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High-end hybrids have come a long way

Lexus LS 500H, Mini Cooper SE Countryman among ’19 standouts

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hybrids 2019, gay news, Washington Blade
Lexus LS 500h

The first hybrid car, built by Ferdinand Porsche, no less, had its coming-out party at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900. Yet it took almost 100 years for mass-produced hybrids to make their debut in dealer showrooms. Sure, the Toyota Prius quickly became the belle of the ball, but now automakers are showcasing gas-sippers with much more snob appeal. 

LEXUS LS 500H
$85,000
MPG: 26 city/31 highway
Zero-60 mph: 5.4 seconds

Lexus introduced the first luxury hybrid — a version of the midsize RX crossover — back in 2005. But to show just how seriously the automaker wants to be an eco-chic crusader, the lavish LS 500h hybrid sedan is the company’s overall flagship vehicle. 

At over 206 inches in length, this full-size ride is plenty big, with acres of legroom and trunk space. Yet the car feels light and airy, with swift acceleration and no roly-poly wobbling as you weave through traffic. Redesigned last year, the LS 500h now has Apple CarPlay (though no Android Auto), as well as Amazon Alexa to start the engine, lock/unlock the doors and check the fuel level. 

There’s a laundry list of standard safety and comfort features, but it’s hard to resist many over-the-top options: 23-speaker Mark Levinson stereo, 24-inch head-up display and 28-way adjustable seats that can heat up, cool down and massage you to paradise. Despite the severely sloped roofline, the rear seats recline to help tall passengers fit comfortably. The glam interior is eerily quiet, with four-zone climate control, power sunshades and ritzy, hand-pleated Alcantara door panels that look like premium acoustic material from a high-tech sound studio. 

The overall design, both inside and out, is bold and angular. While the BMW 745e and Mercedes 560e plug-in hybrids may be more performance-oriented, the LS 500h is just as glamorous and boasts a key Lexus selling point: superb reliability. 

MINI COOPER SE COUNTRYMAN ALL4 PHEV
$37,000
MPG: 65 in electric/gasoline mode
Zero-60 mph: 6.7 seconds

Cute. Compact. Classy. The Mini Cooper SE Countryman plug-in hybrid is built on the same platform as the itty BMW X1 crossover, with some rather wonky styling and a host of high-end features.

The ride is sporty rough, which means your tush feels each and every pothole. But that’s a good thing, because the steering and suspension are tight and controlled. There’s plenty of Euro cred here, from the zippy acceleration to the high-quality materials, which helps differentiate this Mini plug-in hybrid from a bevy of other smallish, ho-hum hybrids. And to help it stand out from other Minis, as well, this Countryman is available with funky neon green paint on the side-view mirrors, the charge port, each of the four wheels, and the badging on the grille and rear hatch. 

When the battery is being charged, a pulsing light encircling the charge port also glows green. Fully charged, the range is up to 270 miles. In electric-only mode, the range is about 12 miles — though this increases to 35 miles on the 2020 model. Inside, the large, circular infotainment system also glows green, as well as other colors. 

The cabin feels roomy, though there could be a few more storage compartments. But there are plenty of luxe amenities: push-button start, heated windshield wiper system, simulated leather upholstery, power-folding mirrors, power liftgate, suede headliner, panoramic sunroof and more. By combining these creature comforts with a fuel-friendly powerplant and some whimsical design cues, Mini has produced one fun hybrid.  

Mini Cooper SE Countryman All4 PHEV

RANGE ROVER SPORT HSE MHEV
$74,000
MPG: 19 city/25 highway
Zero-60 mph:  6.2 seconds

The Sport is Range Rover’s first mild-hybrid vehicle, available with 355 hp or 395 hp. While curb weight is 5,135 pounds, this husky SUV is surprisingly agile. 

A best-in-class chassis helps, offering a pillow-like ride whether ferrying passengers over rocky terrain or breezing down the freeway. Acceleration is downright sprightly, with vise-like brakes that quickly stop the Sport but without any herky-jerky shuddering common on some other large SUVs. 

With such high ground clearance, the self-leveling air suspension lowers the vehicle to easily load passengers or cargo. Inside, the cabin is so refined it should be in Architectural Digest, with sculpted wood trim, real leather seats, ambient lighting and a fixed panoramic sunroof. Third-row seating is an option, though there’s only room for kids or pets. 

All the latest safety gear is here, including blind-sport monitoring, forward collision warning (with automatic emergency braking), a driver-monitoring system and traffic-sign recognition. The puddle lamps add a touch of class, as do heated/ventilated front and rear seats. 

And while there are numerous stereo configurations, offering umpteen speakers depending on how much you want to spend, the infotainment system has a tendency to periodically conk out or freeze on a particular radio station. That’s annoying, considering how much the Sport costs. But drivers may overlook such a glitch because the sound quality is so stunning the rest of the time. 

Range Rover Sport HSE MHEV
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Autos

Seductive sport-utes: Buick Evista, Subaru Outback

Two vehicles that punch way above their weight

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Buick Envista

Two recent sport-utes are surprise hits this year. Well, at least they are for me. That’s because the all-new Buick Envista and tried-and-true Subaru Outback both deliver more than expected—a lot more. Call it bait and switch, but in a good way. 

BUICK ENVISTA 

$24,000

MPG: 28 city/32 highway

0 to 60 mph: 9.3 seconds

Maximum cargo room: 42.0 cu. ft. 

PROS: Yowza design, yowza cabin, yowza price

CONS: Modest power, no all-wheel drive, so-so stereo

IN A NUTSHELL: If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Buick Envista is practically a Teutonic clone. Just a few months ago, I wrote about the BMW X6—a riveting ride with glam looks, oodles of high-tech gizmos and an uber-comfy interior. But all that awesomeness comes at a price: $75,000—and that’s just the base model. Choose a higher trim level or load up on chichi extras and this bad-ass Bimmer easily tops $100,000. 

Not so the Buick Envista, an all-new compact that starts at just $24,000. I test drove the high-end Avenir version, which was—wait for it—only $5,000 extra. And the Avenir comes standard with 19-inch nickel-finish wheels, upgraded suspension, power liftgate, keyless entry, remote start, heated seats, heated steering wheel and other goodies. 

After doing a double take on the Envista’s exquisite exterior, I did the same when slipping behind the wheel. Yep, there definitely is a Buick logo inside. But everything else could come from the kicky cabin of a BMW X6. This includes a fully digital dashboard stretched wide beneath the windshield, as well as stylish trapezoidal air vents, tasteful aluminum trim, armrests sculpted seamlessly into the doors and well-bolstered sport seats.

Turn on the stellar stereo in a BMW X6 and you could be in the front row at a Queen and Adam Lambert concert. In the Envista, the audio may not be quite as impressive, but those six speakers and nicely calibrated noise-cancellation function still provide a pleasant experience. 

This bantamweight Buick also has a surprising amount of space for passengers and cargo. Headroom is more than adequate, even for tallish backseat passengers. And folding those rear seats more than doubles the overall stowage.

All Envistas boast a bevy of safety gear, including lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, automatic braking, forward collision warning with pedestrian protection, and a “following-distance” indicator to monitor vehicles ahead of you. Oh yes, there’s a superb backup camera—high definition, no less. As with the BMW X6, this camera helps offset limited visibility from the small rear window in the sharply sloped roofline. 

For less than $1,000, you can add a blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, rain-sensing wipers, rear-park assist and heated side mirrors. Such options are much pricier on other vehicles.

No, this Buick is not a NASCAR rival. There’s no raw power or intimidating exhaust rumble. But the Envista’s acceleration, handling and braking are all solid, especially in commuter traffic. 

 Affordable. Economical. Thrifty. Call it what you will, the Buick Envista is half the price of an average vehicle today. That’s impressive for this “Mini-Me” of a BMW X6. 

SUBARU OUTBACK

$29,000

MPG: 26 city/32 highway

0 to 60 mph: 8.8 seconds

Maximum cargo room: 75.6 cu. ft. 

PROS: Relaxed ride, spacious interior, off-road maven 

CONS: Slow base engine, dated touchscreen, less fuel-friendly

IN A NUTSHELL: Station wagon? Sport-ute? All-activity vehicle? The Subaru Outback is all three, mixing the agility of all-wheel drive with sedan-like handling. The result: A composed ride equally at home on highways or trailways. 

The overall look is sleeker than a Ford Bronco but less luxe than a Lexus RX. While the Outback was last redesigned in 2020, each year Subaru makes at least a few improvements. For 2024, this mid-sizer receives minor styling updates, as well as more standard features on many of its nine trim levels. 

I test drove the top-of-the-line Touring XT for a week. At $41,000, the price is a whopping 40% higher than the base model. But the amenities rival what many competitors offer on vehicles costing twice as much. Along with heated/ventilated seats, heated steering wheel and heated power-folding side mirrors, there are plenty of other creature comforts: hands-free liftgate, water-repellant faux-leather upholstery, windshield wiper de-icer, tinted rear windows and premium 12-speaker Harman Kardon stereo. 

Curiously, the dual 7.0-inch touchscreen seems stuck in the 1990s. But you can choose a vertical, iPad-like 11.6-inch monitor instead. 

A front-view camera with 180-degree viewing angle makes it easy to peak around corners, while a digital rearview mirror allows you to see behind the vehicle even if the cargo area is fully loaded. Other safety items include adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitor, pre-collision braking, lane-departure warning and drowsy-driver alert. 

Perhaps the only downside is the pokey 182-horsepower base engine. Skip it, and go for the quicker, more satisfying turbo.

Feature-laden but frugally priced, the Outback is similar to the Buick Envista — two vehicles that punch way above their weight. 

Subaru Outback
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Autos

Sport haulers: Jeep Grand Cherokee, Mercedes GLE-Class

Updated cabins, adept handling, and more

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Jeep Grand Cherokee

Now that March Madness and the Masters are over, it’s time for, well, everything else. For my husband and me, this means water sports, as in kayaks and rowing sculls, which is why we trekked to the Potomac for the George Washington Invitational regatta last weekend. 

Alas, high winds splashed cold water on the event, canceling much of it. But there was still plenty of spirited camaraderie to rival “The Boys in the Boat.” 

And I was reminded of my time years ago as a rower with D.C. Strokes, ferrying teammates to races up and down the East Coast. Back then my ride was a dated, rather cramped four-door sedan. 

If only we could have paddled around in a sporty SUV like the two reviewed here. Now that would have been some smooth sailing (wink-wink). 

JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE 

$40,000

MPG: 19 city/26 highway

0 to 60 mph: 7.5 seconds

Maximum cargo room: 37.7 cu. ft. 

PROS: Updated cabin, adept handling, strong towing 

CONS: So-so gas mileage, no third row, pricey trim levels

IN A NUTSHELL: Rough, tough and buff. It’s doesn’t get much more butch than a Jeep. This year’s Grand Cherokee is no exception, with rugged looks, expert off-road capability and better-than-average towing capacity of 6,200 pounds. 

There are a dizzying number of trim levels—more than a dozen—starting with the barebones base-model Laredo at an affordable $40,000. The lineup tops out with the Summit Reserve 4xe PHEV, which is almost twice the price at $76,000 and one of various plug-in hybrid versions available. Those plug-in hybrids can drive up to 25 miles on all-electric power before the four-cylinder gas engine kicks in. Otherwise, you can choose from a standard V6 or V8. Gas mileage on all trim levels is basically the same as the competition. 

Where the Grand Cherokee really shines is in the handling. More refined than a Wrangler but less lavish than a Land Rover, this Jeep maneuvers just as well on city streets and highways as it does on bumpier terrain.    

I tested the mid-range and mid-priced Overland, which comes standard with four-wheel drive and large 20-inch wheels. It also boasts a slew of niceties, such as quilted upholstery, panoramic sunroof and high-tech digital displays. These include a 10.25-inch infotainment touchscreen and rear-seat entertainment system. 

The nine-speaker Alpine stereo, designed specifically for the Grand Cherokee, is pleasing. But I really wanted to hear the boffo 19-speaker McIntosh surround-sound system that Jeep also offers. Sigh, it’s only available on the premium Summit trim level. 

MERCEDES GLE-CLASS

$64,000 

MPG: 20 city/25 highway

0 to 60 mph: 6.6 seconds

Maximum cargo room: 33.3 cu. ft. 

PROS: Lush interior, silky-smooth suspension, speedy 

CONS: Some confusing electronics, tight third row, many competitors

IN A NUTSHELL: For a more high-class hauler, there’s the Mercedes GLE-Class. This midsize SUV is similar in size to the Jeep Grand Cherokee. But instead of seating five passengers, the GLE can carry up to seven. Sure, legroom in the optional third row may be tight for taller travelers, but it’s perfect for a cocky cockswain or two. 

Six trim levels, ranging from the base-model GLE 350 to two high-performance AMG models. For eco-conscious buyers, the GLE 450e plug-in hybrid arrived earlier this year and can run on battery power alone for almost 60 miles. 

My test car was the top-of-the-line AMG 63 S 4Matic, a head-turner in every way. Priced at a whopping $127,000, this GLE looks best in glossy black with the Night Package, which includes tasteful jet-black exterior accents and matte-black wheels. To complete the Darth Vader effect, there’s a deep, menacing exhaust rumble that’s downright threatening.

You expect such a ride to be wicked fast, and it is: 0 to 60 mph in a blistering 3.7 seconds. Yet the carbon ceramic brakes with their devil-red calipers are equally impressive in slowing things down quickly. 

Inside, each GLE comes with two large digital displays on the elegantly sculpted dashboard. My favorite feature is the “Hey Mercedes” digital assistant, which responds to voice commands such as opening or closing the sunroof, operating the infotainment system or activating the climate controls. 

It’s hard to find sport seats that are more comfortable, especially with the heavenly massage function (though those massage controls could be a bit more user-friendly.) For AMG models, the seats come with red-contrasting stitching and red seatbelts—a nod to the devilish demeanor under the hood.

Considering all the SUVs available in showrooms, few make quite the splash of a GLE.

Mercedes GLE-Class
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Autos

Glam rides: BMW X6 and Range Rover Velar

Impressive standard features elevate these lower-priced options

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BMW X6

Many sport-utes with ho-hum styling still impress me by offering scads of standard features and a low MSRP. But sometimes it’s hard not to be seduced by what I call glam rides—pricier vehicles with plenty of attitude. You know, like something Cassandro might drive. 

BMW X6 

$75,000 

MPG: 23 city/26 highway

0 to 60 mph: 5.2 seconds

Maximum cargo room: 59.6 cu. ft. 

PROS: Outré styling, posh cabin, raw power

CONS: Less rear visibility, limited storage, costly options

IN A NUTSHELL: Trust me, it’s hard not to fall in love with a BMW X6. This recently updated crossover, with its coupe-like profile, swept-back grille and breathtaking acceleration, had me at hello. High ground clearance and oodles of high-tech features turn this high-end hauler into one helluva wild ride.

Sure, the sharply sloped roof hampers rear-seat headroom and cargo capacity. But up front there’s more room than expected, along with a dramatically curved digital dashboard. And the ginormous panoramic moonroof helps make the interior feel quite spacious. 

How good is this BMW? Zipping up to Baltimore last month during a day of downpours and clueless commuters, my husband and I started rethinking our promise to never buy a budget-busting vehicle. For us, bad weather and heavy traffic usually result in clenched teeth, heavy sighs and my swearing like a sailor. Yet the hushed cabin, 16-way power front seats and ability to control the stereo and other functions simply by waving my hand were all very Zen. Ditto the finely tuned suspension, steering and braking, which anticipated my every move. Instead of shying away from rush hour on our return home, I leaned in. 

Myriad safety features — from forward-collision alerts and blind-spot monitors to lane-departure warnings and a 360-degree camera — batted away any concerns about fender benders. Same for the option packages that allow you to park the X6 automatically, store familiar maneuvers and drive hands-free at up to 85 mph.  

Power in the base-model — which is what I test drove — comes from a lively 375-hp turbo, with a 48-volt hybrid system to improve gas mileage. There’s also a smooth eight-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive for sure handling on slippery roads. Pricing begins at $75,000, but options on my test car brought it up to—whoa!—88,000. 

For more grit and growl, there’s the xDrive60i, with a 523-hp twin turbo that helps this Bimmer sprint from 0 to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds. And the top-of-the-line X6 M Competition with a 617-hp V8 is even faster at a blistering 3.7 seconds. But I am much too afraid to drive this gnarly high-test model—it starts at $128,000. 

RANGE ROVER VELAR

$63,000 

MPG: 19 city/25 highway

0 to 60 mph: 5.2 seconds

Maximum cargo room: 70.1 cu. ft. 

PROS: Refined design, chic interior, lotsa storage

CONS: Tepid base engine, more sedate handling, pricey

IN A NUTSHELL: While Range Rovers are known for being oh-so-classy, the Velar is much sassier than the rest of the lineup. 

The sweeping front fascia would make Ariana Grande proud: Svelte grille, sporty wraparound headlights and stretched, corset-like air ducts in the bumper.  

Inside, the look is spartan but elegant. All knobs and other switchgear are mostly hidden or activated by an 11.4-inch infotainment touchscreen that seems to hover in front of the dash. Even the ubiquitous cruise control and stereo buttons on the steering wheel seem to have vanished, though look closer and they are tastefully integrated into the design. 

While the Velar may be classified as a compact vehicle, it looks and feels much larger. Compared with the midsize BMW X6, both have ample seating for five people. Front-seat dimensions are practically the same, but the supposedly smaller Range Rover has better back-seat headroom and legroom. It also holds almost 20% more cargo. 

Built on the same platform as the popular Jaguar F-Pace, the Velar has a relaxed ride compared to the more athletic BMW X6. Power is less aggressive on the Range Rover, with choice of two competent but hardly rip-roaring engines. 

Build quality is impressive, including the optional leather-free interior that uses an upscale composite of wool and polyurethane. And while even the base-model comes with interior ambient lighting and a premium Meridian stereo, you can opt for the 17-speaker 3D system for an even more “Maestro”-like experience.  

Overall, the Velar may be less of a rabble rouser than the BMW X6, but there’s still plenty here to dazzle the senses. 

Range Rover Velar
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