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Bargain-priced sedans get Cinderella makeovers

It’s easy to feel like royalty in a $250,000 sportster; but in a modest sedan?

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Ford Focus ST, autos, gay news, Washington Blade
Ford Focus ST, autos, gay news, Washington Blade

Ford Focus ST

Porsche. Maserati. Lamborghini. It’s easy to feel like royalty in a $250,000 sportster. But in a modest sedan? Not so much.

That’s why many automakers are refitting their bargain-priced cars with high-end upgrades and tuner-like performance. So, like Cinderella, these rides have had dramatic makeovers.

Ford Focus ST

$24,000

Mpg: 23 city/32 highway

0-to-60 mph: 6.2 seconds

Who would have thought a five-door hatchback — basically a glorified station wagon — could be the belle of the ball? The base-model Focus isn’t shabby to begin with, but the high-performance ST model really wows the crowd. There’s the flashy front end (borrowed from Aston Martin), the tapered side panels (just like on the baby Lexus) and a sassy flip-curl spoiler on the rear. It’s feisty, too, thanks to a fast-shifting six-speed manual transmission and fierce 252-hp turbo. Toss in those 18-inch alloys and sport-tuned brakes, and the ST has you at hello. This may not be a luxury car, but that’s easy to forget with so many standard features: keyless ignition, one-touch power windows, turn-signal side mirrors and audio/cruise controls on the steering wheel. But this hatch never forgets its utilitarian roots: just fold the rear seats, and there’s acres of cargo space.

Mazda3 Skyactiv

$20,000

Mpg: 28 city/40 highway

0-to-60 mph: 8.5 seconds

Looks, like engines, can be deceiving. While the Mazda3 offers three engine choices, beware the pokey 2.0-liter and the much pricier 2.5-liter powerplants. Instead, opt for the Skyactiv engine, which is almost as zesty as the high-end 2.5-liter but boasts 40 mpg on the highway (about as good as it gets for a non-hybrid). Tooling around town is fun and easy, especially when fitting into tight parking spots. And seating is very comfortable for a compact. But there are some downsides: a rather dated dash (though the ambient lighting is pretty cool) and noisy cabin. Still, few econoboxes offer so many high-tech features, such as Pandora audio streaming, audio text messaging and a blind-spot warning system.

Subaru Legacy Limited

$21,000

Mpg: 24 city/32 highway

0-to-60 mph: 9 seconds

How to be pampered like a princess? Try driving a Legacy Limited, especially on a grueling day-trip up and down the Jersey Turnpike. All-wheel drive (standard on all Subarus) is perfect for dodging speed demons and semis. Ditto the optional safety package (often found only in luxury cars), which includes collision warning, pre-collision braking, lane-departure warning, sway warning, rearview camera and adaptive cruise control. Subaru really upped its styling a few years ago, so the Legacy remains fresh and appealing. But there’s minimal trunk space and meager fuel economy — so, yes, even automakers kiss a few frogs along the way.

Volvo S60

$32,000

Mpg: 21 city/30 highway

0-to-60 mph: 6.8 seconds

In the past, Volvos weren’t on everyone’s dance card.  But now there are sexier designs, souped-up engines and a slew of high-tech add-ons. Even the safety features are cool, with basically the same gear as the Subaru Legacy Limited above but also a nifty pedestrian-detection system. Three trim levels: T5, T6 and T6 R-Design, all with zesty turbos. The R-Design is especially sweet, with 325 hp, better brakes and sportier steering. And Volvos cost thousands less than the competition. Volvos still have their quirks — such as the utilitarian vs. luxe-like vibe in the cabin — but now they, too, can help turn automotive fairy tales into reality.

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Autos

One lean, mean green machine

New Ford Mustang Mach-E is electrifying

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(Photo courtesy of Ford)

Here’s a shocker: Electric vehicles have been around for over 180 years. By the time of the first Hershey bar in 1900, EVs had hit their own sweet spot—surging to almost 30 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S. But when Henry Ford began to produce cars on his moving assembly line in 1913, the popularity of the gas-powered Model T soon short-circuited EV sales. Cue to a century later, when the debut of the all-electric Nissan Leaf in 2010 sent a jolt through the auto industry. Yet it would take another decade to get drivers charged up about anything other than gas-powered rides. Today, it’s hard to keep track of all the EVs out there, along with other green machines like hybrids. While the current microchip shortage has slowed or stopped production on many cars for now, I was lucky enough to drive the all-new, all-electric Ford Mustang Mach-E. The experience was, well, truly electrifying.

Ford Mustang Mach-E
$47,000
Range: up to 305 miles
0 to 60 mph: 4.2 seconds

When the Ford Mustang Mach-E was first announced, many auto aficionados were left scratching their heads. After all, a Mustang is one of the most iconic muscle cars ever created, and the Mach-E designation sounds suspiciously like the “Mach-1” branding used on flashy high-performance Stangs. Yet this new Mustang is a crossover SUV—and an electric one to boot. While the initial designs were captivating, plenty of skeptics remained. Luckily, they needn’t have worried. I was mesmerized the moment the Mach-E arrived, eager to run my hand along its sinewy side panels and strapping rear end. To keep the design as aerodynamic as possible, there are no traditional door handles. Instead, you use the key fob, your smartphone or a push button on the window frame to pop open the door. 

On the inside, there’s a small latch in the armrest versus the typical door handle. Such design elements are not only aesthetically pleasing, they also save space and reduce weight. Other novelties: This is the first Ford vehicle to use recycled animal-free fabrics, as well as a vegan steering wheel that’s as durable as leather. On the space-age dashboard, the premium Bang & Olufsen speakers are concealed beneath fabric covers that mimic the look of pricey home-theater speakers. And the unique design of the quiet cabin allows for a subwoofer that is 50 percent lighter than usual, yet still retains a deep rich clarity. As for the gigantic 15.5-inch vertical touchscreen in the center of the dash, it resembles a sort of funky oversized iPad from “The Orville.” Along with large climate controls for easier viewing, the touchscreen has interactive maps to locate the nearest charging stations. Those maps came in handy during two weekend trips, as did the heavily bolstered seats that helped prevent driver fatigue but also were easy on the tush. In total, there are five Mach-E trim levels, each with differing configurations for power and range (the distance you can travel on a full charge). 

While even the base-model Mach-E is fast and lively, it’s the high-test GT version that strikes like a thunder bolt. Rocketing from 0 to 60 seconds in just 3.8 seconds, the Mach-E GT is quicker than a Toyota Supra super coupe. And thanks to lower-than-expected ground clearance and a superb suspension, the Mach-E is just as agile. Those grippy regenerative brakes help, of course, allowing you to speed up or slow down using only the accelerator pedal. 

It’s worth noting there are other EVs in the Ford stable, including the electric F-150 Lightning full-size pickup, the E-Transit commercial van and various green machines on the way. By 2030, Ford is aiming for 40 percent of its global sales to be EVs. That’s a great goal for a company that once helped pull the plug on the “electric horseless carriage” but today is leading the charge with its own cutting-edge EVs.

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Autos

A car fit for a queen

New $342,000 Rolls-Royce SUV will leave you speechless

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Rolls-Royce Cullinan

Last month, I was invited to test drive the ultimate SUV: a Rolls-Royce Cullinan. My partner Robert and I—nerdy fans of all things BritBox—decided to take this swanky ride on a two-day outing to Charlottesville. After all, meandering along Virginia’s bucolic backroads was the closest we were going to get to an English countryside. While we were trying to summon forth our inner Mr. Darcy, we discovered quite a few fun surprises in this regal SUV along the way.  

Rolls-Royce Cullinan
$342,000
Mpg: 12 city/20 highway
0 to 60 mph: 4.5 seconds

The Cullinan has a noble pedigree, named after the largest diamond ever found—a hefty 1.33-pound gem that is now part of the British Crown Jewels. There are other royal connections to Rolls-Royce, of course. Queen Elizabeth—who was trained as a World War II mechanic and, at age 95, still drives herself sometimes—has a vast car collection with many a Rolls. And both Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle arrived at their weddings in a 1950 Phantom IV, made specially for the queen back when she was a mere princess. Yet despite its 114-year lineage, the luxury automaker has worked hard to keep pace with modern tastes and technology. 

Hence the Cullinan, the first-ever SUV in the Rolls-Royce stable. This tony horseless carriage has a $342,000 base price that quickly skyrockets with natty options. My test vehicle, for example, was $450,000—including $20,000 for a trendy detailing package. Other notable extras: lambswool floormats, contrast seat piping, black stained ash wood trim, and an embossed “RR” monogram on the doors and headrests. You also can opt for a cooling bin large enough for two Champagne flutes and a whiskey decanter. The best add-on, though, was the starlight headliner. To create the faux nighttime sky, it takes two craftspeople up to 17 hours to perforate 1,900 holes. Then fiberoptic lights are inset at various angles so that each “star” actually twinkles. And—crikey!—there’s even a shooting star feature. 

Exterior niceties are just as impressive, such as the anti-spin device to ensure the “RR” logo remains upright on each wheel cap at all times. Depending on customization, those fancy wheels can easily cost $4,000—each. The famous Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament is available in silver, gold-plated or illuminated polycarbonate. To prevent theft, the statuette automatically disappears beneath the hood when the engine is off. But perhaps the most impressive feature is also the least obvious, at least until you slip behind the wheel and fire up this high-class colossus. That’s when the finely tuned, twin-turbo V-12 engine roars to life and effortlessly glides you down the road. 

Driving such a sophisticated land yacht—which weighs almost three tons—feels like riding on a cloud. Surprisingly, there’s little body roll when cornering and no shuddering during quick stops. Think sleek Cutty Sark versus lumbering cruise ship. There were several major storms during our time in this vehicle, causing other drivers to pull off the road or frantically try and outrun the rain. But the Cullinan stayed steady, holding the road as we battered our way through heavy winds and torrential downpours. Another nice touch: Hidden in each of the rear coach doors was a full-size umbrella, which popped out at the push of a button. When we put the wet umbrellas back into their secret compartments, air vents quickly dried them out. Mary Poppins should have been so lucky.

The skies cleared the final day of my test ride, so I sped around the Beltway for one last hurrah. Perhaps because a Rolls-Royce is more refined and understated than any in-your-face Ferrari or Lamborghini, no one tried to race me down the road. Instead, there were lots of approving smiles and a big thumbs up or two. No, I didn’t respond with a royal wave. But I doubt anyone would have blamed me if I did. After all, driving a Cullinan makes you feel like queen for a day. 

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Autos

Two-door turn-ons

Cool rides deliver relief from summer heat

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BMW M440i Convertible

A pair of cool rides deliver some much-needed relief from the summer heat. Both are two-door compacts, with big personalities and some unexpected—but very pleasant—surprises. 

BMW M440i CONVERTIBLE
$65,000
Mpg: 23 city/31 highway
0 to 60 mph: 4.1 seconds

BMW finally gave its 4 Series convertible a compete makeover, the first time since the original rolled into showrooms in 2013. That’s eons in the auto world. But it definitely was worth the wait, as this second-gen version is a real stunner. 

Most autophiles have heard about the controversial front-end design, with its ginormous kidney-shaped grille. But in person, this styling actually complements the thin headlights and flashy front bumper. As I stepped back to admire the overall profile, the swoopy silhouette was a siren song luring me behind the wheel to fire up the engine. 

With the windows and top down, it was easy to be captivated by the luxurious two-tone interior, matte-finish oak trim and brushed aluminum accents. Closing the top and rolling up the windows left me equally awestruck: This soft-top ride is actually quieter than the previous model, which had a retractable hard roof. Another plus: Without all the clunky parts needed for a metal top, there’s more headroom and trunk space. Raising or lowering the roof—which takes just 18 seconds, versus 20 seconds on the old model—can be done while driving at speeds up to 31 mph (previously, it was a sluggish 11 mph). 

Overall, the cabin layout is bright and uncluttered, with an 8.8-inch infotainment touchscreen, 14-way power seats and steering-wheel paddle shifters. You can add heated neck warmers, a park-assist feature and a head-up display that shows your speed, the speed limit and other info on the windshield. Perhaps the only downside—well, other than the price—was skimpy rear-seat legroom. At least the power front seats automatically slide forward to help backseat passengers climb in and out. Despite the suave styling, this stately ragtop has a real mean streak—at least when it comes to power and performance. I test drove the high-test M440i model, with its gutsy engine, sport-tuned suspension and impressive braking. Tackling traffic around town, it was easy to outmaneuver pesky backups. But on the open road—with the top down and my spirits up—I could really cut loose and revel in putting the pedal to the metal. 

MINI COOPER S COUPE
$28,000
Mpg: 26 city/35 highway
0 to 60 mph: 6.2 seconds

Mini Cooper S Coupe

Full of thrills just like the BMW M440i convertible but much more affordable, there’s the Mini Cooper S coupe. Sure, it may not be crazy fast, but this pint-size dynamo is still plenty frisky. Mini is owned by BMW, after all, so a lot of the same expert engineering and Euro flair carry over—such as athletic handling, gotcha styling, and a refined cabin with high-quality materials. 

At just 159 inches in length, the diminutive Mini fits almost anywhere. It also gets a smart facelift, going from cutesy to cutting edge. This includes severe creases in the sheet metal and bold black trim. And BMW added some funky new colors—like Zesty Yellow—along with a novel multi-tone roof that combines sparkly gradients of Soul Blue, Pearly Aqua and Jet Black. Anyone watching this Mini scoot down the road could easily be hypnotized by the clever, spiral-like design etched onto the new wheels. 

While a base-model Mini is just fine, my test car for the week was the more-powerful S model with—surprise!—a stick shift. Yes, fellow gearheads, a manual transmission is back as an option. Zipping down parkways and freeways was a delight. And more than once I was tempted to pull a badass “Italian Job” maneuver and connect with my inner Mark Wahlberg. Luckily, sanity and the threat of a traffic ticket prevailed. But at least I felt confident this coupe could handle it. 

As with any vehicle, there are a few quirks: Satellite radio is a standard feature and Apple CarPlay is an option, but Android Auto isn’t even available. And the in-dash nav system and wireless charging pad cost extra, though such items are becoming standard on the competition. But these are minor riffs, considering the long list of innovative safety and convenience features that Mini buyers can choose from to customize their cars. 

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