Each January, I list my top vehicle picks of the year. But with so many contenders this year, the focus this time is on surprise rides: Three solid choices that are unexpectedly fun, frugal and full of frills.
Mpg: 18 city/24 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.3 seconds
Sure, Tesla, Rivian and other newcomers may be garnering lots of press these days. But other automakers also have been upping their game. Cue the Nissan Frontier pickup, completely redesigned with bold, bad-boy styling. This includes a pugnacious grill, menacing headlights and sleek LED taillights. Inside, new laminated side windows reduce wind and road noise. Refined, soft-touch surfaces are a pleasant surprise, as are various clever storage spaces. And then there are the zero-gravity seats, built to alleviate driver fatigue. Despite the space-age description, these NASA-inspired seats have a traditional design but are built with 14 different pressure points to reduce stress on tired muscles. They may not be as fancy as massaging seats in luxury vehicles, but they feel just as effective. Other cabin niceties include large easy-to-read gauges and an optional 9-inch touchscreen, along with wireless charging, Wi-Fi and 10-speaker Fender stereo. One minor annoyance: the steering column tilts but has no telescopic function. While there may be a few less-expensive pickups on dealer lots, none come with as many features. As for performance, the 310-horsepower V6 is the best in its class, and overall handling is more akin to a well-mannered SUV than a workhorse hauler. For off-road enthusiasts, a Pro-4X model comes with heavy-duty Bilstein shocks, electronic locking rear differential for better grip and beefy all-terrain tires.
16 city/22 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.3 seconds
While oversized rides don’t really fit my urban identity, the all-new Jeep Wagoneer had me almost pining for a Brady Bunch lifestyle in the burbs. Out of production since 1991, this resurrected land yacht made me feel safe and secure on the road. It also tapped into my love of a beloved cruiser: the Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon that I drove across country in my 20s. (Alas, those tawdry travel tales are another story.) But while such behemoths may be described as big and boxy, the Wagoneer is definitely chic, echoing many of the more sculpted elements of a ritzy Range Rover. Powered by a gutsy V8 Hemi engine, this super-sized SUV quickly hustles down the road. A mild-hybrid system not only helps conserve fuel but also adds some extra oomph. Front-wheel drive comes standard, though many buyers will prefer one of the four-wheel-drive options for even better drivability. Air suspension lets you raise and lower the Wagoneer, which has up to 10 inches of ground clearance and can trek through two feet of water. Along with offering more standard features than most competitors, there’s also more second- and third-row legroom. The rich interior, with contrast piping and stitching on the seats, includes a wraparound dashboard with up to three large screens. Two more screens are available for rear-seat passengers, who can stream thousands of programs via the Wi-Fi. Notable amenities include automated parking, rear-seat monitoring camera and premium 19-speaker McIntosh stereo. Fully loaded, a Wagoneer can reach $75,000. That’s still less than the primo Grand Wagoneer ($89,000), which can sprint from 0 to 60 mph in a wickedly fast 5.7 seconds. That glam model, with goodies such as a refrigerated front console and a hidden touchpad safe to store valuables, can easily top $100,000.
Mpg: 24 city/31 highway
0 to 60 mph: 8.6 seconds
Of the three vehicles reviewed here, the updated Mitsubishi Outlander was the biggest surprise. After all, the automaker isn’t the most popular or reliable brand on the block. But like a washed-up diva making a stunning comeback, the Outlander is now taking its star turn in the highly competitive crossover market. The overall styling is dazzling, with sheet metal that has been stretched and pulled into an edgy origami design. Built on the same platform as the Nissan Rogue, this new Outlander is taller, wider and longer than that popular compact. It also offers a third seat, even if legroom here is miniscule. And despite what is a capable but rather tepid engine, the Outlander handling is crisp and spirited. Driver visibility is especially good, and I found the cabin to be pleasantly quiet. But most notable are all the amenities, including head-up display, wireless smartphone integration, 10-speaker Bose stereo, panoramic sunroof, power tailgate, heated steering wheel, heated seats (both front and back), a full slate of the latest safety gear and much more. Another plus: the 10-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty. All in all, it’s nice to see Mitsubishi start to regain its footing—with the Outlander center stage.
Rides in all sizes
With sky-high gas prices, how much car do you really need?
With the current surge in gas prices, many potential buyers are taking a hard look at just how much vehicle they really need. Here’s a look at three choice rides in various sizes: small, medium, and large.
SMALL: MITSUBISHI ECLIPSE CROSS
Mpg: 26 city/29 highway
0 to 60 mph: 8.6 seconds
Introduced in 2018, the Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross channels plenty of excitement for those of us still pining for the sporty Eclipse coupe produced between 1989 and 2011. This affordable compact crossover offers similar cocky styling, including a futuristic fascia and tony Lexus-like tush.
But despite the rakish good looks, the acceleration from the four-cylinder turbo is more practical than powerful. And the composed suspension is more amiable than arousing. But the nimble steering and taut cornering are perfect for quick maneuvers during rush-hour congestion and for squeezing into tight parking spaces. The straightforward cabin design comes with faux-aluminum trim and fairly comfortable cloth seats—though the lack of an adjustable lumbar support to cushion my back was a bummer. Some of the many standard features include 7-inch touchscreen, four-speaker stereo, Bluetooth and lots of safety gear: automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning, pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning and rearview camera.
Step up to any of the three other trim levels to add heated seats, smartphone integration, synthetic suede upholstery, power panoramic sunroof, head-up display, additional safety gizmos and more. In other words, despite its budget-pleasing price, the Eclipse Cross boasts plenty of amenities.
MEDIUM: JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE
Mpg: 19 city/26 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.4 seconds
Completely redesigned this year, the Jeep Grand Cherokee now looks more luxe-like than rugged. This could have been a disaster, considering the automaker’s reputation for churning out rough-and-tumble rides. Yet despite what is essentially a nod to Land Rover’s boxy yet soft-edged styling, this midsizer still retains its true Jeep DNA.
This is evident in the seamless mix of smooth on-road handling with stellar off-road capability. There are more than a dozen trim levels, from the $41,000 base-model Laredo all the way up to the Summit Reserve 4xe PHEV at $77,000. While that’s quite a price difference, it shows Jeep’s commitment to offering a Grand Cherokee for every buyer personality. Sure, offering so many configurations can be confusing, but it gives drivers the chance to really customize their rides. This includes choice of three powertrains: standard V6, robust Hemi V8 and the fuel-friendly 4xe plug-in hybrid that can travel up to 25 miles on battery power alone.
Inside, there’s so much glam you might think this was a high-end Mercedes. Depending on trim level, you can deck out the interior with quilted upholstery, open-pore wood, dual-pane panoramic sunroof, quad-zone climate control, second-row shades and other goodies. For techies, there’s a Wi-Fi hot spot, various USB ports, smartphone integration, 10.10-inch infotainment touchscreen and 10.25-inch digital gauge cluster. Call me a hedonist, but I especially liked the massaging seats, premium 19-speaker McIntosh stereo and a rear-seat entertainment system that adds dual hi-def screens with built-in Amazon Fire TV.
LARGE: CADILLAC ESCALADE
Mpg: 14 city/19 highway
0 to 60 mph: 5.9 seconds
Introduced in 1999, the Cadillac Escalade received a complete makeover last year. The head-turning styling is daring and dramatic, with a massive prow-like hood, severely creased sheet metal, and bold, vertical lighting treatments that would make Thor proud. This colossus is 6 feet, 4 inches tall and tips the scale at a hulking 5,700 pounds—twice the weight of a Mini Cooper.
Yet it’s surprisingly spry, outpacing the Mini Cooper by 0.3 seconds when accelerating from 0 to 60 mph. While power comes from a thirsty V8, half of the cylinders are automatically deactivated at cruising speed to reduce gas consumption. A more eco-friendly option is the diesel engine, which gets 50% better fuel economy. (And earlier this month, Cadillac announced its all-electric Escalade is expected by 2024.) I test drove one of the top-of-the-line Platinum models, with a hefty price tag of $105,000. To say this large SUV was oozing luxury is an understatement, with high-end finishes everywhere, adjustable ambient lighting, center console refrigerator, night-vision camera, 36-speaker stereo and rear-seat captain’s chairs. Perhaps even more impressive: The front dash has a staggering 38 inches of curved OLED screens, combining the digital gauge cluster, infotainment display and surround-view camera.
Plug-ins with pizzazz
BMW 330e, Wrangler 4xe offer fuel-friendly surprises
The semiconductor shortage continues to wreak havoc on global vehicle production, so don’t expect dealer showrooms to fill up until later this year—or even into 2023. But there is one upside: Many prospective new-car buyers—including me—are using the delay to fully research and narrow down the choice of potential rides. Recently, I test drove two plug-in hybrids at the top of my shopping list. Both turned out to be fun, fuel-friendly and full of surprises.
Mpg: 75 MPGe (electric/gas), 28 mpg (gas only)
0 to 60 mph: 5.6 seconds
BMW—long the gold standard of luxury sport sedans—updated the 330e plug-in hybrid just last year. This compact Bimmer can travel up to 23 miles on electric power alone (20 miles with the all-wheel-drive version), which is about the average number of daily miles driven in our metro area. After that, the gas engine kicks in for a respectable 28 mpg. But two trends are at odds with buying this gas-sipper.
First, everyone seems more charged up about electric vehicles than tried-and-true hybrids. Yet if you’ve ever had range anxiety (the fear that an EV will poop out before reaching its destination), plug-in hybrids offer the assurance you won’t get stranded driving home on some dark, stormy night.
Second, automakers have been quitting sedans as drivers shift toward SUVs. But many of us still appreciate the benefits of sedans: lower ground clearance for tight cornering, reduced weight for nimble handling, and thinner roof pillars for better rear-view visibility. This was true in the 330e, which is every bit as fun to drive as its stellar 300i gas-only sibling. I found the lickety-split acceleration and taut ride to be exhilarating. Gearheads will wish there was a manual transmission for even more of a rush. Inside, the cabin boasts beaucoup features: sleek moonroof, tasteful ambient lighting, impressive faux-leather upholstery, 10.25-inch touchscreen and large 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster. While I liked the voice-command feature, the optional gesture control for the infotainment system could be a bit touchy—especially for those of us prone to talking with our hands.
More than once, my hand gestures accidently cut off the phone in the middle of a call or interfered with the stereo. Still, being able to change the audio volume simply by twirling my fingers was pretty cool. As for parking, the 330e is easy to fit in the tiniest of spaces—much to the delight of my partner Robert but not to the testy pickup driver who I outmaneuvered for a primo spot. I also liked how the 330e can be fully recharged in less than an hour using a 240-volt charger. But the biggest plus appeals to my penny-pinching DNA: This BMW not only saves money at the gas pump, but it’s also priced less than most other plug-in hybrids.
JEEP WRANGLER 4xe
MPG: 49 MPGe (electric/gas), 20 mpg (gas only)
0 to 60 mph: 6.5 seconds
Talk about gay icons, the Jeep Wrangler has been a popular vehicle with LGBTQ drivers for decades. Yes, there’s the rugged butch factor. But the automaker also has been a strong ally of our community. At last year’s Motor City Pride parade in Detroit, for example, the grand marshal rode in an all-new Jeep Wrangler 4xe decked out in rainbow colors and messages of hope written on the body panels. Alas, my test vehicle wasn’t quite so festive, but it still turned heads.
That’s because this four-door Wrangler is Jeep’s first plug-in hybrid, with a gutsy four-cylinder engine and efficient electric motor that together crank out 375 horsepower. That’s more oomph than in most Jeeps, except those with pricey gas-guzzling Hemi engines. The 4xe has an all-electric range of 22 miles, after which it gets 20 mpg. City driving is surprisingly smooth and delightful, with my keister thankful for the gentler-than-expected suspension when tackling potholes.
For an experience that’s more au naturel, you can remove all the doors and part or all of the top. Most times, I just removed the two roof panels over the driver and passenger seats, then stowed them in the back. The interior looks like any other Wrangler, which today is much more comfortable and amenity-laden than any of its forebears. But insulation is barebones, which means the cabin’s decibel rating is definitely not in the whisper-quiet category. As for the lithium-ion battery pack, it’s mostly hidden beneath the rear seats but also cannibalizes a few inches of the cargo compartment. Despite costing some $9,000 more than a traditional gas-engine Wrangler, the 4xe qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax break and certain state tax credits that ultimately may help you break even. That’s another reason to appreciate this refined macho-mobile: It’s easy on the eyes, the environment and your wallet.
Chi-chi crossover SUVs
Say goodbye to barebones econoboxes
Mpg: 22 city/29 highway
0 to 60 mph: 6.1 seconds
Back in the day, Oldsmobile tried to rebrand itself with corny commercials featuring celebrity icons. Trouble was, not even William Shatner, Ringo Starr or even the automaker’s catchy tagline—“Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile”—could overcome the lackluster vehicle lineup. But not so with Lincoln. Hunky Matthew McConaughey has boosted sales of the luxury brand for eight years now. His quirky rhapsodizing of all things Lincoln is bolstered by increasingly stylish and innovative people pleasers.
This includes the Corsair, a compact SUV introduced just two years ago. As if tempting fate, this is the same name as the full-sized sedan and coupe produced back in 1958 by Ford’s ill-fated Edsel division. But today, with chiseled features and space-age gizmos, this new Corsair is likely to be around for generations. Lincoln SUVs tend to emulate Lexus in styling and creature comforts. The Corsair looks sportier—think Audi Q5 or BMW X3—though without the grippy handling and tight cornering. But that’s OK, because the result is a smooth and pampered ride—a big plus on long-distance trips.
Three trim levels, including a top-of-the line Grand Touring plug-in hybrid. I test drove the mid-level Reserve, with all-wheel drive and oodles of standard features: panoramic sunroof, hands-free liftgate, LED fog lamps, auto-fold side mirrors, 14-speaker Revel stereo and more. Tons of options, and those 24-way, perfect-posture seats are particularly fine. To avoid feeling dazed and confused with so many drivers emerging from the pandemic, there’s also a head-up display and a Co-Pilot360 Plus package with surround-view camera and automated parking. Impressive crash-test scores are a bonus, as is the long powertrain warranty (six years or 70,000 miles). As for value, the Corsair is built on the same platform as the popular Ford Edge, which is priced just slightly less. Yet this Lincoln exudes all the flair and luxury of high-end vehicles costing so much more.
MERCEDES AMG GLB35
Mpg: 21city/26 highway
0 to 60 mph: 4.9 seconds
Like Jon Hamm, the voice of Mercedes for over a decade, the renowned German automaker is well endowed with notable attributes. But while the actor’s calming voice is in sync with the rich aura of a genteel Benz, that’s not the case with the hellfire AMG GLB35 compact crossover. This sporty rabble-rouser—with plucky styling, screaming exhaust note and a fierce 302-horsepower turbo engine—is more in tune with, say, the grit and gumption of Megan Rapinoe.
Sure, the basic GLB is just fine, but this AMG high-performance model boasts brushed stainless-steel pedals, silver chrome paddle-shifters and a flat-bottom steering wheel. What’s more, the crisp steering, lithe handling and taut braking tugged at my boy-racer heartstrings each time I slipped behind the wheel.
A tall cabin allows for plenty of headroom, and there’s a decent amount of cargo space for such a small vehicle. But while a third seat can be ordered, I’m not sure anyone would want to perform the contortions necessary to sit there. Along with the sassy attitude, the GLB35 is still plenty classy. LED headlights and taillights come standard, as do rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone automatic climate control and ambient lighting that can be customized with choice of 64 colors. There are two large, 10.25-inch digital displays: one for the instrument cluster and the other a touchscreen for the infotainment system. And some $10,000 in options include panoramic sunroof, 12-speaker Burmester stereo, logo puddle lamps, real-wood trim and other goodies. Overall, the GLB35 is a rebel with a cause: part tuner car, part pocket rocket and, above all, nonstop excitement.
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