Amid the pandemic and protests against systemic racism, the roller-coaster economy continues on its wild ride. It’s hard to even think about writing a car column that is relevant to the moment. Yet vehicles are a major necessity for so many of us, whether first responders, volunteers or anyone making a grocery run.
The good news: It’s actually a good time to buy a vehicle. Automakers rolled out generous incentives a few months ago during the beginning of the pandemic’s economic shutdowns. Many incentives are still in place as well as extra rebates and lease specials.
While many dealerships are now open with safeguards in place, the shutdowns also ushered in a new normal of buying online. And automakers are beginning to increase production to make up for dwindling inventory of certain models.
As for what to drive, affordable crossovers are a good place to start.
Mpg: 28 city/32 highway
Zero-60 mph: 6.6 seconds
Hyundai keeps creating fun vehicles that are easy on the eyes and on the wallet. Case in point: the Kona subcompact, with its funky grille, svelte side panels and sporty fastback profile. The daytime running lights and turn signals actually sit above the headlights. And rugged black cladding snakes around the vehicle like a sexy boa on a drag queen.
The base four-cylinder engine is a bit meh, but the turbo is plenty zippy. And the excellent steering is even better when coupled with the optional all-wheel drive. Despite all the hard plastic, the cabin is well designed with good sound insulation, lots of storage compartments and high seating for better driver visibility. Back-seat legroom is scrunched, but there’s decent headroom and rear cargo space. Hyundai always offers gobs of standard features for the money, and that’s true here: remote keyless entry, rearview camera, 7-inch infotainment touchscreen, smartphone compatibility, steering-wheel controls and more.
Step up from the base model for goodies such as a sunroof, push-button start, heated/ventilated seats and a head-up display that shows vehicle speed, route navigation, radio station and other information. Best of all, even a fully loaded Kona is still less than $30,000. This pint-size ride also boasts numerous automotive awards, has a great reliability rating and is a top safety pick.
Mpg: 23 city/31 highway
Zero-60 mph: 6.9 seconds
For a little more cargo room and a lot more cachet, there’s the all-new Mercedes GLB. This compact crossover slots between the GLA subcompact and the larger and pricier GLC. Yet the GLB offers something extra: an optional third row.
The boxy design, reminiscent of the automaker’s hulking SUVs, makes it roomier than expected. While the base model feels fairly bare bones, it does come with a power liftgate, LED headlights, simulated leather and smartphone integration. Most luxury-vehicle buyers will likely want to add some of high-end options, such as keyless entry, power-folding side mirrors, hands-free liftgate and premium Burmester sound system.
The two large 10.25-inch digital screens, which highlight driving gauges and the infotainment system, are especially fine. For sportier handling, you can toss in the adaptive dampers to firm up the suspension.
Mpg: 20 city/24 highway
Zero-60 mph: 7.2 seconds
Compared with other midsize crossovers, the VW Atlas seems downright leviathan. As with the compact Mercedes GLB, there are three rows. But the Atlas is more than 16 inches longer, which makes it feel like you’ve just been upgraded from economy seating to first class.
There’s also 50 percent more storage capacity. Even though the Atlas only debuted in 2018, it gets a refresh this year, with snazzier grille, bumpers and headlights/taillights. The attractive cabin also gets a spiffier steering wheel, seats and infotainment system.
Alas, VW didn’t upgrade the two engine choices, which are capable but nothing spectacular. Still, the overall ride is enjoyable, with some unexpected surprises like hands-free parallel parking and a nav system that can scan traffic signs.