Like Fashion Week models, some cars strut their stuff better than others. Take the three sassy rides below, with their snazzy styling, spunky engines and swanky cabins — almost like Andrew Christian models sheathed in sheet metal. Yes, these may be smallish compact cars, but each feels a whole lot larger once you slip inside.
HYUNDAI VELOSTER R-SPEC
Mpg: 25 city/33 highway
0-to-60 mph: 7.7 seconds
Quirky but cute, the Hyundai Veloster has one large door on the driver side and two smaller doors on the passenger side. This makes it easier to access the backseat yet still retain the sleek profile of a fastback coupe, except the Veloster is actually a hatchback. Among the various trim levels, the spiffy R-Spec model comes with a feisty turbo and beefy body cladding to ratchet up the butch points. Thanks to the sport-tuned suspension and steering, the R-spec hits all the right notes on switchbacks and straightaways. Superb brakes and large 18-inch wheels help, too. Standard features include rearview camera and Hyundai’s Blue Link emergency telematics system, which lets first responders locate you in the event of an accident. And instead of coffee to perk you up in the morning, you can channel that erotic exhaust rumble to run through the stereo speakers.
VW GOLF GTI AUTOBAHN
Mpg: 24 city/34 highway
0-to-60 mph: 6.1 seconds
When “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” returns this spring, the Fab Five might do well to arrive in a VW Golf GTI Autobahn. After all, there’s oodles of room, vroom and va-va-voom. This four-door sedan has lots of space for passengers (along with a huge cargo area), boasts a high-test engine and looks trendy inside and out. The sharp handling and cornering alone would make this a truly fabulous ride. But the Autobahn is the top-of-the-line model, so all the bells and whistles are here: keyless ignition/entry, xenon headlights, sunroof, 10-way driver’s seat and more. Safety gear includes collision warning, automatic braking, blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert. That racy rear spoiler is a nice touch, as is the premium Fender sound system and ambient interior lighting (“mood lighting” is more like it). There’s even a cooled glovebox for sodas, moisturizers and such.
Mpg: 28 city/36 highway
0-to-60 mph: 5.9 seconds
Long known as the epitome of button-down chic, BMW also has been upping its eco cred. The latest example: the 330e iPerformance sedan, a plug-in hybrid combining a four-cylinder turbo engine with an electric motor. While the battery-only range is 22 miles, the nav system determines how and when to use the electric motor on your route. A full charge takes up to seven hours using a conventional home outlet (or two-and-a-half hours using a $1,100 fast charger from BMW). Except for the charging port near the front of the car, this plug-in has the same understated elegance as the rest of the 3 Series lineup. Ditto the refined interior, with its clean, modish dash and raised infotainment system. And the 330e drives well, too, with impressive acceleration and a steering system that seems to anticipate your next move. Perhaps the biggest downside is the price, which can quickly top $60,000 depending on options. Still, few cars are designed so well you don’t mind getting stuck in traffic.
Plug-ins with pizzazz
BMW 330e, Wrangler 4xe offer fuel-friendly surprises
The semiconductor shortage continues to wreak havoc on global vehicle production, so don’t expect dealer showrooms to fill up until later this year—or even into 2023. But there is one upside: Many prospective new-car buyers—including me—are using the delay to fully research and narrow down the choice of potential rides. Recently, I test drove two plug-in hybrids at the top of my shopping list. Both turned out to be fun, fuel-friendly and full of surprises.
Mpg: 75 MPGe (electric/gas), 28 mpg (gas only)
0 to 60 mph: 5.6 seconds
BMW—long the gold standard of luxury sport sedans—updated the 330e plug-in hybrid just last year. This compact Bimmer can travel up to 23 miles on electric power alone (20 miles with the all-wheel-drive version), which is about the average number of daily miles driven in our metro area. After that, the gas engine kicks in for a respectable 28 mpg. But two trends are at odds with buying this gas-sipper.
First, everyone seems more charged up about electric vehicles than tried-and-true hybrids. Yet if you’ve ever had range anxiety (the fear that an EV will poop out before reaching its destination), plug-in hybrids offer the assurance you won’t get stranded driving home on some dark, stormy night.
Second, automakers have been quitting sedans as drivers shift toward SUVs. But many of us still appreciate the benefits of sedans: lower ground clearance for tight cornering, reduced weight for nimble handling, and thinner roof pillars for better rear-view visibility. This was true in the 330e, which is every bit as fun to drive as its stellar 300i gas-only sibling. I found the lickety-split acceleration and taut ride to be exhilarating. Gearheads will wish there was a manual transmission for even more of a rush. Inside, the cabin boasts beaucoup features: sleek moonroof, tasteful ambient lighting, impressive faux-leather upholstery, 10.25-inch touchscreen and large 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster. While I liked the voice-command feature, the optional gesture control for the infotainment system could be a bit touchy—especially for those of us prone to talking with our hands.
More than once, my hand gestures accidently cut off the phone in the middle of a call or interfered with the stereo. Still, being able to change the audio volume simply by twirling my fingers was pretty cool. As for parking, the 330e is easy to fit in the tiniest of spaces—much to the delight of my partner Robert but not to the testy pickup driver who I outmaneuvered for a primo spot. I also liked how the 330e can be fully recharged in less than an hour using a 240-volt charger. But the biggest plus appeals to my penny-pinching DNA: This BMW not only saves money at the gas pump, but it’s also priced less than most other plug-in hybrids.
JEEP WRANGLER 4xe
MPG: 49 MPGe (electric/gas), 20 mpg (gas only)
0 to 60 mph: 6.5 seconds
Talk about gay icons, the Jeep Wrangler has been a popular vehicle with LGBTQ drivers for decades. Yes, there’s the rugged butch factor. But the automaker also has been a strong ally of our community. At last year’s Motor City Pride parade in Detroit, for example, the grand marshal rode in an all-new Jeep Wrangler 4xe decked out in rainbow colors and messages of hope written on the body panels. Alas, my test vehicle wasn’t quite so festive, but it still turned heads.
That’s because this four-door Wrangler is Jeep’s first plug-in hybrid, with a gutsy four-cylinder engine and efficient electric motor that together crank out 375 horsepower. That’s more oomph than in most Jeeps, except those with pricey gas-guzzling Hemi engines. The 4xe has an all-electric range of 22 miles, after which it gets 20 mpg. City driving is surprisingly smooth and delightful, with my keister thankful for the gentler-than-expected suspension when tackling potholes.
For an experience that’s more au naturel, you can remove all the doors and part or all of the top. Most times, I just removed the two roof panels over the driver and passenger seats, then stowed them in the back. The interior looks like any other Wrangler, which today is much more comfortable and amenity-laden than any of its forebears. But insulation is barebones, which means the cabin’s decibel rating is definitely not in the whisper-quiet category. As for the lithium-ion battery pack, it’s mostly hidden beneath the rear seats but also cannibalizes a few inches of the cargo compartment. Despite costing some $9,000 more than a traditional gas-engine Wrangler, the 4xe qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax break and certain state tax credits that ultimately may help you break even. That’s another reason to appreciate this refined macho-mobile: It’s easy on the eyes, the environment and your wallet.
Chi-chi crossover SUVs
Say goodbye to barebones econoboxes
Mpg: 22 city/29 highway
0 to 60 mph: 6.1 seconds
Back in the day, Oldsmobile tried to rebrand itself with corny commercials featuring celebrity icons. Trouble was, not even William Shatner, Ringo Starr or even the automaker’s catchy tagline—“Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile”—could overcome the lackluster vehicle lineup. But not so with Lincoln. Hunky Matthew McConaughey has boosted sales of the luxury brand for eight years now. His quirky rhapsodizing of all things Lincoln is bolstered by increasingly stylish and innovative people pleasers.
This includes the Corsair, a compact SUV introduced just two years ago. As if tempting fate, this is the same name as the full-sized sedan and coupe produced back in 1958 by Ford’s ill-fated Edsel division. But today, with chiseled features and space-age gizmos, this new Corsair is likely to be around for generations. Lincoln SUVs tend to emulate Lexus in styling and creature comforts. The Corsair looks sportier—think Audi Q5 or BMW X3—though without the grippy handling and tight cornering. But that’s OK, because the result is a smooth and pampered ride—a big plus on long-distance trips.
Three trim levels, including a top-of-the line Grand Touring plug-in hybrid. I test drove the mid-level Reserve, with all-wheel drive and oodles of standard features: panoramic sunroof, hands-free liftgate, LED fog lamps, auto-fold side mirrors, 14-speaker Revel stereo and more. Tons of options, and those 24-way, perfect-posture seats are particularly fine. To avoid feeling dazed and confused with so many drivers emerging from the pandemic, there’s also a head-up display and a Co-Pilot360 Plus package with surround-view camera and automated parking. Impressive crash-test scores are a bonus, as is the long powertrain warranty (six years or 70,000 miles). As for value, the Corsair is built on the same platform as the popular Ford Edge, which is priced just slightly less. Yet this Lincoln exudes all the flair and luxury of high-end vehicles costing so much more.
MERCEDES AMG GLB35
Mpg: 21city/26 highway
0 to 60 mph: 4.9 seconds
Like Jon Hamm, the voice of Mercedes for over a decade, the renowned German automaker is well endowed with notable attributes. But while the actor’s calming voice is in sync with the rich aura of a genteel Benz, that’s not the case with the hellfire AMG GLB35 compact crossover. This sporty rabble-rouser—with plucky styling, screaming exhaust note and a fierce 302-horsepower turbo engine—is more in tune with, say, the grit and gumption of Megan Rapinoe.
Sure, the basic GLB is just fine, but this AMG high-performance model boasts brushed stainless-steel pedals, silver chrome paddle-shifters and a flat-bottom steering wheel. What’s more, the crisp steering, lithe handling and taut braking tugged at my boy-racer heartstrings each time I slipped behind the wheel.
A tall cabin allows for plenty of headroom, and there’s a decent amount of cargo space for such a small vehicle. But while a third seat can be ordered, I’m not sure anyone would want to perform the contortions necessary to sit there. Along with the sassy attitude, the GLB35 is still plenty classy. LED headlights and taillights come standard, as do rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone automatic climate control and ambient lighting that can be customized with choice of 64 colors. There are two large, 10.25-inch digital displays: one for the instrument cluster and the other a touchscreen for the infotainment system. And some $10,000 in options include panoramic sunroof, 12-speaker Burmester stereo, logo puddle lamps, real-wood trim and other goodies. Overall, the GLB35 is a rebel with a cause: part tuner car, part pocket rocket and, above all, nonstop excitement.
Wild and crazy rides
Ford Bronco, Land Rover Defender 90 lean into retro roots
There’s a twisted allure to bad boys and mean girls. Me, I like nasty toys — vehicles so wild and crazy they overrule common sense. A Bronco? That’s not the name for a mild-mannered ride. Even the Defender 90 sounds like some sort of sci-fi creation from a “Star Trek” episode. But then, when it comes to being seduced by an untamed beast, perhaps Spock and the Borg say it best: Resistance is futile.
MPG: 20 city / 24 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.7 seconds
Last year I raved about the return of the four-door Ford Bronco after a 25-year absence. This time I test drove the two-door model, which is even more playful. It’s also 16 inches shorter, which somehow makes the bold and brawny styling even more pronounced. This includes two upright protruding hood handles, which look like devil’s horns but can be used to help tie down a kayak or camping gear on the roof. As with a sports coupe, the two-door Bronco exudes wanderlust and excitement. Ground clearance is really high, but it’s great for driver visibility. To help you climb inside, chunky grab handles are tastefully sculpted into each end of the dashboard. And while the back seats aren’t the easiest to access, they are comfortable once you get there. Choice of two brisk engines, along with some butch-sounding trim levels: Big Bend, Black Diamond, Badlands and Wildtrak. A nifty Trail Assist feature allows you to make turns that are sharper than expected, and the one-pedal driving system automatically applies the brakes just by lifting your foot off the accelerator. Other niceties: Standard all-wheel drive, an optional manual transmission and removable roof and doors. The tall roof also helps the cabin seem a bit more spacious, and those vinyl seats and rubber surfaces can easily be hosed down after a day of off-roading. Despite its Spartan appearance, this stubby SUV boasts the latest infotainment and safety features, but at a price. Fully loaded, a two-door Bronco can easily top $60,000.
Land Rover Defender 90
MPG: 18 city / 21 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.6 seconds
As with the Ford Bronco, the Land Rover Defender 90 leans into its retro roots. But the styling here is far more futuristic and the off-road prowess much more formidable. To overcome challenging landscapes, a Terrain Response system lets you choose from various modes: Grass/gravel/snow, mud/ruts, rock crawl and wade. The adjustable air-suspension system raises and lowers the vehicle, allowing the Defender to travel through streams up to 35.4 inches deep while a sensor detects the depth automatically. The novel tailgate is hinged at the side, with a full-spare wheel attached — an anomaly in today’s world of donut spare tires. Though the four- and six-cylinder engines are mighty enough, this year there’s a new supercharged 518-hp V8 that can thrust this studly two-door SUV from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.9 seconds. But despite such gusto, Land Rover also sprinkles in plenty of glitz. This includes the exquisite and high-quality interior fit and finish, with wood-grain trim, tasteful ambient lighting and heated/cooled 12-way seats made of fine faux-suede material. There’s also smartphone integration, in-car Wi-Fi and a large infotainment touchscreen. And forget Coachella or any world-class concert hall — the optional 14-speaker Meridian stereo sounds just as nice. Like the Bronco, such options don’t come cheap — up to $120,000 for a completely decked-out Defender 90. And both of these two-door vehicles are only so practical, with less passenger room and cargo space than in a four-door SUV. But oh my, these adult Tonka toys are a helluva lot of fun to drive.
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