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Holiday gifts for car lovers

Something for everyone, from a Barbie Maserati to Subaru dog sweaters

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Sure, a $100 gift card to use at the gas pump or EV charging station is a nice stocking stuffer this holiday season, but there are plenty of other much more playful gifts for car fans. 

Subaru Blue-Striped Beanie

To help reduce waste and carbon emissions, Subaru offers assorted eco-friendly clothing. This includes a blue-striped beanie ($15), made from 100% recycled acrylic knit and festooned with a sassy pom on top. Subaru Motorsports USA logo is embroidered on the side. 

Barbie Maserati Grecale Trofeo SUV 

For megabucks motorheads, Neiman Marcus offers its annual holiday catalogue —a collection of “fantasy gifts”— with the Barbie Maserati Grecale Trofeo SUV ($330,000). This fab ride—in shocking pink and with yellow accents—can sprint from 0 to 60 mph in less than four seconds. Only one is available, with 10% of the sale donated to the Barbie Dream Gap Project, which helps provide equal opportunities for girls and young women. 

Hyundai Nexo Kiddie Car

Back in the day, there were Hot Wheels, Matchbox Cars and Tonka Toys. Today, there’s the Hyundai Nexo kiddie car ($737), an electric-powered plaything with vegan leather, stitched seating and rear sensors that beep when there’s an obstruction. Parents can control the car via a Bluetooth remote-control system. Charging time: seven hours.

Mercedes Classic 300 SL Desk Clock

Turn back time with the Mercedes classic 300 SL desk clock ($85) made of aluminum and stainless steel, with a wave pattern on the dial similar to the design used on the dashboard of that vintage Benz. 

The Godfather Cadillac Model Car

Like Marlon Brando, here’s an offer you can’t refuse: The Godfather Cadillac ($23), a diecast model of the 1955 Fleetwood in that movie. 

Ferrari Wraparound Sunglasses

Caio bella! Sleek unisex sunglasses ($1,275) from Ferrari feature a futuristic wraparound design with steel frame, titanium nose pads and the automaker’s prancing-horse emblem on each lens. 

Maserati Blue Unisex Socks

What better stocking stuffer than, well, socks. Maserati’s blue unisex socks ($31) are made of a high-quality blend of cotton and technical fabric, with the Maserati trident logo inlaid on the side and sole of each sock. Ideal for outdoor activities or sports.

BMW Scooter

The BMW kid’s scooter ($120) is made of durable plastic and metal, with a height-adjustable steering bar and convenient storage drawer to hold stuff. Available in choice of two snazzy color combinations: white/raspberry or black/orange. 

Ford Bronco Holiday Adult Onesie

Ford is proud of its ugly holiday sweaters, but this year there’s the Bronco holiday adult onesie ($45). Made of 100% polyester polar fleece, this glorified pajama comes with loose-fitting hood, tight-fitting cuffs for your arms and ankles, and a cringe-worthy design in maroon, sage and cream coloring. 

Land Rover Heritage Watch

Inspired by old-school aviator timepieces, the Land Rover Heritage Watch ($282) has a leather strap, rugged stitching and early Land Rover logo on a matte black dial and ion-plated case. Available with a snazzy Land Rover presentation box.

Subaru Dog Sweater

Subaru offers festive gifts for those four-legged members in your family, including a holiday dog sweater ($35) made of jacquard knit. Other Subaru pet-centric presents: collars, leashes, clip-on safety light, travel roll-up mat, toss-n-chew dog toy, fleece plushie full of cat nip, and more. 

Retro Datsun Lunch Box

Gearhead foodies will appreciate the Datsun lunch box ($15), with images of two iconic cars from that retro automaker: the racy 240z roadster on one side and the stylish 510 sedan on the other. 

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Autos

Lightning strikes twice with all-electric Ford F-150 pickup

This dazzling eco-ride will take your breath away

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Ford F-150 Lightning

Years ago as I was walking to work, a driver wielded his ginormous Ford F-150 pickup truck into a parking space barely big enough for a Mazda Miata. He then strode into my office building with the swagger of a total yahoo: seemingly clueless about parking etiquette, let alone climate change. 

A short time later, this urban cowboy was introduced as our new supervisor. My internal eye-rolling kicked in after learning he had three toddlers. I mean, how practical is a monster hauler—with its sky-high ground clearance and limited interior cargo room—when ferrying around a trio of rugrats? 

But my haughty ’tude soon started to wane after learning he also had a minivan. This dude just couldn’t quit his F-150 because it was tough and “free spirited.” While I appreciated his passion, I didn’t fully understand it. Pickups to me are workaday trucks: basic, utilitarian and, well, no big whoop. 

That is, until last week when I tested the all-new, all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning. This dazzling eco-ride took my breath away, blasting off from a standstill to 60 mph in four seconds and dodging through traffic like Lionel Messi. 

Call it a jolt (or lightning bolt) to the senses, but now it’s my turn to be the total yahoo when it comes to a pickup.

FORD F-150 LIGHTNING

$52,000-$97,000
MPGe: 76 city/61 highway
Range: up to 320 miles on a full charge
0 to 60 mph: as quick as 4.0 seconds

During the past year, various all-electric pickups have gone from concept to reality. There’s the cartoonish-looking Rivian, with a smiley front end that looks like something out of a “Cars” movie, and the GMC Hummer EV, which could easily be mistaken for a modish lunar rover. 

Enter the Ford F-150 Lightning, with its sprinkles of futuristic styling cues, including distinctive light bars atop both the grille and tailgate. While the overall design may not be as outre as a Rivian or Hummer, the Lightning still turns plenty of heads. 

Most notable, the Lightning is very practical. A Rivian, for example, is 14.6 inches shorter so has less passenger and cargo room. A Hummer is seven inches wider, making it harder to navigate city streets. And both the Rivian and Hummer are taller than a Lightning, which—yikes!—can barely scooch under the clearance bar in a parking garage itself. 

There’s lots of leg room in both the front and back seats. And those rear seats flip up, allowing you to conveniently stow gobs of gear underneath. There also are a few dividers to help keep cargo organized and prevent items from jostling around. 

But perhaps the coolest feature is the “frunk,” or front trunk. This storage space—where the engine used to be—is an impressive 14.1 cubic feet. That’s enough room for two golf bags or three medium-sized suitcases. The funky frunk is also water-resistant, drainable, lockable and has four 120-volt outlets and two USB chargers. There’s even an emergency release latch, just like in a standard trunk. Best of all, the lid opens and closes electronically, with just two taps to the keyfob. When I did this the first time, it looked as if the Lightning was actually yawning—or getting ready to eat someone. 

And here’s a first: If your household ever loses power, a fully charged Lightning can serve as a backup generator for up to three days.  

The real excitement, though, is behind the wheel. Power comes from two electric motors configured to provide standard all-wheel drive. Add in the extended-range battery for more horsepower and torque, and this pickup handles just like a sports car. The instant acceleration—especially when stomping on the gas, er, throttle pedal—must be what it’s like when a spaceship rockets off the launch pad. Except in the Lightning, there’s no back-and-forth shuddering, and no noise. Everything’s perfectly, eerily quiet in the well-insulated cabin. 

Many interior features in the Lightning are also in the snazzy Ford Mustang Mach-e crossover, including the optional 15-inch infotainment screen that looks and behaves like an iPad. Other pleasing add-ons include max-recline seats, hands-free driving system, Bang & Olufsen premium stereo and twin-panel moonroof.

For more than 40 years, the traditional gas-engine F-150 has reigned as the best-selling vehicle in America, so the Lightning is a big risk for Ford. Yet with stellar performance and boffo functionality, it’s hard to see this electrifying pickup losing the crown.

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Charged up about electric vehicles

Bolt EUV, BMW iX xDrive 50 offer climate-friendly style

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Chevrolet Bolt EUV

For me, electric vehicles are like superheroes. They nix tailpipe emissions. They combat climate change. And they come with scads of slick gadgets. 

Today’s cutting-edge EV designs also look, well, electrifying. And you can’t beat the adrenaline rush, the ability to dash lickety-split down the road—even when tapping the accelerator ever so slightly. 

I recently drove two EVs that gave me a real charge. And who knows, they just may help save the planet. 

CHEVROLET BOLT EUV
$29,000
MPGe: 125 city/104 highway
Driving range: 247 miles
0 to 60 mph: 6.8 seconds

Shazam! As with that comic-book superhero, lightning has struck the compact Chevy Bolt EV hatchback. The result: the all-new Bolt EUV—aka Electric Utility Vehicle—a compact SUV that’s six inches longer than the hatchback. Sure, the six-year-old Bolt EV was nicely updated last year, but the surprise addition of the larger EUV brings much-needed legroom for rear-seat passengers. Both Bolts sport the same offbeat design, full of comely creases and large windows for an airy interior. And there are notable amenities, including LED headlights, heated exterior mirrors, remote start and remote keyless entry. 

But the EUV comes with so many extras, especially in the Premier trim level: Bose stereo, onboard navigation system, panoramic sunroof, illuminated charging port and more. This is also the first Chevy with Super Cruise, an advanced hands-free-driving system for automatic braking, steering and acceleration. The cabin features a 10.2-inch infotainment screen, 8-inch digital display, smartphone integration and flat-bottom steering wheel with integrated audio controls and such. 

While I prefer traditional gearshift levers versus the gear-selector buttons in the Bolt, more automakers are opting for such gearshift buttons, toggles or knobs because they take up less space. Battery range is listed at 247 miles, but I fared closer to 270 miles. You get only four miles of charge per hour using a standard 120-volt outlet, but a full-charge from a 240-volt outlet takes just seven hours, which is decent. Along with the eight-year/100,000-mile battery warranty, roadside assistance is five years/60,000 miles. Overall, both Bolts—whether hatchback or EUV—are stylish and affordable. But expect the new Bolt EUV to ferry around those superheroes in your life a bit more comfortably.  

BMW iX xDRIVE 50
$85,000
MPGe: 86 city/87 highway
Driving range: 315 miles
0 to 60 mph: 4.2 seconds

Beware the magical powers of a BMW iX xDrive 50, the automaker’s first all-electric SUV. This rousing ride boasts the speed of The Flash, the tenacity of Thor and the savvy of Storm. In other words, what’s not to like? Sure, this all-new BMW costs three times as much as a Chevy Bolt EUV. But the iX scoots down the road a lot faster, tackles twisties with confidence and brakes like a true race car. 

Size-wise, the iX is akin to a midsize BMW X5 SUV, with comfortable seating for five passengers and beaucoup storage space. Here the comparisons end. With sci-fi styling, the iX is more futuristic than anything BMW has tried before. Take the signature kidney-shaped grille, which has been bent and stretched as if from another dimension. Cameras, radar gizmos and other sensors are hidden in the grille, which is covered by a polyurethane coating that gives it the power to heal itself—or basically erase—any minor scratches or dings. I mean, like, wow.  

Frameless windows and the flush exterior door handles add to the aerodynamic ambience. As for the interior, this is what I imagine cockpits in luxury space shuttles will look like someday. There’s a funky hexagonal steering wheel, a center console that seems to float between the front seats, and buttons instead of handles to open the doors from the inside. Hovering atop the dashboard is an elongated digital monitor, stretched to fit the 14.9-inch infotainment display and 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster. 

The seat-adjustment controls, infotainment control knob and other switchgear can be ordered in crystal glass. And many materials in the iX are recycled, including carpets and floor mats made from used fishing nets and other items. Also of note: When flying down the highway, the cabin is one of the quietest available, beating even Bentley and Rolls-Royce. For 2023, a high-performance iX M60 model arrives with even more power and pizzazz. Another super vehicle we can look forward to on the road.

BMW iX xDRIVE 50
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Two small, fun, and affordable rides

Ford Maverick, Kia Nightfall easy on your wallet

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Ford Maverick

Who doesn’t love a bargain? At $47,148, the average price of a new car is quickly approaching — yikes! — $50,000. So when I recently tested two vehicles that cost only half as much, you might assume such rides appeal to my penchant for being kinda-sorta cheap. OK, this is partly true, but along with affordable MSRPs, these low-cost chariots offer lots of other pleasant surprises.

FORD MAVERICK
$22,000
Mpg: 42 city/33 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.7 seconds

With all the hoo-ha over electric vehicles, I wasn’t expecting to go gaga over a rather traditional pickup. Yet that’s what happened with the Ford Maverick, an all-new compact truck that comes standard as a hybrid. While a non-hybrid is available, it’s hard not to love the hybrid’s stellar fuel efficiency.

I also think this pickup looks sexy, with sumptuously curved sheet metal that any fashionista could love. Another plus: The Maverick is the least expensive tiny pickup out there. It’s also surprisingly comfy, available only as a four-door crew cab with ample legroom and headroom, as well as nifty storage spaces. The low-slung truck bed, which can carry cargo up to 1,500 pounds, makes loading and unloading easy. And if, say, you’re looking to enter a float in your local Pride parade, this small but mighty hauler can tow up to 4,000 pounds.

Built on the same platform as two popular Ford SUVs—the Escape and Bronco Sport—the Maverick boasts handling more akin to a steady sedan than a rough-and-rugged truck. Sure, there was some annoying jostling over potholes, but the steering and braking were precise. All models offer niceties such as remote keyless entry, steering-wheel audio controls, smartphone integration and forward-collision warning. While various option packages add up quickly, some features are hard to resist: Bang & Olufsen premium stereo, wireless smartphone charging pad, power-sliding rear window, key fob with remote start, adaptive cruise control and more.

During my weeklong testing of this vehicle, I took it on a few far-flung treks outside the city. Each time, it was refreshing to tumble back into the Maverick for my drive home. For me — wink, wink — this pickup was the perfect pick-me-up.

Kia Seltos Nightfall

KIA SELTOS NIGHTFALL
$27,000
Mpg: 25 city/30 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.5 seconds

When I first slid behind the wheel of a Kia Seltos subcompact SUV last year, the low price — $24,000 for the base model — was beguiling. Overall, though, the funky styling and available options were more notable than the actual ride and handling. Not so when I recently drove the latest Seltos — this time the Nightfall Edition, which feels like a completely different vehicle.
For just $3,000 extra, the Nightfall trim level adds a bit more style and a lot more substance. This includes a zippy 175-hp turbo engine, which shaves off almost a full second when accelerating from 0 to 60 mph. There’s a smooth seven-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive for grippier traction. And larger 18-inch tires offer more road control, as well as slightly higher ground clearance for better driver visibility.

Inside, the upscale design and materials are still impressive. But while all models come with tinted rear windows, smartphone integration, automatic headlights and keyless entry, the Nightfall adds heated front seats, large touchscreen, navigation system, wireless phone charger, sunroof and other amenities. A blind-spot monitor (with rear cross-traffic alert) is also included with the plentiful array of standard safety gear. To distinguish the Nightfall from its Seltos siblings, there are even blacked-out wheels and exterior trim accents for a sportier look. It’s hard to believe that these two vehicles I drove are related. But with the Nightfall, the difference is night and day.

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2022 AAA Car Guide – Going High-Tech often means going electric

Mustang Mach-E Takes Top Honors – Researchers: its got a dramatic new profile, is powerful, electric, quiet, quick, roomy & fun to fun drive

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Courtesy of the Auto Club’s Automotive Research Center

LOS ANGELES – New vehicle shoppers primarily want two things in their next ride – better fuel efficiency and more driver assist safety features. According to AAA, nearly 80% of drivers want automakers to focus on improving fuel economy.

And 76% want active driving assistance systems (ADAS), like automatic emergency braking, lane keeping assistance, and adaptive cruise control. Addressing these twin desires can be accomplished with the newest batch of EVs (electric vehicles), which are often the most technologically cutting-edge and the most fuel efficient.

Many of the world’s major automakers have announced plans to dramatically increase electric vehicle production or phase out gasoline-powered vehicles entirely by 2035. The AAA Car Guide helps consumers navigate the changing automotive marketplace by ranking and rating the newest vehicles available for sale, including alternative fuel vehicles.   

For the 2022 edition of the AAA Car Guide, the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E Premium AWD earned the overall top score. Researchers noted this Mustang has a dramatic new profile, is powerful, electric, quiet, quick, roomy and fun to fun drive. The  AAA Car Guide  provides consumers with reviews highlighting how many advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) are included in the vehicle along with other criteria and information. All category winners for 2022 are electric, plug-in electric hybrid, or hybrid vehicles. In addition to being highly fuel efficient, the winners are also loaded with the latest in advanced driver assistance systems. 

In 2021, electric vehicle sales rose to nearly 477,000, representing 3.3% of total vehicle sales – but a whopping 81.5% increase over 2020 sales. Of the 62 vehicles reviewed for the 2022 AAA Car Guide, six are electric.

“EV sales, while small, are growing, and the signs are everywhere that the future is electric,” said Megan McKernan, manager of the Auto Club’s Automotive Research Center that produced the guide. “And that future may arrive faster with consumer preferences changing because of factors such as high gas prices and the gradual phasing-out of gasoline-powered vehicles in some areas..” 

The 2022 AAA Car Guide includes comprehensive reviews of each vehicle based on 12 criteria, including the number of ADAS safety features, fuel efficiency, emissions, braking, handling, ride quality, and acceleration. These vehicles are tested, scored, and placed in one of five vehicle categories by the Automotive Research Center (ARC) of the Automobile Club of Southern California, a member of the AAA federation of motor clubs. 

“Our research is designed to eliminate the guesswork for consumers when they are looking to purchase a new vehicle,” said McKernan. “The AAA Car Guide is an easy-to-understand resource that can help improve consumers’ decisions when it comes to car buying.”

Industry analysts forecast that the COVID-19 pandemic, the semi-conductor chip shortage, and the proliferation of EVs will affect the availability, types, and prices of new and used cars in 2022. For those in the market for newer used vehicles, the online AAA Car Guide website also contains links to the two prior editions in 2021 and 2020.

Each of the 2022 AAA Car Guide winners has numerous ADAS safety features and achieves high fuel efficiency by being hybrid or all-electric, generating a higher score. The highest scoring ranked by category are:

Winners, detailed evaluation criteria, vehicle reviews, and an in-depth analysis of the ADAS technology can be found at aaa.com/carguide.  

The AAA Car Guide also contains detailed information about AAA’s recent research on current automotive technologies and topics, such as advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), gasoline quality, headlight effectiveness, and safely transporting a pet in the vehicle.  

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Chi-chi crossover SUVs

Say goodbye to barebones econoboxes

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Lincoln Corsair

LINCOLN CORSAIR
$37,000
Mpg: 22 city/29 highway
0 to 60 mph: 6.1 seconds

Back in the day, Oldsmobile tried to rebrand itself with corny commercials featuring celebrity icons. Trouble was, not even William Shatner, Ringo Starr or even the automaker’s catchy tagline—“Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile”—could overcome the lackluster vehicle lineup. But not so with Lincoln. Hunky Matthew McConaughey has boosted sales of the luxury brand for eight years now. His quirky rhapsodizing of all things Lincoln is bolstered by increasingly stylish and innovative people pleasers.

This includes the Corsair, a compact SUV introduced just two years ago. As if tempting fate, this is the same name as the full-sized sedan and coupe produced back in 1958 by Ford’s ill-fated Edsel division. But today, with chiseled features and space-age gizmos, this new Corsair is likely to be around for generations. Lincoln SUVs tend to emulate Lexus in styling and creature comforts. The Corsair looks sportier—think Audi Q5 or BMW X3—though without the grippy handling and tight cornering. But that’s OK, because the result is a smooth and pampered ride—a big plus on long-distance trips.

Three trim levels, including a top-of-the line Grand Touring plug-in hybrid. I test drove the mid-level Reserve, with all-wheel drive and oodles of standard features: panoramic sunroof, hands-free liftgate, LED fog lamps, auto-fold side mirrors, 14-speaker Revel stereo and more. Tons of options, and those 24-way, perfect-posture seats are particularly fine. To avoid feeling dazed and confused with so many drivers emerging from the pandemic, there’s also a head-up display and a Co-Pilot360 Plus package with surround-view camera and automated parking. Impressive crash-test scores are a bonus, as is the long powertrain warranty (six years or 70,000 miles). As for value, the Corsair is built on the same platform as the popular Ford Edge, which is priced just slightly less. Yet this Lincoln exudes all the flair and luxury of high-end vehicles costing so much more.

Mercedes AMG GLB35

MERCEDES AMG GLB35
$51,000
Mpg: 21city/26 highway
0 to 60 mph: 4.9 seconds

Like Jon Hamm, the voice of Mercedes for over a decade, the renowned German automaker is well endowed with notable attributes. But while the actor’s calming voice is in sync with the rich aura of a genteel Benz, that’s not the case with the hellfire AMG GLB35 compact crossover. This sporty rabble-rouser—with plucky styling, screaming exhaust note and a fierce 302-horsepower turbo engine—is more in tune with, say, the grit and gumption of Megan Rapinoe.

Sure, the basic GLB is just fine, but this AMG high-performance model boasts brushed stainless-steel pedals, silver chrome paddle-shifters and a flat-bottom steering wheel. What’s more, the crisp steering, lithe handling and taut braking tugged at my boy-racer heartstrings each time I slipped behind the wheel.

A tall cabin allows for plenty of headroom, and there’s a decent amount of cargo space for such a small vehicle. But while a third seat can be ordered, I’m not sure anyone would want to perform the contortions necessary to sit there. Along with the sassy attitude, the GLB35 is still plenty classy. LED headlights and taillights come standard, as do rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone automatic climate control and ambient lighting that can be customized with choice of 64 colors. There are two large, 10.25-inch digital displays: one for the instrument cluster and the other a touchscreen for the infotainment system. And some $10,000 in options include panoramic sunroof, 12-speaker Burmester stereo, logo puddle lamps, real-wood trim and other goodies. Overall, the GLB35 is a rebel with a cause: part tuner car, part pocket rocket and, above all, nonstop excitement.

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Pride rides

Two models offer strong, confident, inspiring styling

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BMW X5 xDrive 45e

By JOE PHILLIPS

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. 

BMW X5 XDRIVE 45E

$66,000

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. 

MERCEDES GLS 450

$76,000

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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Smart rides for trying times

Two affordable options as supply dwindles and demand soars

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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.

FIAT 500X
$25,900
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.

MINI COOPER COUNTRYMAN JCW
$42,400
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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Autos

Fun, four-door sedans

Mixing functionality with professional panache

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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.

VW PASSAT SEL PREMIUM
$31,000
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.

INFINITI Q50
$34,000
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

LINCOLN CONTINENTAL BLACK LABEL
$65,000
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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