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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

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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Autos

Driving away the winter blues

Nifty features, pleasant surprises in three crossovers

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Ford Edge

To help keep the winter doldrums at bay, I recently test drove three fun crossovers. All had plenty of nifty features, as well as a few pleasant surprises.

FORD EDGE
$32,000
Mpg: 21 city/29 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.6 seconds

During these uncertain times, it’s nice to know a Ford Edge offers steady reassurance. This five-seat mid-sizer is surprisingly quiet, with a comfy ride and precise steering. A base four-cylinder turbo is peppy enough, especially for in-town driving. But for more gusto, the sporty ST model—with a potent V6 engine, larger tires and firmer suspension—scoots from 0 to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds.

A major redesign a few years ago gave the Edge the snazzy exterior styling of an upscale Lexus RX. This year the updates are on the inside: 12-inch vertical touchscreen (the largest in its class) with smartphone compatibility, Wi-Fi hotspot, improved voice-recognition system and over-the-air software updates. Top safety scores are a plus, as is the adaptive cruise control, semiautonomous parking and 180-degree front-end camera. I loved the long list of options, even if they can be a bit pricey: all-wheel drive, heated/ventilated seats, heated side mirrors, power liftgate, panoramic roof and 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen premium stereo. For anyone needing a weekend away from the Washington scene, the Edge can tow up to 3,500 pounds—perfect for small campers and such.

KIA SELTOS
$24,000
Mpg: 29 city/34 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.3 seconds

Looking for totally new versus tried and true? This year the Kia Seltos makes its grand debut, with “crown jewel” headlights, a tiger nose grille and a front end with vertical chrome lines inspired by—OK, wait for it—buffalo horns. At least that’s how Kia designers describe the look of this funky subcompact crossover. Entering what is an already crowded market segment, the Seltos is based on the same refined platform as the popular Hyundai Kona. Both provide a composed ride and high-quality cabin at an affordable price. But while the Seltos has the same sure handling, it’s also taller and roomier.

The base four-cylinder is certainly capable, but I was enamored with the extra oomph from the optional turbo engine. Gas mileage is almost the same anyway, and a top-of-the-line SX Turbo—fully loaded—is just $28,000. Keyless entry, tinted rear glass and smartphone integration are standard on all models. And depending on trim level, the long list of amenities includes heated seats, automatic high beams, sunroof, premium Bose audio and more, as well as the latest safety features. For me, the Seltos seemed to be a nice mix of style and substance, with a refreshing bit of whimsy.

Kia Seltos

NISSAN ROGUE
$26,000
Mpg: 27 city/35 highway
0 to 60 mph: 8.1 seconds

It’s been seven years since the Nissan Rogue was updated. That’s an eternity in the auto biz. But this year the automaker’s most popular vehicle gets an extreme makeover, with a glitzy new profile, freakishly thin headlights and racy rear spoiler.

With the ongoing hullabaloo about former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn skipping out of Japan to avoid facing criminal charges, it’s easy to forget that this company churns out very impressive and reliable vehicles. This includes the updated Rogue, with its zippy engine—tweaked for a bit more horsepower this year—and extremely smooth suspension. Those Zero Gravity seats were a pleasant surprise, as was the minimal body roll and solid braking. Inside, the cabin is now more upscale, with an almost BMW-like dash and acoustic glass in the windshield for a quiet ride. Standard gear includes remote keyless entry and rear parking sensors, as well as automatic braking, blind-spot monitor and lane-departure warning. Despite being 1.5 inches shorter than before, the updated Rogue has more rear-seat legroom.

Options include tri-zone climate control, large head-up display, floating 9.0-inch touchscreen and 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster. There’s also wireless charging, Wi-Fi hotspot, front/rear heated seats and a panoramic moonroof. As for those rear-window sunshades, you likely won’t find them on competing models—at least not in this price range.

crossovers, gay news, Washington Blade
Nissan Rogue
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Autos

Top rides for 2021

Sorento, Bronco, BMW 530e all impress

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2021 cars, gay news, Washington Blade
Kia Sorento

It’s hard to think about cars at a time when our health, our city, and our country is under siege. But for me, writing a car column is a respite from so many gut-wrenching events, from the political to the pandemic. When I eventually do tap back into my newsfeed, I’m more energized and can focus on trying to move forward. I hope reading about cars does the same for you. 

MIDSIZED CROSSOVER: KIA SORENTO
$30,000
Mpg: 24 city/29 highway
0 to 60 mph: 6.5 seconds

A new year usually signals the start of auto show season. But the pandemic caused many 2020 shows to be cancelled, and now some of them—like the one in D.C. usually held in January—have been rescheduled for later in 2021. 

While local gearheads will have to wait at least until spring for our show, there are already plenty of head-turning vehicles rolling onto dealer lots. This includes the radically redesigned Kia Sorento, a midsize crossover that blends the burly styling of a full-size Telluride with the cheeky curves of a compact Sportage. All three Kias are pleasant to drive, with decent gas mileage and sharp handling. But the Sorento works especially well in the city, offering ample cargo space and an ability to fit almost anywhere. Unlike most competitors, this mid-sizer comes with a third row and a surprising amount of legroom. There’s a choice of four engines, including a traditional hybrid and plug-in hybrid. Base models boast LED headlights, heated outside mirrors and smartphone compatibility. 

Safety gear includes forward-collision braking, driver-attention sensors, lane-departure warning and 360-degree parking camera. When you change lanes, cameras also display live footage of the blind spot on the instrument panel—which has a large, digital-gauge cluster that looks like something from an Xbox game. Other niceties include push-button start, panoramic sunroof, 10.25-inch infotainment touchscreen and 12-speaker Bose stereo. But sometimes the coolest features are the simplest ones: netted pockets on the sides of the seats that can hold your smartphones.

HAUTE HAULER: FORD BRONCO
$30,000
Mpg: 21 city/26 highway
0 to 60 mph: 5.9 seconds

After a 24-year hiatus, the Ford Bronco is back. But forget the rounded edges and slanted rear windows from 1996 when production ceased. Instead, the boxy retro styling evokes the 1966 original: bold and brawny. This new Bronco targets the Jeep Wrangler, duking it out for off-road bragging rights. Ground clearance is higher on the Bronco, and it can make sharper turns. There’s also one-pedal driving, which automatically applies the brakes just by lifting your foot off the accelerator. Ford decided to attach the side-view mirrors to the vehicle frame, not the doors. This way the mirrors stay in place when you remove the doors. As if this wasn’t enough for off-road enthusiasts, a Sasquatch package offers 35-inch monster tires, stiff shocks, a suspension-lift kit and other goodies for trail seekers. The optional manual transmission is a nice touch, as are marine-grade vinyl seats that can be hosed off after a day of play. Choice of two removable hard-top roofs, or you can simply opt for a soft top that can be pulled back to let the sunshine in. Underneath the rough-and-tumble exterior is a spartan yet chic cabin. The 12-inch touchscreen is the largest in this class, and the hard-plastic surfaces and rubberized switch gear make things easy to clean. There’s even a clever slide-out tailgate you can use as a table. 

Ford Bronco

GREEN MACHINE: BMW 530e
$58,000
Range: 350 miles
0 to 60 mph: 5.7 seconds

Facelifts can do wonders. Just look at the latest BMW 530e, with its sleeker headlights, stretched grille, and spiffy nips and tucks to the sheet metal. Available in rear-wheel or all-wheel drive, this plug-in hybrid has a new electric motor to boost overall power. Slip behind the wheel and be prepared to be swathed in luxury. The cabin is whisper quiet, and the standard faux-leather trim is just as supple as the real thing. There’s also enough tech gear to rival a space shuttle, including a 12.3-inch digital driver’s display, 12.3-inch infotainment touchscreen, cloud-based maps and smartphone integration. Among all the safety features, there are a few shout-outs: front and rear cross-traffic alert, and a traffic-jam-assist option. Recharging takes seven hours using a standard outlet, and the 530e can travel 21 miles on battery power alone. The first 5-Series sedan rolled off the production line in 1972, just three years after Stonewall. We should all look so good as we approach 50.

BMW 530e
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