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Hybrids go upscale

Forget quirky styling, today’s models are quick and chic

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Ten years ago, the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius landed on U.S. shores. With dweeb exteriors and dawdling engines, these first hybrids were as dull as “Herbie: Fully Loaded.”

Now almost every major automaker has at least one hybrid in its lineup, and there are more than 40 different models available in showrooms. Still, most hybrids aren’t exactly head-turners, and they make up less than 4 percent of all vehicle sales.

Expect that to change soon. Just a few weeks ago, EPA upped the federal mileage standards by 10 mpg—or almost 40 percent—by 2016. More important: a slew of luxury hybrids hitting the streets this year are as fast and furious as, well, “The Fast and the Furious.” 


Audi Q5 Hybrid
$42,000
Mpg: 21 city/26 highway (est.)

Audi’s Q5 Hybrid arrives late this year or in 2011. Using a lithium-ion battery, this compact crossover will have hybrid gear similar to that on the VW Touareg and Porsche Cayenne (both due next spring).

Other Audi hybrids: A8 Hybrid (fall 2010). 


BMW ActiveHybrid 7
$103,000
Mpg: 15 city/22 highway

Better late than never. It’s been three years since Lexus began offering its top-of-the-line LS 600h L hybrid. Now BMW rolls out its own full-size eco sedan. The ActiveHybrid 7 gets 15 percent better fuel mileage than the regular BMW 750i and bursts from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.7 seconds—faster than the 750i or the Lexus. Top speed: 150 mph. But this is a mild hybrid, so the electric motor runs the car mainly at stoplights, not when the vehicle is in motion. It also means a smaller battery pack, which allows for more trunk space. For $3,000 more, you get an extra 5.5 inches of rear legroom in the long-wheelbase model.

Other BMW hybrids: ActiveHybrid X6, ActiveHybrid 5 (fall 2010), ActiveHybrid X5 (fall 2010). 


Infiniti M35 Hybrid (winter 2010)
$53,000
Mpg: 19 city/27 highway (est.)

Due late this year, Infiniti’s first hybrid is a rear-wheel-drive, high-performance midsize sedan that mates a feisty V6 to an electric motor. Based on the conventional M35, which just had a boffo redo, the hybrid model sports a lithium-ion battery pack that is the same size as conventional batteries but with twice the power. 


Lincoln MKZ Hybrid
$39,000 (est.)
Mpg: 41 city/36 highway

Using the same gas engine and electric motor as the popular Ford Fusion Hybrid and Mercury Milan Hybrid, the MKZ Hybrid sedan can go up to 47 mph on electric power alone. It also boasts better fuel mileage than the recently introduced Lexus HS 250h (which can only go to 25 mph in electric mode). Question is, will consumers choose an MKZ Hybrid over the less-expensive Fusion and Mercury models? 


Lexus HS 250h
$35,000
Mpg: 35 city/34 highway

Lexus adds a compact hybrid sedan to join the midsize GS 450h and full-size LS 600h L. But the HS 250h is pure sport sedan, not a gussied-up Prius. The 0-60 time is a decent 8.7 seconds, with solid passing, braking and cornering ability. Two models: base and premium, which adds heated/cooled seats, rain-sensing wipers, and power steering wheel.

Other Lexus hybrids: GS 450h, LS 600h L, RX 450h, and CT 200h (winter 2011). 


Mercedes S400 Hybrid
$90,000
Mpg: 19 city/26 highway

The new Mercedes S400 targets the large Lexus LS 600h L, of course, not the smaller HS 250h. So what’s the result? The Mercedes is a bit slower (0 to 60 mph in seven seconds) but gets better gas mileage. The Lexus has more rear-seat legroom, but less cargo space (16.3 cubic feet vs. 11.7). The Mercedes combines a V6 with a lithium-ion battery pack, while the Lexus uses a V8 and old-school nickel-metal hydride batteries. But the Lexus has a smoother ride, yet costs $18,000 more. In the end, it may be easier to just go with a BMW ActiveHybrid 7. 


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Autos

Seductive sport-utes: Buick Evista, Subaru Outback

Two vehicles that punch way above their weight

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Buick Envista

Two recent sport-utes are surprise hits this year. Well, at least they are for me. That’s because the all-new Buick Envista and tried-and-true Subaru Outback both deliver more than expected—a lot more. Call it bait and switch, but in a good way. 

BUICK ENVISTA 

$24,000

MPG: 28 city/32 highway

0 to 60 mph: 9.3 seconds

Maximum cargo room: 42.0 cu. ft. 

PROS: Yowza design, yowza cabin, yowza price

CONS: Modest power, no all-wheel drive, so-so stereo

IN A NUTSHELL: If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Buick Envista is practically a Teutonic clone. Just a few months ago, I wrote about the BMW X6—a riveting ride with glam looks, oodles of high-tech gizmos and an uber-comfy interior. But all that awesomeness comes at a price: $75,000—and that’s just the base model. Choose a higher trim level or load up on chichi extras and this bad-ass Bimmer easily tops $100,000. 

Not so the Buick Envista, an all-new compact that starts at just $24,000. I test drove the high-end Avenir version, which was—wait for it—only $5,000 extra. And the Avenir comes standard with 19-inch nickel-finish wheels, upgraded suspension, power liftgate, keyless entry, remote start, heated seats, heated steering wheel and other goodies. 

After doing a double take on the Envista’s exquisite exterior, I did the same when slipping behind the wheel. Yep, there definitely is a Buick logo inside. But everything else could come from the kicky cabin of a BMW X6. This includes a fully digital dashboard stretched wide beneath the windshield, as well as stylish trapezoidal air vents, tasteful aluminum trim, armrests sculpted seamlessly into the doors and well-bolstered sport seats.

Turn on the stellar stereo in a BMW X6 and you could be in the front row at a Queen and Adam Lambert concert. In the Envista, the audio may not be quite as impressive, but those six speakers and nicely calibrated noise-cancellation function still provide a pleasant experience. 

This bantamweight Buick also has a surprising amount of space for passengers and cargo. Headroom is more than adequate, even for tallish backseat passengers. And folding those rear seats more than doubles the overall stowage.

All Envistas boast a bevy of safety gear, including lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, automatic braking, forward collision warning with pedestrian protection, and a “following-distance” indicator to monitor vehicles ahead of you. Oh yes, there’s a superb backup camera—high definition, no less. As with the BMW X6, this camera helps offset limited visibility from the small rear window in the sharply sloped roofline. 

For less than $1,000, you can add a blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, rain-sensing wipers, rear-park assist and heated side mirrors. Such options are much pricier on other vehicles.

No, this Buick is not a NASCAR rival. There’s no raw power or intimidating exhaust rumble. But the Envista’s acceleration, handling and braking are all solid, especially in commuter traffic. 

 Affordable. Economical. Thrifty. Call it what you will, the Buick Envista is half the price of an average vehicle today. That’s impressive for this “Mini-Me” of a BMW X6. 

SUBARU OUTBACK

$29,000

MPG: 26 city/32 highway

0 to 60 mph: 8.8 seconds

Maximum cargo room: 75.6 cu. ft. 

PROS: Relaxed ride, spacious interior, off-road maven 

CONS: Slow base engine, dated touchscreen, less fuel-friendly

IN A NUTSHELL: Station wagon? Sport-ute? All-activity vehicle? The Subaru Outback is all three, mixing the agility of all-wheel drive with sedan-like handling. The result: A composed ride equally at home on highways or trailways. 

The overall look is sleeker than a Ford Bronco but less luxe than a Lexus RX. While the Outback was last redesigned in 2020, each year Subaru makes at least a few improvements. For 2024, this mid-sizer receives minor styling updates, as well as more standard features on many of its nine trim levels. 

I test drove the top-of-the-line Touring XT for a week. At $41,000, the price is a whopping 40% higher than the base model. But the amenities rival what many competitors offer on vehicles costing twice as much. Along with heated/ventilated seats, heated steering wheel and heated power-folding side mirrors, there are plenty of other creature comforts: hands-free liftgate, water-repellant faux-leather upholstery, windshield wiper de-icer, tinted rear windows and premium 12-speaker Harman Kardon stereo. 

Curiously, the dual 7.0-inch touchscreen seems stuck in the 1990s. But you can choose a vertical, iPad-like 11.6-inch monitor instead. 

A front-view camera with 180-degree viewing angle makes it easy to peak around corners, while a digital rearview mirror allows you to see behind the vehicle even if the cargo area is fully loaded. Other safety items include adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitor, pre-collision braking, lane-departure warning and drowsy-driver alert. 

Perhaps the only downside is the pokey 182-horsepower base engine. Skip it, and go for the quicker, more satisfying turbo.

Feature-laden but frugally priced, the Outback is similar to the Buick Envista — two vehicles that punch way above their weight. 

Subaru Outback
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Autos

Sport haulers: Jeep Grand Cherokee, Mercedes GLE-Class

Updated cabins, adept handling, and more

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Jeep Grand Cherokee

Now that March Madness and the Masters are over, it’s time for, well, everything else. For my husband and me, this means water sports, as in kayaks and rowing sculls, which is why we trekked to the Potomac for the George Washington Invitational regatta last weekend. 

Alas, high winds splashed cold water on the event, canceling much of it. But there was still plenty of spirited camaraderie to rival “The Boys in the Boat.” 

And I was reminded of my time years ago as a rower with D.C. Strokes, ferrying teammates to races up and down the East Coast. Back then my ride was a dated, rather cramped four-door sedan. 

If only we could have paddled around in a sporty SUV like the two reviewed here. Now that would have been some smooth sailing (wink-wink). 

JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE 

$40,000

MPG: 19 city/26 highway

0 to 60 mph: 7.5 seconds

Maximum cargo room: 37.7 cu. ft. 

PROS: Updated cabin, adept handling, strong towing 

CONS: So-so gas mileage, no third row, pricey trim levels

IN A NUTSHELL: Rough, tough and buff. It’s doesn’t get much more butch than a Jeep. This year’s Grand Cherokee is no exception, with rugged looks, expert off-road capability and better-than-average towing capacity of 6,200 pounds. 

There are a dizzying number of trim levels—more than a dozen—starting with the barebones base-model Laredo at an affordable $40,000. The lineup tops out with the Summit Reserve 4xe PHEV, which is almost twice the price at $76,000 and one of various plug-in hybrid versions available. Those plug-in hybrids can drive up to 25 miles on all-electric power before the four-cylinder gas engine kicks in. Otherwise, you can choose from a standard V6 or V8. Gas mileage on all trim levels is basically the same as the competition. 

Where the Grand Cherokee really shines is in the handling. More refined than a Wrangler but less lavish than a Land Rover, this Jeep maneuvers just as well on city streets and highways as it does on bumpier terrain.    

I tested the mid-range and mid-priced Overland, which comes standard with four-wheel drive and large 20-inch wheels. It also boasts a slew of niceties, such as quilted upholstery, panoramic sunroof and high-tech digital displays. These include a 10.25-inch infotainment touchscreen and rear-seat entertainment system. 

The nine-speaker Alpine stereo, designed specifically for the Grand Cherokee, is pleasing. But I really wanted to hear the boffo 19-speaker McIntosh surround-sound system that Jeep also offers. Sigh, it’s only available on the premium Summit trim level. 

MERCEDES GLE-CLASS

$64,000 

MPG: 20 city/25 highway

0 to 60 mph: 6.6 seconds

Maximum cargo room: 33.3 cu. ft. 

PROS: Lush interior, silky-smooth suspension, speedy 

CONS: Some confusing electronics, tight third row, many competitors

IN A NUTSHELL: For a more high-class hauler, there’s the Mercedes GLE-Class. This midsize SUV is similar in size to the Jeep Grand Cherokee. But instead of seating five passengers, the GLE can carry up to seven. Sure, legroom in the optional third row may be tight for taller travelers, but it’s perfect for a cocky cockswain or two. 

Six trim levels, ranging from the base-model GLE 350 to two high-performance AMG models. For eco-conscious buyers, the GLE 450e plug-in hybrid arrived earlier this year and can run on battery power alone for almost 60 miles. 

My test car was the top-of-the-line AMG 63 S 4Matic, a head-turner in every way. Priced at a whopping $127,000, this GLE looks best in glossy black with the Night Package, which includes tasteful jet-black exterior accents and matte-black wheels. To complete the Darth Vader effect, there’s a deep, menacing exhaust rumble that’s downright threatening.

You expect such a ride to be wicked fast, and it is: 0 to 60 mph in a blistering 3.7 seconds. Yet the carbon ceramic brakes with their devil-red calipers are equally impressive in slowing things down quickly. 

Inside, each GLE comes with two large digital displays on the elegantly sculpted dashboard. My favorite feature is the “Hey Mercedes” digital assistant, which responds to voice commands such as opening or closing the sunroof, operating the infotainment system or activating the climate controls. 

It’s hard to find sport seats that are more comfortable, especially with the heavenly massage function (though those massage controls could be a bit more user-friendly.) For AMG models, the seats come with red-contrasting stitching and red seatbelts—a nod to the devilish demeanor under the hood.

Considering all the SUVs available in showrooms, few make quite the splash of a GLE.

Mercedes GLE-Class
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Autos

Glam rides: BMW X6 and Range Rover Velar

Impressive standard features elevate these lower-priced options

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BMW X6

Many sport-utes with ho-hum styling still impress me by offering scads of standard features and a low MSRP. But sometimes it’s hard not to be seduced by what I call glam rides—pricier vehicles with plenty of attitude. You know, like something Cassandro might drive. 

BMW X6 

$75,000 

MPG: 23 city/26 highway

0 to 60 mph: 5.2 seconds

Maximum cargo room: 59.6 cu. ft. 

PROS: Outré styling, posh cabin, raw power

CONS: Less rear visibility, limited storage, costly options

IN A NUTSHELL: Trust me, it’s hard not to fall in love with a BMW X6. This recently updated crossover, with its coupe-like profile, swept-back grille and breathtaking acceleration, had me at hello. High ground clearance and oodles of high-tech features turn this high-end hauler into one helluva wild ride.

Sure, the sharply sloped roof hampers rear-seat headroom and cargo capacity. But up front there’s more room than expected, along with a dramatically curved digital dashboard. And the ginormous panoramic moonroof helps make the interior feel quite spacious. 

How good is this BMW? Zipping up to Baltimore last month during a day of downpours and clueless commuters, my husband and I started rethinking our promise to never buy a budget-busting vehicle. For us, bad weather and heavy traffic usually result in clenched teeth, heavy sighs and my swearing like a sailor. Yet the hushed cabin, 16-way power front seats and ability to control the stereo and other functions simply by waving my hand were all very Zen. Ditto the finely tuned suspension, steering and braking, which anticipated my every move. Instead of shying away from rush hour on our return home, I leaned in. 

Myriad safety features — from forward-collision alerts and blind-spot monitors to lane-departure warnings and a 360-degree camera — batted away any concerns about fender benders. Same for the option packages that allow you to park the X6 automatically, store familiar maneuvers and drive hands-free at up to 85 mph.  

Power in the base-model — which is what I test drove — comes from a lively 375-hp turbo, with a 48-volt hybrid system to improve gas mileage. There’s also a smooth eight-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive for sure handling on slippery roads. Pricing begins at $75,000, but options on my test car brought it up to—whoa!—88,000. 

For more grit and growl, there’s the xDrive60i, with a 523-hp twin turbo that helps this Bimmer sprint from 0 to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds. And the top-of-the-line X6 M Competition with a 617-hp V8 is even faster at a blistering 3.7 seconds. But I am much too afraid to drive this gnarly high-test model—it starts at $128,000. 

RANGE ROVER VELAR

$63,000 

MPG: 19 city/25 highway

0 to 60 mph: 5.2 seconds

Maximum cargo room: 70.1 cu. ft. 

PROS: Refined design, chic interior, lotsa storage

CONS: Tepid base engine, more sedate handling, pricey

IN A NUTSHELL: While Range Rovers are known for being oh-so-classy, the Velar is much sassier than the rest of the lineup. 

The sweeping front fascia would make Ariana Grande proud: Svelte grille, sporty wraparound headlights and stretched, corset-like air ducts in the bumper.  

Inside, the look is spartan but elegant. All knobs and other switchgear are mostly hidden or activated by an 11.4-inch infotainment touchscreen that seems to hover in front of the dash. Even the ubiquitous cruise control and stereo buttons on the steering wheel seem to have vanished, though look closer and they are tastefully integrated into the design. 

While the Velar may be classified as a compact vehicle, it looks and feels much larger. Compared with the midsize BMW X6, both have ample seating for five people. Front-seat dimensions are practically the same, but the supposedly smaller Range Rover has better back-seat headroom and legroom. It also holds almost 20% more cargo. 

Built on the same platform as the popular Jaguar F-Pace, the Velar has a relaxed ride compared to the more athletic BMW X6. Power is less aggressive on the Range Rover, with choice of two competent but hardly rip-roaring engines. 

Build quality is impressive, including the optional leather-free interior that uses an upscale composite of wool and polyurethane. And while even the base-model comes with interior ambient lighting and a premium Meridian stereo, you can opt for the 17-speaker 3D system for an even more “Maestro”-like experience.  

Overall, the Velar may be less of a rabble rouser than the BMW X6, but there’s still plenty here to dazzle the senses. 

Range Rover Velar
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