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Nissan Kicks, Volvo XC40 among latest clever, affordable crossovers

Sporty roof spoiler, coordinated colors inside and out among features

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crossovers, gay news, Washington Blade
Nissan Kicks

From to Cher to Ariana, divas command your attention with flashy wardrobe changes. Automakers do it with clever vehicle designs and competitive prices. That’s especially true for crossovers, which continue to reign supreme on dealer lots.

 NISSAN KICKS

$20,000

MPG: 31 city/36 highway

Zero-60 mph: 6.9 seconds

What’s in a name? Apparently not much if it’s the Nissan Juke. The automaker nixed its tiny competent crossover and replaced it with the all-new Kicks.

To be fair, the Juke suffered from quirky bug-eyed styling that would look more at home in a Brewster Rockit comic strip than on city streets. And the Juke sure was small, which is why the Kicks is seven inches longer and has more than twice as much cargo space. The Kicks also has a bigger touchscreen and more safety features, with automated emergency braking, forward-collision warning, blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert. The four-cylinder engine is perky enough, with excellent fuel economy.

Handling is more controlled on straightaways than on curvy roads, but the Kicks does manage pesky potholes much better than expected. And it comes with plenty of amenities: parking sensors, exterior lighting, smartphone integration and more. As with the Juke, the Kicks can be customized with appearance packages, such as a sporty roof spoiler and coordinated colors inside and out. All in all, the Kicks has taken the best of the jivey Juke and made it more appealing to grown-ups.

TOYOTA RAV4 

$26,000

MPG: 26 city/35 highway 

Zero-60 mph: 8.5 seconds

The wildly popular Toyota RAV4 gets a complete redesign this year, mixing cocky styling from the Tacoma pickup with the comfy ride of a Camry sedan.

The cabin is quiet and roomy, with a cargo hold that seems to stretch forever. And the high seating and large windows give the driver great visibility. Vehicle reliability, a top selling point for Toyota, shines through with the high-quality materials, snug fit and finish and lack of annoying rattles. While most of the controls are simple to use, the infotainment system is slightly dated. And though Apple CarPlay is here, Android Auto is not.

Perhaps the biggest beef is with the new engine, which gets a tad more horsepower than the previous model but lacks any real punch. Still, this RAV4 is a superb gas sipper (the hybrid version is even more fuel-friendly, of course) and comes loaded with standard features, including LED headlights, rear privacy glass and rearview camera with optional bird’s-eye view.

Toyota also throws in a suite of safety gear: adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams, lane-keeping assist and forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking. At this price and with all these conveniences, it’s no wonder the RAV4 has been the best-selling crossover/SUV for more than two decades.

Toyota RAV4

VOLVO XC40 

$34,000

MPG: 23 city/31 highway 

Zero-60 mph: 6.3 seconds

Showrooms may be swimming in crossovers, but Volvo has parted the waters with its stunning new XC40. This fine design is both fresh and classic, shrinking the signature grille and futuristic headlights from Volvo’s larger XC60 and accentuating the raised rear so it screams Porsche Cayenne.

It’s hard to emphasize just how athletic this compact crossover looks and behaves, as if it were a Red Bull cliff diver born to thrill onlookers below. There are no paddle shifters, but you don’t need them with such a strong turbo engine. And this being Volvo, the SC40 is exceedingly practical.

There are cubbies molded into the backseats to store coins, snacks or cups, and a cutout on the side of the center console can hold pens or a stylus (or better yet, hide your smartphone from view). Yes, the knobby little shifter is annoying at first, but you soon learn how to toggle it back and forth to change gears. The interior is so stylish, it’s easy to forgive the faux leather trim and cheap plastic on the glovebox (these lighter materials helps reduce vehicle weight, after all).

And there’s a panoramic sunroof, an iPad-like infotainment system on the dash, and a kick-ass Harmen Kardon stereo that can optimize sound to 360 degrees and individually for each seat. Volvo also added playful touches, such as a little rubber Swedish flag on the hood and some fun exterior colors (the baby blue with a bright-white roof looks especially cheery).

While the sporty front seats are well bolstered, they aren’t ventilated. And the rear seats would be more comfortable if they could be reclined. But these are minor quibbles for a crossover that more than holds its own against BMW, Mercedes and other competitors costing so much more.

Volvo VC40
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Autos

Pride rides

Two models offer strong, confident, inspiring styling

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BMW X5 xDrive 45e

As usual, June is bustin’ out all over, with Vice President Kamala Harris making history by joining in the festivities. But the fun doesn’t have to end there. Two fine crossover SUVs show how easy it is to keep the party going indefinitely. I call them Pride rides—strong, confident and inspiring. 

BMW X5 XDRIVE 45E

$66,000

Mpg: 20 mpg (gas only), 50 mpg (electric and gas)

0 to 60 mph: 4.7 seconds

In 2015, back when Gus Kenworthy and Caitlin Jenner came charging out of the closet, BMW was making its own hoopla with the X5 xDrive 40e. This was the automaker’s first plug-in hybrid, an engineering marvel that could shift seamlessly between EV and gas-engine mode. Ride and handling were as good as any traditional SUV. And despite a hefty curb weight, acceleration to 60 mph was a decent 6.2 seconds. 

Fast forward to the X5 xDrive 45e, the next-gen model rolling into showrooms this year. Thanks to the pandemic, this debut has been more subtle. But the enhancements are quite substantial. The new engine—stronger and quieter than the previous model—helps this midsize SUV blast to 60 mph in just 4.7 seconds. Despite being over 400 pounds heavier, the updated X5 is actually nimbler. And the electric-only range is 31 miles, or twice as far as the old model. That’s a good thing, because overall fuel economy is now 20 mpg versus 24 mpg. Luckily, most motorists drive only about 30 miles each day anyway. (Or at least they did prior to the pandemic.) 

Inside, the cockpit design is minimalist chic, but with lots of standard features: faux-leather seats, panoramic roof, two 12.3-inch digital screens, and smartphone integration for both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. All-wheel drive also is standard, even in electric-only mode. Along with all the latest safety gear, there’s active cruise control with a stop-and-go function that can be used at speeds up to 130 mph (yo, for autobahn drivers, not those of us stateside). And during a much-needed weekend getaway with some freeway backups, the traffic-jam-assist feature worked its magic: I was able take my hands off the wheel and relieve a lot of driver fatigue and frustration as the vehicle drove itself. This also was a blessing for my partner, who didn’t have to listen to me swear like a New York City taxi driver. 

MERCEDES GLS 450

$76,000

Mpg: 20 city/24 highway

0 to 60 mph: 5.8 seconds

For a few more bells and whistles, there’s the Mercedes GLS 450. This full-size SUV has acres of cargo room and can easily seat seven passengers. For a sportier vibe, you can swap out the second-row bench seat for two captain’s chairs. 

A robust six-cylinder engine comes standard and provides plenty of punch. The entry-level GLS handles just as effortlessly as the higher-end V8 model, which adds another $23,000 to the price tag. Both vehicles are smooth operators, with all-wheel drive and a sophisticated suspension that raises and lowers the chassis. There’s even a clever pothole-sensing system to neutralize nasty bumps and enhance the feeling that this hulking SUV is floating on air. As with many BMWs and Mercedes, the GLS now comes with two huge 12.3-inch screens: one for the digital gauges and the other for the infotainment system. 

Various pricey options abound, including five-zone climate control, a tablet to operate the infotainment system, and front and rear massaging seats that can be programmed to apply soothing relief to your back, tush or both. As if such amenities weren’t enough, you can toss in heated and cooled cupholders, as well as a cabin fragrance system with choice of four aromas. Both Mercedes and BMW offer vibrant ambient lighting, with thin strips of interior lights illuminating the foot wells, door panels, dashboard trim, climate control vents, cupholders, speaker rims, center console and more. To tap into your inner rainbow, the GLS has a digital color wheel where you can choose from 64 lustrous hues. You can customize the lighting even further, selecting different colors to illuminate various parts of the interior at the same time. For me, calling up some funky mood lighting and a few rockin’ Pride songs on the stereo is the perfect way to get the party started. 

Mercedes GLS 450
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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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