincoln Continental—“Black Label.” But such buttoned-down monikers don’t prevent these rides from being lots of fun.

Mpg: 23 city/34 highway
0-to-60 mph: 7.7 seconds
While VW offers an Executive trim level for its CC flagship sedan, the high-end version of the midsize Passat is called the SEL Premium. The Passat’s styling is a bit dated—the latest design debuted in 2012—but it still holds its charms. That’s also true inside, where the layout is clean yet flaunts many Audi-chic elements. The bolstered seats, especially, are a delight. There’s also plenty of headroom and legroom, even in the backseats. But the touchscreen is dinky, and the infotainment system isn’t very intuitive. Still, there’s a choice of two fine engines: a fairly quick four-cylinder turbo or a more spirited V6 that lets the Passat scoot from 0 to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds. The German engineering also shines through on the road, with responsive steering and braking. Another plus: a long list of standard features, including heated seats, LED headlights/taillights, power-folding mirrors, automated parallel-parking system, hands-free trunk opener with foot sensor, high-end Fender stereo and more.

The INFINITI Q50 3.0t Signature Edition offers a range of highly desirable features, including a power- sliding tinted glass moonroof, INFINITI InTouch Navigation with 3D building graphics, INFINITI InTouch Services including six months of safety, security and convenience services, SiriusXM Traffic, Voice Recognition for navigation functions, Navi Synchronized Adaptive Shift Control, 60/40 split-fold rear seat, and 17-inch bright finish aluminum-alloy wheels with all-season run-flat tires.

Mpg: 19 city/27 highway
0-to-60 mph: 6.9 seconds
If the old-school exterior on the VW Passat evokes a “dad jeans” sensibility, then the Infiniti Q50 is channeling a skinny-jeans vibe: it’s form fitting, with a tight and sassy rear. This shapely sedan drives just as nice, too, with solid handling and superb body control. A four-cylinder engine comes standard. But it’s hard to resist choosing one of the two zippier V6 options—one of which comes with 400 hp to help rocket the Q50 from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds. There also are four trim levels—base, Premium, Signature and Sport—with various mix-and-match packages. But all trims come with push-button start, smartphone-app integration and an infotainment system with voice recognition. The backup camera also offers a 360-degree, bird’s-eye view that really helps when parking. While there are other niceties—like an eight-inch upper touchscreen and seven-inch lower touchscreen—the interior hasn’t kept up with the times. And though there is a hybrid version, the Q50’s other engines aren’t as fuel-friendly as what many competitors offer. But this Infiniti still scores when it comes to the long warranty, affordable price, and top-notch ratings for safety and reliability.

2017 Lincoln Continental

Mpg: 18 city/27 highway
0-to-60 mph: 5.5 seconds
Many millennials probably don’t understand the hoopla surrounding the rebirth of the Lincoln Continental. After all, it’s been 15 years since this sedan—basically an also-ran for rental-car companies—graced dealer showrooms. And it doesn’t help that Lincoln has a confusing lineup: MKC, MKS, MKT, MKX, MKZ (and the giant Navigator SUV), which are basically gussied-up versions of Ford products. Yet the new Continental proves how silver foxes can reinvent themselves. With a stunning grill and other styling borrowed from Bentley, the Continental is much more than a replacement for the MKS sedan. This is a full-size flagship, measuring 117.9 inches in length and weighing a hefty 4,555 lb. Luckily, any of the three available V6 engines have plenty of pep to power this land yacht. And there is opulence everywhere, with the much-ballyhooed 30-way power seats, rear-seat climate controls, dual sunroofs and all the latest safety gear. The four trim levels include a base-model Premier, Select, Reserve and high-end Black Label—which also comes with a concierge program for pickup and delivery, complimentary car washes (anytime/anywhere) and other services. Perhaps the only thing this car doesn’t do is pump your gas for you.

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