Meet the Cars and SUVs We're Driving This Spring

The days are growing longer and warmer — and we're hitting the open road.

2021 volkswagen jetta gli autobahn
Volkswagen

Every season, we at the Gear Patrol Motoring desk find ourselves testing out a wide variety of new cars, trucks and SUVs. It's only natural; after all, carmakers are constantly churning out new and improved vehicles, in the never-ending arms race to gain market share. And while some of them — your 4Runners, your Bentleys, your Yukons Denali — receive a full write-up, there's simply not enough hours in the day for us to do bespoke reviews for every car we take out.

So, much as we did back in the winter months, we're rounding up some of the other vehicles we're driving this spring right here in one easy-to-find place. Kick back, pop a Sprite, and enjoy our takes.

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2021 Lexus NX300h Black Line
lexus nx 300h
Lexus

The NX, Lexus’s compact crossover, is coming to the end of its model run. An all-new second-generation is due to arrive in 2022, but in the meantime, I drove the existing NX 300h hybrid version. Let's just say it exhibits both the strengths and weaknesses of the Lexus crossover lineup.

The NX is a good-looking car; I like the bold, quirky Lexus styling, and counter to prevailing car color trends, Lexus crossovers look better in vibrant colors like my tester’s Grecian Water Blue. The ride is comfy and quiet, and the passenger area is spacious with good quality materials. (Lexus never leaves you feeling short-changed on the luxury front.)

On the downside, the NX 300h is slow and not particularly athletic. The trunk doesn’t hold much cargo; you need to level up to the RX for a reasonable family crossover. And controlling the infotainment by touchpad is a nuisance — though the next generation will get rid of that. —Tyler Duffy

Pros: Good looks, Lexus luxury, 30-plus mpg

Cons: New model coming soon, not practical nor fun to drive

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2021 Cadillac CT5-V
cadillac ct5 v
Will Sabel Courtney

When the CT5-V first launched, I was, admittedly, a bit shocked and appalled. After all, the CTS-V that came before was a sport sedan icon, packing V8 power to battle the likes of the BMW M5 and other super-sedans; the CT5-V, however, was equipped with a mere twin-turbo V6 that was significantly down on power versus the thermonuclear third-gen CTS-V. Of course, it quickly became clear that Cadillac had simply shifted its performance nomenclature around; the -V name was taking the role of the old Vsport label, while the full-bore performance cars take on the Blackwing label that once belonged to a high-tech twin-turbo V8 that only found a home in a handful of CT6 sedans before it was terminated along with that full-size luxury sedan.

But as the Bard once said, a rose by any other name...well, you know how it goes. Whatever you want to call it, the CT5-V is an excellent middleweight performance sedan. The General Motors engineers know how to build one hell of an involving driving machine, and they didn’t half-ass this one; the CT5-V comes packing a bunch of the high-quality performance tech found in the GM parts bin, from the Magnetic Ride Control suspension favored by Corvettes and Ferraris to an electronic limited-slip differential to the Performance Traction Management electronic control net that’s designed to let drivers exploit the car’s full potential.

That’s all on top of a solid chassis, involving and direct steering — and, of course, a twin-turbo V6. Granted, in this day and age, the 3.0-liter’s 360 horsepower and 404 lb-ft doesn’t sound like much for a performance car, especially when flowing to all four wheels like in my AWD tester (RWD is also available), but the 10-speed automatic makes excellent work of keeping the motor in the power band when hustling. (Don’t bother with the paddle shifters, though; with so many tightly spaced cogs, you have to click through multiple gears to get much impact, and the automatic programming is smart enough that it quickly becomes more trouble than it’s worth.)

All that means the CT5-V proved a delightful companion for a blast up and down the length of the Taconic Parkway, a fast, winding road that still provides the most entertaining way of traveling from New York City to Albany. The V6’s output lands right in the zone that I refer to as Goldilocks power — not too hot, not too cold, but just right for everyday driving. It’s potent enough to easily blow past most traffic, but you still feel the satisfaction of having to make the car work for a living on public roads.

And while my test car came loaded up with luxury options that pushed the price tag past $65,000, Cadillac — in their underappreciated tradition — makes all the performance bits standard. If you can live with faux leather upholstery and without features like active cruise control, ventilated seats, a digital instrument panel or a Bose stereo, you can take this puppy home for $50K — or even less if GM is offering a discount (which they often are). For a four-seat family car that can also play backroad barnstormer on weekends, that’s a pretty solid deal. —Will Sabel Courtney

Pros: Excellent chassis, involving to drive, gives you an excuse to sing along extra loud to the second verse of Billy Joel's "Movin' Out"

Cons: Just makes you more aware that the CT5-V Blackwing isn't here yet

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2021 Mazda CX-5
mazda cx 5
Mazda

Mazda has found a winning formula for building cars. They look great on the outside thanks to the brand's Kodo design language, feel fancier than they cost on the inside and deliver excellent driving dynamics via torquey engines and six-speed automatic gearboxes. The CX-5 is that formula, delivered in the body style people want: a compact crossover. And it accounts for about half of Mazda's yearly U.S. sales.

This CX-5 generation debuted a while ago, back in 2017. But it still feels like a fresh, modern SUV for the 2020s. It's quick with its 250 hp and 310 lb-ft 2.5-liter turbo engine, getting from 0-60 mph in a little over six seconds. It's precise and controlled in the corners, and bumps feel like they are happening somewhere off in the background.

The CX-5 does make a concession: fuel economy. It's EPA-rated for 22 mpg city and 27 mpg highway; I averaged around 24.5 mpg over a 600-mile stretch of highway driving. And if you don't like click wheel infotainment, look elsewhere; that's the only way to manipulate the screen. - Tyler Duffy

Pros:
Looks great, premium-feeling interior, excellent driving dynamics.

Cons:
Fuel economy underwhelms for a compact crossover

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2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer Activ
2021 chevrolet trailblazer activ
Chevrolet

The current Trailblazer is the latest installment of Chevy’s long pattern of taking an old model name and applying it to a rather different type of vehicle. The original Trailblazer was a truck-based Ford Explorer competitor of the early Aughts, back during the badge engineering glory days of Old GM. (It was also sold, with minor differences, as the Buick Rainier, GMC Envoy, Isuzu Ascender, Oldsmobile Bravada and Saab 9-7X.) It came in two- and three-row versions, and offered a spread of six- and eight-cylinder engines.

The new Trailblazer, however, is a subcompact crossover — basically, the equivalent of a Honda Fit that’s been jacked up so it’s easier to slide in and out of, outfitted with styling designed to make it seem more extreme than it is. At first blush, that seems like a rather ridiculous concept; how far can you stretch the idea of an SUV before it ceases to be an SUV?

Viewed another way, however, it’s exactly the sort of vehicle more Americans should be buying. It’s easy to park, thanks to its small footprint, yet still packs enough room to fit four adults in a pinch. (It was a bit tight up front for my six-foot-four frame, but not uncomfortably so). Eight inches of ground clearance means it can hop over obstacles and power through potholes that would leave sedans and hatchbacks dead and busted, while all-wheel-drive means it can crawl forward even when grip is sparse. And if slightly over-the-top styling is what it takes to put Americans into cars that get 30 mpg on the highway, well, I can live with that.

Still, it does suffer from a few issues. As is unfortunately common with most affordable domestic cars, some of the interior materials feel cheap and plastic-y to the touch; it’s almost excusable in the $26K base model, but less so in my top-trim tester that was pushing $31,000. The 1.3-liter turbocharged inline-three that comes with AWD models is adequate around town, but it takes every ounce of its power to accelerate once you’re past 50 mph, with the nine-speed automatic searching for the lowest possible gear early and often; I can’t even imagine trying to drive a FWD Trailblazer with the smaller 1.2-liter turbo three and the CVT in New York City.

Bottom line: the Trailblazer isn’t the sort of car that I’d buy, but if you’re shopping around in the subcompact crossover segment — which, in all honesty, doesn’t have a lot of great picks — you could certainly do worse. If you’re ever considering taking it beyond the pavement, the Activ model’s skid plate and off-road wheels, tires and suspension probably make it worth the extra $1,300 over the LT model; if not, though, save the money and go for that one. (Or, y’know, just buy a Honda Civic hatchback.)

Pros: Better looking than the Blazer, solid blend of capabilities in a tiny package

Cons: Underwhelming interior materials, a Honda CR-V EX AWD costs the same amount

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2021 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Autobahn
vw jetta gli
VW

The Jetta GLI is the hotter version of VW’s compact sedan. On paper, it follows a quite similar formula to the VW Golf GTI, packing red detailing, a bump up to 228 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, a similar curb weight and performance that transitions well to everyday driving.

I didn’t find it quite as precise, refined and engaging as the GTI. But then again, I also drove the seven-speed automatic version, which had the same not-fit-for-sporty-purposes shift paddles as my wife’s base model Golf Sportwagen — which, no doubt, spoiled some of the fun.

Two advantages the GLI has over the GTI? Space and price. Adults can fit comfortably in the GLI’s back seat, and it has a large, useful trunk. It also starts about $2,000 cheaper in base form and $6,000 cheaper for a loaded Autobahn model. - Tyler Duffy

Pros: Quick, affordable, reasonably practical, good fuel economy.

Cons: Not a GTI, sadly

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These Are the 16 Best Cars to Buy in 2021
all new f 150 limited in smoked quartz tinted clearcoat
Ford

Kelley Blue Book has released their best cars to buy awards for 2021. The results may surprise you.

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