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With the 2021 XLE AWD-e and other hybrid models, the Toyota Prius is coming of the age of majority. It is in its 21st year and continues as the favorite among gasoline-electric vehicles in the United States, with a total of 2.4 million sold.
When Toyota decided in the late 1990s that Americans were ready for a hybrid, the company gave automotive journalists a taste of the future by lending them right-hand drive Priuses built in Japan, where motorists drive on the left — or correct, as the British like to say — side of the road.
The 2001 Prius came with a 75-horsepower four-cylinder gasoline engine working in concert with a 44-hp electric motor. Together they delivered an EPA fuel economy rating of 52 miles to the gallon in the city and 48 on the highway. City numbers were higher because urban driving made more use of the electric motor.
As this column reported then, customers lined up in droves, with some waiting six months for delivery. Buyers included celebrities, environmental activists, and citizens looking for old-time virtues of cleanliness and economy.
It carried a fairly stiff price for an economy car then of $20,855. Even at that, Toyota at first lost money on every sale. It was one of only two hybrid cars on the market. The other was the Honda Insight, a streamlined two-seater that used a different hybrid system.
Over the years, the Prius proved its mettle, toting up solid credentials for quality of construction, low maintenance, long battery life, and anvil-like reliability.
Now, for 2021, Toyota adds all-wheel drive. It’s called the Prius AWD-e Hybrid. Tested for this review was the SEL trim level, which carries a base price of $30,570, including the destination charge. With an advanced technology package that included a color head-up display, adaptive front lighting, and auto-leveling headlights, the bottom-line sticker came to $31,629.
Standard equipment includes modern safety equipment of automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping warning and assist, and adaptive cruise control.
The AWD-e still carries some of the funky styling and other touches that have always been a Prius characteristic. With its split rear window and additional busy styling, along with the rear headrests, the AWE-e has severely limited rear vision through the inside rear-view mirror. So it’s essential to adjust the outside mirrors correctly to eliminate the big blind spots.
Overall, however, the AWE-e now resembles a handsome fastback with a rear hatch that provides access to 25 cubic feet of cargo space. It also continues with the Prius signature instruments nestling in the top center of the dash, perhaps to make it easier to build this Prius with either left-hand or right-hand drive for different markets.
But most drivers would likely prefer not to have to look toward the middle of the dash while underway. On the tested SEL, the head-up display negated some of that with hybrid system information.
Despite the location, the instruments and the seven-inch center infotainment screen are easy to decipher. The tested SEL came with SXM satellite radio, Bluetooth capability, USB connectivity, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa compatibility.
There’s plenty of space for four passengers, though as usual, the center-rear unfortunate gets disrespected. But the AWD-e has decent ride quality, so complaints from the back seat should be pretty rare.
The power train is quintessentially Prius: a 1.8-liter gasoline engine mated to a 71-hp electric motor. Overall, the system delivers 121 hp and 120 lb-ft of torque. A separate small electric motor drives the AWE-e’s rear wheels. Toyota’s smooth continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), which uses planetary gears instead of the more typical belts and pulleys, transmits the power.
On the highway, the tester cruised serenely, with little intrusion of mechanical, road, or wind noise. The exception was during hard acceleration, which elicited loud grating noises from the gasoline engine.
The AWD-e is no stoplight drag racer, taking nearly 10 seconds to reach 60 mph from rest. But it feels responsive in traffic and, likely because of the modest power common to most Priuses, encourages drivers to hammer their little hybrids to the limit.
Every motorist has seen a Prius driver bolt from a stoplight, pedal to the metal, to stay ahead of traffic — and never mind the cost in fuel economy. That’s the way it goes.
Model: 2021 Toyota Prius XLE AWD-e Hybrid four-door hatchback.
Engine/motor: 1.8-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine with 71 hp electric motor; total system 121 hp, 120 lb-ft torque.
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic with all-wheel drive.
As a manufacturer that came relatively late to the SUV party/game, Kia brought a gift for figuring out how to satisfy buyers of crossover sport utility vehicles, including the 2021 Sorento Hybrid EX.
It’s no small feat to develop a lineup of these practical, popular vehicles. South Korea’s Kia has delivered five — seven if you count the hatchback Soul and the Sedona minivan.
In 2020, the top-line Kia Telluride won North American Utility of the Year, beating its close cousin, the Hyundai Palisade, and the luxury Lincoln Aviator. Though a separate brand, Kia is part of the Hyundai automotive family, and the two marques share engines and transmissions.
The Soul is technically not a crossover, defined as an SUV with a unit body. It is a boxy hatchback sedan and, at times, has been Kia’s best-seller in the U.S. Also not fitting the crossover designation is the Sedona minivan, which competes against the Honda Odyssey, Chrysler Pacifica, and Toyota Sienna.
That leaves the small Seltos, compact Sportage and Niro, midsize Sorento, and the flagship Telluride. Each has much to recommend it in its class, but the new Sorento comes closest to the excellent Telluride in concept and execution.
The Hybrid EX, reviewed here, not only delivers outstanding city/highway/combined fuel economy of 39/35/37 miles to the gallon on regular gasoline. It also makes additional horsepower and torque for better all-around performance. A standard non-hybrid Sorento S uses a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 191 hp.
The Hybrid, on the other hand, comes with a turbocharged 1.6-liter gasoline engine linked to a 60-hp electric motor. Together, they deliver 227 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode.
All-wheel drive is not yet available on the Hybrid.
Classified as a midsize crossover, the Sorento Hybrid comes with 143 cubic feet of passenger room in three rows of seats. On the tested Hybrid, the second row consisted of two captain’s chairs and a third-row seat for two, making the Sorento a full six-passenger vehicle — although twisting and sliding back into the lowdown third row takes some youthful agility. Those poor souls sit with their knees up under their chins. Fortunately, the second-row seats have enough fore-and-aft travel to give the third row enough knee room.
But the cargo space behind the Hybrid Sorento’s third row is a stingy 13 cubic feet — about what you’d find in a compact sedan’s trunk. Likely most owners will simply drive around with the third row folded until it’s needed. The Telluride does better, with generous cargo space behind its third row.
The Hybrid EX Sorento is 10 inches shorter than the Telluride with 32 cubic feet less passenger and cargo space. The Telluride has 167 cubic feet of space for passengers with 21 cubic feet for cargo behind the third row.
Despite its hybrid power train and higher price — $1,700 more than the standard gasoline-only Sorento — the Hybrid comes across as something of a bargain — even before dickering with the dealer. The tested EX model had a starting price of $37,760, close to the average cost of a new vehicle in the U.S., and a delivered price, including the destination charge, of $38,205.
It was well equipped, with full safety equipment: automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection; lane-keeping and lane following assist; driver attention warning, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitor, and collision avoidance displayed in the instrument cluster. In addition, rear occupant alert with motion detection and rear passenger safe exit assist using the blind spot monitor to detect passing vehicles.
There also were luxury touches, including a panoramic sunroof with one-touch opening, dual-zone automatic climate control, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, SXM satellite radio, wireless Bluetooth, heated front seats, and USB chargers in all three rows.
On the road, the Sorento delivered a comfortable ride, capable handling, and a quiet interior with little intrusion of wind, mechanical, or road noise except on very rough surfaces. It’s not the quickest arrow in the quiver, but the electric motor in the hybrid system delivers a bit of extra oomph off the line, enabling a zero-to-60 acceleration time in the seven-second range.
Made in the USA in a plant in West Point, GA, the Kia Sorento Hybrid EX deserves consideration by anyone shopping in this category.
Model: 2021 Kia Sorento Hybrid EX four-door crossover sport utility vehicle,
Engine: 1.6-liter four-cylinder gasoline, turbocharged; 60 hp electric motor; combined 227 hp, 258 lb-ft torque.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode and front-wheel drive.
For a quarter of a century, the Acura TL and its successor, the TLX, now redesigned for 2021, have held court among the finest performing sports sedans on the market.
Acura is the premium/luxury brand of Japan’s Honda, analogous to Toyota’s Lexus, Hyundai’s Genesis, and Nissan’s Infiniti. The brand dates back 35 years to 1986 when it introduced the Legend sedan. It became so popular that the manufacturer’s leadership feared that the Legend would overwhelm the Acura trademark, so after 10 years, it was re-named the 3.5RL.
The company also marketed the Vigor, and in 1995 Acura introduced the mid-size TL, followed by the smaller TSX. In 2014 the two cars were replaced by the current TLX.
Some of the TL’s best years were in the decade after the turn of the millennium when it sold upwards of 70,000 cars a year. A particular favorite here was the 2006 model, a year when the extra performance TL S-Class was temporarily dropped in favor of a single model.
It was as if the designers and engineers put everything they had into that single TL model, with a silky 258-horsepower V-6 engine that emitted a guttural roar under hard acceleration. It was available with a six-speed manual gearbox or a five-speed automatic transmission. Equipment included luxury touches like leather upholstery, automatic climate control, and a superb ELS audio system, custom-designed by famed sound engineer Elliot Scheiner.
For 2021, after the company dropped the large RLX, the TLX has become the company’s flagship sedan, where it competes against the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4, Volvo S60, Lexus IS 350, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
Those are all compact luxury/performance cars and, even though the TL earned its renown as a mid-size, the 2021 TLX model is classified as a compact, though it doesn’t look the part.
It is longer, lower, and broader than its predecessor, with a fastback profile similar to automobiles like the Audi A7 and S7. However, its interior volume of 107 cubic feet, divided into 93 for passengers and 14 cubic feet in the trunk, places it in the EPA’s compact class, which covers cars with 100 to 109 cubic feet of interior volume.
The shortage of passenger space shows in the back, where the outboard seats have stingy knee and headroom, and you can mostly forget about the center-rear seat with its high, hard cushion and a large floor hump. With the TLX’s low profile and sleek lines, rear-seat passengers must duck and twist to enter and exit.
Up front, however, the two bucket seats are sturdy and comfortable with prominent bolsters to snug the torso in rapid motoring around curves on rural two-lane roads.
Tested for this review was the TLX Advance model with SH-AWD, Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system, which actively adjusts power to the wheels from side to side and front to rear. It makes attacking a twisting road a pleasurable pursuit. Balance is enhanced by mounting the battery under the trunk floor. There is no spare wheel and tire on any TLX model.
Power is provided by a 272-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 280 lb-ft of torque, transmitted by a 10-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode and, on the tester, all-wheel drive. Front-wheel drive is standard. Acceleration to 60 miles an hour is rated at 5.9 seconds, with a top speed of 131.
There are four trim levels for the four-cylinder models, of which Advance is the top of the line. Later in the model year, Acura will introduce the Type S, with a twin-turbocharged V6 engine and SH-AWD. Its twin-turbo, 3.0-liter V6 engine makes 355 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque, which the manufacturer says it is the most powerful sedan ever from Acura. (It also builds the NSX super car, with 573 hp).
On the road, the tested Advance cruised steadily and sedately, with a hint of engine noise attesting to the power under the hood. There are three selectable dynamic drive modes: comfort, normal and sport, controlled by a dial in the middle of the dash.
The center screen infotainment is operated by a touch pad that can be maddeningly frustrating to operate. Learn it well and don’t mess with it while driving.
Yet it’s the fine automatic transmission shifter that has been trashed by unwarranted criticism. But not here. It’s a vertical series of intuitive buttons high on the center console. Push for “drive” and “park,” pull for “reverse.” You can do it blindfolded.
Some autophiles, likely including buyers and intenders for the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 4MATIC crossover sport utility vehicle, gravitate toward the best performing vehicle in the class.
That attitude is what prompted the development of more expensive ultra-performance machines like the BMW M series, Audi S, Cadillac V, Lexus F, and, of course, Mercedes-AMG. The last started as an independent tuner outfit that massaged standard Mercedes automobiles and gave them supercar transplants.
Mercedes eventually bought AMG, and now it is the hot rod division of the German manufacturer, tweaking existing models and adding styling touches, some of which became options that made standard models look like AMGs but without the performance innards.
That’s what happened with the Mercedes GLA 250, the company’s entry-level crossover SUV. It was redesigned for the 2021 model year and can be ordered with a $2,240 AMG appearance package.
The one reviewed here earlier had the AMG package, front-wheel drive, and a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 221 horsepower 258 lb-ft of torque. A quick-shifting eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission enabled a 0-to-60 acceleration time in the six-second range. It had a competitive base price of $37,280, including the destination charge and, with options, a bottom-line sticker of $48,620.
Moreover, the GLA250 had a sporting personality that made it a candidate for an AMG makeover, which has become a substantial niche for Mercedes. In 2020, the company sold 294,916 passenger cars and crossovers and 50,999 vans. AMG versions of the passenger vehicles totaled 34,079, or 12.4 percent.
The AMG GLA 35 and the GLA 250 are lookalike, fraternal twin athletes, about the same size but with different orientations — getting the performance job done with brute force instead of finesse.
The 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 4MATIC tested here came with all-wheel drive and a 302-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged engine with 295 lb-ft of torque, enough for a stated 0-to-60 acceleration time of five seconds. Its starting price of $48,600 is close to the as-tested price of the GLA250. A substantial list of options, including $1,500 for a panoramic sunroof and $1,450 for leather upholstery, brought the tested price to $54,455.
Standard equipment included blind-spot monitoring in a full suite of active and passive safety measures, as well as Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Bluetooth, dual-zone automatic climate control, SXM satellite radio, LED headlights and taillights, digital instrument cluster and center display, heated front seats, and auto-dimming inside and outside mirrors.
A couple of negatives: the sun visors did not extend to block sunlight from the side entirely, and a flimsy cloth sunshade allowed too much sunlight inside.
Aficionados might argue that the $5,835 higher price for the AMG GLA 35 is acceptable, given its increased horsepower, faster acceleration, tighter suspension system, and luxury appointments.
But unless you’re a buyer who craves the top of the line no matter what, you can easily justify choosing the less expensive GLA 250. It has exceptional handling for a small crossover and enough power for any situation on the nation’s increasingly traffic-choked and pockmarked streets and highways.
The AMG GLA 35 4Matic, on the other hand, acts more like an aggressive racer with distinct sounds from under the hood that loudly advertise the surplus of power.
With its stiffer suspension system and bigger wheels and tires, the GLA 35 has a choppy ride, even in the Comfort driving mode, on all but pool-table smooth asphalt surfaces. Bumps and indents send shock waves directly to passenger tailbones. Seats are reasonably comfortable with good support and bolstering, though the lumbar adjustments could use improvement.
The GLA 35 has five drive modes: Slippery, Individual, Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus. The last two tighten up an already stiff chassis and change the shift points for more aggressive acceleration.
The outboard seats are supportive and comfortable in the back, with ample knee and headroom for averaged sized adults. However, think of the GLA 35 as a four-passenger vehicle. As usual in many vehicles these days, the center-rear seat is compromised by a high, hard cushion and intrusion of a big floor hump. There’s a cargo area of more than 15 cubic feet that expands to 51 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded.
From an economic standpoint — though who buys either machine for economy? — there’s not much difference. The GLA 250 front-driver has a city/highway/combined fuel consumption rating of 25/34/28 miles to the gallon compared to 23/29/25 for the GLA 35.
Following closely in the tire tracks of its all-new 2021 G80 sedan, the never-before Genesis GV80 crossover sport utility vehicle makes its impressive debut as a 2021 model.
Genesis is just five years old as the luxury brand from South Korea’s Hyundai. It’s a similar venture to Toyota’s luxury Lexus and Honda’s Acura brands. Genesis has delivered three classy premium sedans in its brief lifetime: G70, G80, and G90.
The GV80 is equally impressive with luxury interiors, a choice of power plants and performance levels, solid handling with tactile steering feedback, long-distance comfort, and silent running on the road. The 2.5T comes with a turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 300 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque, mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission with rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.
The 3.5T, also with the eight-speed automatic, comes with all-wheel drive and is powered by a twin-turbo V6 engine that delivers 375 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque.
The 2.5T and 3.5T come in three trim levels: Standard, Advanced, and Prestige. Driven for this review were the 2.5T Prestige trim with all-wheel drive, which added $6,350 and brought the price to $64,425, and a 3.5T Advanced model with all-wheel drive and a price tag of $65,375.
There’s also a 3.5T Advanced version with provisions to add an optional third-row seat. But given the GV80’s passenger space of 109 cubic feet, on the cusp between a compact and midsize sedan, it’s not likely that the third row would be helpful for anyone other than children or a few of the seven dwarfs.
The Standard 2.5T with rear drive has a starting price of $49,925. Advanced and Prestige models are priced at $53,825 and $58,075, respectively. All prices include the $1,025 destination charge.
Both the 2.5T and 3.5T are luxury crossovers with interiors and equipment to match, designed to compete with the Mercedes-Benz GLE Class and the BMW X5, both of which have rear-drive standard with all-wheel drive optional like the GV80. But it likely also will compete well against front- and all-wheel drivers like the Acura RDX and Lexus RX.
Likely almost any customer would be satisfied with either the 2.5T or 3.5T models, though the preference here would be for the velvety V6 engine with the twin turbos. Moreover, if you do the math and pick the mid-level 3.5T Advanced, it’s only $950 more than the loaded all-wheel-drive 2.5T Prestige four-banger.
Both versions feature beautifully designed interiors with quality materials and craftsmanship, including indirect lighting, burl wood, and metal trim, as well as a 14.5-inch center touch screen set up vertically.
But the Prestige trim adds an electronically controlled suspension system, head-up display, active road noise cancellation, three-zone automatic climate control, heated second-row seats, and a power driver’s seat with bolster adjustment and cushion extension.
That’s in addition to the Advanced equipment, which includes a surround-view monitor, blind-spot warning, parking rear collision avoidance, quilted and perforated Nappa leather upholstery, and premium audio. The front seats are supportive and comfortable, with good bolstering to hold the torso around fast curves. There’s also an optional massage function.
All Genesis GV80 versions come with modern safety equipment, including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning with lane-keeping assist, and adaptive cruise with a semi-autonomous driving mode. The last system learns the owner’s driving habits and can mimic their driving style.
The lane-keeping assist, unfortunately, is very aggressive. On a stretch of highway with narrow lanes because of construction, it took hold of the steering wheel and bounced the GV80 side-to-side as if it were a ping-pong ball in a chute, all the while sounding the warning alarm. It was less intrusive in wider lanes.
Another negative: although the capacious cargo area has a small hideaway storage area under the floor, it forces the spare wheel and tire forward, where it looks challenging to retrieve. Best to call roadside assistance if you get a flat.
Next up for Genesis will be the 2022 GV70 crossover, smaller than the GV80 and competing in the compact luxury class. Like the GV80, it will use the turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and the twin-turbo 3.5-liter V6. Both will have eight-speed automatic transmissions.
With the same power as the GV80 in a smaller, lighter package, the GV70 likely exhibit strong acceleration and handling performance attributes. Likely there’ll be lower prices as well.
For as long as anyone can remember, twin kidney-shaped grilles identified the vehicles from the Bavarian Motor Works. That continues with the redesigned 2021 BMW M440i xDrive Coupe, but you may have to look at least twice.
The kidney grilles are still there but swollen as if someone had slapped them around. Instead of their former familiar mien, they look like large, side-by-side maws aiming to gobble up anything in their path.
They also incorporate a system of automatic shutters that adjust airflow to the radiator. Unfortunately, the innovation appeared to have been crippled because the test car’s front license plate was mounted dead center across the two grilles, partly over a hidden bumper crossbeam but restricting at least some of the airflow. Plus, it looked ugly.
There doesn’t appear to be any other convenient place to mount a license-plate bracket and frame. So serious enthusiasts who hanker after this stylish high performer may want to move to Georgia or some other state that only requires rear license plates.
A few years back, BMW changed its nomenclature to distinguish its compact sedan from the coupe better. The 3 Series sedan may be the best known and loved of the entire lineup but take away two doors, and it is now a 4 series. Except for the number of portals, the 3 Series and 4 Series are mechanically identical and similarly equipped.
Moreover, this test car’s model designation starts with an M, which is BMW’s extra-high-performance moniker, similar to the AMG Mercedes-Benz, the S models from Audi, and Cadillac’s V versions.
Given the excellence of modern sports sedans, it’s a mystery to some observers that coupes survive, even as crossover sport utility vehicles eclipse sedans. The question is, why bother with the inconvenience of a two-door automobile. But preferences in motor vehicles are a varied as the people who buy and drive them.
Unlike some other coupes that look more like fastbacks, the M440i has a traditional coupe profile, which enables decent headroom in the two back seats, as long as the passengers are not Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks or some other National Basketball Association skyscraper. There’s also enough knee room for average-sized adults, but only if the driver and front passenger don’t run their seats back too far.
As with any compact coupe, settling into the back requires some agile ducking and twisting, and there are no inside roof-mounted assist handles to hang onto. It’s best to reserve the back seats for kids, athletes, or frustrated flagellants.
The M440i has sports car bones. Silky feeling and powerful, though noisy under hard acceleration, its turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine makes 382 horsepower and 364 pound-feet of torque, or twisting force, enabling this nearly two-ton machine to accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds, with a governed top speed of 157.
On the tested xDrive model (BMW-speak for all-wheel drive), the power gets to the wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode controlled by paddles on the steering wheel. The drive system also includes a mild hybrid setup with a 48-volt electric motor-generator that provides a boost off the line and helps avoid turbo lag.
There are four selectable drive modes: Sport, Comfort, Eco Pro, and Adaptive. This test stuck to Sport and Comfort. They were not sharply different from a handling standpoint with variable sport steering, which was secure but more oriented toward comfort. The Sport setting also held shifts to higher revs with ensuing cabin noise. The ride was supple but unsettled on rough roads.
Out back, there’s a decent-sized and well-finished trunk of nearly 16 cubic feet. There’s no spare wheel and tire; the M440i has run-flat tires on 18-inch alloy wheels, as well as adaptive shock-absorbers.
Equipment on the test car, some optional, included automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, leather upholstery, Arctic Blue metalling paint, head-up display, automatic climate control, heated front seats and steering wheel, Apple Car Play and Android Auto, navigation, gesture control of functions, Wi-Fi hot spot, wireless smartphone charging, SXM satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity, and a premium Harman Kardon surround-sound audio system.
The M440i xDrive Coupe’s starting price came to $54,495, including the destination charge. Options brought the tested price up to $70,470.
Model: 2021 BMW M440i xDrive Coupe four-passenger two-door.
Engine: 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder, turbocharged: 382 hp, 364 lb-ft torque. With 48-volt electric motor-generator.
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with manual shift mode and all-wheel drive.
The 2021 Buick Envision crossover sport utility vehicle could substitute as an antidote to former President Donald Trump’s ill-fated attempt to blame his coronavirus woes on China.
Trump seldom failed to speak of our more than one-year-old plague — OK, the pandemic — as the “Chinese virus,” as if that nation was solely responsible for the worldwide affliction, absolving him of any responsibility for combating it.
On the bright side, we have the redesigned 2021 Envision Essence, tested here, a decent near-luxury contender in the compact crossover class. It is, in fact, a fundamentally Chinese vehicle, though you’d be hard-pressed to recognize it.
A whopping 94% of its parts come from China. A joint Chinese-U.S. General Motors plant in Yantai, China, builds the Envision. Only 1% of its components come from the United States and Canada.
Yet the Envision crossovers sold here in the U.S. look, feel, and drive as if they were Thoroughly Modern American Buicks. It was designed that way from the get-go, introduced at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It joined two other similar offerings from General Motors—the Chevrolet Equinox and the GMC Terrain.
Of course, as a Buick, it took a more luxurious tack than its garage mates. At the same time, it became the first Chinese-built GM vehicle sold in the United States.
Redesigned for 2021, the Envision is slightly smaller and less potent than its predecessor but also delivers better fuel economy and a lower price. Though touted as a luxury crossover competing with the likes of the BMW X3, Lincoln Corsair, and Audi Q5, its relatively bargain price in that company is the tipoff.
The mid-pack Envision Essence trim level tested here came with a base price of $36,995, including the destination charge. With options, the bottom-line sticker came to $41,315. That’s more upper-middle-class and near-luxury than most of the machines it seeks to conquer. The BMW X3 starts at $43,995, and the Lincoln Corsair sets up at $44,825, and either can creep up to tens of thousands of dollars more.
Most of the Envision Essence’s $4,320 worth of extras came from two options packages: Technology at $2,500 and Sport Touring at $1,325. Basic equipment included automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping assist, following distance indicator, blind-spot warning, Wi-Fi hot spot, active noise cancellation, rear cross-traffic alert, and rear parking assist.
The options packages added, among others: head-up display, surround vision rear camera, premium Bose audio, Bluetooth streaming, wireless Android Auto and Apple Car Play, navigation with 10-inch touch screen, HD radio and SXM satellite radio, 20-inch aluminum wheels, roof rails and “Cinnabar Metallic” exterior paint.
The Envision has about the same passenger space as a midsize car—100 cubic feet — but with 25 cubic feet for cargo, almost twice that of a midsize car’s trunk. Fold the rear seatbacks and enjoy a two-passenger vehicle with 53 cubic feet for cargo. If you absolutely must tow something, make sure it’s not more than 1,500 pounds.
Like many modern cars and crossovers, the Envision uses a four-cylinder engine. Modern four-bangers, especially with turbochargers, have replaced their forerunner V8s and even, in some cases, in-line six-cylinder and V6 engines. Thank computer technology for the enhanced power and fuel economy.
The Envision Essence offers only one power plant: a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. That’s slightly less than its predecessor’s 252 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. A nine-speed automatic transmission transfers the power to either the front wheels or all four wheels. The tested Essence came with front-wheel drive.
But unless you live in an area prone to snowstorms and other nasty weather, you’d likely be entirely happy with the front-driver, which can account for itself reasonably well in all but the most challenging weather.
On the road, the Envision Essence was a capable though not inspiring performer. It cruises mostly quietly with enough power for passing situations on two-lane roads and the cut and thrust of heavy freeway traffic. Acceleration to 60 miles an hour is in the acceptable seven-second range. However, avoid impromptu stoplight drag races.
Handling is competent though not sporting. The suspension system can deliver a smooth ride in most circumstances, which detracts some from any sharp handling pretensions. But likely, most drivers will not opt to explore cornering limits.
The 2021 Chevrolet Bolt EV follows in the tire tracks of historic automobiles like the original Volkswagen Bug and Ford’s Model T and Model A. But not in the way you might think.
In the early to mid-20th century, cars were evolving so quickly that sometimes people would buy a new car and then find out that next year it was obsolete as the manufacturer made extensive changes.
Part of the appeal of cars like the Model A and the VW Bug was that they retained their essential goodness from year to year. For some buyers annoyed by obsolescence, that clinched the deal. Over the years since, the industry has subtly returned to the changes for change’s sake in a highly competitive market.
But not the Chevy Bolt. A friend of this reviewer bought a new 2017 Bolt — the first model year it was on the market — and has driven it since. So, when the 2021 model came up for a review, she agreed to drive it and share her impressions.
Except for a slightly more comfortable driver’s seat, her conclusion was that the new Bolt was the same as the 2017. That has all sorts of implications for buyers. But first, a check of the specifications, which have barely changed, bears her out.
The two four-door hatchbacks are the same length — 13 feet 8 inches — have the same passenger and cargo space — 94/17 cubic feet — and weigh within a few pounds of each other. Each has an electric motor that delivers 200 horsepower and 266 lb-ft of torque, or twisting force. Because electric motors develop maximum torque from rest, there is no need for a transmission, so call it a single speed automatic. The 0-60-mph acceleration is in the six-second range, with a top speed of about 93 mph.
There is some refinement in the 2021 model. For example, its stated range is 259 miles on a full charge, where the 2017 model advertised 238. But charging times are similar: About 9.5 hours on a 240-volt charger, nearly 60 hours on standard 120-volt house current. An overnight charge of 15 hours delivers about 60 miles of driving. Figure four miles of range per hour of charging.
However, a welcome major change on the 2021 Premier model is an added system that enables commercial DC fast charging, which can deliver up to 90 miles of range in 30 minutes.
Even after four years, the Bolt’s prices have not changed much. In 2017, the top-line Premier had a starting price of $41,780, including the destination charge. That has increased $115 to $41,895 for the 2021 model. With options, the 2017 started at $41,780 and had a bottom-line sticker of $42,760. The bottom line for the 2021 Premier is $43,735.
Standard equipment on the Premier included lane-change alert with blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, pedestrian safety signal, leather upholstery, front and rear heated seats, automatic climate control, SXM satellite radio, wireless smartphone charging, remote starting, roof rack with side rails, and aluminum alloy wheels with all-season tires.
The friend said her 2017 Bolt had been utterly reliable, though she doesn’t put many miles on it — about 8,000 so far. But she said her only maintenance had been checking the tires and pumping them up when needed.
So, the implication here is if you hanker after an all-electric car and can find a clean Bolt with at least average mileage, you can save a pocket full of money and still have the nearly the same advantages of a new one. An added incentive: Early on, the Bolt qualified for a $7,500 federal tax credit, which now has expired.
Chevrolet actually had a solid competitor that preceded the Bolt.
It was called the Volt, a plug-in hybrid that could run up to 50 miles or so on pure electric power, then switch to hybrid operation, eliminating the so-called “range anxiety” that accompanies purely electric vehicles.
It was a stylish hatchback that had a run from 2011 to 2019, when Chevrolet dropped it as sales of crossover sport utility vehicles soared and sedan sales tumbled.
The company toyed with a hydrogen-fueled electric platform that could have underpinned any number of electric cars. Instead, it introduced the Bolt as a 2017 model, which is about as good as any of the other sparkies out there.
Model: 2021 Chevrolet Bolt EV Premier four-door hatchback.
Motor: Electric, 200 hp, 266 lb-ft torque.
Transmission: Single speed automatic with front-wheel drive.
Overall length: 13 feet 8 inches.
EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 94/17 cubic feet.
Weight: 3,575 pounds.
EPA city/highway/combined miles per gallon equivalent: 127/108/118 MPGe.
Range: 259 miles.
Charging times: Nearly 60 hours on 120-volt household current; 9.5 hours on 240-volt charger.
Base price, including destination charge: $41,895.
Price as tested: $43,735.
Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.
Shoppers can be forgiven for thinking that the 2021 Buick Encore GX Essence is simply a new trim level, or version, in the Encore lineup of small crossover sport utility vehicles.
It’s not. Introduced as a 2020 model, the GX Essence is still a small crossover SUV, slightly larger than the original Encore, which made its debut as a 2013 model. But it is a separate vehicle underpinned by a different platform, with its own trim levels.
It has a starting price of $25,195, including the destination charge, for the base Preferred trim. The midlevel Select starts at $26,795, and the GX tops out as tested here, with options, at $35,065 for the Essence — close to the average U.S. price of a new automobile. That was for the front-wheel-drive version; tack on $2,000 if you want all-wheel drive.
Yet despite its relatively low price, the Encore GX competes as a small premium crossover. It looks the part, too, with the tester’s classy brown and black interior, perforated leather upholstery, and rich features.
Among those on the tester: Full safety equipment, including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection; forward-collision warning; lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, and following distance indicator. Also: head-up display, surround-view rear camera, and navigation.
The Encore GX is a bit larger and longer than the Hyundai Kona, another small crossover. But it is smaller than the Subaru Crosstrek, a ‘tweener that slots between the little guys and compact crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape. But any of these deliver the passenger room of a midsize sedan with way better cargo space.
Carved out of the GX’s length of 14 feet 3 inches and height of 5 feet 4 inches is a space of 92 cubic feet for five passengers, enhanced by a flat floor, so the center-rear passenger endures some hard cushion discomfort but not as much as on many cars and crossovers. There are 24 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats, about double compact sedans. The rear seatbacks do not recline for comfort but fold flat to expand the cargo area to 50 cubic feet.
The 2021 GX is essentially the same as the original 2020 model, all-new at the time. But there have been a few changes and additions. SXM satellite radio now is standard on all trims; adaptive cruise control has been included on Preferred models, and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on every version. Yet with that and some minor juggling of other features, the price escalated by just $100 across the board.
The tested GX Essence came with Buick’s upgraded engine, a tiny 1.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that develops 155 horsepower and 174 lb-ft of torque. Power gets to the front wheels via a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). The combination delivers an EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption rating of 30/32/31 mpg using regular gasoline.
A side note: Though the Buick name is as American as pizza and Budweiser beer, only 3% of the GX’s parts come from the U.S. and Canada. Engines and transmissions are manufactured in Mexico, and the vehicles are built in South Korea. That’s a recommendation. Vehicles from the southern Korean peninsula’s Hyundai and Kia consistently show up at or near the top of quality ratings.
On the road, the GX is a pleasant, if leisurely, companion. Thanks to decent insulation and Buick’s noise-canceling technology, it cruises quietly, although the engine makes itself known under hard acceleration.
Handling is capable around corners and on curving roads as long as the driver eschews aggression in favor of what is generally a smooth ride. The suspension, however, does get upset if the GX is pushed too hard on a road with uneven pockmarks. The supportive front seats absorb many minor shocks. But remember that this is no sports car.
Overall, the Encore GX Essence provides a stable though not outstanding ride and handling with decent fuel economy, good performance and quiet highway cruising, all with a dollop of what — for many people — would be something of a luxury experience at a middle-class price.
The Encore GX was nominated for North American Utility of the Year by an independent jury of U.S. and Canadian automotive journalists, of which this reviewer is one.
Model: 2021 Buick Encore GX Essence FWD four-door crossover sport utility vehicle.