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Surprise rides of 2022

Fun, frugal, and full of frills

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Nissan Frontier

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.

NISSAN FRONTIER
$29,000
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.

JEEP WAGONEER
$60,000
16 city/22 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.3 seconds

Jeep Wagoneer

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.

MITSUBISHI OUTLANDER
$28,000
Mpg: 24 city/31 highway
0 to 60 mph: 8.6 seconds

Mitsubishi Outlander

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.

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Autos

Smart haulers: Nissan Pathfinder and Ford Expedition

Two big bruisers that won’t break the budget

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Nissan Pathfinder

Electric vehicles are charging ahead, with the passage of a landmark clean-energy bill last month and automakers designing innovative new models. But a world of electric-only vehicles will take time. In the U.S. the goal is 2035, but until then many drivers—especially those looking for huge haulers—will still need to rely on traditional gas-powered rides. 

Luckily, there are some smart choices out there, including these two big bruisers. 

NISSAN PATHFINDER
$35,000
Mpg: 21 city/27 highway
0 to 60 mph: 6.7 seconds

The completely redesigned Nissan Pathfinder is a big step up from the previous model. Although classified as a midsize SUV, this year’s new Pathfinder is now a lot longer, wider, and taller. The result: a spacious cabin with oodles more storage compartments and enough room for up to eight passengers. Another plus: Accessing the third row is much easier here than in most SUVs. Gone is the slouching profile of the previous Pathfinder, last updated 10 years ago (about twice the time most vehicles receive a redesign). The edgier styling is also boxier, but in a good way, with a chiseled front fascia, brawny side panels and strapping rear end—you know, sort of like Luke Evans. 

Despite having the same capable V6 engine as before, fuel economy is slightly better. An updated transmission improves acceleration, while stiffer springs and other tweaks shore up the steering and overall handing. In other words, there’s no mushy bounciness over potholes and speed bumps. Thicker glass and extra insulation create a more muted cabin. And there’s a modish vibe with high-quality materials, including finely stitched seats, faux brushed-aluminum trim and a sporty flat-bottom steering. Most impressive, though, are the high-tech bells and whistles: smartphone integration, wireless charging pad, voice-command capability, windshield head-up display, 360-degree bird’s-eye camera, ambient interior lighting, 13-speaker Bose stereo and scads of safety options. 

During a weekend getaway along the East Coast this summer, my husband Robert sat regally in one of the second-row captain’s chairs as he occasionally bellowed, er, gently suggested alternate routes to less congested roads. It may not have been the same as being chauffeured around in a limousine, but it sure felt that way—for both of us. 

FORD EXPEDITION
$53,000
Mpg: 17 city/23 highway
0 to 60 mph: 6.7 seconds

Speaking of limos, President Biden’s ride—nicknamed “the Beast”—shares dimensions with another jaw-dropping vehicle: the Ford Expedition, which is almost 18-feet long. (An extended-wheelbase model—the Expedition Max—stretches, incredibly, about 20 feet.) At 5,500 pounds, the Expedition is lightweight compared with the Beast, which weighs four times as much. Gas mileage in the Expedition is decent for such a large hauler. And acceleration is superb, with an energetic twin-turbo V6 available in three configurations. 

Slipping behind the wheel, I expected this hulking SUV to be a challenge driving in city traffic. But the composed handling is more akin to the midsize Nissan Pathfinder, which itself performs like a smooth yet sporty family sedan. And the front parking sensors, backup camera, surround-view camera and parking-assist feature help you fit this full-size Ford practically anywhere. 

For 2022, the Expedition gets a midlife makeover, with some styling cues that echo a ritzy Range Rover: less exterior chrome, streamlined grille and thin wraparound headlights. Luxe amenities include a tech-laden dashboard, tri-zone automatic climate control, massaging front seats, power-folding second and third seats, and running boards that automatically deploy whenever getting in or out of the vehicle. While a 12-inch touchscreen for the infotainment system comes standard, you can opt for the stunning 15.5-inch vertical display found in the all-electric Mustang Mach-E. Other notable goodies: Wi-Fi hotspot, rear-seat entertainment system, 22-speaker Bang & Olufsen stereo and even hands-free driving. Best of all are two new trim levels: the rugged Timberline, with better off-road capability, and the supersonic Stealth, which rockets from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.9 seconds—faster than a high-performance tuner car. 

While the Expedition may not be built for heads of state like that other Beast, this behemoth is affordable and full of fine features. And it came in handy when I drove to Goodwill to donate boxes of baubles and such that had been gathering dust in the basement. But don’t tell my husband — many of those trinkets were his. 

Ford Expedition
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Autos

Two small, fun, and affordable rides

Ford Maverick, Kia Nightfall easy on your wallet

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Ford Maverick

Who doesn’t love a bargain? At $47,148, the average price of a new car is quickly approaching — yikes! — $50,000. So when I recently tested two vehicles that cost only half as much, you might assume such rides appeal to my penchant for being kinda-sorta cheap. OK, this is partly true, but along with affordable MSRPs, these low-cost chariots offer lots of other pleasant surprises.

FORD MAVERICK
$22,000
Mpg: 42 city/33 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.7 seconds

With all the hoo-ha over electric vehicles, I wasn’t expecting to go gaga over a rather traditional pickup. Yet that’s what happened with the Ford Maverick, an all-new compact truck that comes standard as a hybrid. While a non-hybrid is available, it’s hard not to love the hybrid’s stellar fuel efficiency.

I also think this pickup looks sexy, with sumptuously curved sheet metal that any fashionista could love. Another plus: The Maverick is the least expensive tiny pickup out there. It’s also surprisingly comfy, available only as a four-door crew cab with ample legroom and headroom, as well as nifty storage spaces. The low-slung truck bed, which can carry cargo up to 1,500 pounds, makes loading and unloading easy. And if, say, you’re looking to enter a float in your local Pride parade, this small but mighty hauler can tow up to 4,000 pounds.

Built on the same platform as two popular Ford SUVs—the Escape and Bronco Sport—the Maverick boasts handling more akin to a steady sedan than a rough-and-rugged truck. Sure, there was some annoying jostling over potholes, but the steering and braking were precise. All models offer niceties such as remote keyless entry, steering-wheel audio controls, smartphone integration and forward-collision warning. While various option packages add up quickly, some features are hard to resist: Bang & Olufsen premium stereo, wireless smartphone charging pad, power-sliding rear window, key fob with remote start, adaptive cruise control and more.

During my weeklong testing of this vehicle, I took it on a few far-flung treks outside the city. Each time, it was refreshing to tumble back into the Maverick for my drive home. For me — wink, wink — this pickup was the perfect pick-me-up.

Kia Seltos Nightfall

KIA SELTOS NIGHTFALL
$27,000
Mpg: 25 city/30 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.5 seconds

When I first slid behind the wheel of a Kia Seltos subcompact SUV last year, the low price — $24,000 for the base model — was beguiling. Overall, though, the funky styling and available options were more notable than the actual ride and handling. Not so when I recently drove the latest Seltos — this time the Nightfall Edition, which feels like a completely different vehicle.
For just $3,000 extra, the Nightfall trim level adds a bit more style and a lot more substance. This includes a zippy 175-hp turbo engine, which shaves off almost a full second when accelerating from 0 to 60 mph. There’s a smooth seven-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive for grippier traction. And larger 18-inch tires offer more road control, as well as slightly higher ground clearance for better driver visibility.

Inside, the upscale design and materials are still impressive. But while all models come with tinted rear windows, smartphone integration, automatic headlights and keyless entry, the Nightfall adds heated front seats, large touchscreen, navigation system, wireless phone charger, sunroof and other amenities. A blind-spot monitor (with rear cross-traffic alert) is also included with the plentiful array of standard safety gear. To distinguish the Nightfall from its Seltos siblings, there are even blacked-out wheels and exterior trim accents for a sportier look. It’s hard to believe that these two vehicles I drove are related. But with the Nightfall, the difference is night and day.

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Autos

Fab full-sized sedans

Jaguar XF, Mercedes S 500 offer great rides at very different price points

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Jaguar XF

As drivers flock to SUVs and crossovers, it’s as if the ubiquitous four-door sedan—poof!—has suddenly disappeared. Yet some steadfast sedans remain, including two absolutely fabulous rides below. 

JAGUAR XF
$47,000
Mpg: 23 city/32 highway
0 to 60 mph: 6.5 seconds

Known for its super-luxe sedans, coupes and convertibles, even Jaguar has jumped on the sport-ute bandwagon. But though there are various Jag crossovers these days, at least one swanky sedan is still in the fleet: the XF mid-sizer. With streamlined looks—including a miles-long hood and swaybacked rear—this fetching chariot doesn’t disappoint. 

Handling is more lithe than lively, with supple suspension and snug braking. While neither of the two available four-cylinder turbo engines are Formula 1 material, the XF is plenty powerful for everyday driving. And the inviting interior is both refined and spacious, with cushy seats and lots of breathing room for backseat passengers. Along with a classy mix of rich wood trim and sleek aluminum accents, the updated cabin boasts a wireless charger, decent storage and curved glass on the 11.4-inch infotainment touchscreen. 

Thankfully, a gearshift lever is back to replace the previous (and decidedly boring) rotary-dial shifter. I test drove the upscale R-Dynamic model, with special badging, snazzy split-spoked wheels and optional British Racing Green paint — a nice touch. Other ritzy add-ons included soft-close doors, power rear-window shade, power headlight washers and premium 12-speaker Meridian stereo. Note to self: The trunk, though adequate, is smaller than the competition. And because the XF no longer comes with a punchy V6 or V8 engine, rivals like the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series and Mercedes E-Class are speedier. But those sport-tuned rides also cost more — often a lot more. Considering how expensive gas has become these days, I’d say saving money on a stately but less expensive sedan makes a lot of sense.   

MERCEDES S 500
$112,000
Mpg: 21 city/30 highway
0 to 60 mph: 4.5 seconds

At twice the price of a Jaguar XF, the Mercedes S 500 is almost twice as nice. It’s certainly bigger, measuring 13 inches longer and weighing 1,000 pounds more than the Jaguar. And for the first time, power for the S 500 comes from an eco-friendly six-cylinder turbo versus the typical V8, which is still available on pricier models. With impressive horsepower and a 48-volt hybrid system for added oomph, the S 500 rockets from 0-to-60 mph in just 4.5 seconds — amazing for such a beefy sedan. Adaptive dampers and agile air-spring suspension eliminate any land-yacht body roll. Instead, handling is more akin to a Porsche, while the cabin in this Benz beauty easily channels a Rolls-Royce. This includes a plethora of sumptuous upholstery and lacquer wood trim, as well as firewall insulation and other acoustic-absorbing materials to keep things eerily quiet. 

Each front seat has 19 massage motors and 10 individual programs. Among the more than 120 recycled components are tony floor mats made from recycled fish nets and carpet remnants. A tasteful 12.8-inch central touchscreen has a sparkling OLED display. If the standard 15-speaker Burmester stereo doesn’t rock your world, a thunderous 30-speaker system with 4D surround sound is available. 

Still not sufficiently impressed? Along with an optional refrigerator, there are heated and cooled cup holders. Reach over toward an empty seat or other area at night and an overhead pin light immediately shines down, then douses itself when you remove your hand. And there are 250 interior LEDs, including red ambient door lights that flash when a dangerous traffic situation is detected. Outside, the futuristic door handles—aerodynamically flush and hidden in the side panels—tastefully emerge and begin glowing as you approach the car. Bucking the trend to reduce or completely eliminate sedans from its lineup, Mercedes offers seven of them. These range from the affordable A Class to the fancy S Class flagship that is reviewed here. Sure, at first glance the $112,000 MSRP on an S 500 looks steep. But that sticker price is a bargain when a similarly tricked-out Rolls can easily set you back $500,000.

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