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2021 Toyota Venza Limited Hybrid: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

When the Toyota Venza made its debut in 2009, it was something of a novelty. Billed as a crossover utility vehicle, or CUV, it looked and felt more like a traditional station wagon, albeit a bit taller than most.

Automotive News, the most prominent trade publication in the automotive industry, listed the Venza as a car in its U.S. sales statistics, not in the truck category along with sport utility vehicles and crossovers. 

Though the terms get mixed up and misused, a sport utility vehicle generally is a wagon-like vehicle with body on frame construction, like a truck. Crossovers are built like cars with unit-body construction. 

The Venza crossover lasted just seven years. Its best sales year was 2009, the year it was introduced, when 54,410 were sold in the United States. But sales dwindled and Toyota dropped it after the 2005 model year.

But now it’s back for 2021 as a fully realized crossover SUV, better than ever with economical gasoline-electric hybrid power, not unlike its garage-mate Toyota Prius. Both are hybrid-only, a system with which Toyota has vast experience. The Venza also comes with standard all-wheel drive.

On the tested Venza Limited as well as other trim levels, the hybrid combination delivers 219 horsepower from a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine with 88 hp and three electric motors, one of which drives the rear wheels. The system earns an EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption rating of 40/37/39 mpg. 

Power gets to all four wheels via an electronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Standard CVTs use a system of belts and pulleys to multiply engine torque. Toyota’s ECVT, also used in the Prius, uses electric motor generators to control a planetary gear set, allowing the transmission to continuously change the gear ratio and keep the engine’s rpms at maximum efficiency.

The hybrid system incorporates four driver-selectable drive modes: EV for purely electric motoring, Eco for maximum fuel efficiency, Normal for everyday commuting, and Sport for horsing around (carefully, of course).

There are three Venza versions: Base SE, midlevel SEL and top-line Limited. The last, tested for this review, came with a base price of $40,975, including the destination charge. With options that included a $1,400 panoramic glass sunroof and a $725 technology package with a head-up display and rain-sensing windshield wipers, the bottom-line sticker came $43,525.

The panoramic sunroof is unusual. The glass changes from nearly opaque gray to a translucent white fog at the touch of an overhead switch. But it does not open to the sky for fresh air. There is an opaque power-operated sunroof shade. 

The Venza slots in Toyota’s crossover SUV lineup between the less-expensive RAV4 and the larger Highlander. Curiously, though it shares its basic platform with the RAV4, the Venza actually has less interior space. It has 95 cubic feet of room for passengers and a cargo area of 29 cubic feet. The RAV4 has 99 cubic feet for passengers and 38 cubic feet for cargo.

The Venza is 15 feet 7 inches long compared to the RAV4’s 15 feet 1 inch. But the RAV4, at 5 feet 7 inches, is an inch taller than the Venza’s height of 5 feet 6 inches.

Overall, the Venza presents itself as a stylish and comfortable conveyance, more luxury-oriented than the RAV4. Following a trend among luxury crossover SUVs, it has the roofline of a coupe, though taller, and an interior that has prompted some critics to opine that it looks more like a Lexus, Toyota’s luxury brand, than a Toyota.

Inside, the upholstery and many surfaces are covered in leather or leatherette. Front and outboard rear seats are roomy, supportive and comfortable. Even the center-rear seat is not horrible, thanks to a shallow floor hump and a decently soft cushion. Rear seatbacks fold flat to expand cargo space to 55 cubic feet.

On the road, the Venza feels strong under acceleration, though there’s some growling from the gasoline engine when you get your foot heavily into the throttle. Once settled on the highway, the ambiance mostly becomes quiet.

For a vehicle that leans toward luxury, the Venza has some sporting road manners. Select the Sport driving mode and it handles curving roads with aplomb as the ECVT transmission keeps the engine on the boil. Not bad for a machine that can deliver 40 mpg.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Toyota Venza Limited four-door crossover sport utility vehicle.
  • Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline, 176 hp; with three electric motors; 219 combined system hp.
  • Transmission: Electronic continuously variable automatic (ECVT) with manual-shift mode and all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 7 inches.
  • Height: 5 feet 6 inches. 
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 95/29 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,880 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 40/37/39 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $40,975.
  • Price as tested: $43,525.

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

Photos (c) Toyota

2021 Genesis G80 3.5 AWD Prestige: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

There’s a new boss luxury car in town. It’s called the 2021 Genesis G80, an all-new full-size four-door that behaves more like a capable compact or a scrappy midsize sports sedan. 

Depending on which of nine versions you select, you can drive off in a relatively inexpensive near-luxury rear-wheel drive family car well suited to long-distance motoring. Or if you have more bucks to slap on the table, a dazzling twin-turbo performer with all-wheel drive and the bones to challenge luxury/high-performance European marques.

In automotive terms, Genesis is still in kindergarten, just five years old. It started as the top model in the Hyundai lineup from South Korea. In 2015, the company established it as Genesis Motor LLC, a separate luxury brand, not unlike Acura issued from Honda and Lexus begat from Toyota.

Now it has moved from a company with a few sedans to rudely intruding with its GV lineup into the luxury crossover sport utility territory, threatening competitors from Cadillac, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lincoln, Acura and Lexus. The GVs likely have the potential to follow in the tire tracks of the G70, G80 and G90 sedans, as well as the acclaimed new Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride midsize crossover sport utility vehicles. 

The 2021 Genesis G80 was one of 10 semifinalists for North American Car of the Year. They were selected by a panel, or jury, of 50 automotive journalists from the United States and Canada, of which this reviewer is one. Competitors come from Acura, BMW, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, MINI, Nissan and even Hyundai, the Genesis parent company.

Two of the nine Genesis models — called trim levels in the industry — were evaluated. One was the G80 all-wheel-drive Advanced, a step-and-a-half up from the base Standard. It’s a classy near-luxury car with a turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 300 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque via an eight-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode. The EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption rating is 22/30/25 mpg.

The Advance comes with 19-inch alloy wheels, a panoramic sunroof, ventilated faux leather seats, three-zone automatic climate control, a power trunk-lid, and a 21-speaker audio system. All G80s come with rear-wheel drive standard but all-wheel drive is available for $3,150.

The other Genesis was the top-line 3.5 AWD Prestige model, with a twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 engine, delivering 375 hp and 391 lb-ft of torque, also with an eight-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive and a manual-shift mode. Its EPA fuel economy is 18/26/21 mpg.

Starting prices range from $56,475, including the destination charge, for the 2.5 Advanced to $68,675 for the 3.5 Prestige. As tested, the 2.5 had a bottom-line sticker of $56,475 and the 3.5’s came to $69,075.

Either way, the G80 is a lot of a car. With 122 cubic feet of interior space — divided into 107 cubic feet for passengers and 15 cubic feet in the trunk – it is classified as large by the EPA. It can carry five comfortably with four commodious seats and a fifth center-rear seat that is less accommodating but not as onerous as those in many other cars.

Both models give you a sumptuous interior, including perforated Nappa leather upholstery on the 3.5, beautiful Matte finish interior wood trim that would not look out of place on a Bentley or the stock of a bespoke Holland and Holland shotgun, and a host of state-of-the-art safety features, including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, evasive steering torque assist, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot warning, lane-keeping assist and rear cross-traffic braking.

On the performance side, both G80s have much to recommend them. The all-wheel drive Prestige delivers rocket acceleration, estimated here in the five-second range for zero to 60 mph. The 2.5 is not as quick but won’t be embarrassed anywhere, more in the seven-second range. Both are quiet cruisers with straight-line stability and capable handling on twisting mountain roads.

In this era, infotainment simplicity is becoming increasingly important. It seems that luxury manufacturers make their systems needlessly puzzling — perhaps thinking that customers equate complexity with the pricey drain on their pocketbooks. Yet infotainment systems on inexpensive cars are often more intuitive than those on luxury cars. The Genesis G80 mostly falls into the ease-of-use category, though a few functions can be frustrating. 

But, hey, we said at the outset that the Genesis G80 is the new boss in town. Get over it.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Genesis G80 3.5 AWD Prestige four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 3.5-liter V6, twin turbochargers; 375 hp, 391 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with manual-shift mode and all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 16 feet 5 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/trunk volume: 107/15 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 4,500 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 18/26/21 mpg. Premium fuel required.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $68,675.
  • Price as tested: $69,075.

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

Photos (c) Genesis

2021 Cadillac CT4 Premium Luxury: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Driving the 2021 Cadillac CT4 Premium Luxury sports sedan brought back memories of when the General Motors flagship brand started its move to a new neighborhood, mainly German.

It was a national press introduction of an all-new 2003 Cadillac, the CTS, at the storied Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey County, California, then sponsored by Mazda and now by aftermarket manufacturer WeatherTech. 

It was Cadillac’s first foray into performance-oriented sedans that bore little resemblance to the plush but mushy land-yacht Fleetwood and De Ville models that had characterized the brand. The idea was to butt bumpers with the Germans and co-opt some of their customers.

The CTS came first. It had sharp, edgy styling, solid performance and rear-wheel drive, reversing years of Cadillacs with front-wheel drive. Earlier, of course, all American cars had rear-wheel drive, and the conventional wisdom was that rear drive was superior to front-wheel drive for sports sedans. 

Although the CTS was a bit bigger, its intended targets were the compact luxury sports sedans: BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4 — and even the Lexus IS, as well as the larger Lincoln LS/Jaguar S-Type, which shared platforms and some parts.

The Laguna Seca press introduction was an eye-opener for some of the automotive journalists, including this reviewer. So capable was the CTS on and off the track it stirred feelings of chauvinism that an American sports sedan could compete so handily with the best of the Europeans.

Some of those same impressions surfaced recently driving the 2021 Cadillac CT4 Premium Luxury sedan. It is among eight automobiles voted as semifinalists for the North American Car of the Year, nominated by an independent 50-member jury of automotive journalists from the United States and Canada (including this writer).

Like its predecessor CTS, the new CT4 also comes in a V Blackwing version, designed to competed with the ultra-performance BMW M models, the AMG versions from Mercedes-Benz and S models from Audi. The CT4-V comes with a price tag that starts around $58,000. 

However, the tester here is the midlevel Premium Luxury model. It comes with a turbocharged 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 325 horsepower and 380 lb-ft of torque, or twisting force. It also comes with a lower base price of $38,590, including the destination charge, and a bottom-line sticker of $44,990. 

To borrow from a popular movie candy, it’s good and plenty. With its 10-speed automatic transmission, the tested CT4 can nail 60 mph in about five seconds, with a top speed of 165 mph, according to tests by Car and Driver magazine. There’s a manual-shift mode with paddle shifters but you’re not likely to do any better shifting for yourself. The onboard computer works best.

As with its European and Japanese competitors, the CT4’s other strong suit is handling. Though it rides on self-sealing, all-season tires (there’s no spare), it has a firm grip on curves, abetted by a tightly snubbed suspension system and accurate steering. Of course, that means it lacks a traditional cushy Cadillac ride. On some surfaces, it gets shaky but overall, the CT4 does a decent job of absorbing road chop without getting unsettled.

There’s a raucous bark under hard acceleration and some engine drone during highway cruising, though not enough to overcome Taylor Swift on audio and discourage long-distance traveling. Front seats, upholstered in perforated leather, are comfortable with good seatback bolstering for rapid driving. Outboard back seats, tight on head and knee room, also are supportive, though getting back there takes some agility through the small door opening. The center-rear seat is a bummer with a hard perch, giant floor hump and crunching head room.

Out back, there’s a smallish trunk that is fairly deep and nicely finished with C-hinges that are isolated to not damage contents. With no spare, activate the OnStar if you blow a tire.

The tested CT4 Premium Luxury came with full safety equipment, including forward collision alert and automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind spot alert, lane departure warning with lane-keeping assist, and rear parking assist. 

Comfort and convenience items, some optional, included a navigation system with Bose premium audio, SXM satellite radio, wireless smart phone charging, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated and ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, power lumbar support for front seats, Apple Car Play and Android Auto connectivity, OnStar emergency services, HD radio and LED headlights.

Though the CT4 is a driver’s car, you can also order SuperCruise, Cadillac’s semi-autonomous driving system.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Cadillac CT4 Premium Luxury four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 2.7-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged; 325 hp, 380 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: 10-speed automatic with manual-shift mode and rear-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 7 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/trunk volume: 90/11 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,615 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 20/30/24 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $38,590.
  • Price as tested: $44,990.

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

Photos (c) Cadillac

2021 BMW 330e Sedan: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Electrification. It’s the current buzzword for the future in the automotive industry. There’s a lot to embrace in the various approaches so far, including the 2021 BMW 330e plug-in hybrid sedan.

There are at least four avenues so far: electric motor, where you plug in to charge the battery pack; hybrid, with an electric motor working in concert with a gasoline engine; plug-in hybrid, which combines the first two, and hydrogen fueled from a service station pump or manufactured onboard from a fuel cell.

The bottom line from whatever source is electric power, which is non-polluting, fuss-free mechanically and delivers instant torque, or twisting force, as soon as it is switched on. 

Eventually, as the technology advances, battery electric likely will take over with quick charging that takes no longer than fueling a gasoline or diesel engine vehicle. 

The simple hybrid is the method of choice now. Hybrids, led by Toyota’s popular Prius, have delivered millions of economical, reliable vehicles to owners all over the world.

Then there are the plug-ins, epitomized by the tested BMW 330e. The concept has merit. Hook up the 330e to a 240-volt charging station — there are many all over the country — and in three hours the battery pack is charged. 

When you engage, the first thing it does is to enable BMW’s so-called XtraBoost, which conjures up an additional 40 horsepower when you punch the hot pedal off the line. It only lasts a few seconds but enables the 330e to accelerate to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, BMW says.

If that hasn’t sucked the juice from the batteries, you can then cruise about 22 miles on pure electric power. After that, your 330e becomes a regular hybrid, toggling back and forth between and in concert with the gasoline engine until you either plug in again or fill up the tank.

All this folderol earns the 330e a miles per gallon equivalency rating from the EPA of 75 MPGe. If you don’t bother to charge it, the 330e’s city/highway/combined fuel consumption on mainly gasoline power comes to 25/38/28 mpg.

It works, too. On a 100-mile round trip, the tested 330e’s gasoline gauge pointer barely moved off the “full” peg. But it’s not all honey in the tea or toddy. The tested 330e’s base price is $45,545. A standard 330i costs $2,000 less and, curiously, delivers slightly better gasoline-only fuel economy of 26/36/30 mpg. 

So, if spending a couple of grand more to plug in and get up to 22 miles on pure electric power is your thing, go for it. Truth is, with this BMW you hardly detect the difference between all-electric and hybrid driving anyway, so seamless does the system switch back and forth.

Until you do a bit of schooling, either by yourself with the owner’s manual or with a BMW instructor, you do have to puzzle over the scattershot of numbers on the instrument panel. With some of these systems, especially with premium cars, it seems as if infotainment functions are made deliberately complicated to justify the higher prices.

For example: On other models, BMW has a simple button below the instruments to re-set the trip odometer. On the 330e, you have to search through a bunch of menus to find a display that gives you that information, along with your fuel economy. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to ask.

But if a performance/luxury plug-in hybrid activates your synapses and you can spend about 60 large, you won’t be disappointed. This is a BMW, after all, which telegraphs that you will inherit driver involvement in a sweet-handling and easygoing transporter in any driving situation.

This tester carried $14,100 worth of options, bringing its as-tested price to $59,645. That, of course, made it uncommonly well equipped with such items as adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist. 

Both, by the way, are uncommonly aggressive — no doubt because of their BMW genes — so don’t get too spooked when you appear to be headed for a collision with that 18-wheeler before the adaptive cruise brakes slam on, or the lane keeping almost jerks the steering wheel out of your lazy hands.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 BMW 330e PHEV four-door sedan. 
  • Engine/motor: 2.0-liter four-cylinder gasoline, turbocharged, 181 hp, 258 lb-ft torque; paired with 107 hp, 77 lb-ft torque electric motor and 12.0 kWh lithium-ion battery; total system 288 hp, 310 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with manual-shift mode and rear-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 6 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/trunk volume: 98/13 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 4,039 pounds.
  • Electric-only range: 22 miles. 
  • Charging time (@ 240 volts): Three hours.
  • EPA combined miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe): 75. Gasoline only: 28 mpg. Premium fuel required.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $45,545.
  • Price as tested: $59,645.

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

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Photos (c) BMW

2021 Ford Edge Titanium AWD: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Now a teenager, the 2021 Ford Edge has lost some of its edgy styling in favor of softer attractive styling, but it retains its everyday comfort and practicality as an easy-driving midsize two-row crossover sport utility vehicle.

Introduced as a 2007 model, the Edge has been a staple of the Ford lineup with sales of well over 100,000 most years. It slots between the smaller Escape and the larger Explorer. Four adults sit comfortably and a fifth less so in the center-rear position. But with a nearly flat floor, that person at least has a place to plant his or her feet. Moreover, unlike some luxury SUVs, the rear seatbacks recline for long-trip relaxation.

Behind the second row is a generous cargo area of 39 cubic feet, enough to haul the luggage and stuff for a small family’s week at the beach. A full-size temporary spare wheel and tire is stashed beneath the floor and the rear seatbacks fold 60/40 for extra cargo if needed.

There’s a broad range of trim levels for different budgets and desires, starting with the front-wheel-drive SE at around $33,000 to the top-line ST at more than $45,000. Tested for this review was the mid-level Titanium with all-wheel drive that started at $42,325 and had a bottom-line sticker of $48,990.

All Edge models come with modern basic safety equipment, including automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist and blind-spot monitoring. In addition, the tested Edge came with knee air bags up front, evasive steering assist, adaptive cruise control, a reverse sensing system and rain-sensing windshield wipers with de-icing.

Other equipment on the tested Titanium model, some of it optional, included a hands-free motorized rear tailgate, dual-zone automatic climate control, panoramic sunroof, voice-activated navigation, SXM satellite radio, 4G Wi-Fi hotspot, wireless smart phone charging, leather trimmed heated and cooled front seats with power memory driver’s seat, and heated rear seats.

The Edge Titanium infotainment system comes with Ford’s new SYNC 4 interface viewed on a 12-inch center display. It features wireless compatibility with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and apps from smart phones and other mobile devices. 

With that list of equipment, anyone could be forgiven for assuming that the Edge Titanium competes in the near-luxury crossover class. It does, but at a lower price than some of the others.

It shows on the open road, where cruising at freeway speeds and higher is fatigue-free, with few steering corrections needed in straight-line driving. If you’re caught up in stop-and-go traffic, as happens to motorists on the east coast’s Interstate 95 during beach vacation season, it’s another story. 

The cabin is quiet, with little intrusion of mechanical, tire and wind noise. Handling on twisting roads is capable and secure as long as you don’t push the Edge too hard. 

Comfort and ergonomics are first-rate. The seats, done up in perforated leather, are supportive and comfortable, and controls are easy to locate and operate. The shifter is a rotary knob that is as intuitive and easy to use as any shifter currently on the market. There’s an idle stop-start system that, thankfully, can be switched off, eliminating that hesitation if you have to accelerate quickly from a stop.

Except for the top-line ST performance model, the Edge gets its power from a 250-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 275 lb-ft of torque. With that, the tested Titanium model is not the quickest crossover out of the gate. But with a 0-60-mph acceleration time of less than seven seconds, it will do nicely. A few years ago, that was considered fast.

The top-line ST performance version is powered by a 2.7-liter V6 engine with twin turbochargers. It makes 335 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque, and comes with all-wheel drive standard. The transmission is an eight-speed automatic for all models.

However, unless you’re the sort who simply must have the most powerful — and least economical — model in any lineup, the Titanium version is more than satisfactory. It does everything buyers look for in a two-row crossover.

Competitors include the Honda Passport, Kia Sorento, Chevrolet Blazer, Hyundai Santa Fe and Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport. The Mazda CX-9 has the same interior space but squeezes in three rows of seats.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Ford Edge Titanium four-door crossover sport utility vehicle.
  • Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged; 250 hp, 275 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 9 inches.
  • Height: 5 feet 8 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 110/39 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 4,124 pounds.
  • Towing capability: 1,500 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 21/28/23 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $42,325.
  • Price as tested: $48,990.

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

Photos (c) Ford

2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA250: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Mercedes-Benz regards the all-new 2021 GLA250 as its entry-level crossover SUV, but for many motorists it could represent a dual-purpose icon on the mountaintop.

That’s because it delivers the practicality of a small crossover, with up to 51 cubic feet of cargo space (rear seatbacks folded) and an engaging, even sporting, personality — all at a price that likely is reasonable for some though out of reach for many.

That, of course, is the usual state of affairs with Mercedes and other European luxury brands. You can find many cars and crossovers at reasonable prices for the majority of the hoi polloi. But when you’re talking BMW, Audi, Jaguar, Volvo and Alfa Romeo, forget any bargain basement deals.

The GLA250’s starting price actually looks fairly reasonable. At $37,280 with front-wheel drive and including the destination charge that rarely is advertised but everybody must pay, it comes close to the average price of a new car these days.

When you start plumbing the options list, the amount inflates. On the tested GLA250, the extras came to $10,980, or nearly a third of the basic price. That’s not uncommon with many luxury brands, which have options lists that stretch to the horizon. They send the GLA250’s “as-tested” price to $48,620.

But it’s unlikely Mercedes even bothers to assemble any base vehicles, likely because its customers would not even consider what used to be called a stripper. So, what you see is what you get. 

In this case, it’s a well-equipped small luxury conveyance with a lot of desirable equipment — some of it superfluous — and a few shortcomings that anyone likely could live with unless they were terminally picky. 

Of course, this is Mercedes engineering and quality, so the fundamentals are present. The GLA250 is powered by a new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that makes 221 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, or twisting force. The power makes its way to the front wheels via an also new eight-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode triggered by paddles on the steering wheel. There’s also an all-wheel-drive 4Matic model for an additional $2,000.

City/highway/combined fuel economy is rated by the EPA at a decent 25/34/28 mpg, aided by a standard idle stop-start system. It’s not a favorite with this reviewer because of the re-start hesitation when there’s a need to accelerate quickly off the line. But on the GLA250, there’s an off switch directly below the start button so you can disable it without searching through touch-screen menus. 

Safety equipment includes forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking — now increasingly demanded for motor vehicles everywhere — as well as the Mercedes attention assist, which monitors driver behavior and issues warnings to take a break.

Standard equipment includes such amenities as Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and dual-zone automatic climate control. Options on the tested GLA250 included $2,240 for performance AMG body styling, including a classy black diamond grille, and perforated front disc brakes; panorama sunroof (with a flimsy perforated sunshade), navigation system, SXM satellite radio, digital instrument cluster and center display, heated front seats, and auto-dimming inside and outside mirrors.

However, the tested GLA250’s sun visors did not slide on their support rods to adequately block sunlight from the side, there was no adaptive cruise control, and the redundant steering wheel controls included tiny buttons that mimic the center touch pad. The buttons were too susceptible to inadvertently touch while driving and, among other things, change a radio station.

The main attraction of the GLA250, however, is the driving dynamics, and this is where this borderline luxury crossover SUV shines. Its tidy dimensions — six inches shy of 16 feet — along with a stiff but supple suspension system and accurate steering delivers handling on curving roads that can match or better some sports sedans. The tradeoff is a choppy ride on the many pockmarked surfaces on U.S. roads.

It also is a comfortable long-distance cruiser that tracks steadily with few steering corrections needed and a reasonably quite cabin. Front and outboard rear seats, though covered in MB-Tex faux leather, are supportive and comfortable. The center-rear seat, as usual in many vehicles these days, is compromised by a high, hard cushion and intrusion of a floor hump that is a full eight inches high.

Sales of the Mercedes GLA-Class have been slipping in 2020. COVID-19 permitting, the new models should help them regain some solid footing.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA250 four-door crossover sport utility vehicle.
  • Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged; 221 hp, 258 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Eight-speed dual clutch automatic with manual-shift mode and front-wheel drive. 
  • Overall length: 14 feet 6 inches.
  • Height: 5 feet 4 inches
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 98/15 cubic feet. 
  • Weight: 3,410 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 25/34/28 mpg. Premium gasoline required.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $37,280.
  • Price as tested: $48,620.

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

Photos (c) Mercedes-Benz

2021 Toyota Sienna XSE: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Despite the ridicule it endures, the minivan still is the most practical personal passenger vehicle on the planet. Now, with the 2021 Toyota Sienna, there’s one less argument against it.

For the first time with any minivan, all Sienna models are hybrids. So with their other attributes, they deliver impressive fuel economy along with their ginormous 206 cubic feet of passenger and cargo space, about the same as in two Nissan Versa sedans together.

The EPA city/highway/combined numbers for the tested Sienna XSE with front-wheel drive are 36/36/36 mpg. It’s 1 mpg less combined with the available all-wheel drive.

The hybrid system mates a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine with a 134-kW electric motor to deliver 245 net hp. They are linked to a capable continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) that features what Toyota calls a “sequential shift mode,” meaning that it can be manually shifted with the console-mounted shift lever. There are no steering-wheel paddles. It doesn’t change much so most people are unlikely to bother shifting for themselves.

There are five versions, starting with the $35,635 LE model, followed by the $40,925 XLE, the tested sporty XSE at $43,175, Limited $47,875, and the top-line Platinum, $51,075. The prices are for front-drivers. Add bargain priced all-wheel drive for $740.

Like other minivans, the Sienna is long at 16 feet 9 inches. But with all-new styling enhanced on the XSE model with 20-inch wheels, it’s also graceful looking and less ponderous in its handling than a full-sized sport utility vehicle like a Chevrolet Suburban, Ford Expedition or Toyota’s own Sequoia.

In fact, it feels like a much smaller vehicle on the road and can even be hustled through moderate curves without getting unsettled. There are various drive modes, including Eco, EV, Normal and Sport. But the differences are minor, though the Sport setting delivers a modest tightening of the steering and suspension system. It also seems to provide slightly more deceleration regenerative braking to help recharge the battery pack.

Overall, the tested Sienna XSE was a pleasant road-going companion, quiet in operation with enough power to handle any public highway situation and a bump-soaking ride no doubt enhanced by its length. Independent tests have clocked the 0-60 mph acceleration time in the seven-second range.

The XSE’s seven-passenger cabin was a welcoming space. It comes standard with second-row captain’s chairs,  providing between-seat access to the third row, where there’s plenty of head room and ample knee room as long as the second row seats are pushed forward — they have 25 inches of travel. But if you cram three passengers into the third row they’d better be children or very skinny adults.

Soft faux leather in black and embossed white covered the seats in the tested XSE, with well-bolstered sport seats up front. Second row seats cannot be stored but can be jackknifed with the pull of a lever to provide additional space for cargo. The third-row seats, divided two-thirds and one-third, can be folded almost flat with the pull of one lever and easily brought back up with the lever and a pull strap.  

Up front, the center console features built-in non-adjustable armrests at the same height as the armrests on the doors. There’s a deep bin and four cup holders, two large and two small, and a dozen other cup holders throughout the cabin. Seven USB ports are scattered around to serve passengers. Below the dash is a narrow side-to-side shelf with a wireless smart phone charging port.

The Sienna comes with Toyota’s extensive Safety Sense, including a pre-collision system with automatic emergency braking, low light pedestrian detection and daytime cyclist detection; lane-departure mitigation with lane-keeping assist, road edge detection and sway warning; blind spot monitoring, and dynamic radar cruise control.

Convenience items included advanced voice recognition, hands-free phone operation, WiFi, and an intuitive nine-inch center screen that controls a navigation system, premium audio, Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, SXM satellite radio and HD radio. There’s also a 1500-watt electric inverter. 

Other XSE equipment: Power side doors and rear lift gate; four-zone automatic climate control; second row side window sunshades; black roof rails, auto-dimming inside rearview mirror with compass, and dual upper and lockable lower glove compartments.

To prevent Mom or Dad from getting laryngitis yelling at the kids, a Driver Easy Speak microphone amplifies the driver’s voice through the rear speakers.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Toyota Sienna XSE seven-passenger minivan.
  • Engine/motor hybrid system: 2.5-liter four-cylinder; 134 kW electric motor; combined system 245 hp.
  • Transmission: Electronically controlled continuously variable automatic with sequential shift control and front-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 16 feet 9 inches.
  • Height: 5 feet 9 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 167/39 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 4,430 pounds.
  • Towing capability: 3,500 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 36/36/36 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $43,175.
  • Price as tested: $44,625.

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

Photos (c) Toyota, Jason Fogelson

2021 Polestar 2 EV: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer      

There’s another new sparkly from Sweden’s Volvo: the Polestar 2, a fully electric, midsize performance/luxury fastback/hatchback that can more than hold its own with many of the electrics that now are popping up like shoots in a garden.

It can compete handily with another all-new electric from Volvo, the XC40 Recharge, a small crossover SUV. That’s because they share power sources — separate electric motors for the front and rear wheels to enable all-wheel drive. 

There are minor differences. The Polestar’s motors together make 408 hp with 487 lb-ft of torque, or twisting force. The XC40’s make 402 hp and 486 lb-ft of torque. But the vehicles bear little physical resemblance to each other. 

Each also claims to be the first on the market with Volvo’s new UX infotainment system, which makes use of the Android Automotive Operating System with Google Maps, Google Voice and Google Assistant. As on the previously reviewed XC40 Recharge, the system can be frustrating to use without detailed instruction and practice.

Like the XC40 Recharge, the Polestar has a small trunk of one cubic foot under the hood — a good place to store charging cables.

Yet they are both essentially Volvos, from the company that pioneered the three-point seatbelt and other safety innovations. It held up during some difficult times, including a decade when it was owned by  Ford. Now the owner is Geely Holding, a Chinese company based in Gothenburg, Sweden. 

Wisely, the owners let Volvo be Volvo, with the result that the new Polestar 2 delivers Scandinavian flavor with classy but minimalist design. Though Nappa leather upholstery is an option, everything else inside, the company says, is “sustainable, vegan materials, like a fully vegan interior with the new WeaveTech fabric and reconstructed wood.”

The test car provided for this review had the vegan interior. Though the WeaveTech cloth has previously made an appearance on Volvo cars, it continues to be cozily comfortable and supportive — superior to leather, in this view. Besides, the Nappa leather option comes with a $4,000 price tag.

Like the XC40, the Polestar 2 is something of a dragster, with a zero to 60 miles an hour acceleration time, according to the manufacturer, of 4.45 seconds and a top speed of 125. The XC40 Recharge is only marginally slower with a zero to 60 time of 4.7 seconds and a top speed of 112 mph.

With its powerful electric motor and a 75-kWh battery, the Polestar gets a rapid jump off the line. Because electric motors deliver maximum torque, or twisting force, as soon as they are activated, there are no shift points — and no engine roar. Silent running is the mode for acceleration and cruising. The suspension is biased toward sharp handling, which sometimes makes for a choppy ride.

The Polestar’s range is about 200 miles when fully charged. But it can be enhanced with regenerative braking. There are Low and Standard settings. Both enable one-pedal driving. When you lift off the throttle the Polestar automatically starts braking and will come to a stop without touching the brakes. It takes practice but is not difficult. 

There’s also creep mode that allows the Polestar to keep moving in slow traffic without much intervention from the driver. All of the drive modes, including another that determines steering effort, are controlled from the center touch screen.

One feature shared with the XC40 that likely will lead to lively discussion: There’s no Start button. Simply unlock the car, sit in the driver’s seat, pull the shift lever back to the Drive setting and the Polestar can go. When you leave, it all shuts down.

The Polestar seats four comfortably. There’s a fifth seatbelt for the center-rear position. But it is compromised by a large floor hump, intrusion of the center console and a high, hard seat cushion. 

Rear vision also is restricted by large headrests in back. So it’s important to get the side view mirrors properly adjusted to eliminate blind spots.

There’s a full panoramic glass moon roof that does not open and lacks a sun shade, though it has automatic light dimming. And the front sun visors do not slide on their support rods to adequately block sunlight from the sides.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Polestar 2 four-door hatchback sedan.
  • Electric motors: Two permanent-magnet synchronous AC; total system 408 hp, 487 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: direct-drive automatic with full-time all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 1 inch.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 96/15 plus one cubic foot in front trunk. 39 plus one cubic foot with rear seatbacks folded.
  • Weight: 4,715 pounds.
  • City/highway/combined miles per gallon equivalent: 96/88/92  MPGe.
  • Range: Up to 200 miles.
  • Charging time: Eight hours with 240-volt, level 2 charger; 22 hours with household 120-volt current; 40 minutes to 80% capacity with DC fast charger.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $60,000.
  • Price as tested: $66,200.

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

Photos (c) Polestar

2021 Ram 1500 TRX Crew Cab 4X4: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Other than its menacing mien, the clue to the purpose of the 2021 Ram 1500 TRX is that gigantic spare wheel and tire bolted into the cargo bed. 

There’s a twin, another spare hanging underneath, because both might be needed. Together they announce that this behemoth is not your average big pickup. Far from it. This dystopian machine starts out as a Ram 1500 but gets a shape-shifting transformation into a mighty dune busting, rock climbing, Baja California racing truck without peer.

Start with the brutish power. Under the hood is Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ 6.2-liter supercharged Dodge Hellcat V8 engine, snorting out 702 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque that forces its way through a mighty eight-speed automatic transmission to all four wheels.

Anyone might conclude that power of that magnitude might be needed to get this 6,866-pound truck away from the curb. But Car and Driver magazine, using testing equipment and the TRX launch control, measured its 0-60-mph acceleration time at 3.7 seconds. Forget inertia, Newton’s first law of motion that an object at rest stays at rest.

That’s not all. The Ram TRX, dubbed T-Rex by some of its enablers, comes with a whole bag full of off-road goodies, including adaptable Bilstein shock absorbers that enable it to rocket off hills and sand dunes and cushion its landings on the other side, a la Evel Knievel.

Time for a disclaimer. In this Covid-19 restricted metropolitan area surrounding Washington, D.C., there was no opportunity to do the fun stuff of boondocks-bashing for this review. But other assessments by professionals have testified to the TRX’s extraordinary capabilities in tough terrain.

The surprise is that this Marvelous Mrs. Maisel of the truck world handles itself — with a little help from the driver — quite well in the real world of urban and suburban commuting, though of course not economically.

The EPA rates the TRX’s city/highway/combined fuel consumption at 10/14/12 mpg on premium gasoline — not the sort of numbers that would endear it to environmentalists hoping to save the planet from premature oblivion. Likely the argument would be that, at the tested TRX’s bottom line sticker price of $87,570, it would be but a blip on the green movement’s charts.

Back to the surprise. Climb up into the TRX’s cab — make sure you have strong leg muscles — and punch the start button. The Hellcat V8 roars into life, frightening any small wildlife in the area, but soon settles into a muted drone.

You can actually tootle around in city traffic without contributing to noise pollution. If you keep the massive supercharged eight-cylinder sedated under 1500 rpm — watch the tachometer — you won’t bother yourself or anyone around you.

But punch the throttle and you’re noisily off to the urban drag races. Another surprise: the TRX is relatively light on its tires and delivers a not great but acceptable steering feel and handling. So if you’re not weekend hammering the dunes or rocks, you could use the TRX as a commuter vehicle — and also as a family hauler because it has a generous amount of space for five people.

But its forte is conquering grueling terrain, including sharp rocks that can blow a tire in an instant, which is why the TRX carries two full-size spares. It also has seven selectable drive modes to likely cover anything it encounters: auto, custom, mud/sand, rock, snow, towing, sport and Baja. 

The TRX has full-time four-wheel drive with high and low ranges, as well as a locking rear axle. Two-wheel drive for economical cruising on pavement is not available. 

With a base price of $71,690 and $87,570 as tested, it comes with 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, high-performance brakes, adaptive cruise control with stop and go, blind spot and cross-path detection, front and rear parking assist, and head-up display. 

Also: 12-inch iPad-style center screen, navigation, leather-trimmed and heated seats, premium audio system, SXM satellite radio, rain-sensing windshield wipers and a power tailgate release.

So there’s actual comfort when you aren’t bashing the boondocks.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Ram 1500 TRX Crew Cab 4X4 pickup truck.
  • Engine: 6.2-liter V8, supercharged; 702 hp, 650 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with four-wheel drive, high and low range.
  • Overall length: 19 feet 5 inches.
  • Height: 6 feet 9 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger volume: 132 cubic feet.
  • Cargo bed length: 5 feet 7 inches.
  • Cargo bed volume (est.): 50 cubic feet.
  • Off-road approach, break-over, departure angles: 30, 22, 24 inches.
  • Ground clearance: 12 inches.
  • Water-fording depth: 32 inches.
  • Weight: 6,866 pounds.
  • Payload: 1,310 pounds.
  • Towing capability: 8,382 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 10/14/12 mpg. Premium fuel.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $71,690.
  • Price as tested: $87,570.

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

Photos (c) Stellantis

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