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Smart rides for trying times

Two affordable options as supply dwindles and demand soars

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Fiat 500X

As if the pandemic, political discord and even cicadas weren’t enough, now there’s trouble brewing when trying to buy a new car. Parts shortages of computer chips, rubber, and other supplies mean new-vehicle inventory is down a whopping 40 percent. And with supply so low, demand is ratcheting up. So expect higher prices, along with fewer dealer and automaker incentives. But there are still opportunities out there. This includes opting for less popular models, such as coupes or sedans instead of hot-ticket SUVs and trucks. Or choosing niche models like the Fiat 500X or Mini Cooper Countryman. These two rather off-beat rides may lack the overall room and practicality of larger crossovers, but they perform nicely and are relatively affordable—at least for now.

FIAT 500X
$25,900
Mpg: 24 city/30 highway
0 to 60 mph: 8.7 seconds

Buying a Fiat is all about making a fashion statement, combining Italian flair with frugal pricing. The automaker’s decision to reduce its lineup and focus on just one vehicle—the 500X subcompact crossover—only adds to the cachet. Everything about the 500X is charming, including the Lilliputian size, retro exterior and dazzling dashboard with interlocking display gauges. And the name of the base-model adds a bit of whimsy: Pop. There are three other trims—Sport, Trekking and Trekking Plus—but none of them is exactly racy or off-road ready.

Built on the same platform as the Jeep Renegade, the 500X handles fairly smoothly, at least on the freeway. The short chassis makes it difficult to glide over bigger bumps and potholes, and some body sway is noticeable on tight curves. With just 14 cubic feet of back-end cargo space, there’s room only to haul some groceries and such. Still, the four-cylinder turbo engine is perky enough, and the standard all-wheel drive came in handy during a few unexpected downpours. The well-bolstered seats now have updated upholstery, and those funky circular headrests look like something from a Flash Gordon spaceship. There are a surprising number of safety features, including automated emergency braking, blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, and lane-departure warning with lane-keeping assist. And warranty coverage is decent, though there is no complimentary scheduled maintenance. Sure, the 7-inch infotainment touchscreen seems tiny compared with larger displays in other crossovers. But those vehicles cost more, and at least the Fiat comes with smartphone integration and three USB ports. Options include a Beats stereo, heated seats, LED headlamps, front and rear parking sensors, and even a panoramic sunroof. Yes, there’s plenty of personality here and also a decent number of amenities.

MINI COOPER COUNTRYMAN JCW
$42,400
Mpg: 23 city/31 highway
0 to 60 mph: 4.4 seconds

For a bit more room and a lot more vroom, there’s the Mini Cooper Countryman. The base model starts at a very affordable $29,200. But the test vehicle that arrived for me to review was the souped-up JCW edition. While it’s definitely pricey, this pocket rocket costs much less than high-performance crossovers from BWW or Mercedes. Yet it’s just as blisteringly fast. The acceleration literally took my breath away, and the guttural exhaust rumble—which was downright primal—turned more than a few heads.

The Countryman is the largest vehicle in the Mini lineup, and for 2021 the exterior gets a tasteful refresh. This includes a flashier grille and bumpers, as well as the clever Union Jack design etched into the taillights. The JCW model boasts larger wheels, more form-fitting seats, rear spoiler and a sport-tuned suspension that helps transform this crossover into a tuner car. Along with keyless entry and power-folding mirrors, there’s also a rear-view camera, ambient lighting and wireless charging. But while Apple CarPlay is available, Android Auto is not. As with the Fiat 500X, the high seating and deft placement of side pillars help with driver visibility. But the Countryman does offer a tad more legroom and rear cargo space. Either vehicle will do, though, if you’re itching to toss in a few overnight bags to simply get away from it all.

Mini Cooper Countryman JCW

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Autos

Merry motoring

These rides will bring miles of smiles along the way

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Kia Carnival

KIA CARNIVAL SX PRESTIGE
$46,000
Mpg: 19 city/26 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7 seconds

The all-new Kia Carnival is an apt name for this comfy cruiser, a fun ride with room for eight passengers. This ultramodern minivan—Kia calls it a multipurpose vehicle—has the same rugged profile as a rough-and-tumble Land Rover Discovery. While you won’t be taking the Carnival on any off-road adventures, it does deliver a well-balanced ride. There’s no body sway when tackling sharp corners nor is there any of the annoying bounciness found in other minivans. 

Surprisingly, there’s also no all-wheel-drive option, which is offered by many competitors. But acceleration is peppy, and braking feels solid. Standard features include LED headlights, power-sliding doors, push-button start, smartphone integration and nine USB ports. I drove the top-of-the-line SX Prestige, which comes with larger 19-inch wheels, hands-free power tailgate and heated steering wheel. It also costs $15,000 more than the base model. But the list of safety features is impressive, including lane-departure warning, drowsy-driver alert, collision-avoidance warnings (for both the front and rear) and side cameras that show you an image of vehicles in your blind spot. While drivers will appreciate the two 12.3-inch digital displays—one for vehicle gauges and the other for navigation and audio—it’s the rear-seat passengers who get some extra thrills. This includes a robust entertainment system, dual sunroof, in-vehicle intercom and VIP lounge seats—luxe-like captain’s chairs that fully recline, are nicely heated/ventilated and come with power footrests. Who knew a minivan could be such an adventure. Add in some cotton candy, and you could almost be at a real carnival. 

Lincoln Nautilus

LINCOLN BLACK LABEL NAUTILUS
$65,000
Mpg: 19 city/25 highway
0 to 60 mph: 5.9 seconds

Long known for its land yachts, Lincoln sent the iconic Continental into the sunset in 2020. But though sedans are no longer in its lineup, the automaker offers a crop of comely crossovers that still exude plenty of old-school luxury. Such is the case with the midsize Lincoln Nautilus, a refreshing antidote to crossovers that try too hard to be sports cars but end up being a real pain in the butt—literally. The comfy ride and handling in the Nautilus are more akin to a Lexus RX 350 rather than some glorified go-kart racer. 

With soft-touch surfaces, tasteful wood and snazzy chrome accents, the cabin is refined yet modern. It’s also quiet, almost too quiet. I drove the premium Black Label trim level, featuring 22-way powered seats with massage functions and a 19-speaker premium stereo. With the stereo turned up at the end of a quiet tune, I didn’t expect the next song to start with a rimshot so staggeringly loud it is still ringing in my ears. That’s how crystal clear the acoustics are in this anechoic chamber. There’s a choice of two engines: turbo four-cylinder or twin-turbo V6. Along with the latest tech and safety features, there’s also an automated parking system and evasive steering assist, which quickens the vehicle’s response time when you try to avoid a collision. Other amenities include a simulated suede headliner, panoramic sunroof and the ability to use your smartphone as the vehicle key. While the base model starts at $44,000, opting for the Black Label does add $20,000. But all those extras will be hard to resist.  

Mercedes E450 Wagon

MERCEDES E450 S4 WAGON
$68,400
Mpg: 21 city/28 highway
0 to 60 mph: 4.4 seconds

Yes, you read that right. The Mercedes E450 wagon explodes from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.4 seconds. It also gets decent gas mileage for a 4,585-pound hauler, thanks to a 48-volt hybrid system that assists the 362-horsepower V6. I’ve always had a fondness for station wagons, ever since I drove a hulking Pontiac Bonneville Grand Safari across the country many times in my early twenties. But the Mercedes E450 is like piloting a rocket ship, with speed-of-light performance and space-age electronics. 

Despite a slightly firmer suspension this year, the E-Class wagon feels like it’s floating on air. Everything here is upscale, from the handsome exterior styling to the first-rate fit and finish inside. And there is so much room, even in the backseat for tall passengers with long legs. Cargo space is also huge at 35 cubic feet—which, in case you were wondering, means it could hold about 90 basketballs. Along with two 12.3-inch screens for driver info and the entertainment system, there’s a “Hey Mercedes” digital assistant that responds to voice commands. It’s extremely effective and doesn’t require you to keep repeating yourself, as with other systems. If only it could have joined my partner Robert and me in some holiday karaoke.

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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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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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