12 Cool Cars We Drove in Spring 2021
The days are growing longer — and we're hitting the open road.
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.
Having read nothing but praises about Genesis’s first SUV, I was excited to finally have a chance to spend a little quality time. Perhaps less than ideally for the Genesis PR people, I wound up driving it to and from a chance to test-drive a Bugatti Chiron Pur Sport — a car that costs roughly 63 times my GV80 Prestige’s $64,945 price.
I was briefly tempted to do an outright comparison between the two, but considering that seemed only slightly more reasonable than comparing the GV80 to an F-22 Raptor, I decided against it. What I can say, however, is that even after experiencing what a $4 million car’s interior looks like, the top-shelf GV80’s guts still impressed, both in terms of design and quality. The exterior is literally incomparable with the orgy of organic shapes and colors that defines the Chiron, but by the standards of SUVs, it’s delightful; I happened to park next to a pre-facelift Bentley Bentayga in a similar color, and the two vehicles could have easily passed for siblings.
The quad-turbocharged 16-cylinder piece of mechanical art that serves as the Bugatti’s heart and soul has enough power to make just about every other car on the world feel underpowered, but even without it tainting my judgement, the 2.5-liter turbo four in the Genesis felt a tad underwhelming. It’s fine around town, or once you’re cruising on the highway, but it has to strain a bit uncouthly under hard acceleration; considering the 3.3-liter twin-turbo V6 brings 25 percent more power and torque for only 3.3 percent more money, I’d say it’s worth the splurge. That said, I had no quarrel with the ride or handling, which erred towards comfort in a way that seems very appropriate for this type of ride. Put this way: I wouldn’t cross-shop the GV80 against a Bugatti, but I’d certainly do so against a BMW or Benz. —Will Sabel Courtney
Pros: Elegant design inside and out, materials feel worthy of a more expensive vehicle
Cons: Four-cylinder power a little underwhelming for a midsize luxury SUV, no good place to put a front license plate
After a disappointing week with the M440i, I’ll fully admit that I wasn’t looking forward to the M550i as much as I might have been. As a result, well, I was pleasantly surprised. This not-quite-an-M5 may not be, well, an M5, but it’s a very nice, well-appointed luxury sedan with a potent slug of power under the hood — which, in many cases, is what buyers want out of their expensive Bimmer.
The steering, thankfully, suffers little of the unnatural feel that afflicted the 4 Series in my care; you’re not liable to confuse it with a Porsche’s rack, but it points the car where you want in the manner that you want. More importantly, though, the 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8, venerable eight-speed automatic and all-wheel-drive system all combine to deliver a grin-inducing spurt of acceleration with every solid prod of the gas pedal. The M550i lands at that delightful level of quickness that means you never need to fear an on-ramp or passing lane; it feels very much made to coolly and skillfully dominate the autobahns of its homeland. Meanwhile, the interior is nice enough to have you wondering why you bothered rushing in the first place; the optional Nappa leather seats are comfortable enough that you might consider ordering a set for your living room. The world may be a topsy-turvy place these days, but you can still take comfort in knowing that 5 remains greater than 4. —Will Sabel Courtney
Pros: Roaring V8 power, thrust and thrills, exceptional interior
Cons: An M5 is more fun but a 540i just as good for real life, leaving it awkwardly in no man’s land
When Kia launched the new
Optima K5, they endeavored to generate some buzz by claiming the top-shelf K5 GT version could outperform a BMW 330i. It may be true, in terms of numbers — but realistically, it’s hard to imagine many people cross-shopping a compact rear-wheel-drive Bimmer with a midsize front-wheel-drive Kia, especially if they’re the sorts of people who care about performance stats. No, the K5 is ultimately aiming for more humble prey — the Toyota Camry, the Honda Accord and the rest of the diminishing ranks of family sedans.
Still, that’s not to diminish its performance bona fides. The 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-four under its hood spits out 290 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque, figures that outclass its competitors and give it an oomph you wouldn’t expect from a family car. Push it hard and it defaults to understeer, but by the standards of its class, it’s a rocket. It’s also a looker, with an aggressive front end that seems liable to startle a few left-lane blockers back to the right and sweeping, elegant lines that seem worthy of a Buick or Benz. The interior is a little more conventional — all the way down to the old-fashioned shift lever — but it looks plenty nice, especially the new Kia infotainment display that’s a particularly high-quality example of the form.
Indeed, perhaps the clearest foe to the K5 GT lies right alongside it in the showroom. Anyone lusting after a stylish, entertaining family sedan might just look right past the K5 GT to the Stinger — which, for 2021, nets a slightly more powerful version of the same 2.5 turbo but sends it to the rear wheels. Sure, it costs about $5,500 more than the K5 GT, but it’s only $78 more per month to lease… —Will Sabel Courtney
Pros: Standout design, ample and accessible power
Cons: Leaves us craving a version tuned by Hyundai's N division
Some cars require a lengthy preamble. The Mazda MX-5 Miata is not one of them. The MX-5 has been one of the best pure driver's cars out there, and one of the few you can still get for under $30,000. It's the modern equivalent of an old British roadster, without the quirks and leaks.
The Miata is light on power, with just 181 hp under the hood. But it makes up for that with a curb weight under 2,500 pounds, a rear-wheel-drive layout and a smooth six-speed manual. It delivers sublime balance, precision and road feel. It's fun to push to the limit, and it's far more refined and fit for human habitation than the rival 86/BRZ (at least, we say that until we drive the new second-generation versions).
My tester MX-5 wasn't as cheap as you might expect; its MSRP was leveled up to $38,660 with the retractable hardtop that comes withe every RF and the Brembo BBS Recaro package. I would cut both of those and go for a simple, affordable build. You can forego the hardtop, since it's mainly a weekend car. Besides, the MX-5 does not need to be adorned to be enjoyed (and I'm not just saying this because my not-very-prodigious butt struggled to fit in the Recaro seat). —Tyler Duffy
Pros: Simple formula well-executed, handles superbly, looks awesome, doesn't sacrifice refinement
Cons: Not practical at all due to space constraints
The mass-market midsize sedan segment doesn't spill over with excitement; it's where you'll find rock-solid, unsexy front-wheel-drive cars like the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry. But Hyundai has a vibrant new entry with the Hyundai Sonata N Line.
Typically, in Hyundai parlance, “N Line” means cosmetically sporty. But the Sonata N Line strays as far down the road to full-blown “N” performance as Hyundai seems willing to go.
The Sonata itself is an excellent, spacious sedan. The N Line swaps in the turbocharged 2.5-liter four-pot from the Genesis G80 tuned to 290 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque. That’s a solid 110-hp jump over the base model. The Sonata N Line also gets Hyundai’s new eight-speed “wet” dual-clutch transmission that some believe should be the preferred option in the Veloster N hot hatch.
Sounds great, but how does it drive? Well, Hyundai tuned it pretty darn well. The Sonata N Line is super quick. Its body control is outstanding, and it has weighty, precise and intuitive steering. Hyundai could have added a limited-slip diff for better traction in corners. But you’re not going to get everything from a sedan starting at $33,200 (and Hyundai probably can’t ask you to pay much more than that for a sedan).
One slight quibble is that the Sonata N Line’s suspension is a bit stiff for non-performance conditions. It’s not Veloster N-level uncomfortable, but like a tightly wound BMW, it’s not ideal for normal cruising. If I were in the Sonata market, I might lean toward the Sonata Hybrid for comfort and 50 mpg. —Tyler Duffy
Pros: Ample power and torque, great handling, affordable price point
Cons: Not an especially comfortable ride
The V90 is Volvo’s larger family-sized wagon; the Cross Country version — the one you’re most apt to spot in the wild — comes with an elevated ride height and a softer SUV-like suspension. While some attempts at segment straddling do go awry, the Volvo V90 CC is an instance where it definitely works. It’s one of the most comfortable cars to drive, period.
The Volvo V90 CC comes with the T6 engine, a turbocharged and supercharged 2.0-liter inline-four that puts out 316 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. It’s not quite as potent or efficient as the T8 PHEV — but it’s smooth, with plenty of power, and far less mentally taxing to use than the hybrid.
The V90 Cross Country is a great-looking car on the outside, and Volvo is doing perhaps the best upscale, minimalist interiors in the automotive world right now. Plus, like every Volvo model, the V90 CC has the highest IIHS Top Safety Pick-plus designation.
Volvo starts the V90 CC at $54,900, but it doesn’t level up much more from there. My tester slathered on the $4,000 Bowers & Wilkins premium sound system, the $2,800 Lounge package, the $1,700 Advanced package, the $1,200 adaptive air suspension and $800 20-inch alloy wheels. It still came out a hair under $68,000 with destination included. And paying that much won’t leave a buyer feeling short-changed.
The wagon, of course, is for wagon people. Most buyers will look at the Volvo V90 CC, realize they can get all the same great qualities in SUV form with the XC90, note that the dealer probably already has several XC90s on the lot and go that route. And, hey, we can’t fault that decision. —Tyler Duffy
Pros: Comfortable ride, ample power, luxurious inside and out.
Cons: Not as fuel-efficient as the T8 if we're nit-picking
Three-row crossovers are all the rage, and the Kia Telluride, Hyundai Palisade, Acura MDX and Ford Explorer lead an extensive list of options. But nearly all of them have the same flaw: they're thirsty. It’s hard to find a practical but efficient family option — but not impossible, as the Toyota Highlander Hybrid exists.
Toyota shifted things up with the Highlander Hybrid for the current generation. They leveled down the crossover from a 3.5-liter V6 hybrid to a 2.5-liter inline-four one. This move shed more than 60 horsepower — down to 243 hp — but netted an extra 6-7 miles per gallon in efficiency. The EPA rates the Highlander Hybrid for 35 mpg city, highway and combined; I managed 35 mpg in normal driving. Calling it a super-sized Prius would not be far off.
The trouble is, the Highlander Hybrid also resembles a big Prius on the performance front. It’s underpowered compared to its competitors. It’s not tuned for anything resembling precise corner carving; plus, it has a droning CVT and makes an unsatisfactory noise when pushed. (That said, buyers looking for fuel-efficiency from a Highlander may not care that much.)
If you do want your family hauler to get the pulse racing a bit, the standard internal combustion Highlander offers about 295 hp with a V6 and an eight-speed automatic with dynamic torque vectoring all-wheel-drive.
Pros: Looks good for a Highlander, a lot of space for cargo, super fuel-efficient, and packs Toyota quality and reliability
Cons: Not that exciting to drive
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
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
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
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
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
Kelley Blue Book has released their best cars to buy awards for 2021. The results may surprise you.