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The full auto spectrum

Go Beetle basic or drown in Jag luxury

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Dune Beetle, gay news, Washington Blade

VW Dune Beetle

There are metrosexuals — hot! And then there’s the Metro, which is not. At least not lately, thanks to unreliable service and crowds of cranky straphangers. It’s no wonder a majority of us still motor to work. For gay and lesbian commuters, here are three rides worth the drive.

DUNE BEETLE

$20,000
 

Mpg: 25 city/34 highway
 

0-to-60 mph: 7.4 seconds
 

It’s the’60s all over again. At least it feels that way in the Dune Beetle, a cross between a cool-cat dune buggy and the iconic Baja Bug. It’s wider than the standard model, with special wheels, raised suspension, large rear spoiler and metallic gold paint — a far-out color that carries over into the interior. Ride and handling also are groovy, with plenty of grit in the engine’s performance and plenty of grip in the tires and brakes. Yet there’s no manual transmission, a real bummer.

Hop into the bolstered driver’s seat and check out the hip, user-friendly dash with two gloveboxes and a primo telematics system that enables Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and MirrorLink. Six trim levels mean lots of fab features, including premium Fender stereo, ambient interior lighting and a tilt and slide sunroof. Overall, this flower-power fastback helps VW distance itself from that diesel-scandal downer. Another plus: a droptop arrives later this year.

NISSAN LEAF

Nissan Leaf

Nissan Leaf

$32,000
 

Range: 126 city/101 highway
 

0-to-60 mph: 10.2 seconds
 

While the VW Beetle was a counterculture symbol of the ‘60s, the Nissan Leaf plays a similar role in today’s world of traditional gas engines. Electric cars, hybrids and the like make up just three percent of U.S. vehicle sales, but the Leaf remains a top contender in this “alt-fuel” niche. This year it gets a bigger battery pack and almost 30 percent more range (except for the base model, which remains at 84 miles).

That extra distance helps to override range anxiety, where drivers worry they will run out of power before the car can be recharged. And like the Beetle, this compact is nimble and fairly peppy, though the only drag racing it will win is the high-heel race on 17th Street. Inside, the Leaf feels roomier than it looks, is super quiet and comes with various options: heated seats, mirrors and steering wheel, as well as a 360-degree parking camera. True greenies can even opt for a solar panel on the rear spoiler.

JAGUAR XF S

Jaguar XF S

Jaguar XF S

$63,000
 

Mpg: 15 city/23 highway
 

0-to-60 mph: 5.2 seconds
 

Looking for something twice as nice and twice as fast as a Nissan Leaf? There’s the updated Jaguar XF S, which is also twice the price and then some. Yet it’s easy to see how this chariot of fire would top any driver’s bucket list. There’s the stately Jag silhouette, a self-leveling suspension for better traction, and sculpted seats with massage function (yes, it’s like having your own personal masseuse).

Cabin materials are first-rate, as are all the high-end options, such as heated windshield, four-zone climate control and 17-speaker surround-sound stereo. Yet it’s curious that certain safety gear isn’t here: automatic braking, lane-departure warning and head-up display. Still, it’s hard to resist being swathed in so much luxury, and harder still with a supercharged V8 that helps channel your inner Danica Patrick or Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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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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Autos

Adventure cruisers

These two vehicles are perfect for your next adventure

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Chrysler Pacifica Pinnacle

With everyone itching to get out and travel during the big reopening, it’s no wonder roadways are jammed with day-trippers and tourists. But these two vehicles can help you avoid the noise and go on your own excellent adventure.

CHRYSLER PACIFICA PINNACLE
$55,000
Mpg: 19 city/28 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.9 seconds

Is there such a thing as a fun minivan? You wouldn’t think so. But the Chrysler Pacifica has won numerous awards for its spirited suspension and nimble handling. This hauler is much better at transporting people and cargo than most pickups and SUVs. And this year the Pacifica, already a style maven among minivans, gets a tasteful makeover. This includes a streamlined grille, liftgate, wheels, and front and rear running lights. 

For better traction on slippery roads, all-wheel drive is now available. There’s also a new top-tier trim level—the Pinnacle—with quilted Nappa leather seats and (bling alert!) snazzy matching pillows for the second-row captain’s chairs. The infotainment system, already easy to use, now has a crisp 10.1-inch screen, along with smartphone integration and up to 12 USB ports. Because of an improved processor, the infotainment system is more responsive. This was a big plus whenever I approached highway construction zones and needed to find a quick escape route. In the end, I was able to deftly skirt bottlenecks, enjoy a few unfamiliar yet pleasant byways, and still arrive everywhere on time. 

Along with a backup camera, there’s a 360-degree view to help you fit into almost any parking spot. And while it may seem a bit creepy, a new FamCam inside the cabin helps you keep an eye on the kids—or any unruly adults—who may be acting up in the backseat. Crash-test scores are stellar, and Chrysler found a way to shoehorn in almost every safety feature, including blind-spot monitor, lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control, and automated emergency braking with pedestrian detection. No, the Pacifica Pinnacle is not a sport sedan or souped-up super coupe. But it also doesn’t drive like a bulky minivan, despite the acres of interior room and cubbyholes. Instead, I was able to enjoy the best of both worlds—a refreshing ride with plenty of room for passengers and cargo. For neat freaks like me, there was an extra bonus: a built-in vacuum cleaner.

Mercedes AMG GT 43

MERCEDES AMG GT 43
$91,000
Mpg: 20 city/25 highway
0 to 60 mph: 4.8 seconds

For auto journalists, test vehicles are like speed dating: Each car is the object of your affection—but only until the next one arrives. Yet sometimes you really do find a soul mate. That’s the case with the Mercedes AMG GT 43. This four-door sedan looks like a hot rod, sounds like a muscle car and drives like a high-performance speedster. Each time I slipped behind the wheel, there was something new and exciting to stir the senses. Cue the silky nine-speed transmission. The subdued ambient lighting. The snug seats that hug you like a lover. And the various driver settings that let you stiffen the suspension to take any corner like a pro. 

With the touch of a button, you can ratchet up the exhaust rumble to impress your neighbors. Press another button to raise the large rear spoiler—effectively saying “back off” to anyone clueless enough to tailgate such a ferocious fastback. Even curbside, the haughty look of this ride is intimidating. Inside, there are dual 12.3-inch digital displays and a wide center console with wireless charging pad. Another charging pad is part of an optional rear-seat package, which adds three-zone climate control, heated/cooled rear cupholders, two more USB ports and a rear touchscreen. The new infotainment system offers speech recognition for voice commands and software that actually learns how to anticipate when you might be about to change the nav screen or radio channel. And the clarity of the Burmester surround-sound stereo remains crystal clear even when it’s cranked up to the max. Despite a base price of $91,000, the AMG GT 43 is actually a bargain. After all, the slightly more powerful GT 53 starts at $100,000, and the high-end GT 63 is an eye-popping $162,000. At the end of a weeklong stint with this dream machine, I had fallen hard it—finding any excuse to make an extra Starbucks run or go on a spur-of-the-moment day trip or drive to the grocery store three times in an hour or, well, you get the picture.

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