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Two small, fun, and affordable rides

Ford Maverick, Kia Nightfall easy on your wallet



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.

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

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.



Fab gifts for car fans

From stuffed animals to a $20,000 model car



For those of us who still love Tonka Toys and Matchbox cars, here are some fun gift-giving ideas for all ages this holiday season. 

Ford Bronco Plush Horse

For kids—or adults who just like horsing around—the Ford Bronco polyester stuffed animal ($27) is super soft and comes with a fluffy mane, glossy black eyes and a kicky green bandana. Bonus: It’s machine washable. 

Kia Hamster Seatbelt Buddy

Kia also has its own stuffed animal: the hamster seatbelt buddy ($13), dressed in a black T-shirt and white Kia logo. Two Velcro flaps on the back come together to fit any seatbelt. 

BMW Small Fashion Wallet

Nix the purses and over-stuffed billfolds. The BMW small fashion wallet ($70) is only 4.1×2.9 inches and features two card slots, one banknote compartment and the BMW logo tastefully stamped on the outside. 

Vintage Subaru License Plate

The vintage-looking SUB-ARU license plate ($12) is made of recycled aluminum and measures 6×12 inches. Is it just me, or could there be a subtle message here: I am a “Sub…Are You”?

Montblanc Enzo Ferrari Special-Edition Pen

Dedicated to race-car driver and automaker Enzo Ferrari, this Montblanc special-edition pen ($1,000) is made of metal, resin and platinum-plated detailing. The pen cap features the dates of Enzo’s birth and first racing victory, while the clip is inscribed with his famous phrase: “You cannot describe passion, you can only live it.”

Ford Lightning Multi-Tool Keychain

Electric vehicle fans will get a charge out of the Ford Lightning multi-tool keychain ($10), which doubles as bottle opener, scissors, knife, measuring tool and nail file. Made of stainless steel, this keychain is named for the EV version of the Ford F-Series, the best-selling truck in the U.S. for 46 years.  

Land Rover Classic Watch

Forget a pricey Rolex, the Land Rover Classic Watch ($207) is all about understated elegance. Features include luminated hands and indices, Land Rover lettering, date aperture, textured Italian leather strap, water-resistant casing, and a rotating outer bezel that can be aligned to a second time zone. 

Lexus LX 570 Kiddie Car

EVs are everywhere, and that includes the battery-powered Lexus LX 570 kiddie car ($695). Built for ages two to seven years old, this ride has a white exterior, chestnut brown interior and working LED lights, doors and seatbelts. With remote control access, the car can be driven manually by children or controlled by parents. Built-in Bluetooth, FM radio, USB and SD port for music are also here. Oh, and there’s a real horn to help make sure everybody gets out of the way. 

Mercedes Game Kit

Planes, trains and automobiles…take this Mercedes game kit ($50) anywhere to jazz up your journey. Includes dominoes, dice and playing cards, all in a sturdy metal box. 

Toyota GR Supra ‘Through the Years’ T-Shirt

Celebrating Toyota’s renowned sportster, the GR Supra “Through the Years” T-shirt ($25) has screen-printed silhouettes of this super coupe from 1978 to today. Made of polyester, cotton and rayon, with tear-away label and side seams. 

Cadillac Golf Balls

For golfers looking for a Caddy with a capital “C,” these Titlest Pro V1 golf balls ($70) sport the Cadillac logo. Softer, quieter and with better game spin than most of the competition, these golf balls are the most popular on the pro tours.

Ferrari 250 TR 1958 Lucybelle II Model Car

True Ferrari aficionados appreciate how the original 250 TR—named Lucybelle II and driven by American drivers Ed Hugus and Ray Erickson—placed a respectable seventh place at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1958. At 24 inches long, this handcrafted 1:8 scale model ($19,995) has thousands of engineered parts (including a trunk that opens and a removable engine cover) to showcase one of the most coveted Ferraris in the world. 

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Muscle-car maniac: Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat

You can’t beat this one for a last hurrah in a true muscle car



Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat

It’s hard to forget your first love. For me, it wasn’t exactly Danell Leyva or Michael Sam. Yet there was some serious muscle on my primo amore: a Pontiac LeMans 455 sportster.

Sparkly blue. White racing stripes. Twin-scoop hood. Dual exhaust. Feisty engine. Talk about butch points.

I’ve waxed poetic before about this super coupe, which ferried me all through high school. With tender loving care, I kept my beloved ride in great shape.

Alas, the next owner did not. Soon enough, it was riddled with rust, scrapes and scores of dents. Sigh.

But just last month, bittersweet memories of my first car came back when I tested the 2023 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat. This top-of-the-line model boasts hyper horsepower and, seemingly, supersonic speed. There’s also an acres-long hood, low-slung seats and a tricked-out, gauge-laden dashboard.

Driving this rad Challenger was a thundering throwback to muscle cars of yore. It certainly got my motor running, and it likely will do the same for you.

But not for long: This is the last year of production before Dodge begins churning out an electric-only version.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in on EVs. They’re fun, fast, and eco-friendly. But if you’re looking for a last hurrah in a true muscle car, the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat can’t be beat.

MPG: 13 city/22 highway
0 to 60 mph: 3.6 seconds
Cargo room: 16.2 cu. ft.

PROS: wicked fast, kick-ass looks, wake-the-dead rumble
CONS: almost too fast to handle, oh-so-impractical, final year

IN A NUTSHELL: First, the good news. A base-model Dodge Challenger costs $33,000, or $15,000 below the $48,000 average price of a new vehicle today. With a 303-horsepower V6, this two-door hardtop can scoot from 0 to 60 mph in a respectable 5.3 seconds. Not too shabby.

But hey, why settle for “Glee” or “Modern Family” reruns when you can stream more trendy fare like “Dicks: The Musical,” right?

In other words, there are more fabulous Challenger trim levels, each offering more enticing features, styling and power than the next. It all culminates with the SRT Hellcat, which—thanks to an iconic HEMI V8—churns out a ridiculous 807 horsepower and can go faster than many a Ferrari, Lamborghini or McLaren.

Unfortunately, Challenger pricing adds up quickly, especially if you opt for any of the dizzying array of specialty packages, customized paint jobs, interior colors and such. My test car, for example, was an eye-popping $100,000 and included the Redeye, Widebody and Black Ghost configurations. This meant wider wheels and tires, a sportier suspension, larger Brembo brakes, protruding fender flares and a glossy black exterior with white racing stripes across the rear end. The high-test brake calipers, usually bright red, were painted black to highlight the 20-inch silver wheels. For a real retro vibe, there was a circular chrome fuel door that said “FUEL” on the gas cap. The most love-it-or-hate-it feature: the roof, with its funky black-and-gray graphics designed to look like alligator skin.

Production of the Black Ghost is limited to 300 units and is part of Dodge’s “Last Call” series, the automaker’s celebratory nod to the end of the Hemi combustion engine. These special editions include an under-hood plaque stamped with a Challenger silhouette, as well as the factory location of where the car was built.

Driving such a menacing beast was exciting — and scary. At first, there seemed to be too much muscle under the hood, especially on wet roads when this coupe would easily fishtail. But I quickly learned to step on the accelerator ever so gently to still get plenty of thrills. (As for the racetrack-ready “Launch” button on the dashboard, it went unused—though I imagine pressing it just might have taken me airborne.)

The cabin had a smart, old-school ambience yet was full of modern amenities: dual-zone climate control, smartphone integration, flat-bottom steering wheel with paddle shifters, heated/ventilated seats and more. While there was an optional 18-speaker Harman Kardon stereo, turning on the ignition and listening to the throaty rumble was music enough for my ears.

This is no SUV, of course, so don’t expect to haul lots of supplies from Home Dept. But the Challenger does have the most trunk space among sports cars. Split-folding rear seats open up the cargo area even more.

Overall, the Challenger SRT Hellcat was one helluva rush. It offered plenty of speed, sex appeal and ear-splitting screams—from the exhaust pipes, as well as a few of my passengers.

Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat
Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat interior.
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Standout SUVs: Jeep Compass, Subaru Crosstrek

Americans still prefer larger vehicles to sedans



Jeep Compass

Last year Americans left many old-school chariots in the dust, buying twice as many SUVs as sedans. But while early pioneers like the Jeep Cherokee and Ford Explorer get props for leading the sport-ute charge, today there are more than 170 models. I recently test drove two newish SUVs that kinda-sorta remind me of my Pride bracelet: They make a statement, but at an affordable price. 

MPG: 24 city/32 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.5 seconds
Cargo room: 27.2 cu. ft.

PROS: lots of amenities, good storage, all-wheel drive

CONS: some pricey options, stiff ride, bit noisy cabin

IN A NUTSHELL: Redesigned last year, the Jeep Compass gets a stronger engine for 2023. More power usually means reduced fuel efficiency, but mileage is up almost 10% from the previous model. Another plus: More stowage space, which had been sorely lacking. And all-wheel drive is now standard, so better traction and handling, especially on slick or gravelly terrain. 

Despite having chiseled looks like the midsize Jeep Cherokee, the smaller Compass feels lighter and more limber. But while this compact SUV can handle light off-roading, the short wheelbase makes it hard to ignore potholes or speed bumps. In fact, I often had to slow down to a crawl to not seesaw jarringly over them. In other words, any Barbie or Ken wannabes with perfectly coiffed hair will want to stick to smoother surfaces when driving this vehicle.  

The well-built cabin is much improved, with higher quality materials. The dash is covered in soft-touch leather—a nice touch—with a 7-inch digital instrument cluster and 10.1-inch touchscreen. Plenty of legroom and headroom in front, but tallish backseat passengers may feel a bit squished. 

There are five trim levels, including the top-of-the-line Trailhawk, with more aggressive styling and solid off-road capability. I tested the mid-range Latitude Lux, which costs $5,000 more than the base model but comes with larger wheels, heated seats, and other niceties. 

Notable tech features: smartphone integration, Wi-Fi hot spot, Bluetooth, wireless charging, voice recognition, remote start and nine-speaker Alpine stereo. 

But it’s the list of safety gear that rally wowed me, such as rearview camera, park assist, lane-departure warning, driver-attention monitoring, rear-seat passenger reminder, pedestrian and cyclist detection, blind-spot monitor, forward collision warning with active braking, and—whew!—so much more. 

MPG: 28 city/34 highway
0 to 60 mph: 9.1 seconds
Cargo room: 20 cu. ft.

PROS: decent mileage, comfy seats, user-friendly cabin

CONS: poky base engine, so-so storage, plasticky dashboard

IN A NUTSHELL: With so much sport-ute competition these days, automakers seem to be revamping their SUV models each year (not every four to six years, as in the past). This time, the Subaru Crosstrek receives some nifty design flourishes and major cabin upgrades. Compared to the butch Jeep Compass, the curvier Crosstrek looks trés chic. Think boyish Buck versus trendy Eddie on “911.” 

Based on the nimble Impreza hatchback, the subcompact Crosstrek feels car-like and agile. Two engine choices, but opt for the more potent powerplant so it doesn’t feel like you’re just treading water. While the Crosstrek is smaller and slower than the Compass, the ride here is smoother and more composed. Higher ground clearance, tighter suspension and quick all-wheel drive system all help, as does a new direct-steering system. Plus, paddle shifters, which I only needed to use once or twice when merging into traffic, provide plenty of extra oomph. 

The Crosstrek cabin, which is surprisingly quiet, offers good legroom for passengers in both the front and back. An optional 11.6-inch infotainment touchscreen is mounted vertically, similar to those iPad-like displays found in the Ford Mustang Mach-E and various luxury vehicles. 

It says something when my biggest beef with the Crosstrek is the placement of the odometer reset button, which is only a smidge above the remote start button. Both buttons are completely obscured behind the steering wheel, so I was constantly reaching around and pressing the wrong one. A minor annoyance, to be sure. But if Subaru could fix this ergonomic annoyance, then I wouldn’t have to listen to my husband claim that the problem is actually my own “user error.”

Subaru Crosstrek
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