Two weeks of living with two trims of Kia’s latest Seltos, and it’s now easy for me to understand why this little crossover has become such a popular option in the subcompact SUV segment. The Seltos…

2021 Kia Seltos EX and SX Road Test

2021 Kia Seltos EX
Kia’s Seltos, looking good here in mid-range EX trim, is one of the best-selling crossovers in its subcompact SUV class.

Two weeks of living with two trims of Kia’s latest Seltos, and it’s now easy for me to understand why this little crossover has become such a popular option in the subcompact SUV segment.

The Seltos came out of nowhere in 2020, only to rise up to fourth overall in a category with no less than 22 offerings last year (it’s grown to 25 since). This just might be unprecedented success, and is especially impressive when considering that Kia already offers the eighth-placed Soul and 18th most popular Niro. The Soul, incidentally, is available in regular internal combustion or electric variants, whereas the Niro comes with conventional, plug-in hybrid, or EV powertrains. The Seltos is only gasoline-powered so far, which says a lot about our current purchasing habits when contrasted against the direction our various governments and many special interest groups are pointing us in, although hybrid and/or EV powertrains will likely follow thanks to shared architecture with the Hyundai Kona Electric.

2021 Kia Seltos SX
Stylish and nearly identical from front to back in EX to SX (shown) trims, It’s easy to see why this Kia has quickly become so popular.

Hyundai-Kia’s B-SUV platform (that’s formed off the back of the Rio’s K2 platform) is a major Seltos positive, as the Kona, in regular or EV form, a good SUV to share underpinnings with considering its number-one position in segment sales, with a lead of nearly one-third over the next-most-popular Subaru Crosstrek.

The Canadian numbers were 31,733 to 22,161 units in 2020, while the third-place Nissan Kicks managed 14,149 deliveries, and fourth-place Seltos came close to achieving podium placement with 13,016 sold examples of its own. It skipped right by some category diehards too, such as Honda’s (somewhat long-in-tooth) HR-V that was only able to pull in 12,068 sales, Nissan’s Qashqai at 11,074 units, Hyundai’s Venue with 10,740 deliveries, and the Soul with 9,869. The rest are all in the four figures, some like Jeep’s Renegade and Fiat’s 500X (basically the same SUV under very different skins) only capable of finding 362 and 35 respective buyers apiece.

2021 Kia Seltos EX
Even the Seltos base headlamps look good, and feature automatic high-beams in EX trim.

To be clear, the subcompact crossover SUV segment is really split up into two parts, with the Seltos slightly larger than some of those just mentioned, particularly Nissan’s Kicks and Hyundai’s Venue. While most expect something smaller to arrive in Kia’s lineup soon, along the lines of the truly subcompact Venue, the $21,295 Soul claims that spot for now, despite being almost identical to the Seltos in cabin size and cargo capacity. Your reasons for choosing either will come down to personal styling preferences, plus the $23,395 Seltos’ more modern dash layout, how the two drive (electrically-enhanced included), and possibly the need to save a couple of thousand for a non-EV Soul, whereas the significantly smaller Venue is better suited to four occupants and much less gear, albeit for considerably less initial money (with a base of $18,199) and better ongoing fuel economy (I covered the 2021 Venue here).

2021 Kia Seltos SX
A move up to the SX includes these sophisticated looking and much brighter full-LED headlights.

It might also be helpful to understand some of the industry trends, and particularly how Hyundai and Kia fit in with respect to this. The macro trend sees car buyers migrating to crossover SUVs, and to that end Hyundai now uses its Venue as the most affordable gateway into its brand, having discontinued its subcompact Accent 5 Door hatchback after the 2020 model year (and Accent sedan before that). Kia, on the other hand, still sells its Rio 5 Door, having only dropped the four-door sedan version of this car after 2020, and by so doing makes sure that its conquest pathway is much more affordable. Where Hyundai is now asking $3,250 more for a Venue than it was for an Accent, Kia is able to pull in buyers with budgets of $17,295 (which admittedly is much pricier than the previous $15,495 2020 Rio 5-Door or even more affordable $14,845 2019 Rio sedan—notably the 2020 Rio sedan wasn’t available in cheaper LX trim at all, causing that year’s base LX+ sedan to start at $18,045), and a 5- to 10-percent difference is a lot when on a tight budget.

2021 Kia Seltos EX
The EX includes fog lamps and an attractive set of grey-painted 17-inch alloys.

Comparatively to either the Rio or Venue, the Seltos might seem like a luxury SUV. First off, it appears more upscale from the outside than either, with a sportier character than the cute, albeit somewhat awkward looking Hyundai; the Venue’s big grille on a small SUV styling won’t be for everyone. The Seltos’ lines are comparatively clean, uncluttered, and, to my eyes at least, attractive, starting with a wide, relatively narrow front grille opening, and expanding outward via stepped headlamp clusters, which include a set of unique-looking LEDs in top-level trims. A tight, tidy rear design incorporates a good helping of metal brightwork and optional LED tail lamps, while attractive 16-, 17- and 18-inch alloy wheels can be found across the entire line.

2021 Kia Seltos SX
Some brighter metal-like detailing graces the SX model’s front fascia, while its 18-inch alloys really pop.

Specifically, the 16-inch alloys are only included with the base Seltos SX FWD model, meaning the move up to SX AWD pushes wheel-size out another inch. All other trims include standard AWD, while the wheels remain 17 inches in diameter right up to the SX Turbo, that gets gorgeous machine-finished 18s with cool red-accented centre caps, although the mid-range EX Premium (one step above the EX) includes a sharp set of machine-finished 17-inch rims.

The two models I tested over a back-to-back two-week stint included EX and SX trims, the former featuring the more fuel-economy-oriented Atkinson-cycle enhanced 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine making 146 horsepower and 132 lb-ft of torque, while mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The latter, on the other hand, came standard with the brand’s 1.6-litre direct-injection Turbo, resulting in a more spirited 175 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque, plus a much quicker shifting seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. These two very unique trims gave me a good feel for what Kia has on offer across the entire Seltos range.

2021 Kia Seltos EX
Both EX and SX trims feature standard LED taillights.

The lesser EX model is seen here in Neptune Blue, with its 17-inch grey-painted twinned five-spoke alloys, whereas the top-line SX Turbo wears Lunar Orange, along with the sportier 18-inch rims I mentioned a moment ago. Both are premium paints that incur a reasonable $250 upcharge, this being the same for all eight colour options except base Onyx black.

Rather than pore over feature details, all of which you can look up for yourself on the automaker’s retail website, I’ll cover some of those items I particularly appreciated and/or found lacking in my test models, plus share my experiential notes, continuing from previous exterior styling comments over to thoughts about the interior, especially its more conventional hooded instrument panel layout and tablet-style infotainment display than the more premium Mercedes-like dual-screen setup found in the recently updated mid-size Sorento and upcoming (slightly larger than its predecessor) compact 2023 Sportage (which looks similar to what I’ve already tested in the 2022 Hyundai Tucson).

2021 Kia Seltos SX
It might be missing soft-touch door uppers, but the top-line Seltos SX delivers some premium materials and features inside.

The more futuristic dash design appears to be the way Kia is going, having even updated its various looks and functionality since the fabulous Telluride that I covered a few months ago. Instead, the Seltos’ dash layout appears more like the Niro’s and other older models. It’s highly utile, with a nicely shrouded hood shading dual analogue dials bookending a 3.5-inch, colour multi-information display in the EX, and larger, more versatile 7.0-inch Supervision LCD/TFT display in the SX. The former provides visual indication that the automatic high beams are active, something I really appreciated, plus dynamic cruise control info, while latter does both and much more.

Still, after experiencing Kia’s newer design layout in other models, I the current iteration comes across a tad dated, despite being complemented by a very helpful head-up display (HUD) system that projects key info onto the windshield ahead of the driver, something not seen too often in this class. For reference, I find the same when comparing a similarly-sized Mercedes GLB to anything in its class, not that the German and Korean models should be compared in any other way, especially when it comes to pricing.

2021 Kia Seltos SX
Both EX and SX trims offer nicely organized and comfortable driving positions.

The Seltos does provide a very refined interior for the subcompact SUV class, however, with my EX-tester even including the same perforated Sofino faux-leather seat upholstery as my top-tier SX Turbo, which I initially thought was the real deal. The EX didn’t include the SX’ powered driver’s seat, mind you, or its two-way powered lumbar support, but was comfortable nonetheless, as were the two crossovers’ shared leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, although the EX model’s gloss-black dash facing wasn’t quite as upscale as the SX trim’s padded and stitched leatherette bolster, which even extends under the larger centre display as well as to the left side of the primary gauge binnacle and steering column—good to see you get something for the extra coin.

2021 Kia Seltos EX
EX trim comes standard with fairly conventional analogue primary gauges bordering a 3.5-inch multi-information display.

There are more upgrades, of course, despite EX and SX models sharing the just-noted gloss-black trim on the steering wheel spokes, lower centre console surfacing, and door inlays, as well as identical single-zone automatic climate control interfaces, solar glass front windows, and chromed grille insert, satin chrome beltline trim, and aforementioned LED taillights (that transition from incandescent bulbs in EX trim), not to mention unseen but important (to some) features like Blind-spot Collision Avoidance Assist (in place of the base model’s Blind-spot Collision Warning), Lane Keep Assist, Lane Follow Assist, and Rear Cross-Traffic Collision Avoidance Assist (in place of the LX’ simpler Rear Cross-traffic Alert), as well as a raft of features pulled up from base LX trim.

2021 Kia Seltos SX
The SX features a larger 7.0-inch driver display, enhancing the entire left side of the gauge cluster.

These latter items include a Safe Exit Assist System, Rear Occupant Alert, Hill-assist control, Downhill brake control, Tire Pressure Monitoring System, six airbags, and more, which were enough to earn higher-end Seltos trims Top Safety Pick status from the IIHS (albeit not “+” status, only achieved in this class by Chevy’s similarly-sized Trailblazer, Ford’s new Bronco Sport, Subaru’s Crosstrek Hybrid, Mazda’s CX-30, plus the smaller Mazda CX-3). Of note, Buick’s Encore GX, Hyundai’s Venue and Kona, Kia’s Soul, Subaru’s regular Crosstrek, plus Toyota’s C-HR (as well as Kia’s larger Sportage, although it doesn’t compete in this segment) earned the same regular Top Safety Pick score, but notably Buick’s smaller Encore, Chevrolet’s Trax, Fiat’s 500XFord’s EcoSport, Jeep’s Renegade and Compass, Mini’s Countryman (although it’s more of a premium player), Mitsubishi’s RVR, plus Nissan’s Kicks and Qashqai (Rogue Sport in the U.S.) didn’t.

2021 Kia Seltos EX
Like base LX trim, the EX utilizes an 8.0-inch centre touchscreen with nice graphics and plenty of features.

Somehow, I completely lost track of detailing the Seltos’ interior refinement, not even mentioning both models’ stylish satin silver trim that helped make me feel as if I was in a much more upscale SUV than its aforementioned pricing should allow, or for that matter its nicely stitched leatherette gearshift boot, softly padded leatherette side and centre armrests (front to back for the former and covering a handy storage bin for the latter), while the folding rear centre armrest, filled with the usual twin cupholders, is exclusive to EX and SX trims. Lacking, sadly, were soft-touch door uppers in either trim or row, the two models’ identical inner door skins leaving me somewhat disappointed due to Kia having spoiled me to expect more from entry-level models than other brands, which admittedly don’t necessarily upgrade their equivalent rides to such high levels of luxury either.

2021 Kia Seltos SX
EX Premium and SX trims boast a premium-like 10.25-inch centre display, which is really impressive for this class of SUV.

Some features that differentiate both the SX and EX Premium from the regular EX trim include the previously noted LED headlights and LED fog lamps, the upgraded instrument cluster, auto-dimming rearview mirror, multi-directional power-adjustable front seats and two-way powered lumbar support for the driver’s seat, plus three-way air-cooled front seats to go along with all lesser models’ three-way heatable front cushions, and the EX (and above) heated steering wheel rim, not to mention warming outboard rear positions for the EX Premium and SX models, as well as a larger and much improved 10.25-inch infotainment touchscreen (instead of the 8.0-inch base display) with integrated navigation and UVO Intelligence-connected car services, along with Satellite radio, a wireless phone charger, adaptive cruise control with Highway Drive Assist (a Level 2 advanced semi-autonomous “self-driving” assistance system designed for limited-access highways), an electromechanical parking brake, Advanced forward collision-avoidance assist (improving on the EX trim’s Forward collision-avoidance assist), ambient mood lighting, a rear cargo privacy cover, and more.

2021 Kia Seltos SX
EX Premium and SX trims up the ante with navigation.

I should say more about the upgraded infotainment touchscreen, plus the smaller one found in the EX and below, specifically that both are very good and include Apple CarPlay, plus Android Auto smartphone integration. My somewhat outdated Samsung S9 hooked up to the latter easily and working flawlessly throughout both test weeks, whereas the SX’ exclusive navigation system was also easy to use and completely accurate. The general look of the displays should be attractive to most, while both backup cameras were bright, clear and included moving guidelines.

A powered glass sunroof hovered above front occupants in both models, with controls found on an attractive overhead console, this even including LED reading laps complemented by another set of LED overhead lights in back.

2021 Kia Seltos EX
The base powertrain’s CVT is sportier than you might think, but it’s best for those wanting to optimize fuel economy.

Aforementioned wheel upgrades and HUD aside, the SX gains exclusive chromed door handles, rain sensing wipers, bright metal interior door handles, and possibly best of all, an eight-speaker Bose premium sound system that includes four door-mounted speakers, a centre speaker, two door-mounted tweeters, and a separate subwoofer, all of which are powered by an external amp. The sound was very good for the class, and thanks to the satellite radio upgrade mentioned earlier, was capable of being tested via many music genres.

As noted earlier, both trims’ driver seats were comfortable, with an edge to the SX due to its adjustable lumbar, while the Seltos’ driving position is excellent, even for my long-legged, short-torso frame. The tilt and telescopic steering column had enough rearward reach to provide comfort with more than enough control, and I certainly had ample space in all directions for movement.

2021 Kia Seltos SX
EX trim and above include convincing faux perforated leather, but EX Premium and SX trims get three-way cooling plus powered lumbar.

Likewise, in the back, where both trims’ seats were comfortable, and plenty of legroom, head space and side-to-side roominess could be found. Cargo capacity is good for the class too, with 752 dedicated litres (26.5 cubic feet), as well as 1,778 litres (62.8 cu ft) when both sides of its 60/40-split rear seatbacks are folded (mostly) flat.

Back up in the driver’s seat, I won’t go so far as to say the Seltos EX was particularly quicker than its base competition off the line, but it felt sportier through the curves than most rivals. Even this lower powered model included a slick rotating drive mode selector next to the gear lever for choosing regular Normal mode, an auto-select Smart mode, and Sport mode capabilities, all of which provided unique characteristics that were easily definable. Of course, all of this was heightened when at the wheel of the more potent SX, especially transmission response, which reacted faster to inputs than almost anything else in the class.

2021 Kia Seltos SX
The Seltos offers a roomy rear seating area, plus seat warmers the outboard positions for EX Premium and SX trims.

This is where your personal priorities will be exposed, aforementioned upgrades aside, because the two SUVs offer very different driving experiences. I found myself more relaxed in the EX, or at least I was less likely to dig my right foot into the throttle, because the result was less rewarding. Certainly, it got up and went with little hesitation and progressed through the gears fast enough for some spirited driving, even spinning right up to its 6,500-rpm rev limiter before making surprisingly convincing “pseudo” shifts, but by nature a CVT focuses more on fuel-efficiency than rapid, satisfying acceleration. Nevertheless, Kia could differentiate these trims even further by including paddle-shifters with the SX… just saying.

The dual-clutch gearbox and more powerful turbocharged engine didn’t overly impact efficiency either, or at least the SX was stingy enough for me at 9.4 L/100km city, 7.9 highway and 8.7 combined, compared to 8.8 city, 7.6 highway and 8.2 combined with the EX (or LX AWD), or 8.2, 7.1 and 7.7 respectively for the LX FWD. All in all, the SX’ level of performance should make the move upmarket worthwhile those who can afford a little extra investment.

2021 Kia Seltos EX
The Seltos dedicated cargo area measures an impressive 752 litres.

As with everything else in this class, the various drive modes don’t impact the Seltos’ suspension setup, which, while fine for everyday driving, might hold you back a bit when pushing fast and hard through winding terrain, where the EX felt a bit more unsettled than the SX. This was probably, at least partially due to the difference in rolling rubber, the lesser model’s 215/55R17 Kumho Solus all-seasons not quite as grippy as the larger-diameter 235/45R18 Kumho Majesty tires (have to wonder where they came up with that name).

What matters more in this class, however, is ride quality, which was very good for both trims. In fact, I’d be quite happy with either as my daily driver. I found the previously noted self-driving mode was a bit more relaxing during highway excursions too, and I was pleasantly surprised to find anything so technologically advanced in this category at all, although it should be noted others in this segment are stepping up with similar systems.

2021 Kia Seltos SX
Cargo space opens up to 1,778 litres when the 60/40-split rear seatbacks are folded down.

Still, it remains easy to understand why Kia’s Seltos is selling so well. It’s a great looking little crossover SUV, is well made, impressively finished, well-featured in every trim, attractively priced, plenty efficient, and even fairly fun to drive with its mid-range powertrain, plus downright fun when upgraded to the SX. Add to this its two-year, 40,000-km longer-than-average (mostly) bumper-to-bumper warranty, spanning five years or 100,000 km, and it’s an easier decision.

Truly, the most difficult choice in this class might come down to this Seltos or its Hyundai Kona cousin (with a similar warranty), proving the South Korean automaker understands the benefits of creating its own competition. When push comes to shove, both SUVs are more than worthy of your attention. I’d recommend looking over some of the others in this class too, but for the time being these are leading the back for good reason.

Review and photos by Trevor Hofmann

Subaru is all about subtleties when it comes to redesigns, with the latest Outback staying true to the course by paying suitable homage to its predecessors. The sixth-generation design, once again based…

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor Road Test

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
More rugged looking Outdoor trim is the best Outback for light-duty off-roading this year, but those choosing a 2022 model can opt for the even more intense Wilderness model.

Subaru is all about subtleties when it comes to redesigns, with the latest Outback staying true to the course by paying suitable homage to its predecessors. The sixth-generation design, once again based on the Legacy wagon (albeit the seventh-gen version of that car, which is no longer available in our market), arrived in late 2019 as a 2020 model, and paying special tribute to its soft-roader roots, became available in my tester’s Outdoor XT 2.4i trim for both the 2020 and 2021 model years.

From a styling perspective, this is my favourite Outback, and not only because its military-inspired Autumn Green Metallic paintwork goes well with the olive-drab half of my wardrobe. Of note, the Outdoor XT 2.4i will make way for an even beefier 2022 Outback Wilderness later this year, which muscles up the design with more black plastic body cladding than many Subaru traditionalists will appreciate, but Subaru knows it needs to pull in new buyers while still maintaining its diehard loyalists, so the bulked-up iteration will sell alongside those with softer edges.

2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness
The new 2022 Outback Wilderness adds bolder styling cues as well as better off-road chops, making it ideal for more adventurous types.

Back to 2021, the $39,295 Outdoor XT 2.4i isn’t the Outback’s fanciest trim. That honour belongs to the $43,995 Premier XT 2.4i, while the $41,195 Premier 2.5i and $41,995 Limited XT 2.4i fill in the blanks between. On the other side of the pricing spectrum, entry-level Outback ownership starts with the $30,995 Convenience 2.5i, while the trims bridging the gap to my Outdoor XT 2.4i tester include the $35,195 Touring 2.5i and $39,195 Limited 2.5i.

Now that we’re on the subject of pricing, Subaru is currently offering up to $1,000 in additional incentives for 2021 models, or up to $750 in incentives off of 2022 variants, while CarCostCanada members were saving an average of $2,008 at the time of writing. That’s pretty impressive considering how tight the car market is these days, but membership does have its benefits, such as timely rebate info, regular details about manufacturer leasing and financing rates, plus dealer invoice pricing that gives you a significant edge when it comes time to negotiate your best deal. Check out how the CarCostCanada system works, and also be sure to download their free app from the Google Play Store or Apple Store.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
The Outdoor’s rear styling is a bit more aggressive than the regular Outback’s, but not quite as gritty as the upcoming Wilderness.

While new Wilderness trim looks like it could pave its own way through the wild, and to that end its rugged new body panels and matte-black paintwork are joined by a special set of black-tone 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 225/65R17 all-terrain tires, plus hexagonal LED fog lamps up front, and a quad of underbody skid plates protecting the engine, transmission and rear differential below, the as-tested Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor holds its own when the tarmac ends and muddy, dirty, gravel roads begin, or for that matter snow-covered ski hill parking lots.

2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness
Here’s a rear shot of the new Wilderness model. Check out more larger pics in the gallery.

The Outdoor’s alloys are larger at 18 inches, and come encircled with 225/60R18 all-seasons instead of A/Ts, so you’ll be trading off some off-road grip for on-road traction and comfort, but Subaru’s renowned full-time all-wheel drive comes standard as always, albeit upgraded with an enhanced dual-function X-Mode drive system that also provides Snow/Dirt and Deep Snow/Mud settings. This dual-function X-Mode system isn’t available with any other trim this year, and likewise will be exclusive to the new Wilderness model for 2022.

Additional Outdoor features include a front-view camera for previewing the rougher stuff before venturing forward (or alternatively making sure you don’t hit the car in front while parking at the mall), a full-size spare tire just in case you get a flat far away from civilization (or just don’t feel like fixing it right away—note to self, get the spare tire fixed), a black-painted front grille and door mirrors, special XT badging, all-weather rubber floor mats, and really nice soft-touch, breathable and weatherproof two-tone light and dark grey upholstery with cool light-, almost lime-green contrast stitching, which goes really well with all of the upscale accoutrements throughout the cabin.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
Distinctive C-shaped LED driving lights look sharp at night.

Some of these niceties include fabric-wrapped A pillars, pliable synthetic surfacing across the entire dash top, a really plush instrument panel facing that’s padded and covered in stitched medium-grey leatherette, this extending into the door panels just above the door pulls and slightly below the soft-touch door uppers, front and rear, while darker grey padded and stitched leatherette inserts can be found lower down on the door panels, plus lighter grey padded armrests just under these, and overtop the centre console bin as well. Just ahead of the latter, Subaru even added padded and stitched leatherette to each side of the centre console, as well as the intersecting point where the centre stack meets the lower console, all of which shows just how premium-like the Outback is getting with each new generation.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
Outdoor trim adds some unique styling details, plus 18-inch black-painted alloys with all-season tires, instead of the all-terrain’s found on the new Wilderness.

Of course, you might not have noticed any of these subtler details due to the mega-touchscreen on the just-noted centre stack, which would’ve certainly grabbed your attention first. The vertical display measures 11.6 inches diagonally, which outclasses every direct rival in the mid-size crossover class, even besting the Ford Explorer’s 10.1-inch unit, although Toyota Prius owners can at least take pride in matching the familial Subie for having an identically sized and shaped display (Toyota and Subaru probably co-created it, being that the latter is partially owned by the former), whereas Ram takes claim for having the largest infotainment screen in the mainstream volume-branded sector at 12 inches. The sky’s the limit in the premium class, however, especially when factoring in new electrics like the Lucid Air, which incorporates a 34-inch curved display that also houses the car’s primary gauge cluster, but I digress.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
The Outback has two of the best roof rails in the industry.

Of course, the Outback won’t set you back $91,900 in base trim (not bad for what it is, really), and of course, until available in trail-ready Lucid Gravity crossover guise (sometime in 2023), the Air is not even remotely competitive to this Subaru. Then again, Volvo makes two premium models that at first glance might seem like logical moves upmarket for anyone planning to trade up, and not just because of the large, vertical, touchscreen found on every Volvo model’s dashboard, but more so because the V60 Cross Country and V90 Cross Country have long been moulded after the Outback’s proven wagon-cum-crossover image (the Volvo V70 XC was introduced in 1997, even beating the Audi A6 Allroad Quattro by two years, whereas the original Outback arrived eight years earlier in 1989, although kudos for now-defunct AMC motors that came up with the idea back in 1980 with the introduction of the Jeep 4WD-enhanced Eagle Wagon). Still, the Outback’s upward moves in luxury, technology and performance make it less likely for Subaru owners to crave one of these off-road capable Volvos.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
The “XT” designation denotes much more energetic turbocharged power.

Digression seems to be the order of the day, so, getting back to the Outback in question, its vertical touchscreen includes all the expected radio functions, such as FM, AM, satellite, and device streaming, plus climate controls that pop up on a separate panel, full phone connectivity including Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Subaru’s proprietary Starlink system, while SiriusXM Travel Link optimizes the navigation system, as does a “My Subaru” section that allows you to make an appointment for service, call for Roadside Assistance, and more, plus the infotainment interface provides a very nice, easy-to-use graphical layout that ties everything together.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
The Outdoor’s creative multi-grey and green-highlighted interior is much more upscale than you’ll likely expect.

What might be immediately noticeable to previous owners, is the lack of a multi-information display on top of the dash. This feature, normally found within most competitive cars’ primary instrument clusters, is now incorporated within the top quarter of the vertical infotainment display. It’s a much better setup and easier to modulate than the dashtop design, but it doesn’t have the retro ancillary gauge look that some who are faithful to the brand would’ve become used to.

Additionally, along with the Outdoor trim’s front-view camera is a regular backup camera, with moving guidelines to help place the car into a parking spot, but like the Prius this real-time monitor only uses the top half of the display screen, albeit the bottom portion appears like a dark blue sky on a starry night with a wild, natural vista silhouetted below. This is much more entertaining to look at than the plain black bottom section shown to Prius owners, however, so kudos to Subaru for make the most of a less than ideal situation (using the “dead” space for multiple rear angles or even reverse side cameras would’ve been optimal). This said, a view button shows the aforementioned frontal video of the road or trail ahead, but alas, no overhead camera is offered at all.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
The first thing most peoples’ eyes fall upon when entering any new Outback is the massive touchscreen on the centre stack.

Subaru locates powered auxiliary and USB-A ports at the base of the Outback’s centre stack for connecting a phone to the infotainment system as well as charging, while a wireless device charger (standard in Limited trim and above) can be found just below in a clever reverse-angle slot, which therefore optimizes space on the lower console where such devices normally go.

A simple powered glass sunroof is positioned overhead, controllable via an overhead console that comes complete with LED reading lamps and emergency contact switchgear. A very small sunglasses holder is included as well, which isn’t finished all that nicely due to no felt or rubberized padding inside, except for a tiny bit of cloth stuck to the front portion. I suppose it’s better than no sunglasses holder at all.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
The Outback Outdoor features nice padded and stitched leatherette throughout the cabin, especially the dash.

Speaking of not quite hitting the mark, the power-adjustable driver’s seat was inherently comfortable, with good lower back support and ample length from the lower cushion squab, but the two-way powered lumbar adjustment didn’t meet the small of my back ideally. Fortunately, the driving position was especially good thanks to excellent reach from the tilt and telescopic steering column. The steering wheel rim is leather-wrapped as well, normal in this class, but I would’ve liked it better if stitched in the lovely green from the seats.

Ok, now I’m really nitpicking, but I’m not complaining when wondering where the heated steering wheel rim was. If included in the Outdoor, a button would’ve been added to the right side of the third spoke, and according to a video from a very cool salesperson on YT from Prince George, BC (thanks Tyson), it heats up to 36.1 C (97 F) on equipped cars, albeit only on the lower two-thirds of the wheel (not uncommon). Thankfully, all Outback trims will get heated steering wheels for 2022, which is a smart upgrade for the Canadian market.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
Compared to the centre display, the Outback’s primary gauge cluster is a bit old-school.

I also noticed it was almost exactly the same steering wheel as found in the larger three-row Ascent, complete with what seemed like identical switchgear for the audio system, phone, and multi-information display (MID), plus trip computer, the former once again integrated within the centre touchscreen, and the latter not as large or fully featured as the one used for the bigger SUV. At least a splash of colour could be seen on the vertical MID, with some useful graphics for the adaptive cruise control system, but due to Subaru’s choice to mix multi-info and infotainment functions into one, the primary instruments don’t look anywhere near as advanced as the centre touchscreen next door.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
The Outback’s 11.6-inch vertical touchscreen is one of the largest in the entire industry.

Looking beyond aesthetics to more practical issues, the second-row seating area is as large and spacious as it was in the previous Outback, and includes a nice, wide folding armrest at centre, with two big integrated cupholders featuring useful rubber grips. Two-way rear seat heaters also come as part of this trim, with switchgear located on the backside of the front console, along with two additional USB-A charging points.

When sitting behind the driver’s seat that was set up for my long-legged, short-torso five-foot-eight frame, meaning that it was pushed farther rearward than it might otherwise be for someone of my height, I still had about six inches from my knees to the upper seatback, plus plenty of room to stretch out my legs underneath the driver’s seat while wearing winter boots. There was about five or six inches from my shoulders to the side window too, plus almost the same from my outer hip to the door panel, and about four inches above my head. This makes the Outback’s rear seating area excellent for all sizes of adults and teens, while the rear outboard backrests also provided impressive lower support. Levers on the outside bolsters allow rear passengers to recline those backrests too, or sit more upright, making this one of the more comfortable cars in its class.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
The infotainment interface is very graphical and fully featured.

As for cargo, simply nudging the retractable cargo cover with an elbow when loading items inside causes it to retract automatically, a very useful and unique feature, whereas removing it altogether provides the Outback’s generously sized dedicated cargo area with even more space for longer cargo. On this note, I so wish it had 40/20/40 split rear seats, or at least a centre pass-through, as it would be much easier to stow longer items inside, such as ski equipment, plus more comfortable for rear passengers when returning from the slopes, being that both could use the outboard seat warmers. Like so many Japanese and domestic automakers, Subaru doesn’t go the extra mile for passenger/cargo accommodations, instead simply incorporating 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks. At least the Outback provides levers on the cargo wall for lowering the seats automatically, plus the usual package tie-down hooks are included as well.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
The rearview camera only occupies the top half of the display, just like Toyota’s Prius, but at least with the Outback the lower portion is filled with a nice nighttime vista.

Notably, the Outback stows just as much gear as the average five-passenger mid-size crossover SUV. By the numbers, it can manage up to 920 litres (32.5 cu ft) of what-have-you behind the rear seatbacks, plus a total of 2,144 litres (75.7 cu ft) when those backrests are flipped forward, which means it’s a bit tighter than a Hyundai Santa Fe or Ford Edge for dedicated space, but roomier than both when lowering its rear seats. Try to stuff the same number of bags into a Nissan Murano, however, and you’ll get a fraction more into the Outback’s dedicated cargo area, plus way more when their rear seats are folded flat. It’s not the end all to be all, however, with Honda’s Passport showing up all of these two-row CUVs, but it’s certainly up to the majority of tasks any of the others take on.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
The Outback’s CVT incorporates eight pseudo gears for fairly sporty driving characteristics.

Most of the above crossover SUVs are powered by six-cylinder engines, some throughout the range and others just in upper trims, which was also the case for the former Outback prior to 2020 when the arguably cool yet less efficient 3.6R flat-six was in use, but now the previously noted 2.5i and 2.4i model designations refer to four-cylinder engine displacements. What might come as a surprise is the larger engine is in fact the entry-level powerplant, with the 2.5i being naturally aspirated for 182 horsepower and 176 lb-ft of torque, and the 2.4i utilizing a turbocharger to make 260 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque, while all feed through a Lineartronic continuously variable transmission (CVT), albeit beefed up to high-torque specs when matched to the turbo. There are no mechanical changes for 2022, including the CVT’s eight-speed manual mode and standard steering wheel-mounted shift-paddles, which are literally a nice touch, making this normally slushy-feeling type of transmission relatively sporty.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
This Outdoor model’s driver seat is inherently comfortable, but would be better with four-way powered lumbar support.

Fortunately, the Outdoor incorporates the more energetic power unit, and I must admit it’s more entertaining than the old 3.6R horizontally opposed six, which makes sense considering the new engine’s 4-horsepower improvement and 30 lb-ft of additional torque. The outgoing engine was quite smooth and made adequate power, but the new turbo-four combines stronger acceleration with better fuel economy, the latter now rated at 10.1 L/100km in the city, 7.9 on the highway, and 9.1 combined, compared to 12.0, 8.7 and 10.5 for the six. That’s a big gain, and while the naturally aspirated 2.5i doesn’t improve as dramatically, the 2021 model’s 9.0 L/100km city, 7.1 highway and 8.2 combined rating is better than the 2019 base 2.5i’s respective 9.4, 7.3 and 8.5.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
The Outback is big on rear seat roominess and comfort, while the finishing in back is nice too.

Another benefit to the new 2.4i is weight reduction over the front wheels, which of course improves handling. This combines with a lower centre of gravity over taller, more SUV-like crossovers, causing the Outback to feel a lot more agile through the corners than something like a Ford Edge (ST aside). At the same time, the Outback has to be one of the smoothest cars in its class. I’d say one of the smoothest in any class, but Volvo’s aforementioned V60 and V90 Cross Country models are probably cushier.

Unfortunately, my test wasn’t all roses. On occasion, the engine idle-stop system restarted much more abruptly than any vehicle I’ve tested in a long time. Strangely, this issue was sporadic, with smooth restarts being the norm. Therefore, this could be an issue with my specific test car, and not systemic.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
The Outback’s cargo cover pops out of the way automatically by pressing down on the rear edge.

Unusual as well, the dual-zone automatic climate control system required a much lower temperature setting than normal, in order to meet my comfort criteria. I set it at 22.5 C at first, which is usually good for me, but due to the sweltering heat was forced to turn it all the way down to 19 C. Again, I don’t know if this was a problem with my test car, and therefore cannot be sure what an owner might experience with their new Outback. Either way, it would hardly be a deal-killer, just an adjustment from the norm.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
All Outbacks come standard with similar cargo capacity to taller mid-size SUVs.

So as not to leave this review on a sour note, let me sum up the remaining few paragraphs with safety, value, and reliability info from third party sources. Pertaining to the first item on the list, Subaru’s advanced driver assistance system, dubbed EyeSight, has led the industry for years, and remains amongst the most effective and least intrusive available. I’ve already mentioned the adaptive cruise control system, which comes standard on all Outbacks as part of the EyeSight package and works very well, while other features include pre-collision braking, pre-collision throttle management, lead vehicle start alert, lane centring assist, and lane keep assist with sway warning.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
Handy levers on the cargo walls make lowering each 60/40-split side of the rear seatbacks easier.

Together with every Outback trim’s standard steering-responsive (SRH) LED headlights that also feature standard High-Beam Assist (HBA) and attractive looking C-shaped LED Daytime Running Lights (DRL), Subaru’s two-row crossover was awarded a best-possible IIHS Top Safety Pick + rating, while the U.S. NHTSA gave it a five-star ranking in front driver side tests and four stars for front passenger side test results. It earned a perfect score in the NHTSA’s side barrier and pole tests, however, so altogether the NHTSA gave the 2021 Outback a five-star safety rating. And this comes before a buyer might add on the Subaru Rear/Side Vehicle Detection (SRVD) system, Reverse Automatic Braking (RAB), and DriverFocus Distraction Mitigation System (DMS), this threesome coming standard when moving one step up from base Convenience trim.

2021 Subaru Outback XT 2.4i Outdoor
Check out all that space! With both rear seatbacks flattened, a total of 2,144 litres (75.7 cu ft) is at your disposal.

Another feel-good story is the Outback earning Vincentric’s Best Value in Canada Award for its “Mid-Size SUV/Crossover” segment, an honour it also achieved in the U.S. On the negative, the Outback received no mention in any of the various third-party dependability and/or initial quality surveys/studies, but only three models could potentially break through the top of J.D. Power’s VDS and IQS studies, plus the Outback’s category is the most competitive of any, so therefore it makes sense it might not achieve best-in-class.

Likewise, the Outback got no love regarding resale/residual values from Canadian Black Book (won by the Toyota 4Runner) or J.D. Power’s 2021 Canada ALG Residual Value Awards (won by the Honda Passport), but the WRX and Crosstrek achieved a top score in the latter, and the Crosstrek earned an honourable mention in the former, reminding that Subaru models normally depreciate less than most others in their respective classes, so therefore it would be unusual to expect anything different from the 2021 Outback.

In the end, you can feel confident the Outback delivers big on value, safety, comfort and reliability, while it now provides higher levels of luxury, technology and performance than ever before. Certainly, improvements could be made, but that’s true with any new car. Therefore, I think the Outback will continue proving positive to Subaru’s loyal customers while attracting some new clientele along the way, steadily helping to grow the brand.

Review and photos by Trevor Hofmann (2022 Outback Wilderness photos by Subaru)

The mid-size sedan might be a dying breed, especially in Canada where they’ve never been as popular as compact four-doors and hatchbacks, but Hyundai hasn’t given up on it like some others in this…

2021 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Ultimate Road Test

2021 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Ultimate
Hyundai’s Sonata Hybrid Ultimate looks less aggressive than some other Sonata trims, but still balances performance-oriented styling with plenty of upscale class.

The mid-size sedan might be a dying breed, especially in Canada where they’ve never been as popular as compact four-doors and hatchbacks, but Hyundai hasn’t given up on it like some others in this class. In fact, the Sonata was given a complete eighth-generation redesign for the 2020 model year, so therefore its seriously menacing new face carried forward unchanged into 2021, and will so once again for 2022.

Menacing yes, but that’s not to say I don’t like the look. As seen on this as-tested Sonata Hybrid Ultimate, which gets more chrome than some other Sonata trims, such as the sporty new N Line variant, and particularly when that grille is surrounded by Hampton Grey paint that comes across as more of a champagne-taupe in some lighting conditions, the snarly look is almost soft and approachable. Whether you find it intensely angry or just purposefully intent, the new Sonata does appear consequential, and when push comes to shove it should be, because it’s doing the serious work of minimizing its eco-footprint while maximizing range and performance.

2021 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Ultimate
Cool LED taillight treatment is distinctive enough to be spotted from blocks away.

The Sonata Hybrid’s fuel economy is superb at 5.3 L/100km in the city, 4.6 on the highway and 5.0 even combined. It’s even a smidge better than similarly-equipped Toyota Camry Hybrids that come rated at 5.3 L/100km city, 5.0 highway and 5.1 combined (the Camry Hybrid’s base LE trim does better at 4.9, 4.8 and 4.9 respectively), and considerably more efficient than the Honda Accord Hybrid that gets a 5.3 city, 5.7 highway and 5.5 combined rating.

Even more surprising was the Sonata Hybrid’s acceleration and all-round performance, especially when the net numbers showed just 192 horsepower and 139 lb-ft of torque. It certainly felt more potent off the line than these figures suggest, plus thanks to steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, its six-speed automatic transmission was quite engaging as well.

2021 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Ultimate
Even more beauty can be found in the Sonata’s details, particularly the LED character lights that follow the hoodlike partway up the tops of each fender.

The Sonata Hybrid responds eagerly when pushed hard through corners too, plus it tracks confidently at high speeds in any condition, including on wet, slippery roads. It even remained stable when yanked aggressively toward the centre median by a large puddle, something much-needed and often appreciated in my city’s mostly wet winter weather.

Additionally, the button-operated gear selector is one of the best electronic transmission controllers I’ve tested, as it’s laid out intuitively and can all be actuated without moving the hand very far. Unlike some others (I’m speaking to you Honda/Acura), Hyundai’s quickly became second-nature, never leaving me mentally stranded in dumbfounded, panic-stricken overwhelm when coming up short of a turning circle-deprived U-turn with traffic approaching.

2021 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Ultimate
The Sonata Hybrid’s lower front fascia details are unique, as are its stylishly complex alloy wheels.

Interestingly, the electromechanical parking brake doesn’t automatically release when skipping a step and simply putting the car into Drive ahead of hitting the throttle, which is normally how these things work. I guess Hyundai felt it was best to err on e-brake safety, so be prepared to flick the switch manually each time you set out.

A two-way memory driver’s seat will automatically adjust you or your significant other back into your chosen position at the press of a single button, mind you, and I must say the driver’s positioning was superb overall. It comes complete with plenty of reach from the manually-operated tilt-and-telescopic steering column, while the seat itself was blissfully comfortable, despite only providing two-way lumbar support.

2021 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Ultimate
It might look like a sunroof, but this solar-powered glass roof only goes skin deep.

Both front seats get amped up with three-way heating and/or cooling, however, while the heated steering wheel rim put out near finger-scorching warmth—Hyundai may want to consider allowing drivers to tone it down a bit by adding a dual-mode temperature setting. Speaking of warmth, a dual-zone automatic climate control system made it easy to maintain an ideal level of cabin air comfort, while the centre stack-mounted interface was easy to sort out.

Now that I’m on the subject of instrument panel interfaces, there’s no shortage of digital displays inside this top-tier Hyundai. For starters, the only hint to things analogue about the gauge cluster is the nicely designed graphical nod to yesteryear’s circular speedometer and tachometer dials, with the division between both comes filled with a multi-information display-style assortment of functions. The display quality is very high in definition, while its reaction to inputs is instantaneous, and its feature set good for the class.

Being a hybrid, my tester included an animated energy-flow graphic at centre when the car was set to Eco mode, with surrounding colours being a mix of aqua-green and blues when so set, but everything glowed red in Sport mode, not that choosing the fiery hue was a particularly original thing for Hyundai to do (hey designers, how about orange or yellow just to separate your cars from the masses?). This said, Hyundai leaves a version of its Eco metre on the right-side dial no matter which drive mode the car is set to, with the Smart setting a personal favourite, being that it feels ready and waiting to either drive as frugally as possible more often than not, or as quickly as possible when called upon.

2021 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Ultimate
If the Sonata Hybrid Ultimate’s interior doesn’t impress you, you’re probably already driving a Genesis.

Hyundai added rear-facing cameras below the Sonata’s side mirrors last year, which project a live image onto the left- or right-side primary gauge cluster dials when engaging either turn signal. This is an absolutely brilliant feature that more competitors should adopt, but so far Hyundai, plus its Kia and Genesis sibling brands, are the only ones to offer it simultaneously with advanced driver technologies such as blind-spot monitoring, or lane change warning and intervention.

Of note, Honda was actually first with a turn signal-activated rear camera system dubbed LaneWatch, which I raved about when more readily available, but recently the Japanese brand has been phasing it out in favour of blind-spot monitoring. Kudos to Hyundai for created an even better dual-sided camera system (Honda’s was only added to their cars’ passenger-side blind-spot), and then making it available alongside all of its advanced driver assistance and safety features.

2021 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Ultimate
The Sonata’s infotainment touchscreen is large, high-definition, easy-to-use and well stocked full of features.

A glance to the right shows a centre display that’s as high in definition as the digital gauge cluster, which means it’s impressive as well. It’s about the same size too, and utilizes a touchscreen-controlled scrolling tile system that features three large tiles at startup. These can be organised as per preferences, with the stock setup including a navigation map on the left, audio functions in the middle, and fuel economy readouts to the right. Hyundai also includes some touch-sensitive buttons down each side of the display, plus a volume knob. I would’ve appreciated a tuning/scrolling knob (usually on the right) as well, and considering this car is probably targeting a more mature crowd than most others in Hyundai’s lineup, I’m guessing an analogue dial for tuning in radio stations or changing tracks would be appreciated by more folks than just me.

The navigation system worked faultlessly during my multiple-week test, and the audio system impressed even more, not only filling the car with streaming media and satellite radio, both of which I use all the time, but its sound quality was very good for this class.

I was also happy to see a wireless charging pad at the base of the centre stack, plus USB charge points for the wired crowd, not to mention the availability of Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, the former having become my go-to smartphone connectivity tool as of late. The charging pad wasn’t working when I first got the car, but I was able to set it up easily via the infotainment system’s settings page, where I found countless cool personalization possibilities as well.

2021 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Ultimate
The intelligently designed electronic gear selector takes up very little space, leaving room for useful features like a wireless charging pad.

Looking upward, there’s an attractive overhead console, but no moonroof. That’s an unusual site in this class, but maybe more fitting in a car that’s partially powered by a motive battery, Hyundai replaced the traditional moonroof with a non-translucent glass solar roof. That’s right, the cool glass section on the front half of the Sonata Hybrid’s outer roof is only visible when outside of the vehicle, and while the lack of a sunroof wasn’t much of an issue for me, it was a very strange omission after 20-plus years of testing cars, and one I can imagine some may be totally put off by. After all, the only cars without sunroofs have long been cheap, base models, which this Sonata Hybrid Ultimate is not.

Along with the aforementioned comfortable front seats that included all the usual adjustments in this class, the cabin provided very impressive finishing. The dash top was mostly softish composite, except for the shroud overtop the instrument cluster and the very front portion of the dash under the windshield (some might call this the back portion), which alternatively gets a textured, soft-painted composite.

2021 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Ultimate
The driver’s seat is inherently comfortable, despite only offering two-way powered lumbar support.

Even better, to the left and right of the dash top’s sloping section, plus around the centre display, nicely stitched and padded leatherette added an element of luxury. There’s more of this highfalutin stuff elsewhere too, particularly on the door panels front and back, plus the just-noted soft-painted surfacing gets used for additional touchpoints as well. Lastly, some of the mainstream sector’s usual hard-shell plastic can be found in the interior’s lower regions, but it’s nicely textured and seems well put together, as does everything else in the cabin.

Rear seat legroom is excellent, while the backrests and lower cushions are very comfortable. A large, wide armrest folds down from centre, featuring the usual dual integrated cupholders, plus outboard rear passengers also get two-way heatable seats, with switchgear next to each power window controller on the door armrests. Lastly, a USB-A charging port can be found on the backside of the front centre console, just below a set of heat/air vents.

2021 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Ultimate
Rear seat spaciousness is very generous, while the outboard backrests and cushions, complete with heat, are very supportive.

The Sonata Hybrid’s trunk is identically sized to the regular Sonata’s cargo area too, this not having always been the case with hybrid models due to rear-bulkhead-mounted battery packs (the old Ford Fusion Hybrid’s battery was quite intrusive). It’s therefore quite spacious at 453 litres (16.0 cu ft), while the trunk’s usefulness can be expanded upon with the usual 60/40 split rear seatbacks.

At the time of publishing, Hyundai had yet to update its retail site with 2022 Sonata Hybrid information, which probably means 2021 models are still available. Either way, CarCostCanada had and still has 2022 and 2021 model year details, so suffice to say the 2022 is pretty well identical to its predecessor, other than the addition of new Shimmering Silver optional paint to go along with the same five upgraded hues that were also available last year. All six optional colours add $200 to the bottom line, whereas Hyper White is the only standard shade, and therefore the only way you can get a 2022 Sonata Hybrid for $40,649 (plus freight and fees), before negotiating a discount that is.

2021 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Ultimate
The Hybrid’s large trunk, which is identically sized to the gasoline-powered Sonata, gets the bonus of 60/40-split rear seatbacks for expanding load carrying capability.

When putting pen to paper, so to speak, Hyundai was offering up to $2,000 in additional incentives, although most CarCostCanada members were saving an average of $1,500, thanks to knowledge of these incentives as well as having dealer invoice pricing info on hand when negotiating. All said, the 2022 Sonata Hybrid is $450 pricier than the 2021, the latter still starting at $40,199. Both model years are only available in one Ultimate trim, which means there are no options other than just-noted colours.

So, if you’re looking for a luxuriously appointed mid-size sedan with an impressive balance of efficiency and performance, you should seriously consider Hyundai’s Sonata Hybrid. If you don’t mind being greeted by a menacing frown each morning, I can promise it’ll deliver plenty of smiles throughout the rest of each day.

by Trevor Hofmann

In the automotive industry, especially the premium sector, there’s no set formula a brand can simply follow in order to find success. Lexus and Infiniti both arrived on the North American luxury scene…

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD Road Test

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD
The affordable UX is now the gateway to Lexus, and a mighty fine subcompact luxury SUV it is.

In the automotive industry, especially the premium sector, there’s no set formula a brand can simply follow in order to find success. Lexus and Infiniti both arrived on the North American luxury scene around the same time in 1989, about three years after Acura, but Lexus has achieved far greater overall sales success than the other two Japanese marques.

Last year, Lexus sold 23,793 new vehicles into the Canadian market and 275,042 units in the U.S., while Acura sold 16,712 and 136,982 cars and crossovers respectively, but Infiniti found just 5,786 and 79,503 buyers. Where Lexus placed fourth in both markets, and Acura a respectable fifth and seventh, Infiniti only managed 12th out of 17 luxury brands (including Buick and Mini, but not Maserati, Bentley, etcetera).

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD
The F Sport package provides more aggressive styling details than the regular model.

The same scenario has played out in separate segments, where Lexus’ RX has dominated in the two-row mid-size SUV arena and Acura’s MDX amongst three-row mid-size utilities, whereas the latter brand’s RDX has mostly topped the Canadian sales charts in the compact luxury SUV class, although in the US it’s dropped down the podium thanks to Lexus’ NX that sat in second place as of the close of 2020.

Infiniti should be given a shout out for helping to initiate the subcompact luxury SUV category along with Mercedes-Benz, the two brand’s codeveloping the GLA and QX30, but alas the latter left the market after 2019, just when Lexus swooped in to sweep up the spoils with its tiny UX. That ultra-angled utility now sits third in the Canadian subcompact luxury SUV segment and sixth in the U.S., behind Buick’s Encore and Audi’ Q3 in the northern jurisdiction, plus the just-noted GLA, Volvo’s XC40, and Mercedes’ slightly larger GLB in the mostly southern nation.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD
The regular UX 250h looks classy in its taupe-like Nebula Grey Pearl paint.

Acura has yet to offer anything in this class, which is odd considering Mini and Jaguar, two of the slower selling brands in the premium sector, do. Even Alfa Romeo will enter the fray with their Tonale next year, so we may eventually see a CDX, as the rumour-mill has been calling it, at some point in the future. As it is, the Encore, Q3 and UX are followed by the BMW X1, XC40, GLB, Mini Countryman, GLA, Range Rover Evoque, the coupe-like BMW X2, and the Jaguar E-Pace. As for others that might come down the pipeline, Cadillac is enjoying a reasonable take-rate for its larger compact XT4, so an XT3 could potentially be based on Buick’s slightly larger new Encore GX, and we’ve got to expect that Hyundai’s upstart Genesis brand will want in on some of this action too.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD F Sport
A lighter shade, like Ultra White, makes a big difference to how this little SUV looks, truly defining its many angled elements.

This is becoming the entry-level gateway for many luxury brands, after all. Lexus gave up on its smallest CT 200h hatchback back in 2017, only leaving the Germans (including Mini) and Acura’s beleaguered ILX to fight over the remaining scraps, so it’s either join the subcompact luxury SUV party or hope you’ll manage to snag up-and-coming premium customers that bypass the subcompact sector altogether. That’s a choice most are finding too risky to take, hence the quick buildup of new offerings in this relatively new category, despite significantly lower sales than larger compact SUVs.

At first glance, it’s difficult to tell the UX shares underpinnings with Toyota’s CH-R, but of course a lot of cars and SUVs utilize the Japanese automaker’s TNGA-C platform architecture, including the Corolla and Prius. Where the CH-R is swoopy and curvaceous, the UX is all angles and sharp creases, plus its big spindle grille could never be mistaken for anything but a Lexus. A menacing set of LED headlamps, complete with Lexus’ checkmark signatures, hover above vertical corner vents for some sportiness, while at the rear, even more angular taillights appear as if they’re being stretched apart by a narrowing strip of LEDs at centre.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD
Cadillac may have initiated the angled and creased look, but Lexus owns it now.

This seems as good a point as any to point out that I tested two different UX trims, both featuring Lexus’ electrified 250h AWD running gear, the Nebula Grey Pearl (more of a taupe) example featuring the regular body style and the Ultra White version dressed up with Lexus’ more performance-oriented F Sport design details. Rather than thinking that one is lesser than the other, I found the regular one classier and the F Sport, well, sportier, so your choice will come down to personal taste.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD F Sport
The biggest difference between regular and F Sport styling up front is the blacked out grille surround and wider, sportier corner vents.

If you just want the sportier styling, Lexus makes a basic $2,000 F Sport Series 1 package available that adds a larger, more aggressive F SPORT front grille, LED fog lights and cornering lamps, as well as 18-inch F SPORT alloy wheels to the outside, and on the inside a digital primary gauge cluster, a three-spoke F SPORT steering wheel with paddle shifters, an F SPORT shift knob, active sound control that mimics shifts to make it feel like the continuously variable transmission is changing gears, special Nuluxe (breathable leatherette) F Sport seat upholstery (mine done out in two-tone Circuit Red), plus eight-way power-adjustable driver and front passenger sport seats.

If you want the same look with more goodies, the $8,800 F Sport Series 2 package includes all of the above before adding triple-beam LED adaptive headlamps, driver’s seat and side mirror memory with reverse auto-tilt, a full TFT instrument cluster, a head-up display that projects key info onto the windshield ahead of the driver, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, navigation with Destination Assist embedded within a larger 10.3-inch infotainment display that also includes Enform Remote, Enform Safety Connect, and Enform Service Connect, as well as a wireless device charging pad, an eight-speaker audio upgrade, a remote garage door opener, and a gesture-controlled (kick motion) powered rear liftgate.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD
LEDs have given automakers a lot more creative license with lighting elements.

The white UX 250h in the photos came with the latter package, while the taupe-coloured one included a $5,300 Luxury package that added many of the same features, such as the seat and mirror memory, head-up display, wireless charging, auto-dimming centre mirror, garage door opener, upgraded display with navigation and Enform functions, improved stereo, and gesture/powered rear hatch, plus on top of these it also came with a special Washi instrument panel design, a wallet-sized smart key, and Lexus’ Intuitive Parking Assist with Auto Braking, a.k.a. self-parking. My tester’s fabulous looking “Glazed Caramel” seat, dash bolster and door armrest upholstery is only available with the Luxury package too, an upgrade that really makes the interior look rich compared to the regular all-black colourway.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD F Sport
Black with red highlights means “performance” in the automotive industry, but the F Sport’s greater abundance of red is certainly more eye-catching.

Speaking of all-black, the only other package Lexus is offering UX customers for 2021 is an $1,100 upgrade dubbed Black Line Special Edition, which rides the current wave of blackened trim replacing otherwise chrome accents (or in this case, mostly black, as there’s still some metal brightwork blinging up the side mirrors, side window surrounds, and branding/badging), with glossy black being added to the grille surround, wheels, and roof rails, plus the mirror caps that remain black even if choosing a non-black (or Caviar, as Lexus calls it) exterior colour, while inside it gets blue stitching around the inside of the black leather-wrapped steering wheel, and yet more blue accents elsewhere, while Lexus includes LED headlights with auto high beams for this package as well.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD
If classy is more to your liking, choosing the “Glazed Caramel” interior when opting for the Luxury package in the regular 250h is the way to go.

Attested by the sales numbers noted earlier, I’m not alone in liking the way this little SUV looks, either on the outside or from inside the cabin. The protruding instrument hood is bookended by the same types of control pods first used in Lexus’ now legendary LFA supercar, the one of the left for turning off the traction/stability control, and the right-side knob for switching between Normal, Sport, and Eco driving modes (the EV mode is a separate button found on the lower centre console). The instruments under the hood are digital, as noted above, so only similar to the LFA, from a design perspective, while the widescreen display atop the dash is a real feast for the eyes, thanks to the organic way Lexus laid it out, to the beautifully detailed colour graphics on the high-definition monitor itself.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD F Sport
The UX has a nicely organized driving environment. with great visibility all-round.

It’s not a touchscreen, as it would be a bit too far to reach for most drivers, but Lexus has upgraded the old lower centre console-mounted joystick-style Remote Touch Interface with the newer RTI 2.0 touchpad that I prefer more, if only because it looks more up-to-date and takes up less space. It works well enough too, but then again, I’d rather have the option of a touchscreen, because, like most people, that’s what I’m used to.

The backup camera is excellent, thanks to the big, high-definition display and active guidelines, while the array of quick-access buttons and dials around the front portion of the centre armrest, just behind the trackpad, is an innovative way to search through and select infotainment features, of which there are plenty. Navigation is included in upper trims, of course, although I prefer using Android Auto via my smartphone, which is included with the UX, as is Apple CarPlay. A colourful array of climate controls show up on the centre display too, and while you can modulate them there, I appreciate the narrow strip of quick-access buttons just below on the centre stack, while a second row of switches incorporates buttons for the three-way heatable front seats and two-way heated steering wheel rim.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD F Sport
The UX’ superb seating position should work well for most body types.

Overall, the UX is an enjoyable place to spend time, from the interior’s aesthetics to its overall comfort and roominess. The driver’s seat is generously adjustable and the powered steering column provides ample reach and rake that should allow for a good seating position no matter your body type, which isn’t always the case for my long-legged, short-torso frame. The seatback provided decent lower support too, the same for both cars, other than the two-way powered lumbar support that didn’t quite meet up to the small of my back. The F Sport’s front seats were certainly bolstered more effectively up by the shoulders, however, yet they’re designed to fit a wider backside than mine, so they’d probably do more to keep a larger person in place during fast cornering than me.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD
The fully digital gauge cluster, this one in the regular UX 250h, is impressive.

Despite the F Sport’s steering wheel looking sportier and receiving textured leather for its lower two-thirds, both rims felt equally thick and padded and therefore good in my hands, with identically comfortable thumb to optimize control. Of course, I preferred the paddles attached to the F Sport’s wheel more than merely shifting via the console-mounted gear lever on more luxuriously appointed UX, but honestly, I drove these little SUVs conservatively throughout each two-week stint, other than for testing purposes, so I doubt I would end up missing the paddles all that often if this were my regular daily driver.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD
This is one very advanced infotainment display, filled with all the features you’ll ever need.

Instead of taking advantage of this perfect segue into the UX’ driving dynamics, I best finish off my tour of the cabin, particularly how the rear seating area measured up to my average-sized (for a teenager) five-foot-eight stature. For starters, I wouldn’t try stuffing three adults into the second row, unless they’re smaller folk, but there should be plenty of space for two in all directions, no matter their shape or size. They shouldn’t be thrown around if you decide to get enthusiastic behind the wheel either, thanks to good bolstering in the outboard positions. They’re comfortable too, with decent lower back support, plus a wide armrest filled with cupholders folds down at centre to improve things more. Two USB charging ports can be found on the backside of the front console, just below a set of HVAC vents, but that’s it for rear seat luxuries.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD F Sport
All UX trims utilize Toyota’s continuously variable transmission, but the F Sport gets a set of steering wheel paddles for more driver engagement.

As far as touchy-feely surfaces go, the entire dash-top is made from a pliable composite and includes a wonderfully upscale stitched and leather-wrapped section that visually flows all the way from the left side of the gauge cluster, under the centre display, to right side of the dash. This is joined by a padded section just below, ahead of the front passenger, which perfectly matches the back half of the door uppers and inserts. The front portion of those door uppers are finished in the same premium composite as the front dash section, which Lexus also finished the edges of the centre console in a really soft, plush leatherette to protect the inside knees of larger occupants from chafing. Other niceties include cloth-wrapped A pillars and touch-sensitive LED overhead lamps, while all of the switchgear was made from a high-grade dense plastic, with tight fitment and good damping. I was surprised, however, to learn that the rear door uppers were finished in hard plastic, which just isn’t good enough for this class, plus rear seat heaters aren’t available either.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD
Lexus’ Remote Touch Interface 2.0, a trackpad, was a step in the right direction for its infotainment controller.

The cargo compartment is luxurious enough too, with a nice quality of carpeting in all the expected places, plus chromed tie-down hooks at each corner, but Lexus didn’t go so far to add stainless steel sill plates. They did upgrade the 2021 UX 250h’s cargo floor with an adjustable section, however, which adds 141 litres (5 cu ft) to its dedicated volume, increasing from 481 (17) to 623 litres (22 cu ft). When folding the 60/40-split rear seats down, available stowage space increases to 1,231 litres (43.5 cu ft), but this brings up one of my lone complaints, the lack of a centre pass-through or even better 40/20/40 rear seat configuration.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD F Sport
The F Sport package certainly ups the appearance of performance, but keep in mind you can get black upholster if red isn’t your thing.

I should also mention that all UX trims now come standard with blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert as part of the Lexus Safety System 2.0 for 2021, which also includes the brand’s Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection and Bicycle Detection, Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist and Road Edge Detection, Lane Tracing Assist (LTA), All-Speed Range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, and Automatic High Beam assisted headlamps.

Even before being upgraded, the 2020 UX received a five-star rating from the U.S. NHTSA (there was no info for the 2021 model), but the IIHS gave it Top Safety Pick status, with best-possible “G” (for good) ratings in all categories except for the headlights that received a worst-possible “P” (for poor) result due to excessive glare when using the low beams around sharp corners, plus only fair nighttime visibility scores in both sharp and gradual corners. I certainly didn’t notice any negatives after dark, but I’m not about to argue with America’s Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The only utility in this class to earn higher Top Safety Pick Plus status was Volvo’s XC40, while Buick’s Encore GX was the only competitor to match the UX, albeit with a mixture of “A” (for acceptable) and “M” (for Moderate) headlight and child seat LATCH results. All others didn’t receive either Top Safety Pick honour, so kudos to Lexus for being much better than average.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD
The seats from the Luxury package are more comfort-oriented, plus feature some elegant stitching on the bolsters (see the gallery above for a better look).

Straight-line performance and at-the-limit handling aren’t better than average, however, but ride quality, quietness and other types of refinements are near the top, which means Lexus has managed to give its smallest, entry-level model a level of driving comfort and poise that comes near to matching the larger compact NX. The 250h is the UX you’ll want to own if the traction benefits of all-wheel drive are important to you, incidentally, thanks to an electric motor driving the rear wheels that automatically adjusts the torque-split between both front and rear axles. This improves handling when accelerating and cornering, especially when driving on slippery roads, plus it makes the UX easier to get off the line. The base UX 200 utilizes a front-wheel drivetrain, by the way, so the hybrid is really the way to go for both performance and fuel economy.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD F Sport
The rear seating area is generously proportioned, especially for headroom.

Regarding the former, the base UX 200 slots a 169-horsepower 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine behind its gaping grille, while the 250h gets a net horsepower rating of 181. As noted earlier, a CVT transmits torque to the front axle, resulting in power delivery that’s smooth and linear, rather than aggressive. Then again, the aforementioned active sound control made the F Sport version sound more exciting, and Sport mode (standard across the line) elevated performance parameters, improving shift response, but all said, this is probably the type of SUV best left in Eco mode more often than not, because that’s how you’ll eke out its impressive 5.7 L/100 city, 6.2 highway and 6.0 combined fuel economy rating, which gives the hybrid a significant edge over the base UX’ 8.0 city, 6.3 highway and 7.2 combined results.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD
The 2021 UX 250h provides a bit more cargo space below a removable floorboard.

This efficiency makes the UX 250h easy to live with, but the little luxury SUV’s resale value might pad your wallet even more when it comes time to trade-in or sell. It was deemed best-in-class in the “Premium Subcompact Utility Vehicle” category of J.D. Power’s 2021 Canada ALG Residual Value Awards, while it also came out on top in the “Luxury Compact SUV/Crossover” segment of Vincentric’s Best Value in Canada Awards.

Also notable, the UX was the highest ranked “Small Premium SUV” in J.D. Power’s 2021 Initial Quality Study, and tied for runner-up in the same third-party analytical firm’s 2021 U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, while Lexus topped J.D. Power’s 2021 Vehicle Dependability Study, and is also the most reliable luxury brand according to Consumer Reports.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD F Sport
The UX is missing the utility of a centre pass-through.

If that’s not enough to interest you in a new UX, consider that Lexus least expensive model starts below the $40k threshold, at $38,450 (plus freight and fees), which is the mid-point in this class, once again if we include Buick and Mini as luxury brands. The Encore starts at just $24,998, which really doesn’t qualify it for premium status in base form, but the price rises to more than $35k when loaded up, while the Encore GX can easily be optioned past $40k. The Countryman, on the other hand, starts at $32,990 and can be upgraded to almost $60k, so it definitely qualifies as a luxury contender. In fact, a fully loaded UX 250h, which starts at $40,250, doesn’t even break $50k, at $40,090 (plus freight and fees), while Lexus was throwing in up to $1,000 in additional incentives at the time of writing, as per CarCostCanada’s 2021 Lexus UX Canada Prices page.

2021 Lexus UX 250h AWD F Sport
You’ll love the UX 250h’ fuel economy above all.

Important for 2022, Lexus will eliminate the base UX 200 trim, causing the base price to rise to $40,700, so we’ll need to see how this impacts sales. I’m guessing not too much, because it this FWD variant wouldn’t be getting the axe if it sold well. If you’d rather have the initial savings of the less expensive UX, however, you’ll need to act quickly, if any are still available.

Whether you go for a 2021 UX or a 2022, you’ll be getting a very comfortable, well-appointed and efficient subcompact luxury SUV. It’s got to be one of the easiest vehicles to drive in any class, and thanks to its diminutive dimensions it’s even easier to park. If you, your partner, or child is learning to drive, or if they simply feel uncomfortable wielding a big, heavy utility around the city, yet appreciate the outward visibility gained from a small SUV’s ride height, this little Lexus is a very good choice. Of course, the UX can be seen as a smart decision for all the other reasons outlined in this review too, therefore it’s easy to recommend.

Review and photos by Trevor Hofmann

About a decade into my automotive journalism career, and a bit more than 10 years ago, in 2010, there were a grand total of nine competitors in the compact-to-mid-size pickup truck segment. Jeep’s new…

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon Road and Trail Test

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
The fabulous looking new Jeep Gladiator is the latest entry into the burgeoning mid-size pickup truck segment.

About a decade into my automotive journalism career, and a bit more than 10 years ago, in 2010, there were a grand total of nine competitors in the compact-to-mid-size pickup truck segment. Jeep’s new Gladiator wasn’t part of the picture back then, but Chrysler Group LLC’s Dodge Dakota was, although due to a misguided DaimlerChrysler redesign that took it from one of the best-looking pickups in the class to one of the least appealing trucks ever, combined with a cheap, plasticky interior, it was struggling near the bottom of its category in sales and was phased out soon after.

Fast-forward to 2021 and there’s just six rivals competing in this category, including one from the newly-minted Dutch-formed Stellantis N.V. that, via its Jeep division, is once again back to making great looking trucks. Without purposely trying to tick off Toyota Tacoma fans, I think the new Gladiator is the most alluring pickup in the mid-size segment, but I can understand why this serious off-roader only finds a narrow niche of hardcore enthusiast buyers.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
While it looks like a Wrangler Unlimited from the front to its rear doors, it’s pure pickup truck from that point rearward.

It’s priced much higher than most of its rivals, after all, with a 2021 window sticker starting at $49,315 (plus freight and fees) before growing to $64,405 in top-line High Altitude trim. Incidentally, when configuring the same trim at CarCostCanada, which shows the starting price at $53,315, it comes out to an identical $64,405 when adding the requisite $9,295 CPOS PKG and $1,795 Customer Preferred Package 24N, while combining all of the most expensive options on either configurator will push the fully-loaded price well past $80k.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
Pulling memories of the old CJ-8 Scrambler from 1981–1986, the Gladiator utilizes a box and bed that’s completely separate from the interior.

Some of these extras include the $7,395 3.0-litre EcoDiesel V6, or $345 to $445 in exterior paint options, as well as thousands more in additional equipment if you so choose, such as $1,520 for dual tops including a black Sunrider soft top and body-colour Freedom Top 3-piece modular hardtop; $1,450 for an Advanced Safety package featuring Advanced Brake Assist, Forward Collision Warning Plus with Active Braking, and automatic high beams; a $995 Cargo Management Group with a Trail Rail system, including a 240-amp alternator (up front 220 amps), a 400-watt inverter, an 115-volt auxiliary power outlet on the outside, and lockable rear under-seat storage, a $525 Trailer Tow package with a class IV receiver, heavy-duty engine cooling, and trailer hitch zoom for the backup camera, plus more.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
The Gladiator’s grille openings are a bit wider than the Wranglers, important for cooling the engine when towing.

My $56,315 Rubicon trimmed tester sits in the middle from a pricing standpoint, and like the High Altitude can be had with the upgraded EcoDiesel, albeit adding this feature automatically ups the ante by $1,795 for an eight-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission that comes standard with the top-tier Gladiator. It’s the same price if replacing the standard six-speed manual attached to the as-tested gasoline-fed base 3.6-litre V6, while Jeep will also be happy to provide you with $995 worth of 17-inch polished black alloys, plus $295 for a set of 285/70 BSW M/T tires (although the standard All-Terrains should be just fine for most), not to mention $1,495 for Black or Dark Saddle/Black leather seat upholstery (with unique Rubicon and Utility Grid designs), etcetera.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
The Gladiator (and Wrangler) might look like a classic truck, but its LED headlamps a good sign that it’s completely up-to-date.

Of course, this premium price level puts the Gladiator out of reach for many pickup buyers, which up until recently (2019) could purchase a Nissan Frontier for just $24,598 (it’s no longer available in its current form, nor as a redesigned 2022 model, at least not yet) and only reached $39,498 in its priciest trim (before additional options), while the Chevrolet Colorado’s 2022 model-year pricing ranges from $27,948 to $48,348 before options, the 2022 GMC Canyon’s from $28,648 to $49,748, the 2021 Toyota Tacoma’s from $38,350 to $52,490, and finally the 2022 Honda Ridgeline’s from $45,535 to $54,235, which is probably a good reason why this unibody truck’s sales are at the lower end of the spectrum too.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
Rubicon trim includes these all-terrain tires, as well as other 4×4-specific features to make it more capable off-road.

There’s still no sign of a forthcoming Dakota (or 1000) from Dodge, er, Ram (the latter thanks to a separate Ram Truck Division spin-off in 2010), so the glory days of Chrysler group (or Ram) selling 12,000-plus units per year in this class, like the Dakota did in 2004, might be some ways off. As it is, Ram’s most affordable 1500 Classic starts at just over $37k in base Regular Cab two-door, 4×2 Tradesman trim (plus you can get more than $10,000 off of that price in discounts at the time of writing), which is about the same as a base Tacoma, and while it’s filling the same void Ford tried to with its F-150 and GM temporarily did with its Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, both rivals came scurrying back to the smaller, more affordable mid-size truck market so as not to lose out. Ford is even re-entering a re-emerging compact truck segment, it’s new Maverick soon going up against Hyundai’s Santa Cruz, so time will tell whether competitive brands take the bait, as clearly one size does not fit all.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
Unlike every other pickup truck available (other than the rare, used ’89–91 Dodge Dakota Sport Convertible, you can completely take the Gladiator’s roof off, or alternatively remove individual panels.

Back to sales, the Tacoma reigned supreme at the top of this segment with a grand total of 16,946 deliveries in 2020, which despite all the hardship last year was its best year ever. The combination of General Motors trucks came second with an 11,678-unit tally, the Colorado earning 6,648 new buyers and the Canyon totalng 5,030, although the Ranger is really the second-place brand at 10,840 units. The Gladiator’s respectable 4,481 sales total puts it fifth on the 2020 calendar year list, just ahead of the Ridgeline’s 3,369 deliveries, leaving the market dregs to the outgoing Frontier that only managed 1,355 sales.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
Our tester included an optional folding and/or removable cargo cover.

While last place is never good, at least Nissan had some mid-size pickup sales in 2020. As of Q2 this year, the Frontier found zero buyers, or more likely the Japanese brand’s dealers managed to sell the last remaining examples before the new year started. The new 2022 model should remedy this problem quickly when it arrives later this year, but it will nevertheless be attempting to win back once-loyal fans that have long given up on the brand due to the previous Frontier’s seemingly never-ending lifecycle.

At least the Tacoma looks to be on track with 7,349 deliveries over the first two quarters of 2021, while the two GM trucks are doing fairly well too, resulting in 6,239 sales over the same half-year period (split up into 3,295 for the Chevy Colorado and 2,944 for the GMC Canyon). As for Jeep, it sent a reasonable 2,075 Gladiators down Canadian roads (and trails) during Q1 and Q2 of this year, while the almost as pricey Ridgeline only managed 1,582 deliveries during the same six months, despite what appears to be shaping up to be a very strong year in the Canadian mid-size pickup truck sector, shown by 23,467 total sales so far (excluding any Q3 figures).

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
Here’s a better look at that retractable cargo cover rolled up.

It’ll need to be strong to surpass last year, however. The mid-size pickup segment sold a total of 48,669 units throughout 2020, which was not only surprising considering the tumultuous year we all experienced, but also when factoring in that the last time we saw numbers this high was back in the late aughts and early teens when Ford was blasting $15-20k-something Rangers out into the market by the bucketful (the retail on a base Ranger was $13,999 back in 2011, plus they offered zero-percent financing), and we had so many other players trying to keep up, Mazda even selling its B-Series variant, and Suzuki trying to purvey an equatorial version of GM’s trucks (I actually went to the U.S.-only launch of the 2006–2009 Mitsubishi Raider too, a Dakota based truck that never made sense to bring here… or there for that matter, evidenced by its scant four-year run).

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
The Gladiator’s five-foot box is a perfect fit for campers, ATVs and other types of outdoor gear.

The Gladiator is all Jeep, however, and not just in name, which in fact came from the 1962-1971 Gladiator that was made famous (to us older folks) in the TV series Daktari. Even more so than that original Gladiator, and therefore more similar to the 1986–1992 Comanche that was obviously derived from the 1984-1990 Cherokee, few will make the mistake of judging Jeep’s latest truck for evolving from anything other than a JL-series Wrangler. It’s an assumption that’s true of its powertrains, drivetrains, chassis and most everything else, despite plenty of body panels that differ.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
The Gladiator’s taillights pay tribute to the rectangular assemblies found on early CJ-4-to-present Wranglers, not to mention Scramblers.

Obviously, the box is unique, and suits the classic Jeep’s look perfectly, but some might not notice that the brand widened the front grille slats to better cool the engine when towing, the mid-size pickup capable of 3,469 kilos (7,650 lbs) on the hitch and 771 kg (1,700 lbs) on the bed, compared to the Wrangler Unlimited’s max trailer weight of 1,587 kg (3,500 lbs) and total payload of 453 kg (1,000 lbs). Throw a short-bed truck camper on the back of that, or even better, a carbon-fibre C-Class RV-style setup from GEO-Cab or EarthRoamer, not to mention a specially equipped off-road trailer from any number of suppliers, and the Gladiator will happily take you to your new home-away-from-home off the grid.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
It just wouldn’t be an off-road-ready Jeep without tow hooks.

Any of the Gladiator’s trims would do well for such purposes, as all are capable of getting you and your family just about anywhere. Of course, the aforementioned top trims, which also include the Mojave, are most suitable, my Rubicon-equipped version ideal for tackling all types of wilderness treks thanks to front- and rear-axle electric lockers (the wide heavy-duty axle up front from Dana) and an electronic disconnecting front sway-bar, not to mention Jeep’s Command-Trac part-time, shift-on-the-fly 4×4 system, a 43.4-degree approach angle, 20.3-degree breakover angle, and 26-degree departure angle, the only one (that I could find specs for) mostly better being the Mojave that’s good for 44.7, 20.9, and 25.5 degrees respectively.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
The Gladiator Rubicon doesn’t mess around when off-road… or maybe it does?

Both Gladiator trims compare well against the four-door Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon, by the way, with the latter achieving a slightly better 43.9-degree approach angle and 22.6-degree breakover angle, but then again, the SUV’s 37-degree departure angle is massively better, while the two-door Wrangler Rubicon manages a 44-degree approach angle, 27.8-degree breakover angle, and (once again) a 37-degree departure angle.

Of course, I went mud wrestling to find out how the Gladiator performed in its element first-hand, and it was easily up to the task in a local 4×4 hotspot (that’s sadly been closed off since). Of all the 4×4 pickups I’ve taken through this course, the Gladiator Rubicon was at least on par with Chevy’s Colorado ZR2 and felt easier to negotiate through the rougher sections than every stock Tacoma, while it’s much more capable than all others listed above. It climbed up and crawled down steep rock-strewn embankments without breaking a sweat, managed deep sand without a moment’s notice, and casually waded through deep puddles that actually came up over the hood (just like the ZR2), as if it was on a lazy Sunday stroll, finding grip everywhere, while the suspension actually remained comfortable.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
There’s little you can throw at this truck that it can’t overcome.

An available front camera system, dubbed TrailCam, allows visibility of obstacles in front and to the sides when off the beaten path, plus Jeep also provides an “Off-Road Pages” section within the Apps menu of the Gladiator’s Uconnect infotainment system that monitors vehicle status, such as ride height, pitch and roll (if equipped), transfer case settings, and the Selec-Terrain traction management mode. Both are really useful features, and wholly unique to Jeep.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
Despite its impressive capability, the Gladiator Rubicon never beats up its occupants, just the ground below.

The Gladiator’s 3,487-mm (137.3-in) wheelbase, which is 479 mm (18.8 in) longer than the Wrangler Unlimited’s and spans 1,027 additional mm (40.4 in) over the base Wrangler, didn’t pose a problem, at least where I was travelling, but probably would around some of the rock abutments I experienced when coaxing a Wrangler Unlimited down the Rubicon Trail, or winding that longer SUV through some of the massively treed forests I’ve negotiated locally on the West Coast, these even making the Unlimited more challenging to operate than the regular-wheelbase Wrangler. Still, as far as pickup trucks with useful beds go, the Gladiator is absolutely brilliant off-road.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
The Gladiator Rubicon might be all might and muscle on the outside, but inside it’s surprisingly refined.

Stuffed under its classic latched hood, Chryco’s 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 is plenty potent for everything I asked it to do, thanks to 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, but I’d sooner have the 3.0-litre EcoDiesel V6 for the sake of four-wheel twist, fuel economy, and therefore, the ability to go further into the bush without worrying about bringing along as many extra Gerry cans of fuel. Still, that decision might only make sense to diehard off-roaders, because the chance of paying off more than $7k worth of engine upgrades for savings of about 10 cents per litre at the pump and maybe 10 percent more range, will take many years of ownership and an odometer spinning well into six figures.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
The cabin features exposed exterior paint like its forebears, although the red on the dash is a metallic-finished composite.

I’ve tested the diesel in an absolutely wonderful near-full-load Wrangler Unlimited Sahara that I’ll be reviewing soon, and I must say I was impressed with its similar thrust of 260 horsepower, and much stronger 442 lb-ft of torque. The Gladiator is not available with the Wrangler’s base 2.0-litre turbo-four, however, which might make a suitable companion for those not needing to haul heavy loads, and could potentially get the price down to commoner levels. The engine makes more torque than the base V6 at 295 lb-ft, while its power is a bit stronger than the diesel at 270, but Jeep obviously felt the four-banger’s expected take-rate wouldn’t make for a good business case, so the Gladiator’s fuel economy option can’t truly be considered an economical choice from a financial perspective.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
We’re glad Jeep stayed with analogue gauges, because the Gladiator’s high-def 7.0-inch colour MID leaves little to be desired.

Jeep appears to be preparing a plug-in hybrid alternative for Gladiator’s engine bay, however, based on the Wrangler Unlimited’s new 4xe model, which will also make a difference at the pump thanks to an estimated 4.8 Le/100km combined city/highway in the SUV. That model represents a $6,900 bump over the equivalently-equipped V6-powered Wrangler Unlimited Sahara, mind you, which probably makes it a better long-term financial bet when compared to the diesel variant, if most of your driving occurs over short distances. This said, its non-electrified fuel economy, which is how you’d be driving it on a road trip due to full-EV range that’s merely 40 km, is 11.7 L/100km combined, which is only slightly better than the regular Wrangler Unlimited Sahara’s 12.2 L/100km combined rating.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
That’s one sophisticated looking centre stack. Fortunately it’s easy to figure out.

While we’re on the theme of fuel economy, the Gladiator’s base V6 is rated at 14.3 L/100km in the city, 10.4 on the highway and 12.6 combined when hooked up to its six-speed manual, or 13.7 city, 10.7 highway and 12.3 combined with its eight-speed automatic, while the diesel is good for a claimed 10.8 L/100 city, 8.5 highway and 9.8 combined.

The Gladiator’s smooth off-road suspension translates into decent on-pavement comfort too, at least for this class, but while its longer wheelbase means that it tracks better than a Wrangler on the highway, it needs more small steering adjustments than one of its less 4×4-oriented competitors when doing so. I suppose this is a small price to pay for its amazing off-road capability. Still, I found it enjoyable and relaxing at freeway speeds, stable and safe feeling through tighter curves, plus it’s a good size for city traffic.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
The Rubicon’s 7.0-inch centre touchscreen isn’t the market’s largest, but it’s an excellent system nonetheless.

Its cabin is an enjoyable place to while away the time as well, especially if you already like the Wrangler’s classic, retrospective take on interior design. It features body-colour surfaces in key areas, such as the inside door surrounds and above the head as part of the roll bar structure, while my Rubicon’s dash facing was covered in a metallic red composite, also used for the differential bias switch. Matching red stitching can be found throughout the cabin for a sporty look, the front seats even getting embroidered “RUBICON” branding on their backrests, albeit black was my tester’s dominant shade, with both rows covered in optional leather as noted earlier (base Rubicons receive premium cloth).

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
That’s a USB-C charger/connector, showing just how up-to-date the Gladiator is.

The Gladiator features all the same improvements in materials quality and design as the current Wrangler, which was last fully updated in 2018. This means my tester boasted a stitched leatherette dash-top, soft-touch, padded door uppers that continue right down to the tops of the even plusher armrests in one single piece, plus a comfortable centre armrest in leather.

All of the Gladiator’s switchgear is excellent, much of it rubberized with nice big, notchy rims that could easily be used with winter gloves, while Jeep even includes a flip-up lid on the centre stack exposing an auxiliary plug, a USB-A charging/connectivity port, as well as a more up-to-date USB-C port. The front seats and steering wheel rim are three-way heatable, to therapeutic levels no less, plus a large interface for the dual-zone automatic climate control system makes maintaining chosen temperatures easy.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
The 8-speed automatic is superb, and secondary shifter for the 4×4 system easy to operate.

In-car electronics include a 7.0-inch infotainment touchscreen between the two middle vents on the top of the centre stack, and while it’s slightly smaller than average (you’ll need to move up to top-line High Altitude trim to get the 8.4-inch display) the fully-featured Uconnect system comes with most everything an owner could want. Along with the aforementioned Off-Road Pages, my Rubicon’s featured an accurate, easy to use navigation system, fully redundant climate controls that provide nice, big pictographs for selecting ventilation preferences and even let you set the heatable steering wheel and seat warmers, while the audio page includes the usual AM/FM radio selections, plus satellite radio and Bluetooth streaming, all played through an eight-speaker stereo with good sound. You can adjust the backup and forward camera angles from the centre display too, plus the mirror dimmer, which is connected to one of the industry’s new higher-end classic-style frameless mirrors that runs flush to the edges.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
The driver’s seat isn’t powered, but it’s comfortable, supportive, and provides a good seating position.

Ahead of the driver is a clean, nicely organized primary instrument cluster with analogue gauges to each side of a large 7.0-inch, customizable, full-colour multi-information display, this doubling for the temperature and fuel gauges as well. It’s as close as it gets to a fully digital gauge cluster while remaining mostly analogue, something I don’t think the Gladiator (or Wrangler) needs, nor many of the two models’ fans probably want.

I have to say the driver’s seat was comfortable, necessary for a vehicle that will more than likely be used for overcoming big, bumpy obstacles, but adjustment is purely manual. Again, this wasn’t an issue for me, and makes sense for this type of truck, with even the loftily priced High Altitude receiving the same six-way manually adjustable driver’s seat (featuring seat height) with two-way manual lumbar support, plus just four-way adjustability for the front passenger.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
The rear seating area is roomy, plus the seats should be comfortable enough for most.

The rear seats are well designed for good comfort and support too, even for the lower back, plus plenty of leg, foot, elbow, shoulder, and headroom comes standard. A large, wide centre armrest can be folded down in the middle, incorporating the usual dual cupholders, although the bigger bottle holders on the backside of the front console do an even better job of holding drinks. Just above these is a three-prong household-style 115-volt power source, plus overtop this is a compact interface housing two USB-A and two USB-C charging ports. The side window switches hover just above, while two big air vents keep rear passengers warm or cool depending on the season. Additionally, an intricate pattern of webbing can be found on the backside of each front seat.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
The 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks drop forward for placing cargo on top.

The rear seats fold down to make a large, wide carpeted cargo shelf, and also flip upwards for taller items, the latter position revealing a handy storage box system with integrated dividers underneath.

Speaking of boxes, my tester had a covered bed, but it was easy to unlatch and roll forward out of the way. The inner tailgate, sidewalls and floor were nicely finished with a spray-in liner, which looked durable and therefore capable of lasting the test of time. The tailgate folds down easily, by the way, while I found the bed wasn’t too difficult to jump onto thanks to exposed bumpers with grippy surfaces. Of course, corner steps like those found on GM’s trucks would’ve been even more helpful, but that has more to do with my aging body than anything you may need to worry about (for now).

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
Lift the rear seat cushions up, and there’s now room for taller cargo.

As for problem areas, the proximity-sensing locks were a bit frustrating, and this wasn’t the first time I’ve had similar challenges with Chrysler group vehicles. It simply wouldn’t lock with the exterior door handle button every time I tried, and therefore needed multiple pressings before locking. I’m guessing this isn’t a common issue with others, or the Gladiator wouldn’t be getting such major praise from owners in J.D. Power’s most recent 2021 Initial Quality Study (IQS), which ranked it number one in their “Midsize Pickup” category. The entire Jeep division managed to finish seventh amongst mainstream volume brands in that study too, which is a significant improvement over previous years, but get this, the Ram truck brand was number one overall, while Dodge was second. The folks at Auburn Hills (and Windsor) have obviously been working hard to address past problems, so kudos to them for this impressive result.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
Jeep provides handy divided storage boxes below the rear seats.

There’s so much more I could say about the Gladiator, but I’ve got to leave something for you to discover. It really is an impressive mid-size pickup truck, and like all Jeeps, a very capable 4×4, plus it’s hardly short on style, features and refinement, from the outside in. As noted earlier, it won’t be as easy on your pocketbook as some of its rivals, both initially at purchase and at the pump, but this should pay off when it comes time to sell, or at least that’s the case with the Wrangler that currently sits on top of its “Compact SUV” category in the latest Canadian Black Book 2020 Best Retained Value Awards, as well as the Vincentric Best Value in Canada Awards for 2021.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
The V6 is a good match for this truck, but we’d prefer the diesel.

As far as getting a deal goes, CarCostCanada is reporting up to $2,684 in additional incentives on new 2021 Gladiator models, while their average member savings were $2,000 at the time of writing. That’s the most aggressive incentives program available to mid-size truck buyers right now, so well worth checking out. Be sure to learn exactly how CarCostCanada’s affordable membership works as well, including how dealer invoice pricing can help you save thousands when purchasing any new vehicle, plus remember to download their free app from the Google Play Store or Apple Store, so you can have all of their valuable information with you exactly when you need it.

Review and photos by Trevor Hofmann

If you want to know where the future lies in the automotive industry, just look where automakers are putting their money. Obviously, major investment is going into electric and other alternative fuels…

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate Road Test

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
The Venue is ideal for those who love cute, fuel-efficient, practical little hatchbacks, but want SUV style along with a taller driving position.

If you want to know where the future lies in the automotive industry, just look where automakers are putting their money. Obviously, major investment is going into electric and other alternative fuels with minimal returns so far, but amongst more conventionally-powered segments, the subcompact crossover SUV category is growing faster than any other.

In fact, the subcompact SUV segment has more than tripled from just eight competitors in 2010 to a shocking 25 this year, while the subcompact car category has simultaneously contracted from nine rivals in 2010, and an even more significant total of 18 in 2014 (mostly due to boat loads of fuel-friendly imported city cars taking a stab at our market before mostly saying sayonara, auf wiedersehen, and arrivederci, not to mention annyeong for the South Korean-sourced Chevy Spark EV), to just six now, one of which (Chevy’s Bolt EV) is purely electric. The result is this affordable SUV class becoming the majority of brands’ market entry point; hence the importance automakers are placing on these smallest of small SUVs.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
The Venue’s 2,520-mm wheelbase and 4,040-mm overall length makes it second shortest in its micro-SUV class.

Speaking of size, the segment has not only grown in numbers, but also in diversity. So far, eight brands offer two or more models within this category, with Kia providing three. Even Buick, General Motors’ near-luxury division, which only has four models to its name, includes two in this segment alone, a tally that grows 2.5 times under GM’s umbrella when factoring in Chevy’s threesome (they added the all-electric Bolt EUV this year).

Similar to how the mid-size SUV segment is divided into two- and three-row alternatives, subcompact SUVs can be had as micro-sized city car replacements or slightly larger alternatives to yesteryear’s subcompact hatchbacks. A good example of the latter is Honda’s HR-V, which was formed off the back of the now defunct Fit. Similarly, Hyundai’s class-leading Kona (which gets updated for 2022) rides on an all-new B-SUV platform only shared with Kia’s Seltos, but the Venue being reviewed here was built on the back of the old Accent and current Rio 5 (kind of… keep reading).

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
Its tall stance makes for a roomy cabin with decent cargo space.

In an attempt to add some clarity to this vast market segment, the current crop of SUVs bridging the gap between “micro-utes” (as I like to call them) and conventional compacts, like Toyota’s RAV4, Honda’s CR-V and Hyundai’s Tucson, include (sorted by popularity) the just-noted Kona, Seltos, and HR-V, plus the Subaru Crosstrek, Nissan Qashqai, Mazda CX-30, Jeep Compass, Buick Encore GX, Mitsubishi RVR, Kia Soul, Soul EV, Niro, Niro Plug-in Hybrid, and Niro EV, Chevrolet Trailblazer, Chevrolet Bolt EUV, VW Taos, and upcoming Toyota Corolla Cross.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
The Venue Ultimate comes with standard LED driving lights as well as auto on/off LED headlamps with cornering capability.

The Venue, on the other hand, which is one of the smaller micro-utes available, is based on the Hyundai-Kia K2 platform that, in regular “K” instead of “K2” form, previously underpinned Accent as noted a moment ago. Yes, I know the Accent was a full subcompact and not a city car, but it’s related to the K1 platform used for smaller hatchbacks not sold here. Either way, it’s tiny for an SUV, and follows a trend initiated by the aforementioned Encore and Trax, which have done very well over the past decade, not to mention others that have long departed, such as Nissan’s Juke and Cube, and the Scion xB (a slightly larger and much more conventional looking second-gen Juke remains available in other markets).

In today’s entry-level crossover SUV segment, the Venue is joined by the Nissan Kicks, Toyota C-HR, Mazda CX-3, Ford EcoSport, Mini Countryman, Jeep Renegade, and Fiat 500X, plus the Encore and Trax, although Mazda will buck the downsizing trend by dropping its CX-3 after the 2021 model year, and therefore solely rely on its larger CX-30 for pulling in new buyers.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
A brighter grille insert and these 17-inch alloy wheels come standard with the Venue Ultimate.

To be fair to Mazda, they’re a smaller independent automaker with nowhere near the deep pockets of Hyundai, so a complete redesign of the smaller utility may not have been in the cards due to budgetary constraints. Hyundai is therefore more capable of gaining market share in a sub-segment that probably won’t achieve the same level of sales as its larger subcompact, the Kona, which is currently the overall subcompact sales leader.

Its lead is so significant, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine any rival catching up. Maybe a redesigned Qashqai could close the gap, being that Nissan’s oddly named utility previously owned top-spot in the subcompact category, but now the Kona outsells the Qashqai by almost three to one, with 31,733 deliveries in 2020 compared to just 11,074. The difference has shrunk to about 2.5 to one over the first six months of 2021, however, with 15,715 Konas down Canadian roads compared to 6,384 Qashqais, but it’s still a massive lead.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
All trims above the base model receive roof rails.

The Venue is newer to the market than its key Kicks rival, so it still has some catching up to do. Last year it found 10,740 entry-level SUV buyers compared to 14,149 for the Kicks, the latter being number one in the smaller micro-ute group, yet the Venue’s success was still impressive for its first full year on the job, not to mention the fact that Hyundai didn’t have anything to sell into the subcompact SUV class before the Kona that arrived partway through 2018, compared to Nissan that’s been selling Cubes and Jukes in Canada since 2009 and 2010 respectively, many of these models’ customers naturally gravitating to the Qashqai and Kicks.

In case you’re wondering where the Venue stacks up in sales compared to all the others it directly competes against, its near 11k 2020 tally landed it in second place behind the Kicks, followed by the C-HR with 7,135 deliveries last year, the Encore with 6,650, CX-3 with 6,445, Trax with 3,887, Countryman with 1,637, Renegade with 362, and 500X with 35 (that’s not a typo).

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
The cool “Z” pattern on the Venue’s taillights comes standard.

As of Q2 2021’s close, the Venue was still in second, although the refreshed Kicks’ numbers grew to 9,628 units compared to just 2,021 for the littlest Hyundai (that’s not a typo either), with the C-HR only managing 1,553 deliveries, the Encore a mere 534, which therefore caused it to be jumped by the CX-3’s 1,510 unit-sales and Trax’ 891, while Mini’s SUV found just 310 new owners (it is more of a luxury ute, however, and therefore much higher in price), the smallest Jeep coaxed in an insignificant 15, and the spicy Italian an infinitesimal 6.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
The tall ride height and high roof makes it easy to access the Venue’s cabin.

So why is the Venue so successful in a market segment it only just entered in the latter months of 2019? It’s cute, well-appointed, comfortable, roomy for its outward dimensions, drives well, and is easy on fuel, while, based on Hyundai’s overall brand reliability, it should also be dependable. Hyundai ranked third (or fourth) amongst mainstream volume brands in the latest J.D. Power and Associates 2021 Vehicle Dependability Study (whether or not we choose to include Buick in the mainstream sector or premium), while its sister company, Kia, placed first.

Toyota, incidentally, was second, while Hyundai’s Tucson tied for runner-up in the same study’s “Small SUV” category, beaten by Kia’s Sportage, which was basically the same vehicle under the skin before its recent redesign (and will be once again after Kia updates the Sportage for 2023). Now that these two utilities have grown in size to match the RAV4, CR-V and Nissan Rogue, I expect them to compete in the “Compact SUV” class, leaving room for the Venue, Kicks and others to vie for the Small SUV award.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
Better than expected materials quality was a welcome surprise, while the Venue Ultimate’s features are impressive.

Kudos in mind, the Kona Electric was top of its “Electric/Plug-In Hybrid SUV/Crossover” class in the consumer section of Vincentric’s 2021 Best Value in Canada Awards, while the most recent J.D. Power 2021 Canada ALG Residual Value Awards placed the conventionally-powered Kona highest in its “Micro Utility Vehicle” category. Hyundai won other awards in different categories, but for the sake of relevance I thought it best to leave such reporting to its small SUV sector.

It will be interesting to see how the Venue will fare, or for that matter if those at the helm of the various third-party analytical firms choose to further divide their SUV categories in order to allow a more even playing field for this new class of smaller, less expensive utility. Let’s see what happens.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
The driving environment is well laid out for comfort and control, while the leather-wrapped steering wheel has a nice, sporty feel.

If I were on one of these organizations’ panels, I’m pretty sure of how I’d vote after spending a week with the Venue. Or at least I was sure after a week behind its wheel, when I made it clear in my notes by saying, “Hyundai has created another hit! The Venue is my new favourite sub-subcompact SUV!” Just the same, while writing this review now, I’ve been driving a refreshed 2021 Kicks SR for the better part of a week, which has been very impressive as well, so I should probably temper my enthusiasm for the Venue, just a bit.

From a styling perspective, the Venue can only be described as cute. Much the same could’ve been said about the Kicks before its update, but Nissan gave the refreshed 2021 model a larger, bolder new grille and sleeker headlamps, resulting in a micro-SUV that just may now appeal to more everyday guys. Despite having a fairly large grille of its own, the Venue presents a softer, kinder look, complete with a tiny set of narrow driving lights/turn signals up on top of the front fenders (à la Jeep Cherokee in its current fifth-generation, albeit pre-mid-cycle makeover), plus larger headlamps underneath, which are surrounded by cool circular LED signature lighting, and finally a classy light satin-grey apron underscoring everything.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
The gauge cluster is mostly analogue, but easy to read and smartly organized, although the monochromatic multi-info display at centre was a bit disappointing for a top-line model.

The latter stays the same across the Venue’s four-trim range, but the otherwise halogen driving lights and automatic on/off headlamps become LEDs when adding the Urban Edition Package to Trend trim, or when upgrading to top-line as-tested Ultimate trim; the headlights being bifunctional and even including adaptive cornering capability. My tester also had its normally blackened grille insert swapped out for a bright metal one, standard with Ultimate trim, while its sharp looking 17-inch alloys, shod with 205/55R17 all-season tires, are shared with the just-noted Trend.

The $500 Urban Edition Package will be a must-have for artistic types that want splashes of exclusive two-tone colour decorating key exterior components, such as the unique lower front and rear fascias, mirror caps, rocker panel garnish, and roof, some of these colours adding a bit more to the bottom line, but well worth it for those who want it. This said, Ultimate trim targets a more conservative crowd that clearly want to keep things classy, my tester finished in $200 Fiery Red exterior paint, which is clearly the most eye-catching colour from a somewhat more subdued palette of blues and shades.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
Most should be right at home with the Venue’s centre stack.

Despite the Urban Edition Package making the Venue look sportier, it’s devoid of the Ultimate’s rear disc brakes, utilizing the base model’s rear drums instead. Both upper trims receive great looking premium cloth upholstery with leatherette bolsters inside, however, with the Ultimate also getting an exclusive driver’s sliding armrest with a hidden storage box below.

The gauges are analogue, expected in this class, with a large monochromatic display at centre. While black and white displays might’ve been ok a number of years ago, I found this multi-information display a bit disappointing, considering I was driving a top-line model. Ultimate trim also gets a clearer high-definition 8.0-inch centre touchscreen, which looked fabulous, but unusually, this upgrade includes a downgrade from wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration to a less convenient wired system.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
The Venue Ultimate’s upgraded high-resolution infotainment touchscreen is a real treat.

It’s the only trim to get navigation, however, not that it’s as necessary after integrating your smartphone, but HD and satellite radio upgrades are always a big bonus to this music buff, and while it sounds quite good for the class, it doesn’t include the cool driver’s seat headrest-mounted speakers found in the top-tier Kicks. Many will appreciate Hyundai’s Bluelink smartphone connectivity service, mind you, which is available in Ultimate trim, while I would never complain about the extra front USB-A port found in Trend trims and above either.

I should mention the centre infotainment system’s processor is extremely fast when reacting to inputs. For instance, you can move the map around with your finger in real-time without any delay or image degradation. I even flicked it around extremely fast for testing purposes, and it never missed a beat.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
The Venue’s backup camera fills the entire 8.0-inch display and provides moving guidelines, but it pales in comparison to the top-line Nissan Kicks’ split-screen overhead parking camera.

What is missing? Most 2021 Nissan Kicks trims swap out one of the USB-A ports for a USB-C, not available in the Venue, while my top-tier Kicks SR Premium tester included a split-screen backup/overhead parking camera within its 8.0-inch display, instead of a simpler rear-view only setup. On the Venue’s side, the base Kicks only comes with a 7.0-inch centre display, one inch smaller than Hyundai’s entry-level monitor. This said, neither offer a wireless charging pad, which is something that would benefit all owners no matter the trim level.

Both top-level micro-SUVs include single-zone automatic climate control, the Venue’s laid out in an attractive and space-efficient three-dial design including buttons and digital readouts integrated within, although the Venue provides three-way heatable front seats in all trims, which heat up to near therapeutic levels, while the Kicks makes buyers move up to its second-rung SV trim for warmers that don’t get quite as hot. Heated steering wheels that warm up all the way around the rim are also on the menu for both micro-crossovers, with each requiring a buyer to move up one notch in their respective trim hierarchies.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
The single-zone automatic climate control system is a nice upgrade and easy to operate, while Hyundai provides plenty of USB-A ports, but no USB-C port like the Nissan Kicks.

Trims in mind, the Venue is available in four, including Essential, Preferred, Trend and Ultimate, priced at $17,599, $21,599, $22,699, and $24,999 (plus freight and fees) respectively. Hyundai is currently offering the 2021 model with up to $1,500 in additional incentives according to CarCostCanada, while CarCostCanada members were saving an average of $1,250 at the time of writing. Find out how the CarCostCanada system works, and be sure to download their free app from the Google Play Store or the Apple Store, so you can access all of their important info when you need it most, some of which includes factory financing/leasing rates, rebates, and dealer invoice pricing that can save thousands upon purchasing any new vehicle.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
The Venue’s advanced iVT transmission includes eight stepped “gears” and a Sport mode that’s really engaging, while getting very close to the fuel economy of the Kicks’ less enjoyable CVT.

The only model available with a six-speed manual is base Essential trim, with all others making Hyundai’s Smartstream iVT standard. iVT stands for Intelligent Variable Transmission, incidentally, which when translated into simple English means it’s a chain belt-based continuously variable transmission that’s been designed to reproduce the shift pattern of a manual transmission in order to provide a more natural feel, plus respond quicker to driver input, while still delivering better efficiency than a regular automatic gearbox. What’s more, the iVT’s chain belt utilizes the belt’s tension in order to adjust the pulley’s diameter, therefore eliminating belt slippage and reducing drag. The chain belt is also maintenance-free, thus adding to transmission lifespan, which should improve long-term reliability.

It certainly doesn’t feel like a regular continuously variable transmission (CVT), which is what you’d be getting in the Kicks (not that I felt particularly put out by Nissan’s gearless box), with the Venue’s providing snappier shifts via eight “steps” that make it worthy of steering wheel-mounted paddles, let alone its gear lever-actuated manual mode.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
The seats are comfortable and supportive, while providing a good driving position and really attractive upholstery pattern.

Additionally, the Venue’s Sport mode really made a difference when pushing hard, impacting engine response and allowing slightly higher revs between shifts, plus it affects shift speed as well, with the result being a more entertaining Sport mode than found in the Kicks, but then again, it’s not as dramatic as the Mazda CX-3’s (an SUV that’s being discontinued in North America, by the way).

So set, the Venue sprinted away from standstill at a fairly quick pace, or at least quicker than expected from a 1.6-litre four-cylinder that only makes 121 horsepower and 113 lb-ft of torque. That efficient autobox, which needs to take some credit for the Venue’s impressive 7.9 L/100km city, 7.0 highway and 7.5 combined fuel economy with the iVT autobox or 8.6, 6.8 and 7.8 respectively with the manual (the CVT-only Kicks is rated slightly better at 7.7 L/100km city, 6.6 highway and 7.2 combined), has something to do with the engine’s power delivery, no doubt, but take note that despite its SUV styling the Venue is not available with all-wheel drive.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
The overhead console is simple, but it’s well organized and includes controls for safety alerts and the powered sunroof.

Just like the Kicks the Venue is front-drive only, notable from the initial front-wheel spin experienced at full throttle from a standing start, which I might add was quickly followed by traction control intervention and the just-noted straight-line performance. It therefore had no trouble getting ahead of most stop light dawdlers, and was acceptably fast for those moments when I wanted to dart in and out of congested city traffic.

Steering is direct enough, and it’s turning circle very small, allowing dreamy manoeuvrability in parking lots and laneways. Get it on a winding back road and the Venue performs quite well too, albeit within reason. It’s no Mini Countryman after all, and at about half the price when loaded with features, we shouldn’t expect it to be.

On the highway, however, it was a complete joy. I bet you didn’t expect me to say that, because top-speed isn’t anything to write home about. It maintains illegal highway speeds easily, however, so no issue there (unless you’re not paying attention and get caught), but more importantly, the little Hyundai offers great tracking ability and a wonderfully smooth ride for such a short wheelbase.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
A sunroof is always a welcome addition.

As noted earlier, the Venue is one of the truest of micro-SUVs, with its 2,520-millimetre span from front to rear axles even short for the subcompact class. It’s actually second smallest, behind Ford’s EcoSport, with a wheelbase of 2,519 mm, while even the rather small interior of Toyota’s C-HR rides on a much lengthier wheelbase measuring 2,640 mm.

Fortunately, the comparatively upright Venue feels larger inside than its external dimensions suggest. To clarify, it measures 4,040 mm from nose to tail, 1,770 mm from side-to-side, and 1,565 mm tall (or 1,590 mm with roof rails), while its front and rear track stretches 1,555 and 1565 mm respectively, which once again makes it shorter than anything else in the class save the EcoSport, but its 1,770-mm of width makes it exactly the same as the H-RV from side-to-side, while wider than the CX-3, the base Trax, and once again the EcoSport. Vertically, however, its 1,590-mm height makes it nowhere near as tall as the 1,650-mm high EcoSport or many of its other rivals, but it’s still taller than the CX-3, C-HR, and Kona, making its headroom quite expansive.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
Rear seat comfort and roominess is very good for the class, but like the subcompact cars that came before, amenities are nominal.

The Venue’s cargo capacity is good at 902 litres when the 60/40-split rear seatbacks are folded flat, while dedicated luggage space is 528 litres, just 16 litres short of the Kona’s 544 litres behind the rear seats. The Kicks offers 915 litres of maximum cargo space, incidentally, but the gain is so nominal it’s more or less a wash, yet its dedicated storage volume measures 716 litres, which is a significant bonus in this tiny SUV class.

Back up front, the driving position is excellent, with the tilt and telescopic steering column’s rake and reach capable of being moved far enough rearward to provide my long-legged, short-torso frame ample comfort and control over the lovely leather-clad steering wheel, which allowed for a relaxed seatback while a wrist could easily hang over the top of the steering wheel rim; the ideal check for driver seat positioning. I also found plenty of space from side-to-side, although folks used to a larger utility might find themselves sitting a bit closer to their front passenger than in compact or mid-size SUVs.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
The Venue’s 528 litres of dedicated cargo space is almost as generous as the Kona’s 544, but the Kicks has them both beat with 716 litres.

The rear passenger compartment is spacious and the seats comfortable too, plus despite being a bit tight for three adults there’s a seatbelt in the middle for a third passenger, better left for smaller folk or children. There’s no foldable centre armrest, which is common for this class, but it would’ve been a nice addition. Likewise, there aren’t a lot of rear-seat creature comforts, unusual for a top-line Hyundai, but once again very normal for an entry-level vehicle. This means there are no rear seat warmers, no rear air vents, and not even a port to plug in and charge a personal device. The Kicks, on the other hand, provides two USB-A chargers on the backside of the front centre console.

It’s a nicely finished, relatively refined cabin too, but don’t expect a lot of soft-touch surfaces. The dash-top is made from a nicely textured composite, but it’s hard, and each door upper is hard-shell plastic as well. Even the door inserts offer no cushioning, the only area to get some slightly padded leatherette, stitched with contrasting thread no less, are the door armrests.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
The Venue includes 60/40-split rear seatbacks for passenger/cargo convenience.

This, unfortunately for Hyundai, is a big downgrade from the latest Kicks SR Premium that pampers with pliable, padded, premium-level pleather, also with contrast-stitching, from the very left to the very right of the dash facing, plus the centre armrest, instead of being a firm yet pliable rubber in the case of the Venue, is just as comfortable as the cushy door armrests that flow down in one single piece from the equally comforting door inserts. What’s more, Nissan even wraps each side of the lower front console in stitched, padded leatherette, protecting the inside knees from chafing while looking downright sensational at the same time, so Hyundai might want to give its ultimate Venue a bit more luxe when it comes up for a refresh.

The Venue’s aforementioned leather-wrapped steering wheel is very nice, however, but once again I think you’ll be more impressed by the top-line Kick’s more padded and sportier shaped flat-bottom leather-clad rim, while both models’ leather-enhanced shift knobs will probably be more of a personal taste issue—although the leatherette boot shrouding the Venue’s gear lever wears a more pronounced contrast stitching that adds a bit more style.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
Lowering the Venue’s seatbacks opens its cargo capacity up to 902 litres, which is nearly on par with the Kicks.

The Venue’s fabric seats are really attractive, and finished in leatherette with light grey stitching and similarly coloured piping on the bolsters. The textured inserts feature a swoopy light grey “J” pattern (or reverse-J on the driver’s side) that matches a similar black-stitched pattern on the lower cushions, which I have to say is not only really nice, but totally unique and much more creative than most automakers offer. Hyundai even repeats the pattern on the back seats, something not always seen in the lower classes.

Some other details include metallic white trim around the vent bezels and under the tablet-style infotainment touchscreen, although the latter looks more like a free Alcatel giveaway tablet from five years ago than anything from Samsung or Apple. The shifter surround gets the same metallic white treatment, while the door handles are in a dark grey metallic finish. All of the switchgear is impressive for the class too, featuring nice dense composites, extremely tight fitment, and high-quality damping. I have to say, whoever came up with this interior design should get some sort of award, at least from Hyundai, because it’s really well done.

2021 Hyundai Venue Ultimate
The Venue’s 122-hp four-cylinder isn’t a powerhouse, but it’s enough to provide spirited acceleration, and more importantly its fuel economy is excellent.

Not surprisingly these days, but still a treat in such a small, inexpensive vehicle, my Venue came well-stocked with advanced driver assistive systems in a suite dubbed Hyundai SmartSense. Of course, this list includes Forward Collision-Avoidance Assist with Pedestrian Detection (a.k.a. automatic emergency braking), plus Blind-Spot Collision Warning, Lane Keeping Assist (that’s so good it can nearly drive itself on the highway, and even on city streets, almost like the Hyundai Driving Assist semi-autonomous feature), Lane Change Assist, Rear Cross-Traffic Collision Warning, and Driver Attention Warning, while automatic High Beam Assist adds convenience.

A feature I really like is a subtle audible notification that lets you know when the car in front leaves after being stationary at a stoplight. This is useful if you happen to be looking down to change the radio station, setting some other function in the infotainment system, or operating the HVAC system, or for that matter talking to someone in the car.

It’s these types of thoughtful features that raise Hyundai above most peers, and have made it a success story in Canada. The Venue is now the most affordable way to get into the Korean brand when buying new (albeit only a few hundred less than the base Elantra), and the least expensive crossover SUV in the country, by a long shot. Factor in their five-year or 100,000 km comprehensive warranty, and this cute little utility becomes difficult to argue against.

Review and photos by Trevor Hofmann

I want you to feel good about being Canadian for a moment. No, it’s not for anything our various governments are doing, not that I’ll allow this review to get political. It’s not out of some false…

2021 Mercedes-AMG A 35 4Matic Sedan and Hatch Road Test

2021 Mercedes-AMG A-35 Hatch
The AMG A 35 Sedan and Hatch (shown) look identical from the front.

I want you to feel good about being Canadian for a moment. No, it’s not for anything our various governments are doing, not that I’ll allow this review to get political. It’s not out of some false sense of superiority over our American neighbours either, but more so because of something Mercedes-Benz Canada is doing with its entry-level A-Class.

First off, M-B made the Hatch body style available in Canada from the get-go, a model I previously reviewed in A 250 trim and am once again doing now in AMG-tuned A 35 guise, while neither has been offered to our friends in the U.S. of A. It’s the slightly smaller, fractionally lighter and therefore arguably sportier version of this Mercedes subcompact luxury twosome (threesome if you include the CLA), not to mention the measurably more practical variant as well, so it fits nicely into our pragmatic market.

2021 Mercedes-AMG A-35 Sedan
Whether or not you choose sedan or hatchback, will come down to personal style and practicality.

Mercedes’ offers the classy little A-Class Sedan in our small luxury car sector too, available in as-reviewed A 220 trim as well as a four-door A 35 variant. For 2022, however, insult gets added to American injury, in that MBUSA will be discontinuing its A 35 Sedan (as well as the AMG CLA 35) from the U.S. lineup altogether (plus plenty of other AMG models), leaving only the A 220 (and CLA 250) to those wanting a subcompact three-pointed-star car.

So therefore, let yourself feel good, Canadian sport compact fans! Mercedes has your back in more ways than one, and believe me, either one of these AMG-tuned A 35 4Matic models is worthy of your attention. I spent one thoroughly enjoyable week with each, starting with the A 35 Hatch and finishing off with an A 35 Sedan. The size difference referred to earlier is noticeable, incidentally, especially while parking, due to 112 mm (4.4 in) less length from nose to tail, while the hatchback’s 17 fewer kilograms (38 less lbs) makes it a smidge quicker off the line and a tiny bit more flickable through the curves.

2021 Mercedes-AMG A-35 Hatch
Which body style do you like better?

In total, the A 35 Hatch measures 4,445 mm (175.0 in) compared to the Sedan’s 4,557 mm (179.4 in), while both share a 2,728-mm (107.4-in) wheelbase. This makes the A 35 Sedan third longest in the compact B segment, behind the CLA 35/45 that’s 137 mm (5.4 in) shorter. It also has the second longest wheelbase in the class, but at just 1,791 mm (70.5 in) wide (not including its mirrors), only two competitors are narrower, including the soon-to-be discontinued BMW i3 BEV, and the comparatively tiny Mini Cooper 3-Door hatchback, although the latter model hardly qualifies for luxury brand status in its entry-level trim. To finish off the basic measurements, both A 35 Sedan and Hatch are 1,432 mm (56.4 in) tall.

2021 Mercedes-AMG A-35 Sedan
The performance devil is in the A 35’s details.

That last figure makes the A 35 a bit taller than the category average, which aids head space, while the cars’ previously noted wheelbase provides good legroom all-round, but those seeking practicality will want the Hatch, as its 368-litre (13.0 cu-ft) cargo area is 125 litres (4.4 cu-ft) greater than the Sedan’s 243-litre (8.6 cu-ft) trunk. That’s also the smallest boot in the subcompact luxury car class, and when compared to the trunk in BMW’s 2 Series Gran Coupe, which can handle up to 430 litres (15.2 cu-ft) of gear, it’s underwhelming to say the least. Then again, if you only need to cram in a single golf bag it’ll probably do, although when factoring in that a person purchasing an A 35 Hatch won’t be seen clumsily stuffing their trolley cart into the A 35 Sedan’s leather- and psuede-lined rear passenger compartment, the truncated A-Class might be the more elegant of the two.

2021 Mercedes-AMG A-35 Sedan
The A 35’s cabin is the subcompact segment’s most impressive, at least visually.

On that note, each and every car in the A’s luxury B-segment comes standard with an impressively finished interior, particularly when talking materials quality plus overall fit and finish, although top-tier As, which include these two AMG variants, provide a level of eye-popping wow-factor that nothing in this premium category can match. Of course, Mercedes’ massive driver display cum centre touchscreen is a serious attention getter, not only for its sizeable near digital overload, but more so for the colourful, artful graphics infused within. It’s a joy to look at and ultra-easy to use, plus comes packed full of pretty well every feature you could ever want.

2021 Mercedes-AMG A-35 Sedan
Nothing comes close to the A 35’s electronic interfaces.

Equally dazzling are the numerous buttons, knobs, toggles and switches found throughout the cabin, most made from satin-finish aluminum or something that looks and feels similar, while the jet engine-inspired vents across the instrument panel are downright gorgeous. As for softer surfaces, Mercedes finishes the majority of touchpoints with high-quality pliable synthetics, as well as padded leather or suede-like micro-fibre, with harder composites only used for panels below the waist, which is also the case for most others in this class.

The engine start/stop button is found next to three of the just-noted HVAC vents, with a quick press reminding there’s even more to get excited about ahead of the firewall. Applying right foot to throttle initializes a sensational assortment of mechanical sounds, or at least more than I was expecting from a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder. A total of 302 horsepower comes via fast-revving action, while most of its 295 lb-ft of torque seems available from near standstill. Launching from a stoplight feels instantaneous, with 100 km/h only requiring 4.7 seconds, unless you’re in the Sedan that needs 0.1 seconds more for a 4.8-second zero to 100 km/h run.

 

2021 Mercedes-AMG A 35 Hatch
Mercedes’ centre console-mounted touchpad and surrounding switchgear is easy to use.

For sure, a tenth of a second is splitting hairs. There’s no way you’ll be able to feel such a difference from the seat of your pants. Both cars’ standard 4Matic all-wheel drive optimize the grip of each 225/50R18 Continental ProContact performance tire, these even tenacious in wet weather, while the steering wheel paddles make the most of the AMG-tuned seven-speed dual-clutch automated transmission, which provides swift yet smooth shifts of all gears. Likewise, braking performance is brilliantly strong, with both A 35s slowing from 100 km/h to a halt in merely 33 metres (109 ft).

2021 Mercedes-AMG A-35 Hatch
The A 35’s seats are superb, while their micro-suede inserts are extremely grippy.

Cornering prowess is equally impressive. Its components aren’t any different than most peers, including an electronic variable-assist rack and pinion steering setup, a front Macpherson strut and rear multi-link suspension design, plus the AWD system and 18-inch rubber noted earlier, but the resultant handling can only be matched by a small assortment of competitors. Throw the A 35 into a tight, fast-paced curve and it reacts with a level of precision that’s almost unrivaled, staying fully planted and horizontal to the road surface below, fully poised to take on the next corner. It remains just as stable when hard on the brakes, even mid-corner.

I’d guess the Hatch is slightly more tossable through the series of high-speed two-laners I used for testing purposes, thanks to the trimmer curb weight noted earlier, but I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference, even if I were lucky enough to drive them both back-to-back on the same backcountry road. So, unless you’re planning to create an autocross star after Mercedes’ warranty runs out, either should do. I’m just glad Canadians get the choice of both, let alone an A 35 at all.

2021 Mercedes-AMG A-35 Sedan
The rear passenger compartments of both body styles provide plenty of leg and head room for good comfort overall.

Speaking of choice, those who would rather pay less for a more compliant ride and better fuel economy can opt for Mercedes’ most affordable A 220 4Matic Sedan or the once-again sportier A 250 4Matic Hatch. These provide more forgiving suspension tuning, with personalities that are generally more comfort-biased. The A 220 puts out a reasonable 188 horsepower and 221 lb-ft of torque, whereas the A 250 makes 221 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, the latter being identical numbers to the CLA 250 4Matic, incidentally.

Likewise, most of lesser As’ cabin luxuries are similarly soft (minus the ultra-psuede) and equally well made to the AMG versions of each, while the aforementioned 10.25-inch-times-two MBUX driver display/infotainment system can be had in their upper trims (lesser variants use 7.0-inch displays stuffed into the same enclosure).

2021 Mercedes-AMG A 35 Hatch
The A 35 Hatch is the best choice for those who need more cargo space.

By the way, estimated fuel economy ratings are 9.6 L/100km in the city, 6.9 on the highway and 8.4 combined for the A 220 Sedan; 9.4 city, 6.8 highway and 8.2 combined for the A 250 Hatch; 10.7 city, 8.2 highway and 9.5 combined for the A 35 Sedan; and finally, 10.6, 8.2 and 9.5 respectively for the A 35 Hatch. And yes, those relatively low numbers combine for a fair compromise considering the A 35’s output. Then again, at more than $1.50 per litre where I live, and considerably more if you plan on filling your A 35 up with recommended premium fuel, the A 220 is the budget option that would keep on giving well after the initial purchase.

That brings up price, which is $49,800 plus freight and fees for either AMG A 35 Sedan or A 35 Hatch, which means there’s an $11,600 price spread from base A-Class to AMG when comparing the sedans, and a $9,600 jump upwards from the entry-level A 250 to the hyper-tuned version of the hatchback. Of course, the upgrades represent much more than just performance, being that many otherwise optional features come standard with the two AMG models, plus some of the previously mentioned finishings can only be found in the A 35s.

2021 Mercedes-AMG A 35 Sedan
The Sedan’s trunk might be small, but both A 35’s have big power at the other end.

In summary, it’s probably best to snap one of these AMG models up while you can. Considering nothing similar will be available in the U.S. for 2022, and ditto for most other AMG models throughout Mercedes’ range, they could become popular grey-market cars for enthusiasts south of the 49th. Additionally, it may not be too long until M-B’s Canadian division follows the MBUSA’s lead. Certainly, Canada is a very different market from the U.S., with especially unique small car preferences, but once again the performance car carnage Mercedes is enacting down south is impacting most AMG variants, so this isn’t a compact-versus-mid-size issue. For now, we seem safe going into 2022, but I wouldn’t hesitate if you’ve got any AMG model in your sights.

Review and photos by Trevor Hofmann

Interestingly, Mazda does much better per capita in Canada than the U.S., but this may be changing. It seems recent chip shortages and supply chain logistics problems have caused some shoppers to look…

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro Road Test

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
The Kuro Edition puts a partially blacked out sporty twist on the Mazda CX-9’s usual classy demeanour.

Interestingly, Mazda does much better per capita in Canada than the U.S., but this may be changing. It seems recent chip shortages and supply chain logistics problems have caused some shoppers to look away from the brands they normally buy in order to get anything at all, which is allowing the automakers that planned ahead, or just got lucky, to scoop up new customers they may have never otherwise had the chance to acquire.

During July, a month that saw the U.S. automotive selling rate fall to an estimated 14.8 million units, according to Automotive News, the lowest since July of last year, Mazda sales leapt 36 percent upwards, leading every other brand. Even mighty Toyota was in Mazda’s sales growth shadow, albeit hardly doing poorly with gains of 33 percent, while Hyundai-Kia managed 29 percent, Volvo 19 percent, and Honda 8 percent. It wasn’t smiles all around the auto sector last month, however, with Subaru down 2.6 percent, and Ford, which until recently was the mightiest of all, tumbling 42 percent (all other automakers only report quarterly sales in the U.S.).

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
The CX-9 is long enough to accommodate up to seven occupants.

This positive momentum comes after a year that saw Mazda grow its sales by 0.19 percent, which while miniscule as far as numbers go, was nevertheless monstrous compared to every other brand selling into the U.S, all of which ended up in the negative last year. Consider that Kia saw the least downside with a 4.75 percentage drop in sales, while GMC lost 8.79 percent, Hyundai 9.66 percent, Volkswagen 10.02 percent, Chevrolet 11.12 percent, Toyota 11.86 percent, Subaru 12.59 percent, Jeep 13.86 percent, Ford 15.9 percent, Honda 16.61 percent, Nissan 33.25 percent, and Dodge a whopping 36.78 percent. Fiat’s 53.23-percent decline was worse still, but they have many more problems than any of the carmakers mentioned, plus they don’t compete in the CX-9’s market segment, so therefore on that note I chose to leave all mainstream volume brands that don’t offer a mid-size crossover SUV out of this equation.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
The CX-9 Kuro looks great despite the model’s age.

If you think Mazda’s sales were strong in July, they’ve done even better year-to-date thanks to deliveries being up by more than 45 percent. July 2021 actually tallied up a second-best result for Mazda, but it achieved best-ever deliveries for the MX-5 (since 2006 no less), the CX-30, the CX-5, and this CX-9 being reviewed here. That’s impressive in a market that’s having trouble allocating vehicles at all, and especially so for two models that aren’t exactly spring chickens in their respective categories.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
Auto-on/off and auto-levelling LED headlights with auto high beams come standard across the line, while this Kuro model also includes adaptive cornering capability.

Today’s CX-5, while still in my opinion one of the best crossover SUVs available in the compact class, is nevertheless going on six years in its current second-generation design, while the CX-9, also in its second-generation, will soon move into its eighth year of availability without a mid-cycle refresh, compared to the first-generation that saw two facelifts over nine years. Kudos to Mazda for its Kodo design philosophy (not to be mistaken for my tester’s Kuro trim line), the latest iteration having certainly stood the test of time. I can appreciate the need for something new for the sake of being new, but the CX-9, or any of the other cars and crossovers in Mazda’s lineup, are hardly short on attractive styling, so a redesign isn’t quite as critical as it was for, say, Nissan’s outgoing Pathfinder.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
Tiny LED fog lamps are integrated within the front corner “vents”, providing a lot of extra light at night.

This may be one reason the CX-9 currently sits alongside the Toyota Highlander as a runner up in the latest Canadian Black Book 2020 Best Retained Value Awards. In their “Mid-size Crossover-SUV” category, the two crossovers were only beat out by Toyota’s 4Runner, a body-on-frame SUV that really doesn’t compete with either, which means the Highlander and CX-9 are your best bets to hold on to more of your hard-earned money over the long haul.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
These metallic black painted 20-inch alloy wheels are exclusive to the Kuro Edition.

This is one of the reasons I often recommend the CX-9, and all Mazda vehicles for that matter. Another reason, which probably aids in resale value as well, is interior refinement and materials quality, which Mazda has long executed better than most in this class. To be clear, others are starting to catch up with respect to the CX-9, a problem that would arise for any vehicle that’s been around so long, but regular updates, including genuine Santos Rosewood inlays along with quilted and piped Nappa leather in top-line Signature and 100th Anniversary trims, have gone a long way to enrich the CX-9 experience to near-premium levels when compared to less opulently attired competitors, while the specific Kuro Edition shown here, is more about blackening some metal brightwork and adding cool paint colours, while maintaining similar levels of luxury.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
Those who love discreet, tasteful design will appreciate the CX-9’s elegant LED taillights.

Ok, to be clear, while cool, black isn’t exactly unique, although Jet Black Mica is definitely more eye-catching than if it were dipped in plain old non-metallic ink. Then again, the Kuro model’s sole $200 colour option, Polymetal Grey Metallic, is both cool and unique, and much to my delight ended up decorating my weeklong tester. On that note, this Kuro Edition looks a lot fresher and more alluring than the regular CX-9, thanks to all the gloss-metallic-black trim mentioned a moment ago, which includes a sportier grille insert, mirror housings, and painted wheels, the latter in a twinned five-spoke design that measure 20 inches in diameter and come shod in 255/50 all-season tires.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
The Kuro cabin doesn’t measure up to the Signature’s materials quality, but its sportier look replaces rosewood with grey/black trim, while its Garnet hides should be supple enough for most..

Inside, it’s all Garnet Red leather upholstery (although black leather will also be available for 2021.5) over dark greys and blacks with some red stitching used to decorate the inner rim of the steering wheel, shifter boot, lower console surround and armrests, while some of the inky coloured surfaces were finished in piano black lacquered composite, suitable for the sporty theme, plus a stylish grey tone highlighted the dash front. The density of latter inlays seems as if they were made from a solid substance like wood, going even further to enhance the CX-9’s feeling of quality.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
The CX-9’s interior design has stood the test of time, thanks to getting it right from day one.

Of course, satin-finish aluminum-look accents join metal brightwork trim to bling up the design, all of which is complemented by high-quality workmanship and plenty of luxury details, such as fabric-wrapped A pillars, all the expected soft-touch surfaces and a couple of unexpected ones too, like the sides of the lower front console that are padded in leatherette to protect inside knees from chafing, and while the seat leather might not be ultra-rich Nappa that’s used in both Signature and 100th Anniversary trims, it’s still softer and suppler than plenty of others in this category.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
The cockpit is well organized and steering wheel really sporty for this class.

Features are plentiful too. In fact, the Kuro is almost as well loaded up with goodies as the Signature, only lacking the trim upgrades mentioned multiple times already, as well as some visual enhancements such as satin-finish highlights where the Kuro uses metallic black and grey, as well as a better-looking frameless centre mirror, and exterior front grille illumination that’s pretty trick at night.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
The gauge cluster looks purely analogue at first, but a large 7.0-inch multi-information display makes up the centre gauges.

Both models incorporate most of the base GS model’s equipment too, of which some items worth mentioning include auto-on/off and auto-levelling LED headlights with auto high beams, LED daytime running lights, LED rear combination tail lights, rain-sensing wipers, noise-isolating windshield and front side glass, pushbutton start/stop, a leather-wrapped steering wheel rim and shift knob, an electromechanical parking brake, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration, two USB-A ports and an auxiliary input up front, SMS text message capability, tri-zone automatic climate control, three-way heatable front seats, and much more.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
The 12-speaker Bose audio system with Centerpoint 2 surround and SiriusXM satellite radio provides great sound.

Kuro, Signature and 100th Anniversary models also include adaptive headlamps, LED fog lights, LED front and rear signature lighting, bright-finish lower body trim, piano black-finished exterior B and C pillars, a front wiper de-icer, power-folding side mirrors, and i-Activ AWD on the outside, while LED courtesy lamps light up all four doors (as well as for the front door pull handles and power window switches inside), and proximity-sensing remote entry gets driver and occupants inside.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
The centre stack gets a 9-inch display up top, tri-zone auto HVAC below the vents, and all its infotainment controls below the gear lever.

That’s where the driver is greeted with a sporty albeit traditional looking three-binnacle gauge cluster filled with a large 7.0-inch LCD multi-information display, plus a head-up display on top of the dash that projects key info onto the windshield. It’s all framed by a heated steering wheel with ample rake and reach for most body types to feel both comfortable and in control, at least once they adjust the 10-way powered driver’s seat that even includes four-way powered lumbar, as well as two-way memory.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
The 2021 CX-9’s infotainment interface has become a bit dated, which is the sole reason for the 2021.5 CX-9, which will receive a fully updated system with a larger 10.25-inch display.

An eight-way power-adjustable front passenger’s seat with powered lumbar makes life better for anyone alongside, while both front occupants will enjoy the three-way ventilated seats, wireless device charger (that points a given phone’s screen away from the driver so as not to distract, but is a bit awkward to load into place), illuminated vanity mirrors, and a powered glass sunroof (Mazda doesn’t yet offer a panoramic glass roof).

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
Despite its age, the current infotainment system integrates some nice graphics, including this real-time fuel economy page.

Adaptive cruise control with stop and go (standard for 2021.5) benefits the driver alone, as does a Homelink universal transceiver, a 9.0-inch centre display (the 2021.5 comes standard with a 10.25-inch display that links through to new Mazda Connect Infotainment system, while that system’s unavailability for the first half of the year was the real reason for the big screen’s late introduction and point-five model year designation), not to mention a 360-degree surround parking monitor, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, front and rear parking sensors, plus a navigation system that mistakenly took me down a side road next to my home to a gated overpass that would’ve otherwise been impassable if not for my locals-only remote (see the photo gallery). The CX-9’s navigation worked flawlessly other than that, while I especially like how a full screen pictograph of an upcoming intersection’s sign automatically appears on the display when approaching, showing all available lanes while using an active arrow for pointing out the one you need to follow. The clearly defined colour graphics are especially helpful when sorting out complicated intersections.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
Kuro trim and above include this very useful overhead camera, while all trims utilize animated guidelines.

All will appreciate the LED dome and reading lights overhead, plus the great sounding 12-speaker Bose audio system with Centerpoint 2 surround and SiriusXM satellite radio, while exclusive to those in back are two additional USB-A ports (apiece) in the second and third rows, plus a rear climate control interface, retractable second-row window sunshades, and heatable second-row captain’s chairs (that bookend a fixed rear centre armrest with integrated storage in 2021.5 models).

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
The navigation system was very accurate, other than taking me down one road that can only be passed if you have a remote to open the “locals only” gate.

A hands-free powered liftgate provides access to 407 litres of dedicated cargo space, while lowering the 50/50-split rearmost seatbacks (via manual levers on the lower seatbacks) opens up luggage capacity up to 1,082 litres. There’s a total cargo volume of 2,017 litres when both rows are folded flat, but keep in mind the 2021.5 model’s second-row fixed centre console will get in the way when loading building materials or other large items (not that you can fit a four-by-eight sheet of Gyproc or plywood in back anyway).

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
The CX-9’s six-speed automatic might not be the most alluring from a marketing perspective, but it’s a smooth yet quick-shifting transmission that really makes using the paddle shifters enjoyable.

Speaking of interior space, while the CX-9 isn’t the largest three-row crossover SUV on the market, it’s not the smallest either, fitting nicely in between the Chevrolet Traverse and Toyota Highlander, leaving its rearmost row sizeable enough for big kids and smaller adults, while second-row seating is very spacious and comfortable for all sizes and shapes.

Still, despite not being smallest, the CX-9 is a bit lighter than most of its rivals, which translates into good performance from a smaller 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine that puts out a modest 250-horsepower when using 93 octane fuel (which most people will never do, due to high pump prices), or 227 horsepower with regular 87 octane gas. Torque matters more when hauling masses of people and cargo, however, and to that end the diminutive mill has you covered with 320 lb-ft of twist when using the pricier fuel, or 310 on the “cheap” stuff.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
The aluminized rocker switch to the left of the gear lever selects driving modes, the CX-9’s sport mode truly making the SUV more fun to drive.

It certainly feels powerful off the line, although I must admit to driving solo most of the week, and only ever having a single passenger along for the ride every now and then. The CX-9’s ride is smooth and comforting too, and it’s plenty quiet inside as well, with very little wind, drivetrain or tire noise. Mazda includes a Sport mode for sharpening the six-speed automatic’s reflexes, which when slotting the gear lever into its manual position and utilizing the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, which are exclusive to Kuro trim and above, transforms the relatively large family hauler into a veritable “sport” utility. Of course, transitional weight tries to upset the fun, the CX-9 nowhere near as agile as the wonderfully tossable CX-5 (which incidentally can be had with the same powerplant for even quicker acceleration), but the larger Mazda lives up to the brand’s performance-oriented tradition quite well nonetheless.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
Here’s a closer look at the controls used for the infotainment system, the centre dial nicely finished in knurled aluminum.

That six-speed automatic might initially sound like a negative to some, but I must admit that I found driving an SUV with fewer forward gears than more modern designs hardly noticeable. Certainly, it would impact fuel economy, but then again, Mazda provides a lot more fuel-saving technologies than most of its peers, which is probably why it achieves a relatively thrifty claimed rating of 11.6 L/100km in the city, 9.1 on the highway, and 10.5 combined. Then again, a more advanced eight- or nine-speed autobox might help matters, being that the eight-speed-equipped Highlander AWD achieves an estimated 10.3 combined with its big 3.5-litre V6, although the Traverse AWD is rated at 11.8 combined despite housing a nine-speed auto under its centre console cowling.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
The seats are comfortable and supportive, and if Garnet Red is not your thing, the 2021.5 Kuro is available with Black leather as well.

On the positive, there’s something to be said for the CX-9’s quick, positive, snappy shifts, especially when compared with some automaker’s slushy CVTs, while Mazda’s six-speed has also been around long enough to earn credibility as a reliability leader. In fact, Mazda is number one in Consumer Reports latest auto reliability auto rankings, with 83 points compared to second-place Toyota’s 74. According to the popular magazine and consumer rating service, Mazda and Toyota regularly vie for top position, while the brand is also above average in the latest J.D. Power and Associates 2021 Vehicle Dependability Study.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
The heatable second-row captain’s chairs are very comfortable and quite roomy.

The 2021 CX-9 also gets a five-star safety rating from the U.S. NHTSA, allowing for a best-possible Top Safety Pick+ rating as well, an impressive feat that some in this class, including the aforementioned Traverse, Ford’s Edge, Hyundai’s Santa Fe, plus Kia’s Sorento and Telluride, don’t achieve, while others can’t even manage to attain the latter group’s regular Top Safety Pick (without the plus) ranking.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
Retractable side window shades are especially good for those who have small children.

Reasons for the top score include the CX-9’s sophisticated active LED headlamps, as well as standard advanced driver assistance features like Smart Brake Support Front, Smart City Brake Support Front, Distance Recognition Support System, Forward Obstruction Warning, Pedestrian Detection, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Advanced Blind Spot Monitoring, Lane Departure Warning, and Lane-keep Assist, while trims including the Kuro Edition and above also add Smart City Brake Support Rear, Driver Attention Alert, and Traffic Sign Recognition.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
The third row is comfortable enough for average-sized kids and small adults.

As tested, a 2021 CX-9 Kuro Edition can be had for $50,300 plus freight and fees, while that price increases by $300 for the 2021.5 model year (well worth the price increase for the new infotainment system alone). Base GS trim, on the other hand, starts at a nice even $40,000, whereas Signature and 100th Anniversary trims will set you back $52,000 and $53,350 respectively.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
Cargo space should be ample for most peoples’ needs.

To see all available trims and their options, check out CarCostCanada’s 2021 Mazda CX-9 Canada Prices page, where you’ll also see that Mazda is currently offering up to $2,500 in additional incentives on 2021 and 2021.5 models, plus CarCostCanada members are saving an average of $3,041 (at the time of writing) thanks to accessing dealer invoice pricing before negotiating their best deal, impressive considering how tight the new car market is right now. CarCostCanada members have plenty of other benefits too, so make sure to find out how their system works, and remember to download their free app from the Google Play Store or Apple Store, so you’ll always have their critical info with you when you need it most.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro
There’s space under the cargo floor for hiding valuables.

In the end, the CX-9 is a good example of a well-designed crossover SUV lasting the test of time. Of course, plenty of minor updates and particularly nice trim additions, like this Kuro Edition, have helped keep it mostly current. There’s no news on a redesign yet, but plenty of rumours are targeting a release next year as a 2023 model. We’ll have to wait and see, but knowing Mazda, this 2021 should continue holding onto its value even when the new one arrives. That’s a key reason the CX-9 is easy to recommend.

Review and photos by Trevor Hofmann