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The Review Garage

Rating the best and worst in cars, SUVs, trucks, motorcycles, tools and accessories.

2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Many enthusiasts regard the 2021 Mazda MX-5, also called the Miata, as the direct descendant of the classic British sports cars of the 1950s and 1960s — enjoyable two-seaters with names like MG, Lotus, Triumph, Jaguar, Morgan, Sunbeam, and Austin-Healey.  

The question is whether any of them would have evolved into the  MX-5 Club RF tested here. RF stands for “retractable fastback,” which describes the folding hard top that morphs the MX-5 from an open roadster to a closed grand touring car.

Sure, it’s been 60 years or so but some of us still remember the agony that went with the ecstasy of owning a mid-20th century British roadster, especially when the weather got nasty.

A fun favorite here was the mid-1960s Lotus Elan, a stellar performer with great handling, which set British sports cars apart from brutish American cars with honking big V8 engines that were great only in a straight line.

British convertibles and roadsters had fabric tops that were masterpieces of Rubik’s Cube complexity. The Elan’s, in particular, was so complicated that it featured a decal on the inside of the panel that covered the top when it was folded. 

The decal had step-by-step instructions on how to remove the cloth top and its frame and fold them properly. However, hewing to the British quirkiness of the era, when you folded the top according to the first step, it covered the decal — and, of course, the instructions. 

The owner’s manual also had about a dozen pages of instructions describing how to manipulate various switches to turn interior lights on and off in different combinations. But that’s another story.

So now we have the 2020 Mazda MX-5 Club RF, which converts from a closed coupe to an open convertible in a matter of seconds with the touch of a switch, and it’s not even British. Japan’s Mazda introduced the MX-5 Miata back in 1990 as a modern clone of some of the English classics. Among other things, it had an easy-folding convertible top.

You can still get one of those and even buy a removable hard top. But it must be stored in the garage while you buzz about with the fabric top dropped. The RF, however, is self contained with a cleverly designed top that disappears into the bodywork behind the driver in about about a dozen seconds. It ends up looking like a roadster with a roll bar. There’s even a built-in transparent rear wind blocker.

The top’s bin doesn’t even intrude into the tiny trunk, which has less than five cubic feet of space, enough for some soft overnight luggage and a few small items. However, the top must be up or the trunk won’t open. 

Tested for this review was the midlevel Club model. The 2021 RF Club comes with a price tag of $34,635, including the destination charge. There’s also a lower-priced Sport and a top-line Grand Touring version. 

That’s for a fully equipped car. There were no extra-cost options on the tested Club. Equipment included automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning and tire-pressure monitoring. Also: Apple Car Play and Android Auto, Bluetooth connectivity, and SXM satellite and HD radio.

Under the hood and driving the rear wheels is a 181-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 151 lb-ft of torque. With a relatively light weight of 2,452 pounds, the zero-to-60-mph acceleration time is less than six seconds. Two transmissions are available: a six-speed manual and, on the tested RF, a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic with a manual-shift mode operated by paddles on the steering wheel.

As might be expected of a balanced rear-drive sports car, the RF had exceptional handling on curving roads with good feedback through the electric power steering. The tradeoff, as usual, is a ride that can get unsettled on pockmarked surfaces, though the MX-5 has a supple, forgiving suspension system with front and rear stabilizer bars that subdues some of the choppiness.

Inside, the comfortable cloth sport seats have plenty of adjustments for different body types and seatbacks with substantial bolstering. The combination keeps the torso in place during spirited driving. The RF also cruises fairly quietly with the top up except for occasional blatting from the exhaust system.  

Top up or stowed, this affordable Miata is a first-class contender in sports motoring.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Mazda MX-5 Club RF two-door, two-seat retractable hard top roadster.
  • Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder; 181 hp, 151 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual-shift mode and rear-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 12 feet 10 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/trunk volume: 48/5 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 2,452 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 26/35/30 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $34,635.
  • Price as tested: $34,635.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Photos (c) Mazda

2021 Volvo XC90 T8 E-AWD Inscription: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Spend some time in Volvo’s XC90, specifically the T8 E-AWD Inscription hybrid, and you will realize that the Swedish manufacturer deserves a pedestal in the pantheon of high-performance luxury brands.

It was not always so. Back in the day — mid 20th century — Volvo earned an enviable reputation as a middle-class brand that delivered reliable everyday transportation with industrial strength. It was said that the station wagons were built on truck chassis — believable because Volvo originally was a manufacturer of buses, trucks and other commercial vehicles as well as automobiles.

The company even had the chutzpah to embrace rear-wheel drive in a snow-ridden Scandinavian country. Its indigenous competitor, Saab, had front-wheel drive and early-on even used two-cycle engines, which were easier to start in subzero temperatures because the oil was mixed with the gasoline.

Sadly, Saab is no more but Volvo thrives, partly on the strength of its reputation for safety and quality engineering. The two most enduring innovations were the inventions of the three-point seat belt in 1959 and the rear-facing child seat in 1964. 

Volvo had financial troubles as well, first being taken over by the Ford Motor Co., which at the time also acquired Aston Martin, Jaguar and Land Rover of Great Britain. 

In 2010, Ford sold its premium brands to concentrate on its core products, mainly pickup trucks, and Volvo wound up as part of China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. Fortunately, the new owner elected to let Volvo be Volvo, so the designers and engineers concentrated on the future, including a pledge in the last decade to build increasing numbers of environmentally friendly electrified cars.

Cue the tested 2021 XC90 T8 E-AWD Inscription four-door, three-row crossover sport utility vehicle, which epitomizes the definition of electrified. However, it is not pure electric. Those are available from various manufacturers, but the world and the industry are in transition and right now hybrids continue as the best choice.

That’s because they combine traditional gasoline- or diesel-fueled engines with electric motors to enhance fuel economy and suppress the production of greenhouse gases that threaten the environment.  

The 2021 Volvo XC90 E-AWD takes it a step farther. It is a plug-in hybrid, an expensive technology that provides only short ranges of electric-only motoring, in this case about 18 miles. But for someone in an urban area who takes few trips, it’s enough to minimize stops at the local service station.

Fuel economy in hybrid mode is 55 mpg in combined city/highway driving. Using only the gasoline engine, it drops to 27 mpg. Premium fuel is recommended.

The XC90 E-AWD’s front wheels are powered by a 2.0-liter supercharged and turbocharged four-cylinder engine that makes 313 horsepower. It is augmented by an 87-hp electric motor that drives the rear wheels. Combined, they deliver 400 hp and 472 lb-ft of torque, enough to slingshot the 2.5-ton XC90 to 60 mph in under five seconds.

For the most part, a standard hybrid like a Toyota Prius works as well as a plug-in hybrid like this Volvo. But it’s another mile marker on the way to widespread electrification and self-driving automobiles.

Likely because of the short electric-only range, any number of XC90 E-AWD owners will simply skip the plug-in part and treat their machines as if they were standard hybrids. However they do it, they will experience one of the finest crossover SUVs on the market. 

Exceptional performance tops the list. As noted, it’s fast, with communicative steering and good handling, as well as a quiet, fatigue-free ride over long distances, abetted by an optional air suspension system.

It’s also among the most luxurious passenger vehicles available anywhere, with a posh interior of blended high-quality natural materials and some of the most supportive leather-covered seats you’ll find anywhere. On the test car, there were six of them, with the front- and second-row chairs the most comfortable. The difficult-to-access third-row seats are cramped for all but smaller adults and children.

Of course, none of this comes cheap. The tested XC90 E-AWD had a base price of $68,495 and, with a load of options, the bottom-line sticker came to $86,990, including the destination charge.

Negatives include sun visors that do not adequately block sun from the sides and a flimsy perforated shade for the sunroof.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Volvo XC90 T8 E-AWD Inscription four-door crossover sport utility vehicle.
  • Engine/motor: 2.0-liter four-cylinder gasoline, supercharged and turbocharged, 313 hp; electric motor, 87 hp; combined 400 hp, 472 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Eight-speed automatic (front-wheels); single-speed direct drive (rear wheels); all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 16 feet 3 inches.
  • Height: 5 feet 10 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 131/11 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 5,140 pounds.
  • EPA combined miles per gallon fuel consumption: gasoline/electric, 55 mpg; gasoline-only, 27 mpg. Premium fuel.
  • Electric-only range: 18 miles.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $68,495.

Price as tested: $86,990.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

XC90 Plug-In Hybrid Inscription T8 in Birch Light Metallic

Photos (c) Volvo

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLC 63 S Coupe: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

At first glance, the 2021 Mercedes-Benz AMG GLE 63 S Coupe looks like a chubby fastback — something like a Kia Stinger or Audi A5 Sportback in need of laser liposuction.

But no. The porky look, like its extended proper name, identifies a high-performance luxury crossover sport utility vehicle that (gasp) carries an $87,110 price tag, including the shipping charge.

If that sounds deceptive, it is. This 5-foot-2 — no eyes of blue — is a rip-roaring rocket that can shoot to 60 mph in about 3.5 seconds, without even breathing hard. Governed top speed is 155.

It’s part of a relatively new breed of luxury crossovers that give up some functionality for perceived style — basically by lopping off part of the roof and tailgate to change the squared off SUV profile to something that resembles a sleek fastback. Think BMW X6, as one of the originals.

Though it has four doors and a hatchback, Mercedes prefers to call the AMG GLE 63 S a coupe, even as the company works to remove at least seven slow-selling traditional two-door coupes and convertibles from the U.S. market. 

At least as important as its shape from a sales standpoint is this machine’s guts. The AMG designation tells the tale: it means this stellar performer has been massaged by the Mercedes extra high-performance division. 

In this rendering, the brute power comes from an AMG tuned 4.0-liter V8 engine with twin turbochargers — a so-called biturbo — that delivers 503 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque to all four wheels through a nine-speed automatic transmission with manual-mode paddle shifters.

Lest anyone think that the AMG GLC 63 S is simply a powerful boulevardier, there are selectable driving modes that activate its range from Slippery through Individual, Comfortable, Sport, Sport Plus and Race. So, despite its crossover designation, it’s the sort of daily driver that wealthy owners can take on weekends to private, country-club racetracks like Monticello in New York State, where they can shred the tires to their hearts’ content.

Despite its arrest-inspiring power, the AMG GLC 63 S can function as your grand-aunt’s docile daily driver. Punch up the Normal driving mode and the throttle response softens for tootling around the suburban shopping malls. 

As a daily driver, this Mercedes delivers functionality with its posh luxury. It has about the same interior space as a midsize sedan with 99 cubic feet of space for up to five passengers and 18 cubic feet of cargo space, which expands to 36 cubic feet if you drop the rear seatbacks — easy with the touch of a button. However, manually wrestling them back up is a bit of a chore.     

The outboard back seats have plenty of head- and knee-room, and even the center-rear position has decent headroom, though the seat bottom is hard, and feet must be splayed beside a huge floor hump. The front seats are the place to settle, with giant seatback bolsters to grip your body in constant-radius racetrack sweepers.

For more routine entertainment, dial up the Sport, Sport Plus or Race settings and everything tightens up. The steering gets more responsive, and the transmission holds its breath until the engine rpms become unbearable, then it snaps off to the next gear. 

Of course, if your preference is a weekend at the track, there also are settings within the settings to challenge your abilities: Basic, Advanced, Pro and Master. Among other things, they allow you to disconnect the traction control, which no novice driver should ever do but which can help an experienced racer to hustle around the track.

The GLC 63 S Coupe, no surprise, is uncommonly well endowed, with as much standard active and passive safety equipment as you can cram into a modern automobile, as well as a host of luxury features. 

One that Mercedes should keep to itself is a couple of tiny touchpads — no more than a quarter-inch square — mounted on the steering wheel, which provide redundant controls for infotainment functions accessed from the center screen or touchpad.

They are located close to the steering wheel rim where your fingers and thumb rest if you use the recommended 9 and 3 o’clock hands position on the steering wheel. As often as not when you make a turn, a finger or thumb brushes one and changes a radio station or some other setting. It’s distracting and unnecessary.

Everything else is great.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLC 63 S Coupe four-door crossover sport utility vehicle.
  • Engine: 4.0-liter V8, bi-turbo; 503 hp, 516 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Nine-speed automatic with manual-shift mode and 4Matic all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 7 inches.
  • Height: 5 feet 2 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 99/18 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 4,548 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 16/22/18 mpg. Premium fuel.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $85,095.
  • Price as tested: $87,110.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Photos (c) Mercedes-Benz

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

It looks like Volkswagen slipped some of its Cross Sport into the family lunker, the 2021 Atlas crossover sport utility vehicle.

That’s the initial reaction to the tested Atlas SE R-Line model with the Technology package, mainly a reference to the steering feel and handling of this cavernous three-row hauler that stretches nearly 17 feet long.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line

It’s the biggest Volkswagen to ever entice American buyers and is a solid choice for families that might be put off by minivans. It welcomes seven passengers with headroom that can accommodate someone in an Abraham Lincoln top hat. Even the third-row denizens are not disrespected.

However, the Atlas has formidable competition: Subaru Ascent, Chevrolet Traverse, Honda Pilot, GMC Acadia, Kia Telluride, Buick Enclave, Hyundai Palisade, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander. The Mazda CX-9 also has three rows but is smaller.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line

The Atlas made its debut as 2018 model, designed specifically for the U.S. market and built in Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. VW followed with the Atlas Sport, a smaller five-passenger version with two rows of seats and a generous cargo area of 40 cubic feet.

It’s only about five inches shorter than the three-row Atlas but focuses on attributes of responsive handling and a decent, mostly fatigue-free ride. It has 112 cubic feet of space for passengers and 40 cubic feet for cargo behind the second row.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line

Contrast that with the tested three-row 2021 Atlas, which has 154 cubic feet of space for its seven passengers and 21 cubic feet for cargo behind the third row. Flop the third-row seatbacks flat and the cargo area expands to 56 cubic feet.

Unlike some other three-row SUVs, the Atlas has cleverly designed second-row seats that flip and slide forward, opening an entry area to the third row that can be negotiated even by someone with clodhopper-sized feet. Just duck and step in — it’s easy if you’re an agile teenager. Oldsters should stick to the forward seats.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line

However, to get enough knee room back there you have to slide the second row to a midpoint that divvies the space between the rows. It’s not particularly easy to wrestle the big and heavy seats, and you have to make sure they’re locked in place lest they noisily crash forward and back as you drive and brake.

The Atlas is an easygoing handler with relatively light steering and responsive moves even on twisting two-lane roads, though you have to be cognizant of its size and not push too hard. It cruises quietly with just enough engine and mechanical noise to let you know there’s something powerful under the hood.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line

That something is a 276-hp V6 engine that develops 266 lb-ft of torque, or twisting force, delivered to all four wheels on the tester via an eight-speed automatic transmission that shifts surreptitiously. Six-cylinder engines are famously smooth and shudder-free, and the Atlas’s is no exception.

The Atlas uses the Volkswagen Drive/Sport shifter. In Drive, it has leisurely moves off the line, though you can override it with a determined punch on the loud pedal. Tap the shift lever back a notch and the Sport mode is engaged, which keeps the engine at higher revs before the transmission shifts. Another tap of the shifter takes you back to Drive.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line

There are four selectable drive modes, mostly for nasty conditions or off-roading: Snow, Normal, Off-road and Off-road Custom. Given its size, however, the Atlas is not the sort of machine you’d pick for any serious off-road adventures.

Better to treat it as a minivan alternative for motoring trips and family vacations. It’s an easy-going long-distance cruiser with a composed ride that soaks up bumps and ruts. There are four comfortable seats and three not so much but acceptable: the center second-row seat and the two third-row seats. On the tester, the seats were upholstered in perforated leatherette and the front seats resembled sport seats with substantial bolstering to hold the torso in place.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line

With the R-Line trim and the Technology package, the tested Atlas came fully loaded with modern safety and convenience equipment, and no extra-cost options. Items: adaptive cruise control, automatic climate control, SXM satellite radio, wireless smart phone charging, blind-spot monitor, Bluetooth and power rear lift gate.

Its base price, including the destination charge, was a reasonable $42,615, which also was the bottom-line sticker price.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE w/Technology R-Line four-door crossover sport utility vehicle.
  • Engine: 3.6-liter V6, direct fuel injection; 276 horsepower, 266 pound-feet torque.
  • Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with all-wheel drive.    
  • Overall length: 16 feet 9 inches.
  • Height: 5 feet 10 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 154/21 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 4,612 pounds. 
  • Payload: 1,080 pounds.
  • Towing capability: 2,000 pounds (5,000 pounds with towing package and braked trailer).
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 16/22/18 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $42,615.
  • Price as tested: $42,615.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line

Photos (c) Volkswagen

2021 Kia K5 GT-Line: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

A first impression: It’s easy to mistake the Kia K5 GT-Line sedan, tested here at $28,400 in flashy Passion Red paint, for an Audi A7 fastback, which starts at $70,195. 

The K5 is a stone beauty with sleek lines, neck-twisting styling and a low profile that gives it the air of a sports car despite its four doors and a trunk. Its dimensions are within inches of the Audi. An example: The K5 is 4 feet 9 inches tall next to the Audi’s 4 feet 8 inches. The Kia also boasts an interior that has the look of luxury with upscale equipment despite its low price.

All-new for the 2021 model year, the K5 replaces the Optima sedan in the Kia lineup. With 121 cubic feet of interior space — one cubic foot more than the A7 — it is classified by the EPA as large sedan, though Kia markets it as a midsize against competitors that include Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and the Sonata from South Korean sister company Hyundai, which shares its platform with the K5.

Of course, the Audi has a lot of equipment to justify its nosebleed price, including a turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 engine with 335 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, seven-speed automatic transmission and Quattro all-wheel drive.

Though with less power, the K5 is no slouch. For the first time, it also offers all-wheel drive, a $3,700 option. Its engine is a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 180 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque, mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode.

The K5 comes in five trim levels: LX at $24,455, LXS at $25,455, the tested GT-Line, which starts at $26,355, EX at $28,955, and the more powerful 290-horsepower GT at $31,455. All prices include the destination charge.

Standard equipment on the GT-Line included forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind-spot collision avoidance assist, rear cross-traffic collision-avoidance assist, lane-keeping and lane-following assist, and leading vehicle departure alert.

Other standard equipment included an eight-inch touch screen with Apple Car Play and Android Auto, Bluetooth connectivity, dual-zone automatic climate control, pushbutton and remote starting, LED headlights, fog lights and daytime running lights, power driver’s seat with lumbar adjustments, 18-inch alloy wheels, and a rear spoiler.

The tester also came with a $1,600 premium package that included forward collision avoidance assist with cyclist detection, adaptive cruise control with stop and go, panoramic sunroof with opaque power sunshade, wireless smart phone charger and LED interior lighting. The only notable item missing on the tested K5 was the optional SXM satellite radio, though HD radio was included.

Out back, there’s a roomy though shallow trunk of 16 cubic feet, augmented by knobs that, when pulled, drop the rear seatbacks to expand the cargo space. One negative: the trunk’s C-hinges are not isolated and could damage items in the trunk. A full-size compact spare  tire lies beneath the trunk floor.

Entering the K5 requires a bit of ducking and twisting, thanks to the low roof line. If you prefer to sit as high as possible, the head room feels a bit tight up front. It’s more than generous in back because the seats are mounted low and are not adjustable for height. As usual, the center-rear position offers a hard, high cushion, though there’s foot room thanks to a small center hump.

The GT-Line’s interior comfort up front and in the outboard back seats was first rate. Seats were upholstered in a breathable cloth with leatherette trim that, to this reviewer, ultimately delivers better long-distance comfort than leather. 

On the road, few would confuse the K5 with an all-out sports sedan. Even with its rakish looks, it presents itself as a capable, even sprightly, family hauler. But it’s no slouch in in traffic or on the open road. An educated guesstimate is that it can hit 60 miles an hour from rest in the seven-second range. 

Handling is secure and fuss-free even on twisting roads. In straight-line highway driving there is little need for steering corrections so long-distance cruising can be relaxing depending on traffic.

There are four driving modes: Normal, Sport, Smart and Custom. It doesn’t seem to make much difference which you choose. Sport makes the K5 feel a bit tighter but doesn’t alter shift patterns. Smart maybe enhances fuel economy. 

 The impression here conjured thoughts of the hip-hop musical “Hamilton.” Kia changed a name and upped its game. It now can reap new fame in the midsize sedan game. 

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Kia K5 GT-Line four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 1.6-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged; 180 hp, 195 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Eight-speed automatic.
  • Overall length: 16 feet 1 inch.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/trunk volume: 105/16 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,230 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 27/37/31 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $26,355.
  • Price as tested: $28,400.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Photos (c) Kia

2021 NACTOY Winners : A DriveWays Report…

by Frank A. Aukofer

With two out of three wins, the Ford Motor Co. dominated the awards Monday, Jan. 11, in the annual North American Car, Truck and Utility Vehicle of the Year honors.

The new all-electric Ford Mustang Mach-E was judged Utility of the Year, and the Ford F-150 pickup won Truck of the Year. The Car of the Year honor went to the all-new Hyundai Elantra from South Korea, a compact sedan that comes in economy, hybrid and performance models.

However, Hyundai’s luxury brand, Genesis, which had finalists in both Car of the Year with its new G80 sedan and Utility of the Year with its crossover SUV, the GV80, did not score a win — though in 2019 its G70 sedan won Car of the Year.

The awards were announced in a news conference from Detroit by officers of NACTOY, the North American Car of the Year organization.

Dating back to 1994, the awards are determined by votes from a panel of 50 automotive journalists, including this reviewer, from the United States and Canada. They are staff members for publications and web sites, as well as free lances. All told, they contribute to a variety of newspapers, magazines, websites, and television and radio stations. 

 Jurors are dues-paying journalist members of NACTOY, and they are required to drive and evaluate all of the nominated vehicles. The awards, according to NACTOY, are the longest-running new-vehicle accolades not associated with a specific newspaper or other publication, website, radio or television. 

It is not a competition as such because manufacturers do not enter vehicles. The NACTOY leadership determines the initial nominees—43 this year — which are required to be substantially new and potential leaders in their classes. 

They are graded on innovation, design, safety, handling, driver satisfaction and value for the dollar. NACTOY members this year winnowed the initial nominations down to 27 and then, in a second vote, named nine semifinalists, three in each category. The third vote determines winners. Votes are tallied by Deloittle LLP and kept secret. 

Finalists this year were the winning Hyundai Elantra for Car of the Year, along with the Genesis G80 four-door and the Nissan Sentra compact sedan. The Elantra garnered 176 votes to 173 for the Genesis G80. In third place was the Sentra with 151.

In the Truck of the Year category, besides the winning Ford F-150, were the Ram TRX, an off-road racer with a Hellcat V8 engine of 702 horsepower, and the Jeep Gladiator Mojave, also an off-roader with racing credentials.  The F-150 ran away with the lead with 340 votes to 130 for the Ram TRX and 30 for the Gladiator Mojave.

Besides the Ford Mustang Mach-E, an electric crossover SUV, finalists for Utility of the Year were the resurrected Land Rover Defender, a luxury SUV from the storied British manufacturer that has been producing all-terrain vehicles since World War II. The Mustang EV led with 265 votes to 136 for the GV80 and 99 for the Defender.

Photos © Ford, Hyundai

2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

It could be asserted that the 2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport is the epitome of the compact sports sedan, though the description sometimes gets misconstrued as meaning the pinnacle.

It’s not that. In current usage, epitome means the embodiment or something that possesses the features of an entire class. That’s the Lexus IS. It runs fender to fender with four-door sports machines named BMW 3-Series, Cadillac CT4, Audi A4, Genesis G70, Alfa-Romeo Giulia, Kia Stinger and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. 

These are relatively expensive cars that may not be the most comfortable because of suspension systems and tires more oriented to performance in the twisties and maybe cornering on a race track. But they are also waiting in the wings for drivers who value response and handling that deliver tingles of excitement up and down the backbone. 

The Lexus IS F Sport satisfies those needs and desires. At just 15 feet 4 inches long and an empty weight of about 3,680 pounds, it comes loaded for combat with a 311-horsepower V6 engine with 280 lb-ft of torque. Power surges to all four wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode operated by steering-wheel paddles for control-oriented enthusiasts. 

Nineteen-inch lightweight alloy wheels augment an all-independent suspension with a stabilizer bar and coil springs. Up front is a double-wishbone design with a multi-link setup in back. Gas filled shock absorbers complete the system. 

The tested Lexus IS arrived with a base price of $45,925, including the destination charge. Tack on the inevitable options: $3,800 adaptive variable suspension system, navigation with $2,750 Mark Levinson audio, $1,100 motorized glass sunroof, automatic emergency braking with $1,400 pedestrian detection and panoramic rear-view monitor, $1,250 triple beam headlights with automatic high beams and a few other installations, and the bottom-line sticker came to $56,820.

That’s about 20 grand more than the current average price of a new car, so if the goal is economical transportation with a good dose of reliability, check out the 2021 Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Sentra, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Kia Forte, Volkswagen Jetta and Subaru Impreza.

But the extra bucks, for those who can afford one of the performance/luxury machines like the Lexus IS F Sport, deliver driving enjoyment that goes beyond simply shuttling back and forth to the shopping center. 

This is a car that invites driving for its own sake. Nothing to do during the pandemic? Jump in for a drive in the traffic-free countryside where there are interesting corners to conquer, enjoy the acceleration when the light changes, bask in the feedback through the steering, and when braking feel some of the excitement of a pilot landing an FA-18 warplane on an aircraft carrier.

An axiom in the automobile business is that everything is a tradeoff. Want great handling? Give up some ride comfort. Want to go fast? Don’t worry about fuel economy. Under controlled tests that don’t involve rapid acceleration, the Lexus IS F Sport delivers an EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption rating of 19/26/22 mpg. Not bad for a hot car that can accelerate from rest to 60 mph in less than six seconds.

There are six driver selectable drive modes: Eco, Normal, Sport, Sport S, Sport S Plus and Custom. They adjust at what rpms the six-speed automatic shifts, as well as well as steering speed and effort, and shock absorber stiffness.

Comprehensive safety measures, including the automatic emergency braking and dynamic radar cruise control, are part of the standard equipment.

As taut as it behaves around curves, the F Sport also is tight. Though it has seatbelts for five, only four passengers will find comfortable accommodations — and getting there involves a bit of squirming. This is not a conveyance for large people. 

Some twisting and turning is required to access both the front and rear seats. Four average sized people in good shape will have no problems and, once inside, will be reasonably comfortable. The center-rear seat, no surprise, is almost impossible with a high, hard cushion and intrusion of a big floor hump. 

One negative surprise: Imitating some European luxury cars, the F Sport’s sun visors do not slide on their support rods to adequately block sun from the side. That was thought to be a thing of the past on all Toyota and Lexus vehicles. Also, the C-hinges in the small trunk are not isolated and could damage luggage.

But hey, you don’t buy an F Sport for its cargo-carrying capabilities.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 3.5-liter V6; 311 hp, 280 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual-shift mode and all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 4 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/trunk volume: 90/11 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,680 pounds (est).
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 19/26/22 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $45,925.
  • Price as tested: $56,820.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Photos (c) Lexus

2021 MINI Cooper SE Hardtop 2-Door: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. AukoferA vivid reminder of how far electric vehicles have progressed in a relatively short time is to compare the 2021 MINI Cooper SE Hardtop two-door with its predecessor.

It’s not widely known except by the cognoscenti, but Great Britain’s MINI delivered an electric MINI 11 years ago. The company brought one to the Los Angeles Auto Show and sponsored drives by journalists, including this one.

Though all of the driving was in LA’s traffic, the MINI had the moves of a fairly well developed electric car — instant torque, or twisting force, because electric motors deliver their maximum torque as soon as they are switched on, unlike internal combustion engines that need to build rpms to attain the same thing. It was the perfect bitty car for shooting holes in traffic.

The big drawback was that, given the state of the art of battery power then, the electric MINI hatchback was a two-seater. The battery pack, built up from more than 5,000 small batteries, weighed more than 550 pounds and took up the entire back seat space.

Called the MINI E, it was an experiment. Only 500 were built and leased in 2009 to selected individuals in California, New Jersey and New York.

The year before, the Tesla Roadster, from the company founded by Elon Musk, made its debut in the marketplace. It was followed by the Mitsubishi iMIEV and the Nissan Leaf. Since then almost every manufacturer on the planet has developed an electric vehicle, as well as hybrids and plug-in hybrids.

Now we have the 2021 MINI Cooper SE, introduced as a 2020. It’s a two-door hatchback, not unlike that 2009 model. But its lithium-ion battery pack lies under the floor, so there’s space for four passengers. However, it’s still a MINI that is just 12 feet 7 inches long with 80 cubic feet of space for passengers and 9 cubic feet for cargo under the rear hatch. 

The front seats are supportive and comfortable enough for a long trip, though folks in back likely would start squirming and protesting after awhile. Surprisingly, given its short subcompact stature, the MINI SE has a surprisingly supple ride, soaking up bumps and uneven pavement without getting out of shape.

Of course, it also carves corners with aplomb. But as with the 2009 E, the 2021’s forte is the cut and thrust of traffic, both on city streets and crowded freeways. It can nail 60 mph from rest in a less than seven seconds and the throttle response is instant. Punch the pedal at a stoplight and you’ll quickly be looking at the big-bore bad boys in your mirrors.

One electric motor powered by the 32.6 kWh battery pack makes 181 horsepower and 199 lb-ft of torque to drive the front wheels. The transmission is a single-speed automatic because electric motors don’t actually need transmissions.

The MINI SE’s system is nearly identical to the one in Germany’s BMW i3 electric — no surprise because BMW owns MINI. Like the i3, the MINI has an aggressive regenerative braking system that enables so-called one-pedal driving. Lift your foot off the accelerator and the MINI immediately slows down as if the driver had hit the brakes. Time it correctly and you can drive to a stop without touching the brake pedal.

On the MINI, however, you can use a toggle switch (what else on a British car?) on the dash to select low or high regenerative braking. Using either enhances the range. Still, the maximum range, according to the EPA, is 110 miles — not the worst nor best among current electrics—and gives the MINI a city/highway/combined miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) of 115/100/108.

You can also select from four drive modes: Sport, Mid, Green and Green Plus. The Sport mode makes the MINI feel quicker and more responsive. Mid is a balanced setting and Green and Green Plus help battery charging in concert with the regenerative braking. The downside is that Green Plus switches off battery-depleting systems like automatic climate control. Charging up to 80% can take as little as 36 minutes with a high-speed charger.

Like its immediate 2020 SE predecessor, the 2021 model has an arresting look. The tester was done up with an off-white body and a black top with yellow accents that included the outside mirrors as well as front and rear trim. An older woman, unsolicited, pronounced it as the cutest car she had ever seen.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 MINI Cooper SE Hardtop 2 Door electric hatchback.
  • Motor: Single electric with 32.6 kWh battery pack; 181 hp, 199 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Single-speed automatic.
  • Overall length: 12 feet 7 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 80/9 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,153 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined miles per gallon equivalent: 115/100/108 MPGe. 
  • Range: Up to 110 miles. 
  • Base price, including destination charge: $30,750.
  • Price as tested: $37,750.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Photos (c) MINI

2021 NACTOY Finalists: A DriveWays Report…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Genesis, the five-year-old luxury brand from South Korea’s Hyundai, scored two finalist positions in the 2021 Car, Truck and Utility of the Year awards, voted by an independent panel of automotive journalists from the US and Canada.

The Genesis G80 sedan was one of three finalists for Car of the Year. Also named were the new Hyundai Elantra sedan and the compact Nissan Sentra.

In the Utility of the Year category, the never-before Genesis GV80 joined the Ford Mustang Mach-E electric and the Land Rover Defender, a new luxury rendering of a storied SUV developed in the 1980s from the original 1948 Land Rover. The first Defender was discontinued in 2016.

Finalists for Truck of the Year are the new Ford-F150, the best-selling vehicle in the U.S.; the Jeep Gladiator Mojave, and the Ram 1500 TRX, both designed for high-performance off-roading.

The 50-member jury of automotive journalists, including this reviewer, work or free-lance for independent magazines, newspapers, television and radio stations, and websites. They are required to drive and evaluate the candidates.

The NACTOY — for North American Car of the Year (including trucks and utility vehicles) — awards are intended to honor excellence in innovation, design, safety, performance, value, technology and driver satisfaction.

There are three rounds of voting to winnow a list of eligible vehicles to smaller numbers in each category. This year there were 11 cars, 27 utility vehicles and four trucks. The jurors vote for three finalists and the winners. Ballots are secret and tabulated by the Deloitte & Touche LLP in Detroit. Winners will be announced January 11, 2021 at a location to be determined.

The finalists:

Car of the Year

Genesis G80: This classy full-size luxury sedan behaves more like a capable compact or a scrappy midsize sports sedan. It comes in nine versions, in rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive with a choice of engines: 2.5-liter four-cylinder, 300 horsepower; and 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6, 375 hp. 

Both have eight-speed automatic transmissions. Prices range from $56,475 to $68,675. They have the potential to usurp sales from existing luxury marques.

Hyundai Elantra: An all-new rendering of the South Korean manufacturer’s compact sedan, which competes against the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and Nissan Sentra. 

Exterior and interior styling are new from the tire treads up, though the standard engine is a repeat: 147-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder with a continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT).

Also: a new gasoline-electric hybrid with139 hp, a six-speed automatic transmission and 50 miles to the gallon mileage. The performance model is the N-Line, with 201 hp and a six-speed manual gearbox or a seven-speed automatic. 

Sadly, the Elantra GT hatchback has been dropped for 2021, although there might be a few stick-shift 2020 GT N Lines still available.

Nissan Sentra: It was the surprise of the 2021 car crop. Previous models were undistinguished but the new one, as we wrote earlier, stands out as a desirable roomy, well-performing, affordable compact sedan with the bones to attract customers who could buy something more expensive.

It uses a new 149-hp four-cylinder engine with front-wheel drive and a continuously-variable automatic transmission. Base price is $22,355 and a loaded Premium came to $25,325. 

Utility Vehicle of the Year

Ford Mustang Mach-E: It’s got a Mustang badge and fine performance but this is all-electric with a crossover SUV hatchback and body style. There’s midsize 101 cubic feet of room inside for five, along with cargo space of 29 cubic feet under the hatch, plus another five cubic feet in a front trunk.

Rear drive is standard with all-wheel drive optional. The tested AWD Premium pre-production model had two electric motors, an extended range battery and delivered 346 hp. Its zero-to-60 acceleration time, Ford says, is 4.8 seconds. The top-line GT model, introduced later, is said to do it in 3.8 seconds.

The Premium’s range is listed at 270 miles with 300 miles for the GT. But a 19-hour charge on a 240-volt charger yielded 236 miles. The EPA city/highway/combined mpg equivalent is 96/84/90 MPGe. The tester had a starting price of $50,800 and $56,400 with options.

Genesis GV80: This is the crossover SUV version of the Car of the Year finalist G80. The GV80 uses the same motivation as the G80, with a 300-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and a 375-hp 3.5T twin-turbocharged V6. An eight-speed automatic transmission is standard.

Like its sedan garage-mate, the GV80 comes with luxury interiors enhanced by fine materials and craftsmanship, good handling with communicative steering, silent running and long-distance comfort.

The 2.5 and 3.5T each come in three versions: Standard, Advanced and Prestige with rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Prices start at $49,925 and can climb to $65,375. The GV80s have two rows of seats, though a 3.5T Advanced model can be equipped with a cramped third row.

Land Rover Defender: In some ways, it’s hard to defend the Defender. For many years, the Defender represented the epitome of Land Rovers that could handle hostile terrain anywhere.

The originals, with back-breaking ride, ear-shattering noise and turtle-like acceleration, are sought-after collector vehicles. But Land Rover, with its Range Rover and Evoque models, has transformed itself into a luxury manufacturer, though maintaining capable off-road capabilities.

Trading on that reputation, Land Rover brings the new Defender 110 X, which has the looks and capabilities of an African King of the Serengeti but a luxury personality. It’s a pricey—$85,750 as tested—three-row, four-door SUV. Next comes the smaller two-door Defender 90.

Truck of the Year

Ford F-150: It’s what you’d expect of Ford’s flagship but it is all-new from bumper to bumper. As with any pickup in this modern era, it can be equipped to satisfy almost any buyer.

The beauty of it is that this four-door 4X4 Super Crew pickup has gotten so refined that, except for its size — 20 feet 4 inches long, six feet six inches tall and 4,810 pounds — you’d be convinced you’re driving a much smaller vehicle. It’s quiet, handles capably in traffic and on curving roads, and has plenty of punch from the tester’s 5.0-liter V8 engine, which delivers 400 hp through a 10-speed automatic transmission.
Its attributes came with a base price of $47,985 and, as equipped, a bottom line of $56,990.

Jeep Gladiator Mojave: This new version of the much-anticipated Gladiator pickup truck is tricked out to validate those advertising videos showing Jeeps racing around dirt roads and going airborne off sand dunes. 

For 45 years until 1992, Jeep marketed a variety of trucks, the last of which was the Comanche. The 2020 Gladiator arrived as a traditional off-roader, equipped to handle even the famed Rubicon Trail in California and Nevada, so rugged it is driven mostly at walking speed.

Now comes the Mojave. Though can do some of the same rock crawling as other Jeeps, it can manage higher speeds in races through the rough outback.

The base Gladiator with a six-speed manual gearbox had a base price of $35,040 and, as tested, came to $36,330. The Mojave model came with a starting price of $45,370 and, with many options, climbed to $61,795.

Ram 1500 TRX: This brute starts out as a Ram 1500 pickup but gets a shape-shifting transformation into a mighty dune busting, rock climbing, Baja California racing truck. Its Dodge Hellcat V8 engine snorts out 702 hp through an eight-speed automatic transmission to all four wheels.

Despite its 6,866-pound curb weight, a test by Car and Driver magazine clocked the TRX at 0-to-60-mph acceleration in 3.7 seconds. Nicknamed “T-Rex” by its enablers, the TRX comes with a host off-road goodies that enable it to rocket off hills and sand dunes, and cushion its landings.

With a base price of $71,690 and $87,570 as tested, it has a classy interior with carbon fiber accents. A long list of standard and optional equipment includes full-speed collision warning and emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, and high-performance dampers and brakes.

Photos courtesy OEM.

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