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New ’19 SUV models impressive

Ford Expedition, Toyota Sequoia among standout comfy cruisers

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new suvs 2019, gay news, Washington Blade

Nissan Armada Platinum Reserve 4WD

Large and lumbering SUVs, with their gas-guzzler rep and oversized swagger, have always been a buzzkill, at least for me. But after some prodding from automaker colleagues, I decided to test a bevy of these brutes. Turns out many Leviathans have evolved into gentle giants, with an unexpected emphasis on agility, amenities and fuel economy.

NISSAN ARMADA PLATINUM RESERVE 4WD
$62,000
Mpg: 13 city/18 highway
Zero-60 mph: 5.9 seconds
Cargo capacity: 95.4 cu. ft.

With a complete redesign last year, the Nissan Armada gets a leg up on the Toyota Sequoia — almost. Sure, the Armada exterior is jazzier, and the interior borrows heavily from upscale Infiniti. But those knobs and switches aren’t the latest iteration, which means the cabin could use a “Queer Eye” makeover.

Another nit to pick: Sequoia has the better infotainment system, with smartphone capability. But the Armada has plenty of plusses, including a nifty new V8 engine with a pleasing exhaust rumble. Step on the gas, and this SUV is as fast as a Nissan Maxima sedan. I found the suspension and cornering as sharp and nimble as the Ford Expedition.

There’s also a novel rearview-camera feature, where the backup camera is projected onto the rearview mirror. And the Armada (and its high-end cousin, the Infiniti QX80) have the highest towing capacity at 8,500 pounds of the SUVs here. I also test drove an Infiniti QX80, and the performance, storage space and other stats are identical to the Nissan Armada. But the QX80 has a sleeker, quieter cabin, with more comfortable seats. Of course, the QX80 also costs about $20,000 more.

FORD EXPEDITION PLATINUM 4X4
$74,000
Mpg: 17 city/24 highway
Zero-60 mph: 5.9 seconds
Cargo capacity: 104.6 cubic feet

So there I was, debating whether or not to squeeze a compact crossover into an itty parking spot in an underground D.C. garage. But as soon as I spotted a Ford Expedition in a similar space, it was game on: No way was I going to be shown up by a hulking hauler. Still, I was impressed. A few months later, when actually test-driving an Expedition, I was impressed again.

Despite being built on an F-150 truck platform, the Expedition handles more like a Mercedes S-Class sedan. Sprinting around curvy backroads was as fun as a theme-park thrill ride, and I was driving in Normal mode, not the more athletic Sport mode. With clever nips and tucks, today’s Expedition looks like a smaller, stylish Explorer.

Pricing for a base-model Expedition costs $54,000, while the top-end Platinum 4X4 model is another 20 grand. But it’s worth the extra cash for the excellent 400-hp V6 turbo, with a stop/start engine feature that conserves fuel. Gobs of other goodies include 22-inch wheels, power-adjustable pedals, power-folding third-row seat, hands-free power liftgate, panoramic sunroof and running boards that automatically deploy when getting in and out of the vehicle.

There’s also a suite of safety features, with airbags everywhere. The Sync voice-control system includes Wi-Fi hotspot and wireless phone charging. As for navigating in and out of tight spaces, it turns out the Expedition comes with an automated parking system.

TOYOTA SEQUOIA PLATINUM 4WD
$68,000
Mpg: 13 city/17 highway
Zero-60 mph: 6.7 seconds
Cargo capacity: 120.1 cu. ft.

Did Toyota miss the memo on redesigning vehicles every few years? After all, the current Sequoia is based on the second-gen version launched back in 2008. Gas mileage lags similar SUVs, and there’s definitely no wow factor in the old-timey cabin. Still, the exterior gets a refresh, with three new colors, an updated front end, and snazzier headlights and taillights.

There’s also a flashy new TRD Sport trim, with metallic black mirror caps, black/chrome badging, black interior treatments and a sport-tuned suspension. Built on the Tundra full-size pickup chassis, the Sequoia’s cargo capacity is hard to beat. And with three rows of seating, there’s abundant headroom and legroom for eight adults.

I was surprised how quiet and composed this sport-ute handled over potholes and minor off-roading. Acceleration and braking also were smooth and precise. Many optional safety features are now standard, including lane-departure warning, automatic emergency braking and forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection. Expect high reliability (this is Toyota, after all). And remember, there’s a nice upside to a dated design: It’s often easier to negotiate a decent price at the dealership.

Toyota Sequoia Platinum 4X4

RANGE ROVER V8 SUPERCHARGED
$105,000
Mpg: 16 city/21 highway
Zero-60 mph: 4.8 seconds
Cargo capacity: 71.7 cu. ft.

Talk about getting the royal treatment: Where else can you find a ritzy Brit box on wheels, with 20-way power-adjustable seats, electronic air suspension to lower the vehicle for easy access, soft-close doors to prevent any harsh slamming sound and an automatic facial-massage feature.

OK, so there’s no facial massage, but you get the picture: The Range Rover V8 Supercharged is a superior SUV. It all starts with the engine, a burly, 518-hp supercharged V8 that rockets this chic chariot from zero-60 mph in less than five seconds.

Swing sharply into a hairpin curve, mash the accelerator on the straightaway and (surprise!) there’s virtually no body roll despite the tall stance and high chassis. Inside, opulence is the word, with premium wood trim, a gesture-controlled sunblind for the panoramic sunroof and a high-tech infotainment system with two 10-inch touchscreens.

My main beef was when the infotainment system froze up a few times, an unfortunate nod to Range Rover’s reliability issues. Another concern: cargo capacity was limited compared to other SUVs. Still, along with superb driving capabilities, it was hard not to appreciate this Rover’s blend of old-world craftsmanship and modern comfort.

Range Rover V8 Supercharged

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Autos

Smart rides for trying times

Two affordable options as supply dwindles and demand soars

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Fiat 500X

As if the pandemic, political discord and even cicadas weren’t enough, now there’s trouble brewing when trying to buy a new car. Parts shortages of computer chips, rubber, and other supplies mean new-vehicle inventory is down a whopping 40 percent. And with supply so low, demand is ratcheting up. So expect higher prices, along with fewer dealer and automaker incentives. But there are still opportunities out there. This includes opting for less popular models, such as coupes or sedans instead of hot-ticket SUVs and trucks. Or choosing niche models like the Fiat 500X or Mini Cooper Countryman. These two rather off-beat rides may lack the overall room and practicality of larger crossovers, but they perform nicely and are relatively affordable—at least for now.

FIAT 500X
$25,900
Mpg: 24 city/30 highway
0 to 60 mph: 8.7 seconds

Buying a Fiat is all about making a fashion statement, combining Italian flair with frugal pricing. The automaker’s decision to reduce its lineup and focus on just one vehicle—the 500X subcompact crossover—only adds to the cachet. Everything about the 500X is charming, including the Lilliputian size, retro exterior and dazzling dashboard with interlocking display gauges. And the name of the base-model adds a bit of whimsy: Pop. There are three other trims—Sport, Trekking and Trekking Plus—but none of them is exactly racy or off-road ready.

Built on the same platform as the Jeep Renegade, the 500X handles fairly smoothly, at least on the freeway. The short chassis makes it difficult to glide over bigger bumps and potholes, and some body sway is noticeable on tight curves. With just 14 cubic feet of back-end cargo space, there’s room only to haul some groceries and such. Still, the four-cylinder turbo engine is perky enough, and the standard all-wheel drive came in handy during a few unexpected downpours. The well-bolstered seats now have updated upholstery, and those funky circular headrests look like something from a Flash Gordon spaceship. There are a surprising number of safety features, including automated emergency braking, blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, and lane-departure warning with lane-keeping assist. And warranty coverage is decent, though there is no complimentary scheduled maintenance. Sure, the 7-inch infotainment touchscreen seems tiny compared with larger displays in other crossovers. But those vehicles cost more, and at least the Fiat comes with smartphone integration and three USB ports. Options include a Beats stereo, heated seats, LED headlamps, front and rear parking sensors, and even a panoramic sunroof. Yes, there’s plenty of personality here and also a decent number of amenities.

MINI COOPER COUNTRYMAN JCW
$42,400
Mpg: 23 city/31 highway
0 to 60 mph: 4.4 seconds

For a bit more room and a lot more vroom, there’s the Mini Cooper Countryman. The base model starts at a very affordable $29,200. But the test vehicle that arrived for me to review was the souped-up JCW edition. While it’s definitely pricey, this pocket rocket costs much less than high-performance crossovers from BWW or Mercedes. Yet it’s just as blisteringly fast. The acceleration literally took my breath away, and the guttural exhaust rumble—which was downright primal—turned more than a few heads.

The Countryman is the largest vehicle in the Mini lineup, and for 2021 the exterior gets a tasteful refresh. This includes a flashier grille and bumpers, as well as the clever Union Jack design etched into the taillights. The JCW model boasts larger wheels, more form-fitting seats, rear spoiler and a sport-tuned suspension that helps transform this crossover into a tuner car. Along with keyless entry and power-folding mirrors, there’s also a rear-view camera, ambient lighting and wireless charging. But while Apple CarPlay is available, Android Auto is not. As with the Fiat 500X, the high seating and deft placement of side pillars help with driver visibility. But the Countryman does offer a tad more legroom and rear cargo space. Either vehicle will do, though, if you’re itching to toss in a few overnight bags to simply get away from it all.

Mini Cooper Countryman JCW

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Autos

Sport sedans make spirited return

Forget crossovers, these models are a thrill

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sedans, gay news, Washington Blade
Kia K5

Remember four-door sedans? Once upon a time, they ruled the road. But today the buzz is all about crossovers and SUVs. Last year Ford phased out most of its sedans, and cars were only 8% of GM’s retail sales. Case closed, or so it seemed. After recently testing the all-new Kia K5 and a restyled Mercedes E 450 for a week, I was blown away with how a true sport sedan—done just right—is still a thrill ride. Perhaps Nietzsche said it best: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. 

KIA K5

$24,000

Mpg: 29 city/38 highway

0 to 60 mph: 5.8 seconds

Gay magician Michael Carbonaro would feel right at home at Kia. The automaker keeps pulling rabbits out of the hat with dazzling vehicles at affordable prices. Such is the case with the all-new K5, which replaces the once-formidable Optima midsize sedan. Optima sales slid some 40% the past few years as consumers gobbled up crossovers, so Kia sprinkled pixie dust on the sheet metal to come up with styling that borrows heavily from the high-test Stinger muscle sedan. The result is a snotty-nosed grille on the K5, along with zig-zag headlights and a cascading rear that evokes a sexy fastback coupe. 

Yet the base price is $10,000 less than a Stinger. The K5 also gets better gas mileage and comes with more standard safety gear, including automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning, driver attention warning, pedestrian detection and other goodies. There’s even a rear-occupant alert—an audible reminder to check the backseat when exiting the vehicle—and a safe-exit system to prevent rear passengers from opening doors into vehicles approaching from behind. The base four-cylinder turbo is dandy, especially for daily commutes. But to unleash your inner speed demon, the GT model boasts a lustier engine, bigger brakes, sportier suspension and wider tires. No, this isn’t a BMW 5 Series sedan, but the GT’s ride and handling are close. The interior on all trim levels looks chic, with a sculpted dash full of user-friendly knobs and switches, tasteful wood trim and smartphone integration. Among the many options: all-wheel drive, heated/ventilated seats, ambient lighting, panoramic sunroof and a 10.25-inch touchscreen. I also enjoyed bopping to tunes on the premium 12-speaker Bose stereo, which benefited from an acoustic-laminated windshield that muffles outside noise. 

MERCEDES E 450 4MATIC 

$64,000

Mpg: 23 city/31 highway

0 to 60 mph: 4.3 seconds

If your queer eye craves lots of glitz and glamour, there’s the Mercedes E 450. At almost three times the price of a Kia K5, this swanky sport sedan has a split personality: sportster wannabe versus luxe-like land yacht. Yet the vibe works, combining jazzier-than-expected styling with a boatload of amenities. 

The effortless acceleration and engaging steering are sublime, especially when dodging potholes and wayward delivery trucks. And the richly appointed cabin brought miles of smiles during my first weekend getaway in over a year. A wraparound dash has two ginormous 12.3-inch screens: one for the digital instrument cluster and another for all the infotainment gizmos. You can even add augmented reality navigation, with turn-by-turn directions ala Waze. Other options include rapid-heat front seats, heated armrests and heated front center console, as well as a 360-degree bird’s-eye camera, rear sunshade and Burmester surround-sound stereo with 23 speakers. The finely crafted seats are exquisite—and slightly erotic, with deep-massage functions that caressed and stimulated me in sinful ways. 

Alas, some of the creature comforts are almost too high tech, like the touchy steering-wheel audio controls and numerous options for accessing and updating channels and presets. I finally got the hang of it after a few days, but it would have been nice if the infotainment system was more intuitive from the get-go. Still, such quibbles turned out to be minor. As with the Kia K5, the Mercedes E 450 was a real pleasure to drive. Despite—or because of—fewer sedans on the road these days, both rides were also turning a lot of heads. That’s the power of retro rides, when everything old becomes new again. 

Mercedes E 450 4Matic
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Autos

Driving away the winter blues

Nifty features, pleasant surprises in three crossovers

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Ford Edge

To help keep the winter doldrums at bay, I recently test drove three fun crossovers. All had plenty of nifty features, as well as a few pleasant surprises.

FORD EDGE
$32,000
Mpg: 21 city/29 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.6 seconds

During these uncertain times, it’s nice to know a Ford Edge offers steady reassurance. This five-seat mid-sizer is surprisingly quiet, with a comfy ride and precise steering. A base four-cylinder turbo is peppy enough, especially for in-town driving. But for more gusto, the sporty ST model—with a potent V6 engine, larger tires and firmer suspension—scoots from 0 to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds.

A major redesign a few years ago gave the Edge the snazzy exterior styling of an upscale Lexus RX. This year the updates are on the inside: 12-inch vertical touchscreen (the largest in its class) with smartphone compatibility, Wi-Fi hotspot, improved voice-recognition system and over-the-air software updates. Top safety scores are a plus, as is the adaptive cruise control, semiautonomous parking and 180-degree front-end camera. I loved the long list of options, even if they can be a bit pricey: all-wheel drive, heated/ventilated seats, heated side mirrors, power liftgate, panoramic roof and 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen premium stereo. For anyone needing a weekend away from the Washington scene, the Edge can tow up to 3,500 pounds—perfect for small campers and such.

KIA SELTOS
$24,000
Mpg: 29 city/34 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.3 seconds

Looking for totally new versus tried and true? This year the Kia Seltos makes its grand debut, with “crown jewel” headlights, a tiger nose grille and a front end with vertical chrome lines inspired by—OK, wait for it—buffalo horns. At least that’s how Kia designers describe the look of this funky subcompact crossover. Entering what is an already crowded market segment, the Seltos is based on the same refined platform as the popular Hyundai Kona. Both provide a composed ride and high-quality cabin at an affordable price. But while the Seltos has the same sure handling, it’s also taller and roomier.

The base four-cylinder is certainly capable, but I was enamored with the extra oomph from the optional turbo engine. Gas mileage is almost the same anyway, and a top-of-the-line SX Turbo—fully loaded—is just $28,000. Keyless entry, tinted rear glass and smartphone integration are standard on all models. And depending on trim level, the long list of amenities includes heated seats, automatic high beams, sunroof, premium Bose audio and more, as well as the latest safety features. For me, the Seltos seemed to be a nice mix of style and substance, with a refreshing bit of whimsy.

Kia Seltos

NISSAN ROGUE
$26,000
Mpg: 27 city/35 highway
0 to 60 mph: 8.1 seconds

It’s been seven years since the Nissan Rogue was updated. That’s an eternity in the auto biz. But this year the automaker’s most popular vehicle gets an extreme makeover, with a glitzy new profile, freakishly thin headlights and racy rear spoiler.

With the ongoing hullabaloo about former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn skipping out of Japan to avoid facing criminal charges, it’s easy to forget that this company churns out very impressive and reliable vehicles. This includes the updated Rogue, with its zippy engine—tweaked for a bit more horsepower this year—and extremely smooth suspension. Those Zero Gravity seats were a pleasant surprise, as was the minimal body roll and solid braking. Inside, the cabin is now more upscale, with an almost BMW-like dash and acoustic glass in the windshield for a quiet ride. Standard gear includes remote keyless entry and rear parking sensors, as well as automatic braking, blind-spot monitor and lane-departure warning. Despite being 1.5 inches shorter than before, the updated Rogue has more rear-seat legroom.

Options include tri-zone climate control, large head-up display, floating 9.0-inch touchscreen and 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster. There’s also wireless charging, Wi-Fi hotspot, front/rear heated seats and a panoramic moonroof. As for those rear-window sunshades, you likely won’t find them on competing models—at least not in this price range.

crossovers, gay news, Washington Blade
Nissan Rogue
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