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AUTOS: green machines

Kia Niro, Lexus hybrid among posh new models

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green vehicles, gay news, Washington Blade
green vehicles, gay news, Washington Blade
Lexus UX 250h Hybrid

With those stay-at-home orders, some of us have become smitten with clean air and quiet neighborhoods. Call it the Walden Pond effect. But how to maintain that peaceful, easy feeling when the hustle and bustle returns? Here are a few green vehicles that even Henry David Thoreau could love. 

LEXUS UX 250h HYBRID

$35,000

MPG: 41 city/38 highway

Zero-60 MPH: 8.6 seconds

As part of Toyota’s grand plan to churn out hybrids galore, the automaker adds the UX 250h hybrid crossover to its Lexus luxury line. The look is both plucky and posh, thanks to the choppy sheet-metal and high-class cabin. 

Sure, the base model is a fine ride, but the F Sport trim level adds enticing extras: brawny bumpers, sport-tuned suspension, LED fog lights and steering-wheel paddle shifters. There’s even an “active sound control” system for a sexier exhaust note. And the contoured seats are so form-fitting they rival those in a Porsche Carrera. 

Sadly, the acceleration isn’t at all Carrera-like, though it’s adequate enough for most daily commutes. I initially had a hard time with the thick pillars and small rear window, which reduce driver visibility. But Lexus tossed in a standard backup camera that really helps. There’s also a front-facing camera and radar system to prevent collisions and detect pedestrians and bicyclists. 

The touchy infotainment system was hard to decipher at first, but my old-school stubbornness prevailed in the end. All in all, the UX hybrid is a solid vehicle for drivers looking for a touch of luxury without the hefty price tag.

KIA NIRO EV 

$40,000

Range: 239 miles

Zero-60 MPH: 7.8 seconds

For years I was skeptical of electric vehicles, mainly because of range anxiety. Why buy a vehicle that could only travel 60 miles before needing a re-charge that would last for hours? But then I fell in love with more recent EVs like the all-new Kia Niro, which can travel four times as far as those early electrics. 

The Niro’s design is clean and understated, similar to a gutsy VW e-Golf (also on my bucket list). The cabin is likewise unobtrusive, especially the hard-plastic door handles and dash, but still tasteful, with user-friendly gauges and a slew of control switches on the steering wheel. 

What’s more, there are plenty of top-notch amenities, including xenon headlights, heated power-folding side mirrors, acoustic-damping windshield, heat-reflecting front side windows, tinted rear windows, smartphone integration, Bluetooth and more. 

For an additional $4,000, the premium trim level adds ambient lighting, ventilated seats, sunroof and wireless phone charging. Another plus: the concert-hall acoustics and throbbing subwoofer from the blissful Harman Kardon stereo. The Niro EV may not be as zippy as some other electrics, but it’s still very fun to drive. Think a fancy go-kart for adults, and you won’t be far off the mark. 

Kia Niro EV

MINI COOPER SE EV 

$31,000

Range: 110 miles

Zero-60 MPH: 6.9 seconds

For some reason, driving a Mini brings out the British secret agent in me (more James Bond than Austin Powers, at least in my mind). It happened again when test driving the SE, the first Mini electric vehicle. No, there weren’t any rocket launchers or vehicle-cloaking devices. But the need for a passenger-ejection seat did cross my mind when my partner complained, once again, about how quickly I tackle speed bumps. (“Shaken, not stirred,” was my wry reply.)

Luckily, my partner also knows how much I adore Minis: the 1970s door handles, those bug-eyed headlights and a Union Jack emblem tastefully etched into both taillights. Optional 17-inch wheels on the SE come with a wacky design for better aerodynamics. And funky yellow accents on the grille, fenders and side mirrors distinguish this car from a typical Mini. 

Inside the minimalist cabin there’s a tidy row of toggle switches and classy chrome accents on the vents and gauges. When the SE is plugged in, a digital readout indicates the exact time it will be fully charged. The nav system, which displays a “range circle” to show how far the SE can go without running out of juice, also maps out the best “green” route to travel. 

That’s a good thing, because the driving range here is only 110 miles. Luckily, the regenerative braking system is extra-grippy to help conserve energy. And by just barely lifting your foot off the accelerator, the car slows so dramatically that you really only need to brake when coming to a full stop. Such technology may not be as exciting as smoke bombs or flame throwers, but — as agent 007 might say — it’s still bloody impressive. 

Mini Cooper SE EV
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Autos

Fun holiday gifts for car fans

Something for everyone, from Bentley trikes to a Mercedes tree topper

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For all those gear heads in your life, here are some fun holiday gifts to get their motors running. Many of these stocking stuffers are affordable. Others, well, not so much.

Bentley Trike for Tykes

Leave it to Bentley to create a fancy fuchsia trike ($500). With six modes, from stroller to tricycle, parents can adjust this three-wheeler as a toddler gets older. Along with the “Big B logo,” the Bentley name is emblazoned on the down tube. Yes, there are more subdued colors, but why bother?

Ford Sherpa Blanket

Cuddle up with a warm and fuzzy Sherpa blanket ($30), made of 100% polyester and the Ford logo embroidered in the corner.

MINI Travel Bag

For quick weekend getaways, MINI has a large soft-luggage travel bag ($190) with extendible handle, two wheels, large main compartment, outer pocket and removable zipped pockets.

Porsche Table-top Clock

The alarm tone on this tabletop clock ($250) sounds just like a throaty Porsche 911 engine. Includes Martini Racing design, as well as a countdown function and analog/digital display.

Rolls-Royce Portable “Pursuit Seat”

Rolls-Royce, known for its relentless pursuit of perfection, now has a portable “Pursuit Seat” ($8,800) — perfect for any derriere. The adjustable seat is anything but old school, made of carbon fiber, polished aluminum and cushy leather (tastefully embossed with the Spirit of Ecstasy insignia, of course).

Mercedes Tree Topper

What better tree topper than a Mercedes three-pointed metal star ($52), which measures 8 inches across. Post on social, and dare anyone to top that!

Aston Martin Wrestwatch

Just in time for the holidays, there’s the Laureato Chronograph Aston Martin Edition ($18,000). Made by Girard-Perregaux), this ritzy wristwatch has a high-grade stainless-steel case, finely polished edges on the bezel, sapphire-crystal pane on the back, and racing-green paint applied to the dial 21 times.

Jaguar Suitcase

Simple but elegant, Jaguar’s compact suitcase ($282) has a polycarbonate shell, aluminum frame and multidirectional wheels that look like real alloy car wheels. Two larger suitcases also available.

Subaru Holiday Sweater

Just shy of being an entrant at some ugly-sweater contest, this festive Subaru holiday sweater ($70) is 100% acrylic and incredibly comfortable.

Front End of a 1962 Ferrari 268 SP

Only one 1962 Ferrari 268 SP race car was ever built, and now there’s a full-scale replica of the front end ($22,000). A pedestal is available, or enthusiasts can mount this work of art on the wall.

Ferrari Vintage Steering Wheel

For more frugal fare (kinda sorta) Ferrari offers a vintage three-spoke steering wheel ($4,010). Such steering wheels were used in Ferraris between 1959 and 1965, and this full-scale repro—made of mahogany and polished aluminum—features the iconic prancing horse in the center.

Bentley Heritage Bear

Many automakers offer cuddly teddy bears, and Bentley is no exception. The limited-edition Heritage Bear ($57) is decked out in snazzy fleece jacket, suede-like helmet and racing goggles. There’s even a dust bag with drawstring for safekeeping.

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One lean, mean green machine

New Ford Mustang Mach-E is electrifying

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(Photo courtesy of Ford)

Here’s a shocker: Electric vehicles have been around for over 180 years. By the time of the first Hershey bar in 1900, EVs had hit their own sweet spot—surging to almost 30 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S. But when Henry Ford began to produce cars on his moving assembly line in 1913, the popularity of the gas-powered Model T soon short-circuited EV sales. Cue to a century later, when the debut of the all-electric Nissan Leaf in 2010 sent a jolt through the auto industry. Yet it would take another decade to get drivers charged up about anything other than gas-powered rides. Today, it’s hard to keep track of all the EVs out there, along with other green machines like hybrids. While the current microchip shortage has slowed or stopped production on many cars for now, I was lucky enough to drive the all-new, all-electric Ford Mustang Mach-E. The experience was, well, truly electrifying.

Ford Mustang Mach-E
$47,000
Range: up to 305 miles
0 to 60 mph: 4.2 seconds

When the Ford Mustang Mach-E was first announced, many auto aficionados were left scratching their heads. After all, a Mustang is one of the most iconic muscle cars ever created, and the Mach-E designation sounds suspiciously like the “Mach-1” branding used on flashy high-performance Stangs. Yet this new Mustang is a crossover SUV—and an electric one to boot. While the initial designs were captivating, plenty of skeptics remained. Luckily, they needn’t have worried. I was mesmerized the moment the Mach-E arrived, eager to run my hand along its sinewy side panels and strapping rear end. To keep the design as aerodynamic as possible, there are no traditional door handles. Instead, you use the key fob, your smartphone or a push button on the window frame to pop open the door. 

On the inside, there’s a small latch in the armrest versus the typical door handle. Such design elements are not only aesthetically pleasing, they also save space and reduce weight. Other novelties: This is the first Ford vehicle to use recycled animal-free fabrics, as well as a vegan steering wheel that’s as durable as leather. On the space-age dashboard, the premium Bang & Olufsen speakers are concealed beneath fabric covers that mimic the look of pricey home-theater speakers. And the unique design of the quiet cabin allows for a subwoofer that is 50 percent lighter than usual, yet still retains a deep rich clarity. As for the gigantic 15.5-inch vertical touchscreen in the center of the dash, it resembles a sort of funky oversized iPad from “The Orville.” Along with large climate controls for easier viewing, the touchscreen has interactive maps to locate the nearest charging stations. Those maps came in handy during two weekend trips, as did the heavily bolstered seats that helped prevent driver fatigue but also were easy on the tush. In total, there are five Mach-E trim levels, each with differing configurations for power and range (the distance you can travel on a full charge). 

While even the base-model Mach-E is fast and lively, it’s the high-test GT version that strikes like a thunder bolt. Rocketing from 0 to 60 seconds in just 3.8 seconds, the Mach-E GT is quicker than a Toyota Supra super coupe. And thanks to lower-than-expected ground clearance and a superb suspension, the Mach-E is just as agile. Those grippy regenerative brakes help, of course, allowing you to speed up or slow down using only the accelerator pedal. 

It’s worth noting there are other EVs in the Ford stable, including the electric F-150 Lightning full-size pickup, the E-Transit commercial van and various green machines on the way. By 2030, Ford is aiming for 40 percent of its global sales to be EVs. That’s a great goal for a company that once helped pull the plug on the “electric horseless carriage” but today is leading the charge with its own cutting-edge EVs.

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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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