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Vehicles to ride out a pandemic

Take a road trip in comfort and style

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Jeep Renegade

Almost everyone I know is going stir crazy from pandemic-induced cabin fever. But even small—and safe—getaways can help restore some semblance of sanity. At least they have for me. I’ve taken a few jaunts in test vehicles this year. The three rides below were comfortable and powered by fairly fuel-efficient engines, which meant I could breeze past congested rest areas instead of stressing out about stopping for gas.

JEEP RENEGADE

$24,000
Mpg: 22 city/30 highway
0 to 60 mph: 9 seconds

More a weekend knockabout than a long-trek hauler, the Jeep Renegade is an adult-sized Tonka toy. There’s plenty of personality here, starting with the Wrangler-like grille and headlights. Whimsical styling includes square taillamps with an “X” on the reflectors, a paintball splotch to highlight the redline on the tachometer, all-weather floor mats with the profile of a vintage Jeep, and text encircling the ignition switch that reads: “To New Adventures!” The rugged cabin includes lots of hard plastic surfaces, which are easy to wipe clean in this age of coronavirus. Legroom and headroom are decent, though cargo space is limited. And while the suspension is somewhat stiff and the engine less than zesty, Jeeps are all about being tough—and playful. Of the four main trim levels, the Trailhawk is built for off-road thrills: underbody skid plates, raised suspension, hill-descent control, and 17-inch wheels with all-terrain tires. There’s even a full-size spare (a rarity these days). While a power sunroof is available, the removable My Sky roof panels were a way to expose the heavens even more. During my time exploring the Maryland and Virginia countryside for a few days, the Renegade was a fun way to escape reality.

LINCOLN AVIATOR

$52,000
Mpg: 18 city/26 highway
0 to 60 mph: 5.4 seconds

The Lincoln Aviator, first launched in 2003 and rebadged as the MKX a few years later, has flown under the radar of most car buyers. I was expecting a similar meh experience with the all-new Aviator for 2020. But then this Cinderella crossover landed in my driveway, and I was hooked: dazzling design, exciting features and competitive price. That’s not to say there aren’t a few quibbles, such as the clunky push-button gearshift (groan, a shifter in the center console is so much easier to use). But overall, this full-size ride performs gracefully and is outfitted with a mighty 400-hp V6 engine. There’s also a clever adaptive-suspension system, which uses a dozen sensors to scan the road then instantly make adjustments so the Aviator can glide smoothly over potholes. With so many luxury features, it’s hard to keep track of them all: soft-close doors, heated windshield wipers, 28-speaker stereo, 30-way power/massaging seats and more. Thanks to the 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and 10-1-inch infotainment screen, you might assume the dashboard was designed with the cockpit of a private jet in mind. Other elegant crossovers, such as the Audi Q7 or BMW X7, offer sportier handling and European cachet. But those Teutonic rides have become rather ubiquitous and usually cost more. After all these years, this is one Aviator that finally stands out.

Lincoln Aviator

FORD EXPEDITION

$53,000
Mpg: 17 city/24 highway
0 to 60 mph: 6.7 seconds

COVID-19 was just starting to hit the country early this year when I needed to travel to the Midwest for a funeral. Instead of taking a risky 90-minute flight, I opted for the nine-hour drive. The Ford Expedition was my test vehicle that week, and it turned out to be the perfect ride to lift my spirits. Completely redesigned a few years ago, this ginormous hauler handles like it’s floating on air. Power running boards automatically deploy when climbing in and out of the vehicle. And the restrained styling, slimmed-down aluminum body and stunning suspension are all reminiscent of Ford’s previous stable mate: Range Rover. While the Expedition doesn’t have the same level of refinement inside, it certainly has plenty of room. Fold down the second- and third-row seats, and cargo space seems to stretch for miles. For even more capacity, an extended Max body style is nine inches longer. Depending on trim level, there are massaging seats, power-adjustable pedals, motion-activated liftgate and captain’s chairs instead of a bench seat in the second row. An optional rear-seat entertainment system features dual displays, DVD player, live-TV streaming and gaming capability. Perhaps most practical were the 15 cupholders, which were perfect for bottles of water—and hand sanitizer.

Ford Expedition
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Autos

Rugged yet ritzy: Ford Bronco, Nissan Pathfinder

One offers retro design, the other an edgy and chic look

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Ford Bronco

Both the Ford Bronco and Nissan Pathfinder have rough-and-ready reputations. Each boasts butch bona fides and some nifty off-road capability. But dig a bit deeper into your wallet, and you can step up to higher trim levels for added power and a bit more bling. 

FORD BRONCO HERITAGE LIMITED EDITION

$70,000 

MPG: 17 city/17 highway

0 to 60 mph: 6.2 seconds

Maximum cargo room: 77.6 cu. ft. 

PROS: Retro design, rousing engine rumble, myriad amenities

CONS: Low fuel economy, bouncy ride, pricey

IN A NUTSHELL: After a 24-year hiatus, the Ford Bronco came galloping back to showrooms in 2021. Today there are nine trim levels, including the Heritage Limited Edition that I just finished test driving for a week. At $70,000, this Bronco—second only to the $90,000 Raptor—still costs a pretty penny: $30,000 more than the entry-level model. Yet the higher price is worth it, with a gritty V6 turbo that offers much more giddy-up than the standard four-cylinder engine. 

There’s also a rad retro design, with heritage-style graphics, multiple skid plates, and special bumpers and fenders. Exterior colors—especially the Robin’s Egg Blue, coupled with a white grille and white roof—are a nice throwback to the 1960s. So are the removable doors and roof panels for a safari-like look à la an old-timey “Wild Kingdom” episode. 

Yes, the Bronco is a truck-based SUV, so expect more bounciness than in a Lexus or a Lincoln. But the stable steering and comfortable seats help make up for it. Ground clearance is high, thanks to large 35-inch mud-terrain tires. Luckily, running boards and numerous rubber-lined grab handles make it easy to climb in and out. 

Despite the sound-deadening insulation, there’s still a fair amount of exterior wind noise at high speeds. But this makes it easier to hear the sweet sound of the Bronco’s strong whinny, er, exhaust growl. 

Along with a vibe that’s decidedly old-school cool, this mid-sizer comes with lots of modern amenities: keyless entry, remote start, heated seats, ambient lighting, dual-zone automatic climate control, 360-degree surround-view camera and 10-speaker premium B&O stereo. New this year is a larger, 12-inch touchscreen. I also liked the huge stowage area, with convenient cargo straps to hold down gear, a flip-up rear window for easy access, and a swing-out door to hold a full-size spare tire. 

I guess you could say Ford wasn’t horsing around when it decided to add such a fully loaded Bronco to the stable. 

NISSAN PATHFINDER ROCK CREEK

$44,000

MPG: 20 city/23 highway

0 to 60 mph: 7.0 seconds

Maximum cargo room: 80.4 cu. ft. 

PROS: Roomy, comfy, muted cabin

CONS: So-so gas mileage, tight third row, many competitors 

IN A NUTSHELL: Seeking an SUV that’s more diamonds than denim? Then consider the Nissan Pathfinder, also redesigned just a few years ago and a big step up from the previous model. But instead of retro styling like a Ford Bronco, the look here is a combo of edgy and chic. 

That’s especially true with the Rock Creek version, which sports an aggressive front fascia, grille inserts, trendy black cladding, raised off-road suspension, all-terrain tires and tubular roof rack that can hold 220 pounds. “Rock Creek” badging, which is stamped on the side panels and rear liftgate, is also embroidered in stylish orange contrast stitching on the water-resistant seats. All-wheel drive — optional on all other trims — is standard here. And Rock Creek towing capacity, which is 3,500 pounds on most other Pathfinders, is an impressive 6,000 pounds.

The spacious cabin has enough room for up to eight passengers, though third-row legroom is tight. In the second row, you can opt for a pair of captain’s chairs instead of a three-person bench seat. Regardless, those rear seats are heated, which is a nice touch. 

Nissan has done a good job of making vehicles that feel as rich and luxurious as those in its high-end Infiniti lineup. On the Pathfinder, that means thicker glass and extra insulation for a whisper-quiet cabin. There’s also brushed-aluminum trim and a sporty flat-bottom steering wheel with paddle shifters. Along with smartphone integration, wireless charging pad and voice-command capability, other tech features include a windshield head-up display, 360-degree bird’s-eye camera, ambient interior lighting, 13-speaker Bose stereo and a slew of safety options. 

Nissan Pathfinder

When comparing the Ford Bronco with the Nissan Pathfinder, it’s hard to resist the rip-roaring ride of a fun and feisty Bronco. But the more practical Pathfinder is still plenty adventurous, especially with all the goodies that come in the Rock Creek.

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Autos

Retro rides: Dodge Hornet PHEV, VW ID.Buzz Microbus

Everything old is new again

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Dodge Hornet PHEV

A new year means new vehicles sashaying into dealer showrooms. But for 2024, retro is in, with nostalgic nameplates like the Dodge Hornet and VW Bus proving everything old is new again. Between you and me, though, let’s leave the Cadillac Cimarron, Ford Edsel and anything remotely resembling a Yugo as footnotes to history. 

DODGE HORNET PHEV

$41,000

Electric-only range: 33 miles

MPG: 74 MPGe (electric/gas), 29 MPG (gas only)

0 to 60 mph: 5.6 seconds

Cargo room: 54.7 cu. ft. with rear seats down

PROS: Stylish, comfy, peppy

CONS: Snug, bit bouncy, pricey

IN A NUTSHELL: According to automotive lore, the first Hornet (1905-1906) was a short-lived, two-seat runabout from Horner & Sons. Then came the British-built Wolseley Hornet (1930-1936, and again 1960-1961). Next up, the Hudson Hornet (1951-1957), available as family sedan, coupe or convertible. The performance-oriented coupe—nicknamed “Fabulous Hudson Hornet”—would rule the world of stock-car racing and establish the Hornet’s daredevil image. AMC created its own Hornet (1970-1977), but this time for a blah compact car—a sibling to the butt-ugly Gremlin. To be fair, one of the best movie stunts ever is James Bond performing a corkscrew car jump over a Bangkok river while driving an AMC Hornet. 

Now, after a decades-long hiatus, Dodge has resurrected the Hornet name for its all-new subcompact SUV. While this latest Hornet debuted as a 2023 model with a gas engine, the buzz this year is the addition of a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV)—the first ever from Dodge.

The Hornet PHEV comes in two versions: R/T and R/T Plus. Both pack plenty of punch, with twice the horsepower of many competitors. Use the paddle shifters to activate the PowerShot system, which adds an extra 30 horses for even more oomph. Alas, this feature—which allows the Hornet to boast muscle-car acceleration—lasts only about 15 seconds before the system needs to cool down for another 15 seconds. 

But no matter the speed, the standard all-wheel drive and premium Brembo brakes keep everything under control. One handling complaint: Because of the short wheelbase, there is some annoying bobbing up and down over large potholes. 

Built on the same platform as a tony Alfa Romeo Tonale, the Hornet shares similar design cues, including chiseled side panels, narrow LED headlights and high roofline. But only the Hornet has two sleek, functional hood scoops. 

Inside, the Alfa ambience continues with a nicely sculpted dash, flat-bottom steering wheel and scooped-out center console. Even the door handles and infotainment system look the same in both vehicles. 

As with all hornets, beware the sting. In this case, it’s pricing: A fully loaded Hornet R/T Plus can easily approach $55,000. 

VOLKSWAGEN ID.BUZZ MICROBUS

$55,000 (est.)

Range: 260 miles

Fast-charge time: Up to 80% in 30 minutes 

0 to 60 mph: 7.5 seconds

Cargo room: 138 cu. ft.

PROS: Fun colors, fun styling, fun ride 

CONS: Limited appeal, limited production, limited trim level 

IN A NUTSHELL: Legend has it that a Dutch businessman sketched the VW van after visiting a Volkswagen plant in 1947. Two years later a prototype was built, and the first Microbus rolled off the production line in 1950. 

Production ceased in 2014, but only after countless variations were built—many with beds, sinks, tents, picnic furniture, surfboard racks and the like. This proud symbol of the counterculture hippie movement of the 1960s likely has been in more movies, TV shows, and magazine ads than there have been Grateful Dead concerts (2,300-plus so far, for all you Jerry Garcia fans). 

While technically a 2025 model, the all-electric VW ID.Buzz arrives later this year. The chassis is from the ID.4 electric crossover, but everything else is new. Groovy colors include Cabana Blue, Mahi Green, Pomelo Yellow, Energetic Orange and more. 

The space-age cabin has an “Orville” vibe, with a large 12.9-inch touchscreen hovering over the dash, 30-color ambient lighting and an expansive windshield. The accelerator even has an audio/video “Play” symbol engraved on the pedal, while the brake pedal is engraved with the “Pause” symbol. Too cute? Well, maybe… 

Two trim levels, but only the long-wheelbase model will be sold in the U.S. That means three rows of seats, with optional captain’s chairs in the second row. The front seats even come with a massage function. Oh, and the optional panoramic sunroof with electrochromic tint can change from opaque to clear with the swipe of your finger. Shagadelic, baby!

While the Dodge Hornet R/T can trace its lineage to at least one fast and fabulous forebear, fans of this new VW can thank generations of Deadheads for spreading the love about the original bus. But crank up the sublime 14-speaker Harman Kardon stereo, and this new VW suddenly channels another far-out ride: “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”

VW ID.Buzz Microbus
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Autos

Car crazy: Nissan Altima, Suburu Impreza

Gas-to-electric timing isn’t happening as quickly as we expected

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Nissan Altima

Cars are out. Sport-utes are in. And electric vehicles will replace internal-combustion vehicles tomorrow. Eh, not so fast.

Doing everything possible to lower emissions and save the planet is a good thing, of course. But the gas-to-electric timing isn’t happening as quickly as many of us expected — or hoped. EV sales have stalled for various reasons: expensive sticker prices, higher interest rates, lingering range anxiety and a limited charging network. It will take time for those issues to shake out. 

As for the car-versus-SUV debate, some drivers like me still like being able to opt for a sedan or hatchback. That’s especially true when a traditional car checks all the boxes: style, comfort, handling, eco-friendly and affordable. Luckily, both cars here do just that. 

NISSAN ALTIMA

$27,000

MPG: 27 city/40 highway

0 to 60 mph: 8.0 seconds

Cargo room: 15.4 cu. ft.

PROS: low price, high safety score, enjoyable to drive

CONS: tepid acceleration, some cheap plastics, limited production

IN A NUTSHELL: Looking at the Nissan sedan lineup, you can say sayonara to the full-sized Maxima. (Well, at least the gas-powered version. This flagship nameplate is returning in 2025 as a much-anticipated EV.)

Ditto the itty-bitty Versa, which will be discontinued in two years. 

As for the compact Sentra, its future is secure (at least for now) thanks to robust sales.  

Then there’s the midsize Altima, which is set to follow the same fate as the Maxima and Versa, despite having similarly strong sales as the Sentra.

But wait! After a week testing the Altima, I found plenty of reasons to buy one before they’re gone. 

This sedan is large enough to carry up to five passengers and scads of cargo, but small enough to park almost anywhere. There’s also affordability: Only 8% of new vehicles are less than $30,000. And at $26,000, the base-model Altima is about half the average price of a new car—which is a whopping $48,000. 

As for gas mileage, the Altima averages 40 mpg on the highway, which ain’t shabby. Same with the many standard features: keyless entry, push-button ignition, three USB ports, satellite radio and more. Notable options include heated steering wheel, 12.3-inch touchscreen, nine-speaker Bose stereo and heated side mirrors with turn-signal indicators. One minor glitch: Nissan offers one of the best 360-degree birds-eye backup cameras, but the resolution here could be crisper. 

Overall, it’s hard to ignore such responsive steering and solid build quality, along with the quiet cabin and high reliability ratings. Oh, and expect Altima pricing to get even lower as the eventual end date nears.

SUBARU IMPREZA

Subaru Impreza

$25,000

MPG: 27 city/34 highway

0 to 60 mph: 7.8 seconds

Cargo room: 20.4 cu. ft.

PROS: updated this year, full of features, surprisingly roomy

CONS: low ground clearance, bit noisy inside, no more sedan 

IN A NUTSHELL: To better compete against the onslaught of SUVs and pickups, the Subaru Impreza has been redesigned this year. Gone is the sedan, but what remains is one hot hatchback. With a wider grille, bolder wheel arches and stiffer chassis, there’s now an edgy tuner-car vibe. 

Fold down the back seats and — voila! — the stowage capacity more than doubles to 56 cubic feet. Plenty of storage in the console and door pockets, as well. Each of the center-console cupholders can hold 32-ounce containers, so fewer stops at Starbucks. And even the rear cargo area has water-bottle holders—a bonus during roadside stops or tailgating events. 

Those dual 7-inch displays in the base model are fine but, well, a bit meh. Better to opt for the enhanced 11.6-inch vertical touchscreen, like those found in higher-end vehicles from Lexus and Volvo. 

I test drove the performance-oriented RS trim level, which boasts more power, spiffy wheels, paddle shifters, wireless smartphone charging pad, and heated wipers and side mirrors. Options include sunroof, power driver’s seat and 10-speaker Harmon Kardon sound system. 

The list of safety gear is equally fine, with adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, forward collision warning with automatic braking, evasive-steering assist and more. My favorite: adaptive LED headlights that swivel when turning the steering wheel to give better illumination in curves. Those LEDs also perform a razzle-dazzle light show when first turned on. 

One quibble: interior road noise, which is a bit more than expected. But then, hey, you get to enjoy more of that sexy engine growl.

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