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new for 2021

2021 Lexus LS 500: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Musing for a description of the 2021 Lexus LS 500 luxury sedan, a Sherpa fleece blanket comes to mind. It’s cozy comfortable and bereft of objectionable traits.

Introduced in 1989, the LS commands the top tier of Lexus automobiles. Early on, the upscale nameplate from Japan’s Toyota was a full-size sedan with V8 power and rear-wheel drive. It was designed to compete against the best of the world’s luxury cohort, including Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, Jaguar, Audi, Maserati, Volvo, BMW, and Lincoln — but not such nosebleed-priced machines as Rolls-Royce or Bentley.

It has held steady in the U.S., though sales dropped in 2020 as increasing numbers of buyers chose crossover sport utility vehicles. But it’s way different from the original. It originally was classified as a large car by the Environmental Protection Agency, defined as having more than 120 cubic feet of interior space, including the passenger cabin and the trunk.

For 2021, it has sleek, attractive styling but no longer is a large car. With a total of 115 cubic feet of interior room, divided 98/17 for passengers and trunk, it is classified as a midsize, like the Toyota Camry. Moreover, it should be regarded as a four-passenger vehicle, even though there’s a fifth seatbelt in back if you fold the center console/armrest into the seatback.

But that middle position is an aggressively uncomfortable perch, with a hard cushion, a shortage of head room and a large floor hump. It contrasts sharply to the powered 18-way adjustable, heated and cooled reclining outboard back seats, which offer the same support and comfort as the front seats. 

The center seat aside, the LX 500’s interior could qualify in any showing of a luxury limousine interior, with airy passenger space, leather upholstery and armrests, premium wood trim, navigation system, four-zone automatic climate control, $1,940 Mark Levinson audio system, power rear window sunshades and a panoramic glass sunroof.

Much of that comes with the optional $12,710 luxury package. All told, options on the tested LS 500 tacked $21,055 onto the base price of $77,025, bumping the bottom-line sticker to $98,080. That’s daunting for many prospective buyers but it’s still less than some of its European competitors — the Audi RS 7, for example, which can easily top $125,000.

LS options also included an adaptive air suspension system for all four wheels, which helped deliver a creamy ride as well as sharp handling and good steering feedback. Add the active noise canceling system and you have a posh conveyance that can carry you across the country with Sherpa blanket comfort and minimal distraction or annoyance.

Other equipment included Apple Car Play, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa, a Wi-Fi hotspot, SXM satellite radio and HD radio, all controlled with a high-resolution 12.3-inch touchscreen, which offers relief from the still installed console-mounted Lexus track pad, which can sometimes be irritating.

The LS 500’s motivation comes from a 3.4-liter V6 engine with twin turbochargers that quietly — except when you floor it–delivers 416 hp and 442 lb-ft of torque, or twisting force. Power makes its way to the rear wheels by way of a 10-speed automatic transmission that, if the spirit moves you, can be manually shifted with paddles mounted on the steering wheel. But why bother? The onboard computer deftly and unobtrusively manipulates gear selections and the smooth shifts expected in a luxury sedan.

 There’s also plenty of punch off the line. Zero to 60 mph ticks off at less than five seconds with a top speed of 136 mph. Of course, nobody should attempt the latter on any public road or even a racetrack because this cushy beauty doesn’t come with racing credentials.

Lexus and Toyota are leaders in emphasizing standard safety equipment and the LS 500 doesn’t disappoint. The tester came with a pre-collision system that included automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, intersection turning assist, active steering assist, front lateral side pre-collision protection and a comprehensive head-up display. It also had front cross-traffic alert, lane changing assist and all-speed dynamic radar cruise control with curve speed reduction.

Over the years, the Lexus LS has proved its mettle. It competes on a stage with expensive luxury stars, many of which can satisfy customers with 100 grand to spend or finance. For some buyers, part of the attraction is the Mercedes three-point star or the four rings of Audi. Lexus uses a simple stylized “L” inside an oval but is no less attractive.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Lexus LS 500 four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 3.4-liter V6, twin turbochargers; 416 hp, 442 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: 10-speed automatic with manual shift mode and rear-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 17 feet 2 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/trunk volume: 98/17 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 4,740 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 18/29/22 mpg. Premium gasoline required.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $77,025.
  • Price as tested: $98,080.

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

Photos (c) Lexus

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid Limited: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Though it does not compete in the luxury class of crossover sport utility vehicles, the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid Limited owns some of those attributes, notably a substantial feel and a peaceful cabin on the road.

It’s a midsize four-door with two rows of seats, powered by a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor that together deliver 226 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. All-wheel drive is standard.

The new Santa Fe arrives in exceptional company. It slots between Hyundai’s acclaimed larger three-row crossover, the Palisade, and the redesigned 2022 Tucson, a compact which offers its Hybrid model with a power train that is nearly identical to the Santa Fe’s and is priced about $2,500 less comparably equipped. 

The Santa Fe also is a fraternal twin of the Kia Sorento. Hyundai and Kia are sister companies in South Korea, and share engines and transmissions, though each does its own engineering, design and tuning. A Kia Sorento EX Hybrid previously reviewed here came with a nearly identical engine/motor combination. As on the Santa Fe Hybrid, power moves through a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode operated by steering-wheel paddles. 

The main difference between the two was that the Sorento had front-wheel drive and three rows of seats compared to the Santa Fe’s all-wheel drive and two rows. Other dimensions were within inches between the two vehicles and the Kia’s price tag was about $3,000 lower, mainly because of the Hyundai’s all-wheel drive.

But if a luxury look and feel cranks your motor, the Santa Fe would fit the bill nicely. As noted, it imparts solidity and silence to the driver and passengers, with a tactile steering feel that would not seem alien to a Mercedes-Benz or BMW owner. Handling is secure and competent with little body lean on curves. 

Contributing to the placid driving experience is the Santa Fe’s hybrid drive train, which switches unobtrusively between electric and gasoline power. 

Though the Santa Fe is not the quickest sprinter off the blocks, the electric motor’s instant torque delivers a boost at low speeds, so it is not embarrassed in urban, suburban or freeway traffic. The zero-to-60-mph acceleration time is in the seven-second range, respectable but not outstanding in this era. City/highway/combined fuel consumption is rated by the EPA at 33/30/32 mpg.

The interior exudes stylish quality. On the test car, the upholstery had an attractive combination of black and dark brown perforated and quilted leather and other materials for the upholstery, door trim and dash. Substantial bolstering on the front seat keeps the torso tidily in place. Overhead, a panoramic glass sunroof came with an opaque power shade.

Comfort and support in the outboard rear seats is first rate. But the center seat, despite a nearly flat floor, is still an uncomfortable perch that is high and hard, though roomier than many others. Rear seatbacks recline and fold nearly flat.

The instruments included Hyundai’s signature blind spot warning system. When the turn signals are activated, camera views to the right- or left-rear so-called blind spots are displayed in the instruments. The only drawback is that heavy rain can leave drops on the camera lenses, which partially obscures the view. 

As wonderful as the system is, it is not needed if the driver uses the original blind spot warning system by properly adjusting the inside and outside rear-view mirrors to provide a wide-ranging view behind the vehicle.

The Santa Fe Limited Hybrid’s base price of $41,235 includes almost everything any buyer might want, especially full safety equipment: forward collision assist, blind-spot warning, automatic high headlight beams, rear cross-traffic collision avoidance, driver attention warning, lane-keeping and lane following assist, adaptive cruise control with stop and go, and rear occupant alert.

Other features: Navigation system, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, dual automatic climate control, memory driver’s seat, SXM satellite radio, premium Harman Kardon audio, Bluetooth connectivity, wireless device charging, surround view rear monitor, parking assist, and heated and ventilated front seats.

The only option on the tested Santa Fe was $155 for carpeted floor mats, bringing the as-tested price to $41,290, which now is only about $1,000 more than the average price of a new automobile in the United States.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid Limited AWD four-door crossover sport utility vehicle.
  • Engine/motor: 1.6-liter four-cylinder gasoline, turbocharged, 178 hp, 195 lb-ft torque; 59-hp electric motor, 195 lb-ft torque; combined system output 226 hp, 258 lb-ft torque. 
  • Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode and all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 8 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 112/36 cubic feet. 
  • Height: 5 feet 6 inches.
  • Weight: 4,245 pounds.
  • Towing capability: 2,000 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 33/30/32 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $41,135.
  • Price as tested: $41,290.

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

Photos (c) Hyundai

2021 Volkswagen ID.4: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Volkswagen’s all-new electric 2021 ID.4 shines competitively as a small crossover sport utility vehicle, with decent performance, range, inside space and ride comfort. But it requires a steep learning curve and a willingness to cuddle with the owner’s manual or sit through an extended class on operating it.

Perhaps it was the individual tested example. But rarely does a reviewer encounter a vehicle so confounding at first blush, some of it by design. Early puzzlements:

The start-stop button on the steering column didn’t seem to work. To get the ID.4 to the silent electric car “Ready” stage, you must twist a blob of a control behind the steering wheel to shift into “Drive,” “B” (for extra regenerative braking), or “Reverse.” 

Moving off, a view from the forward-facing camera sometimes shows up on the center screen, warning the driver to pay attention. It disappears after a few moments but it’s a distraction.

Underway, a message pops up in the instruments display, saying “Warnings and information not available. Drive with greater care.” There’s no answer to “What?” or “Why?” or how to correct the situation.

It takes a close reading of the owner’s manual to figure out the buttons to push or the digital displays to tap in order to crank up the automatic climate control. 

Trying to find the controls for the radio takes another trip to the owner’s manual and even then, it requires a flurry of fiddling to learn the SXM satellite radio doesn’t have an activated subscription. But you can get HD radio on FM.

Stop in a shopping center parking lot and touch the start-stop button to shut the ID.4 down. But the radio keeps playing — even when you open the door — and the air conditioning continues to blow cold air. Then suddenly, and for seemingly no reason, the center screen lights up and reads, “Goodbye.” Presumably that’s your cue to leave.

There’s an explanation. When you switch off the ID.4 and walk away, everything shuts down, although you might first get a message to turn the headlights off. If you don’t comply, they blink off after a few minutes.

It often seems that manufacturers of exotic or very different vehicles like electrics feel a snooty compulsion to make sure drivers are aware they are not driving a traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) machine. So, some of the functions operate differently and the instruments deliver unfamiliar information. 

It’s as if the designers and engineers have never heard of the old political adage of K.I.S.S. for getting candidates elected: “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Yet there are hybrids and battery electric cars out there as familiar to operate as our old gassers. Examples are the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Bolt, and Toyota Corolla hybrid.

To be fair, complaints about the Volkswagen ID.4 may simply be traced to driver decrepitude. Likely a 17-year-old would have zero difficulty learning its eccentricities in minutes. But kids don’t buy these vehicles; adults do, and not everyone is savvy.

Gripes aside, the ID.4 (initials for “intelligent design”) is a worthy crossover utility vehicle. It handles well and cruises quietly. Five passengers can ride comfortably in 101 cubic feet of space, about the same as in a midsize sedan, though as usual the center-rear occupant gets disrespected. There’s 30 cubic feet of air for cargo behind the back seat, more than you find in a full-size sedan.

The ID.4 gets its motivation from an electric motor that delivers 201 hp and 229 lb-ft of torque, sent to the rear wheels. It’s plenty of power for the 4,700-pound conveyance but doesn’t provide that instant shot of power that characterizes many electric vehicles. As with any battery electric, the maximum torque — or twisting force — arrives as soon as you mash the pedal. But the ID.4’s zero-to-60-mph acceleration is in the seven-second range, respectable but not among the quickest.

Volkswagen ID.4 1ST

The ID.4, fully charged, has a range of up to 250 miles and a towing capability of 2,700 pounds. City/highway/combined miles per gallon equivalent is rated by the EPA at 104/89/97 MPGe.

There are three ID.4 versions: Pro at $41,190, including the destination charge; 1st Edition, $45,190, and Pro S, $45,690. The tester’s standard equipment included two otherwise optional packages so its tested price was the same as the base price.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Volkswagen ID.4 First Edition four-door crossover sport utility vehicle.
  • Motor: Mid-mounted electric, 201 hp, 229 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Single-speed direct with rear-wheel drive.
  • Battery pack: liquid-cooled lithium-ion, 77.0 kWh.
  • Range: Up to 250 miles.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 1 inch.
  • Height: 5 feet 4 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 101/30 cubic feet. 
  • Weight: 4,700 pounds.
  • Towing capability: 2,700 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined miles per gallon equivalent: 104/89/97 MPGe.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $45,190.
  • Price as tested: $45,190.

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

Photos (c) Volkswagen

2021 Subaru Ascent Limited: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

When the Subaru Ascent crossover SUV made its debut as a 2019 model, the conclusion here was that it was among the most family-friendly vehicles available, minivans notwithstanding. Now in its 2021 guise, it adds refinement to its attributes.

It’s a full-size, three-row vehicle with 148 cubic feet of space for seven or eight passengers, depending on whether you choose a second-row bench seat or separate captain’s chairs. Even the third row can accommodate three skinny adult passengers with enough head and knee room because the second-row seats have ample fore and aft adjustments.

There are only 18 cubic feet of space for cargo behind the third row. But folding it opens up 47 cubic feet and 86 cubic feet if you also fold the second row. 

Power comes from a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, which makes 266 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque, enough to take the 4,600-pound Ascent to 60 mph in milliseconds less than seven seconds. The EPA rates the Ascent’s city/highway/combined gasoline consumption at 20/26/22 mpg.

The engine is a horizontally opposed design of the same type that powered the old Volkswagen Beetle, which chugged around worldwide from World War II to 1975. Also called a pancake, boxer or flat-four design, the cylinders lie feet-to-feet on both sides of the crankshaft instead of the more common standing upright or leaning in a V design. 

You won’t hear any chugging sounds from the Ascent’s boxer engine. The Subaru engineers have refined it and added insulation to the cabin so occupants can barely hear engine noise. Moreover, with its short vertical profile, the engine can be mounted low in the engine bay. This position gives any vehicle a lower center of gravity, enhancing handling and stability. Subaru is the only manufacturer installing boxers in all its vehicles, though you can also find them in some Porsche models.

The transmission is one of the better continuously variable designs that deliver decent fuel economy. Continuously variable automatic transmissions (CVTs) use a system of belts and pulleys to multiply power and have no shift points, though the Ascent’s can be shifted manually like an eight-speed automatic. Braking is relaxed and confident with a solid pedal feel.

There are four Ascent versions, called trim levels in the industry: Base, which starts at $33,345, including the destination charge; Premium, $35,845; Limited, $40,645, and Touring, $46,495. Tested for this review was the Limited with second-row captain’s chairs and a $2,950 option package that included a surround-sound Harman Kardon audio system with 14 speakers, panoramic sunroof, navigation system, and a cargo area cover.

As with all Subaru vehicles except the rear-drive BRZ sports coupe, the tested Ascent has all-wheel drive as standard equipment, enhanced by the company’s vehicle dynamics control. 

Safety equipment includes forward and reverse automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control with lane-keeping warning and assist, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring, and side-curtain airbags with rollover sensors.

The tested Limited Ascent also came with 20-inch alloy wheels, leather upholstery, the captain’s chairs, tri-zone climate control, heated seats, memory driver’s seat and power front passenger seat, Bluetooth connectivity, SiriusXM radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Pandora and iHeart radio, power rear tailgate with height memory, and six USB charge ports — two in front with phone connectivity and four in back. 

Oh, and don’t miss the 19 (count ‘em) cup holders and the retractable sunshades in the second-row windows.

Much appreciated were the ergonomically designed instrumentation and controls. A couple of examples: A button on the dash behind the steering wheel resets the trip odometer. And the center screen displays pre-sets on the radio home page. Simplicity eliminates the maddening search through menus and sub-menus.

On the road, the Ascent cruises quietly unless you hammer the throttle for maximum acceleration. It also has comfortable front-row and second-row seats. The suspension system and tires combine for a comfortable ride — except when you encounter the many severely pockmarked roads that are candidates for infrastructure enhancement.

With active torque-vectoring and quick-ratio steering, handling is the Ascent’s forte. It validates the old automotive adage that a big vehicle should drive small, and a small vehicle should drive large. The Ascent combines light, responsive and communicative steering with an instant throttle, making it almost pleasurable to maneuver in heavy traffic. 

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Subaru Ascent Limited AWD four-door crossover sport utility vehicle.
  • Engine: 2.4-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine, turbocharged; 266 hp, 277 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Continuously variable automatic with eight-speed manual mode and all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 16 feet 5 inches.
  • Height: 6 feet.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 148/18 cubic feet. (47, 86)
  • Weight: 4,600 pounds.
  • Towing capability: 5,000 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 20/26/22 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $40,645.
  • Price as tested: $43,595.

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

Photos (c) Subaru

2021 BMW X5 xDrive 45e: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Luxury plug-in hybrids like the 2021 BMW X5 xDrive 45e present a puzzle that will not be solved until purely electric vehicles become the mainstream.

Manufacturers are increasingly committed to that goal, predicting that in a decade or so, many automobiles, utility vehicles, and even trucks will be 100% battery powered to reduce carbon emissions and help save the planet from premature annihilation.

Meanwhile, we already have excellent electric vehicles from General Motors, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, Porsche, Volkswagen, Nissan, Volvo, Audi, Polestar, and, yes, BMW. But they are expensive and lack the convenience of current gasoline- and diesel-fueled machines. 

They will become mainstream when they achieve a similar range, recharge roughly the same time it takes to gas up an internal combustion vehicle and build charging stations in numbers rivaling today’s service stations. 

That will take a while, recalling the time when automobiles began to replace horse-drawn carriages and wagons. Then, you fed oats and hay to the horses but had to drop by the local drug store to buy gasoline.

At this juncture, the compromise is called electrification, and its leading representative is the hybrid gasoline-electric power plant. Led by Toyota’s Prius, with more than 2.4 million sales in the United States, the modern hybrids have proliferated throughout the automotive world.

They deliver outstanding fuel economy because they can run on purely electric power and partially recharge batteries from regenerative braking, with the gasoline engine automatically kicking in as needed. But the main advantage is that the driving experience is no different from that of a standard gasoline-engine car. Some hybrids are more potent than their fossil-fuel brethren, are easy to refuel, and do not have to be plugged in.

Also in the mix are the PHEVs (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles) like the subject here from BMW, its X5 xDrive 45e.

Though the X5 PHEV gets a 50-MPGe fuel economy rating from the EPA, its electric range on a full charge is advertised as 31 miles when it switches to hybrid or gasoline power. Running on gasoline only, it has a 20-mpg rating, which works out to about a 370-mile range.

There have been reports that some owners do not bother to plug in their plug-ins. They simply drive them as standard hybrids, giving up the added economy of electric driving. But if owners plug in and drive less than 31 miles a day, they can avoid gassing up.

The difficulty with plug-ins — especially those of a luxury orientation — is that they are generally more costly than fossil-fueled or hybrid vehicles.

A prime example is the tested X5 xDrive 45e. Its base sticker price of $66,395 is $4,000 more than a gasoline-engine X5 with all-wheel drive, standard on the 45e. If you forego the all-wheel drive and go with a gasoline rear-drive X5 sDrive, the difference is $6,000.

On top of that, BMW has an options list that reaches the horizon. The tested X5 45e had extras that added $15,300 and brought the bottom-line sticker price to $81,695. Of course, that includes every feature common to that luxury category.

It’s a huge nut, likely out of reach for the vast majority of prospective buyers but attractive to people who can afford it. The big item on the tester’s options list is the $5,500 M Sport package, evoking ultra-high-performance BMW models. Here it includes Sport Seats, an M

Steering wheel, unique lightweight alloy wheels and trim pieces, and a performance-tweaked eight-speed automatic transmission.       

The X5 PHEV is motivated by a silky 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder engine with 282 horsepower, linked to a 111-hp electric motor.  Combined, they deliver 389 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque, enough to propel this 5,672-pound midsize crossover to 60 mph in less than five seconds, with a top speed of 146 mph.

This SUV is a BMW after all, with all that implies: Great handling, aided by a standard air suspension system, a comfortable ride cosseted in the supportive sport seats, quiet cruising, the capability to smoke most contenders in stoplight drag races, and the quiet comfort of great design and engineering. Also, it’s American built, in the BMW plant in Spartanburg, S.C.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 BMW X5 xDrive 45e plug-in hybrid four-door crossover sport utility vehicle.
  • Engine/motor: 3.0-liter six-cylinder gasoline, turbocharged, 282 hp; electric,111 hp; combined system 389 hp, 443 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with manual shift mode and all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 16 feet 2 inches.
  • Height: 5 feet 9 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 105/33 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 5,672 pounds.
  • Towing capability: 7,200 pounds.
  • EPA fuel-economy ratings: 50 MPGe; 20 MPG gasoline only. 
  • Base price, including destination charge: $66,395.
  • Price as tested: $81,695.

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

Photos (c) BMW

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer AWD Activ: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

The 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer sports an adventurous name, though it’s not likely to blaze any trails. 

It’s a small, competent crossover sport utility vehicle, new for this model year and bearing the name of an earlier, larger Chevy SUV sold from 2001 to 2008, then replaced by the Chevrolet Traverse. But it’s no Jeep or Land Rover. 

The original Trailblazer, built with a body on frame, and the 2021 model, a crossover built with a unit-body like a car, are way different. The original left the market powered by a 394-horsepower, 6.0-liter V-8 engine that delivered 400 lb-ft of torque.

That’s about 4.6 times the size of the tiny, 1.3-liter, three-cylinder turbo engine in the Trailblazer Activ tested for this review. It makes 155 hp and 174 lb-ft of torque along with surprising verve for such a diminutive motor.

Moreover, it’s not even the smallest engine available. Base Trailblazer models come with a 1.2-liter three-cylinder turbo that delivers 137 hp. It powers front-drive versions with continuously variable automatic transmissions. The upgrade, as on the tested Activ Trailblazer, has all-wheel drive and a nine-speed automatic transmission.

The Trailblazer slots in the Chevy crossover lineup between the smaller Trax and the larger Equinox. There are five trim levels: L at $20,195, LS at $22,795, LT at $24,895, the Activ tested here at $26,695, and the RS, also at $26,695. All prices include the destination charge. The Activ strives to project a rugged persona, where the RS aspires to a sporty mien.

But rugged is as rugged does. The Activ comes across more like the increasing number of small crossovers crowding the nation’s highways and byways, including names like the Kia Seltos, Honda HR-V, Toyota C-HR, Hyundai  Kona and Venue, Nissan Kicks, Mazda CX-30, and the Trailblazer’s fraternal cousin, the Buick Encore GX, which also uses the 1.3-liter three-cylinder turbo engine.

The Trailblazer’s strong suit is its attractive looks, inside and out. The tester wore a bronze dark copper metallic paint with a white roof and outside mirrors topped in white. Inside, red, black, and beige cloth and leatherette cover the seats, with a sort of denim cloth trim on the doors.

Front seats have decent bolstering to hold the torso in place. The outside seating positions offer plenty of head and knee room in the back, and even the usually disrespected center-rear seat has enough space for an average-size adult. However, the poor soul must sit on a lump with an intrusive back and a small floor hump.

Behind the back seat is a decent-sized, 25 cubic-foot cargo area with small extra space beneath the floor, home of the temporary spare wheel and tire. Rear seatbacks fold nearly flat 2/3 and 1/3 for additional cargo.

On the road, the surprise is the rapid throttle response off the line, which makes the Trailblazer feel faster than it is. Car and Driver magazine clocked an all-wheel-drive model with the 155-hp engine at 9.4 seconds, pretty pokey in this age, partly a testimony to its 3,325-pound weight. But the quick response makes it ideal for shooting through holes in urban and freeway traffic.

Handling is competent and inspires confidence on curving roads, even though there’s enough power available to get a hasty driver in trouble overdoing it. The handling tradeoff is a stiff ride.

Though the Activ model is supposed to project a rugged vehicle, the Trailblazer does not fall into the category of having any off-road chops. With the all-wheel drive, you could likely take it on a logging road or other modest terrain but nothing more challenging.

Interior noise is the main Trailblazer bugaboo. The tires and chassis transmit road irregularities directly into the cabin, abetting a smaller amount of engine noise. Long hours at the wheel could become fatiguing. More sound insulation would be welcome.

The Trailblazer Activ comes well equipped with such amenities as automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot warning, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist with lane departure warning, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, single-zone automatic climate control, high definition, and SXM satellite radio, premium Bose audio, Bluetooth streaming, wireless smartphone charging, an eight-inch color touch screen, auto-dimming inside mirror, heated outside power mirrors, and LED headlights.

All of that brought the Trailblazer Activ’s base price of $27,995 up to a relatively pricey, in this class, $30,730.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer AWD Activ four-door crossover sport utility vehicle.
  • Engine: 1.3-liter three-cylinder, turbocharged; 155 hp, 174 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Nine-speed automatic with all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 14 feet 6 inches.      
  • Height: 5 feet 6 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 98/25 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,325 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 26/30/28 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $27,995.
  • Price as tested: $30,730.

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

Photos (c) Chevrolet

2021 Toyota Prius XLE AWD-e: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

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.

Specifications

  • 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.
  • Overall length: 15 feet.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 93/25 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,300 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 51/47/49 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $30,570.
  • Price as tested: $31,629.

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

Photos (c) Toyota

2021 Kia Sorento Hybrid EX: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

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.

Specifications:

  • 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.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 9 inches.
  • Height: 5 feet 7 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 143/13 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 4,050 pounds (est.).
  • Towing capability: 2,000 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 39/35/37 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $37,760.
  • Price as tested: $38,205.

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

Photos (c) Kia

2021 Acura TLX SH-AWD Advance: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

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.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Acura TLX SH-AWD Advance four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged; 272 hp, 280 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: 10-speed automatic with manual-shift mode and all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 16 feet 3 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/trunk volume: 93/14 cubic feet
  • Weight: 4,025 pounds. 
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 21/29/24 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $49,325.
  • Price as tested: $49,325.

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

Photos (c) Jason Fogelson

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