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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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Autos

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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Autos

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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Autos

Two-door turn-ons

Cool rides deliver relief from summer heat

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BMW M440i Convertible

A pair of cool rides deliver some much-needed relief from the summer heat. Both are two-door compacts, with big personalities and some unexpected—but very pleasant—surprises. 

BMW M440i CONVERTIBLE
$65,000
Mpg: 23 city/31 highway
0 to 60 mph: 4.1 seconds

BMW finally gave its 4 Series convertible a compete makeover, the first time since the original rolled into showrooms in 2013. That’s eons in the auto world. But it definitely was worth the wait, as this second-gen version is a real stunner. 

Most autophiles have heard about the controversial front-end design, with its ginormous kidney-shaped grille. But in person, this styling actually complements the thin headlights and flashy front bumper. As I stepped back to admire the overall profile, the swoopy silhouette was a siren song luring me behind the wheel to fire up the engine. 

With the windows and top down, it was easy to be captivated by the luxurious two-tone interior, matte-finish oak trim and brushed aluminum accents. Closing the top and rolling up the windows left me equally awestruck: This soft-top ride is actually quieter than the previous model, which had a retractable hard roof. Another plus: Without all the clunky parts needed for a metal top, there’s more headroom and trunk space. Raising or lowering the roof—which takes just 18 seconds, versus 20 seconds on the old model—can be done while driving at speeds up to 31 mph (previously, it was a sluggish 11 mph). 

Overall, the cabin layout is bright and uncluttered, with an 8.8-inch infotainment touchscreen, 14-way power seats and steering-wheel paddle shifters. You can add heated neck warmers, a park-assist feature and a head-up display that shows your speed, the speed limit and other info on the windshield. Perhaps the only downside—well, other than the price—was skimpy rear-seat legroom. At least the power front seats automatically slide forward to help backseat passengers climb in and out. Despite the suave styling, this stately ragtop has a real mean streak—at least when it comes to power and performance. I test drove the high-test M440i model, with its gutsy engine, sport-tuned suspension and impressive braking. Tackling traffic around town, it was easy to outmaneuver pesky backups. But on the open road—with the top down and my spirits up—I could really cut loose and revel in putting the pedal to the metal. 

MINI COOPER S COUPE
$28,000
Mpg: 26 city/35 highway
0 to 60 mph: 6.2 seconds

Mini Cooper S Coupe

Full of thrills just like the BMW M440i convertible but much more affordable, there’s the Mini Cooper S coupe. Sure, it may not be crazy fast, but this pint-size dynamo is still plenty frisky. Mini is owned by BMW, after all, so a lot of the same expert engineering and Euro flair carry over—such as athletic handling, gotcha styling, and a refined cabin with high-quality materials. 

At just 159 inches in length, the diminutive Mini fits almost anywhere. It also gets a smart facelift, going from cutesy to cutting edge. This includes severe creases in the sheet metal and bold black trim. And BMW added some funky new colors—like Zesty Yellow—along with a novel multi-tone roof that combines sparkly gradients of Soul Blue, Pearly Aqua and Jet Black. Anyone watching this Mini scoot down the road could easily be hypnotized by the clever, spiral-like design etched onto the new wheels. 

While a base-model Mini is just fine, my test car for the week was the more-powerful S model with—surprise!—a stick shift. Yes, fellow gearheads, a manual transmission is back as an option. Zipping down parkways and freeways was a delight. And more than once I was tempted to pull a badass “Italian Job” maneuver and connect with my inner Mark Wahlberg. Luckily, sanity and the threat of a traffic ticket prevailed. But at least I felt confident this coupe could handle it. 

As with any vehicle, there are a few quirks: Satellite radio is a standard feature and Apple CarPlay is an option, but Android Auto isn’t even available. And the in-dash nav system and wireless charging pad cost extra, though such items are becoming standard on the competition. But these are minor riffs, considering the long list of innovative safety and convenience features that Mini buyers can choose from to customize their cars. 

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