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

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

For many in Canada, Volkswagen is more of an afterthought when considering a new vehicle. Last year it sat 12th amongst mainstream volume brands in sales volume, with the lion’s share of new deliveries…

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline Road Test

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
The latest Jetta continues forward with Volkswagen’s longstanding theme of understated good looks.

For many in Canada, Volkswagen is more of an afterthought when considering a new vehicle. Last year it sat 12th amongst mainstream volume brands in sales volume, with the lion’s share of new deliveries going to Ford (at 232,194 units), Toyota (196,882), Honda (146,582), Hyundai (133,059) and Chevrolet (111,741), although only the Asian brands offer anything in the compact car class, so therefore this segment’s sales hierarchy looks a lot different when comparing both brand popularity and individual model success.

Last year, Volkswagen was the fourth best-selling brand in this category (at 23,665 units) when combining Golf (13,113), Jetta (10,552) and Beetle (460) deliveries, with the Golf placing sixth amongst individual models, the Jetta seventh, and the Beetle way down in 17th, which incidentally was second to last being that it wasn’t the only car being discontinued (Chevy’s Volt found its last nine buyers in 2020 too).

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
There’s nothing about the Jetta’s design thet anyone should find offensive, while it actually includes plenty of premium Audi styling cues.

As for the first two quarters of 2021, the Beetle was dead last after just three units were shuffled off to future collectors, while the placement of the Golf and Jetta remained the same with 5,707 and 5,618 examples sold respectively. The big change in the segment comes from Nissan’s new Sentra that’s now right behind the Jetta with 5,004 deliveries to its credit, whereas Subaru’s Impreza and WRX/STI lost significant ground due to just 1,724 and 1,548 respective units down the road, which is probably due to an all-new WRX/STI soon debuting for 2022, plus a new Impreza (and Crosstrek) to follow for 2023.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
LED headlamps with unique character illumination add class to this compact sedan.

Others losing steam in this segment include Hyundai’s Ioniq that only sold 1,538 units compared to Toyota’s Prius at 3,107, but the Korean brand’s Ioniq Electric is set to be replaced by the much more intriguing Ioniq 5 in the fall, while Nissan’s all-electric Leaf just seems to be withering on the vine with just 639 sales to its name, although 2022 will see a substantially lower price that should boost interest. Additionally, Hyundai’s Veloster will only come in super-quick N trim for 2022, probably the result of the rest of the line not getting much action, verified by only 328 deliveries, and finally the slowest selling car in this class is Honda’s Insight hybrid, which at a mere 193 unit-sales is getting slaughtered by other HEVs that sell for thousands less.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
Execline trim comes with LED fog lamps and exclusive 17-inch Tornado alloys wrapped in 205/55 all-season tires.

With the Puebla, Mexico-built Golf leaving our market after this year, Volkswagen will likely take a major negative hit in this segment too, falling behind others that focus more on reliability and comfort over perceived performance, although to be clear, Golf GTI and Golf R models will remain, as will the entire Jetta lineup, including its sportiest GLI variant.

It’s difficult to say if the Jetta will be able to take up the slack on its own, being that other five-door alternatives like the new 2022 Civic Hatchback, the Corolla Hatchback, the Kia Forte 5, the Mazda3 Sport, the Impreza 5-Door, and some other stragglers noted a moment ago, could fill in VW’s entry-level hatchback void. Of course, the German brand will hope such buyers will ante up for its new Taos subcompact crossover SUV, which is sized similarly, or the slightly larger compact Tiguan, while the all-new ID.4 kind of fills the void left by the Golf Alltrack (more on that car in a moment), albeit with an all-electric twist.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
Here’s a closer look at the standard 17-inch Tornado rims and 205/55 Bridgestone rubber.

With all of that business out of the way, why choose a 2021 Jetta, or for that matter the 2022 model that shouldn’t change by much? Compared to the 2019 version, which was the first year of this seventh-generation body style, the 2021 infuses VW’s new MIB3 infotainment software into an interface that looks pretty well identical, although it’s the system beneath the graphics that matters most, thanks to including wireless App-Connect, enhanced voice recognition, USB-C charging, upgrades to the navigation system, and SiriusXM with 360L streaming and satellite content, while a wireless charging pad now sits on the lower console below in as-tested Execline trim.

Tornado alloys wrapped in 205/55
LED taillights are nothing new these days, but the Jetta’s are a tasteful design.

As for choosing a Jetta over one of its four-door competitors, that will come down to a lot of factors including styling, its Germanic feel, and on that note, its performance. Of course, the GLI is the Jetta version to drive if you’ve got a passion for going fast, but this said all Jettas have usually tended to be more engaging than most of their Asian alternatives. Performance has been a priority for the brand since the Golf/Rabbit arrived on our shores in 1975, with the sportier GTI variant hitting the market in 1979, three years before our American friends received theirs.

The Jetta, which back then was basically a two-door Rabbit with a trunk, arrived here in 1980, and quickly became our best-selling European import. A wagon (always a personal favourite) was introduced at the turn of the millennium for the Golf’s fourth and fifth generations, although that baton was dubbed SportWagen when passed over to the seventh-gen Golf line, and even ended up being offered as a soft-roading crossover dubbed Alltrack that featured some SUV-like bodywork and raised ground clearance in an attempt to take on Subaru’s Crosstrek.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
The Jetta Execline’s interior is a mix of very impressive electronics, mostly good switchgear, soft-touch surfaces in key areas, and more hard plastic than we’d like.

While wagon fans (including yours truly) still lament the loss of both Jetta and Golf variants, there’s a lot to love about the sedan, especially in top-tier Execline trim. The four-door’s styling has received mixed reviews, but that’s hardly unusual in this entry-level class. Honda is undergoing the same type of scrutiny with its new 2022 Civic after the brand followed its usual two steps forward, one step back routine (it’s as if there’s a tug-of-war between styling progressives and conservatives resulting in each side winning out every other generation), while Toyota appears to have hit the sweet spot with its latest Corolla, although the sharply chiseled new Hyundai Elantra is giving both of these top-sellers a run for their design money.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
The Jetta is well laid out for performance driving, its steering wheel easily best-in-class.

The other Korean, Kia’s Forte, continues to look attractively conservative and thus places fourth in this class, just ahead of Mazda’s rakish 3 that’s probably the closest competitor to the Jetta and Golf due to its performance-oriented personality, this possibly why the smaller, independent brand’s compact hatchback and sedan models sit so close to the Golf and Jetta on the aforementioned sales chart.

Moving inside, the Jetta is a tour de force when it comes to electronics. The just-noted infotainment system is very good, thanks to a high-definition gloss touchscreen, attractive graphics, an easy-to-understand layout and quick response to inputs, not to mention real analogue knobs for the power/volume and tuning/scrolling functions, plus it’s one of the only touchscreens in the industry to feature proximity-sensing capability, which means that bringing your hand towards the display causes a row of digital buttons to automatically pop up even before your finger touches the screen. It’s a really cool effect, but it’s also useful because, when those buttons automatically disappear, the entire display is made larger for whatever function you’re using.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
Execline trim provides this fully configurable 10.25-inch Digital Cockpit instrument cluster, which is by far best in this compact segment.

Of course, the infotainment system comes filled with all the expected features, including Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration, and control of the decent sounding Beats Audio system, complete with eight speakers and a sub, but I must say the backup camera is a bit subpar for a top-line model in this segment, not for its clarity, which is excellent, but rather for not including dynamic guidelines.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
Press a steering wheel-mounted button and the Digital Cockpit’s regular looking gauges completely transform into a highly useful map.

Nevertheless, the Jetta Execline’s fully configurable 10.25-inch Digital Cockpit instrument cluster, that’s exclusive to Execline trim and the top-level GLI, is in another world compared to anything else offered in this class. Certainly, others include fully digital gauge packages in upper trims, one that I recently drove being the 2021 Elantra in top-line Ultimate dress, but like the new 2022 Civic’s take on this tech, its navigation map wasn’t capable of filling the entire screen like Volkswagen’s. I know that’s not the end-all, be-all of functions, but just like this feature wowed me in Audi’s Virtual Cockpit before, it once again had me mesmerized in the Jetta, even providing the ability to zoom in and out from a button on the right-side steering wheel spoke. The active display does more than just that, of course, offering up a smaller map with surrounding info in another mode, plus a particularly colourful duo of circular gauges in its default setting, not to mention plenty of other features in numerous configurations.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
Additionally digital instrument cluster layouts are available.

Framing the gauge cluster is another VW favourite, the Jetta’s flat-bottom sport steering wheel, which is one of the nicest in its segment thanks to a meaty soft leather-covered rim with wonderfully form-fitting thumb spats to each side and grippy baseball-style stitching around the inner ring, plus thin spokes filled with high-quality switchgear, while those spokes are dressed up with a tasteful splash of aluminized brightwork and piano black lacquered surfaces.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
The infotainment system was updated for this year, resulting in much quicker response times and other improvements.

Yet more satin-finish accents and inky black highlights can be found throughout the rest of the cabin, but it’s not overdone like some rivals from the east. I prefer to call the Jetta’s interior purposeful rather than austere, but I’m sure some will find the mostly muted black interior a tad conservative, bright and colourful displays aside.

This said, most of the pliable composite surfaces that made earlier (pre-2010) Jettas feel like premium rides have been eliminated, only leaving a rubberized soft-touch dash top and upper instrument panel, plus equally pampering front door uppers. The only model in this class with less appealing plastics is the Elantra that doesn’t even offer soft door uppers up front, but we’re not exactly comparing D-segment luxury sedans here. The clear differentiator is Volkswagen’s choice of hard plastics south of the waste line, other than the comfortable padded leatherette used for the door inserts and armrest, as well as the centre armrest overtop the console bin, which are nicely padded in plush leatherette.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
The backup camera is clear and bright, but where are the moving guidelines?

The front seats, on the other hand, are firmer than any in this class and most in the entire industry, which is a bit unusual considering the Jetta Execline’s comfort-oriented mission. I’d normally never complain about cushion firmness, but the Jetta’s seem designed by someone who dreams on a tatami mat. These things go beyond just firm, with a lower cushion that actually became quite uncomfortable on longer stints during my weeklong test.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
The dual-zone automatic climate control interface is simple and straightforward, just like it should be, but the dials were a bit wiggly.

Oddly, GLIs, GTIs, and even Golf Rs that I tested previously never felt this way, but at least the Jetta’s side bolsters were excellent, while the six-way power-adjustment on its driver’s side (the front passenger gets no such luxuries), with two-way powered lumbar support that met the small of my back ideally, plus three-way memory no less, came to the rescue as best it could, as did the soft perforated leather that provided an exit strategy for forced ventilation, which kept me cool when otherwise ready to fume about my aching back. Their heatable capability was even more useful in this situation, as my driver’s seat warmed to near therapeutic temperatures in order to ease two inflamed ischia. More on the positive, better than average reach and rake from the tilt and telescopic steering column made for a great driving position, while the steering wheel rim in Execline trim is also heatable, as are the rear outboard seats.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
The Jetta’s 8-speed auto is superb, plus most of the lower console switchgear is good too.

Also positive, my tester’s rear outboard seats were truly superb, with more of a bucket-like feel than any others I’ve experienced in this class, thanks to excellent side bolstering that really wrapped all around my backside. The same can be said for the lower cushions, which provided a little more padding than the driver’s seat, or so they felt. VW includes a nice and wide flip-down armrest with integrated cupholders in the middle position, so together with the door armrests the rear outboard seating area is comfortable for both forearms.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
The front seats are filled with functions, but the cushions are much too firm.

As for space, I had about half-a-foot in front of my knees and plenty of room to stretch out my legs, with feet under the front seats when the driver’s position was set for my long-legged, short-torso five-foot-eight frame. Additionally, I had about three-and-a-half inches left over above my head, plus plenty of space next to my shoulders and hips. I’m not sure if the Jetta is best-in-class for rear seat roominess, but I’m guessing it’s very close. Volkswagen should be commended for this, but unfortunately the rear compartment’s finishing was less appealing than most in this category, including the expected hard plastic door upper, but also hard plastic door inserts that are almost never part of the package. At least the powered sunroof overhead was almost panoramic, helping to visually open the car up to more natural light.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
A very large powered glass sunroof borders on panoramic, while providing welcoming natural light front and back.

Like the rear passenger compartment, the trunk is large at almost 400 litres (14.1 cu ft), while the lid lifts up high and out of the way, but be careful to push it all the way up, because if you leave it down even slightly it will fall and smack you in the head, which happened to me once during my test. Also different from most Volkswagens, the Jetta only offers 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks instead of the usual 40/20/40-split used in the Golf and other VW products. This limits the usability of the trunk when going skiing, for instance, especially if rear passengers want to enjoy the aforementioned seat warmers, but such is the same for most of the Jetta’s peers.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
Rear seat access and roominess is very good for the class.

Leaving the best for last, I set the dual-zone automatic climate control system to 21.5C via outer rings wrapping large circular dials that wiggled a bit too much for my liking, their digital readouts bookending a row of nicely damped buttons that included those needed for warming buttocks and backside, after which I turned the fuel-saving auto start-stop system off and the drive mode setting from Normal to Sport, disregarding Eco and Custom, the lower-console mounted buttons for these rather sloppy and noisy, unfortunately, unlike the nice and tight aluminized ignition button and little electromechanical brake lever found nearby. I then slotted the eight-speed automatic’s gear lever into “D” for drive before shoving it over to the right to “S” for manual shift mode, and let the Jetta’s impressive 1.4-litre turbo-four spool up as much of its 147 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque as possible before launching from standstill.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
The rear seats were more comfortable than those up front, plus provided surprisingly good side bolstering.

It’s the torque that matters most in this little mill, with all of its available twist from just 1,400 rpm, while the gearbox is quick-shifting and very smooth, only needing a set of steering wheel paddles to make it more engaging. These come with the GLI, incidentally, along with a much faster-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, while its 2.0-litre turbocharged four puts out a much more energetic 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, resulting in a zero to 100 km/h sprint time of just 6.6 seconds compared to 8.7 for the Jetta Execline, although opting for the more comfort-oriented Jetta pays of at the pump.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
The Jetta’s trunk isn’t shy on volume.

Driving more modestly in Eco mode results in 8.0 L/100km in the city, 6.0 on the highway and 7.1 combined in the Jetta Execline, whereas the automated transmission in the GLI is only good for a claimed 9.7 city, 7.0 highway and 8.5 combined. The GLI can be had with a six-speed manual too, by the way, which is identically quick and exactly as efficient with fuel, while the regular Jetta with its base six-speed manual (not available in the Execline) manages just 7.9 city, 5.8 highway and 6.9 combined for truly stingy operation, plus it reportedly takes exactly the same amount of time to arrive at 100 km/h from standstill as my automatic-equipped tester.

Better than its straight-line performance, the Jetta Execline provides a nicely weighted, electrically assisted rack and pinion steering system resulting in good handling for the class, despite incorporating a less-than-ideal semi-independent torsion beam rear suspension setup. The front suspension uses independent Macpherson struts, par for the course in just about any segment, but only the GLI gets an upgrade to a multi-link rear suspension design, which is much better for absorbing pavement irregularities and therefore keeping rubber on the road where it can apply traction.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
A spare-saver tire and tools can be found below the cargo floor.

Comparatively, even Honda’s most basic Civic LX comes standard with a fully independent suspension including a rear multi-link rear setup, as does Toyota’s simplest Corolla L, and Nissan’s cheapest Sentra S, while Subaru’s least expensive Impreza with Convenience trim uses independent double wishbones, which aid comfort yet are more durable for heavier loads, and easier for tuners to tweak, not to mention easy for technicians to adjust for wheel alignment. What about the Golf? Unlike the Jetta, the most affordable Golf Comfortline gets the more sophisticated multi-link rear suspension setup, so while that model is still available it remains the go-to car for lower end VW performance enthusiasts, a worthwhile investment for just $1,500 more.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
How we wish the Jetta’s rear folding seats were divided in a 40/20/40 configuration, so longer items like skis could be stowed down the middle.

As you may have noticed I left out plenty of Jetta competitors when comparing suspension designs, so it’s only fair to add that the Elantra, Forte, and Mazda3 utilize a similar rear torsion beam setup, which is prized for reducing cost and improving rear packaging, the latter sometimes resulting in increased cargo capacity.

In the end, the Jetta is a good car that deserves its success, however middling that may be. It hits high in some areas, such as roominess and advanced electronics, but doesn’t really match up in interior plastics quality, front seat comfort, and overall performance, the rear end getting skittish when pushed hard around curves over rough pavement, something the Civic and Corolla, for instance, don’t do.

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline
The Jetta’s tiny 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder provides decent performance and good fuel economy.

If it were my money and a VW was the target brand, I’d opt for a Golf every day of the week, due to its sharper styling, much better interior quality (even including cloth A pillars), wholly improved handling, and the increased usability (albeit less security) of its rear hatch. To think this model is on its way out is criminal, but it’s not Volkswagen’s fault that Canadians aren’t buying as many cars these days as they used to, instead opting for crossover SUVs more often than not. At least we’ll still have the fabulous GTI and Golf R, while as noted the Jetta GLI is a credible performance car as well.

The 2021 Jetta starts at a very reasonable $21,595 in Comfortline trim with its six-speed manual, while my Execline model is available from $28,995. Good news, Volkswagen is currently offering up to $1,000 in additional no-haggle incentives, while CarCostCanada members were averaging $1,527 in savings at the time of writing, thanks to their ability to access dealer invoice pricing that can save you thousands at the time of purchase. Make sure to find out how a CarCostCanada membership can help save you money when purchasing your next new car, and remember to download their free app from the Apple Store or Google Play Store, plus check out the 2021 Volkswagen Jetta Canada Prices page to find out pricing for all the Jetta’s other trim lines, including the GLI.

Review and photos by Trevor Hofmann

If I loved Toyota’s Highlander Hybrid any more, it would be a Hyundai Palisade hybrid. I jest, of course, because I really like the Highlander. In fact, if I had to choose, it would be difficult to…

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Road Test

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Toyota’s latest Highlander Hybrid looks fabulous in top-line Limited trim, especially in this gorgeous Opulent Amber paint.

If I loved Toyota’s Highlander Hybrid any more, it would be a Hyundai Palisade hybrid. I jest, of course, because I really like the Highlander. In fact, if I had to choose, it would be difficult to decide between this time-tested Toyota and either the Palisade or Kia’s equally good Telluride, which have both been lauded as two of the best in their class right now by almost everyone in the automotive press, although neither can be had with a fuel-sipping electrified drivetrain.

That matters a lot, especially with the average price for a litre of regular fuel hovering around $1.70 per litre in my area. Most anyone buying into the family hauler sector is constrained by a budget, so saving at the pump can be the difference of buying little Liam and Emma brand new runners or making a detour to the thrift store just in case they have something “pre-loved” available in the right sizes, or maybe buyers in this $40-$50k class can relate more to a choice between purchasing bulk chicken legs and rib eye steaks for Sunday’s BBQ. Either way, my point is clear, especially at a time when all types of meats have become much more expensive due to run-away government spending and the resultant inflationary problems, amongst other issues driving up the prices of foods and consumer items.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
The Highlander is for those who like sleeker, more car-like SUVs, because it flies in the face of the new blocky, upright trend offered by some rivals like Kia’s Telluride.

Toyota’s three-row antidote to this reality check equals 6.6 L/100km in the city, 6.8 on the highway and 6.7 combined for the Highlander Hybrid, while Hyundai and Kia alternatively claim 12.3, 9.6, and 11.1, or 12.6, 9.7 and 11.3 for the equivalent all-wheel drive versions of the Palisade or Telluride respectively. Based on these numbers, the South Korean-sourced three-row competitors are almost twice as expensive on fuel, and while it would be fairer to compare them to the conventional V6-powered Highlander, which is still easier on the wallet at 11.8 city, 8.6 highway and 10.3 combined, that’s not the SUV I drove for this particular test week.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
The new Highlander’s grille pulls cues from the previous 2014-2016 third-gen version, although includes a unique winged badge at centre.

There’s really nothing that compares with the Highlander Hybrid. Certainly, other automakers produce electrified SUVs in the mid-size class, the Ford Explorer Hybrid being one that also features three rows of passenger capacity, but nevertheless the much newer blue-oval entry only targets a rather so-so fuel economy rating of 10.1 L/100km city, 9.0 highway and 9.6 combined, which is way off the mark set by Toyota. To put that into perspective, Kia’s new Sorento is capable of almost the same fuel economy without the complexity of a hybrid-electric powertrain, its claimed rating a respective 10.1, 9.2 and 9.7 in base form, or 11.1, 8.4 and 9.9 with its potent turbo-four, and this Korean comes in hybrid form in the U.S. (hopefully soon in Canada).

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
LED headlamps are now standard across the line.

Speaking of the Korean competition, Canada’s car market does include the electrified Hyundai Santa Fe that gets a better rating than Ford’s mid-size hybrid at 7.1 L/100km city, 7.9 highway and 7.4 combined, but due to only having two rows of seats it’s not a direct competitor to either the Explorer Hybrid or Highlander Hybrid being reviewed here, so it will only matter to those that don’t really need the extra rear row of seats and extended cargo capacity. The only other HEV in the mid-size SUV class is Toyota’s own Venza, which is more or less a shortened, lighter version of the Highlander Hybrid under a very different skin, which is why it gets class-leading fuel economy at 5.9 city, 6.4 highway, and 6.1 combined.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Toyota spent a lot of effort designing the details, much of which gets upgraded in Limited trim.

If fuel efficiency were the only reason to choose a Venza or Highlander Hybrid I could understand why so many buyers do, but as you may have guessed there’s so much more that make these two SUVs worthy of your consideration that I’d be remiss to stop writing here. Of course, I’ll leave any more comments about the Venza to a future review, and instead solely focus on the Highlander Hybrid in its as-tested top-line $54,150 Limited form, which is one of three trim levels that also include the $45,950 base LE and $48,450 mid-range XLE.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Toyota adds 20-inch wheels to the Limited model, while the Platinum package adds a different set of 20-inch alloys.

At the time of writing, Toyota is offering factory leasing and financing rates from 2.69 percent, incidentally, while CarCostCanada members are currently saving an average of $2,655 according to their 2021 Toyota Highlander Canada Prices page. Make sure to find out how CarCostCanada’s affordable membership can save you thousands off your next new vehicle purchase, and remember to also download their free app from the Google Play Store or Apple Store so you can have all of their money-saving information and membership features on your smartphone when you need them most.

On an interesting note, when it debuted in 2000 the Highlander became the first mid-size car-based crossover SUV ever created, other than Subaru’s smaller two-row Outback, which continues to be more of a classic station wagon-type crossover than anything resembling a conventional sport utility. Toyota was also first with a hybridized SUV, the Highlander Hybrid having arrived on the scene way back in 2005 in a refreshed version of the original body style.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Sharply angled LED taillights highlight the rear design.

Two model years later, Toyota once again added a hybrid option to the second-generation Highlander from 2008 through 2013, after which they didn’t skip an electronic beat when the Highlander moved into its third and fourth generations, right up until today’s model. With such longevity in the hybrid sector, it’s no wonder Toyota achieves the mid-size SUV segment’s best fuel economy ratings, not to mention one of the more enviable of reliability ratings and resale value rankings.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Limited trim provides a very upscale interior, although you might also be surprised with how nice the base Highlander is inside.

In the most recent 2021 J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study, the Highlander came in second behind Kia’s Sorento, which is impressive for both considering the 23 unique models that contest in this class, not including the three new 2022 Jeeps (Grand Cherokee L, Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer) and one discontinued Dodge (Journey). The Kia and Toyota brands place third and fourth overall in this study, incidentally, plus first and second amongst mainstream volume brands (Lexus and Porsche are first and second overall), again, an extremely impressive result, albeit not unusual for the two Japanese brands.

Similarly, the Highlander placed third behind the Sorento and Dodge Durango in the same analytical firm’s 2020 Initial Quality Study, while even more interesting (and useful), Dashboard-Light.com gave the Highlander an “Exceptional” reliability score of 94.2, which amongst mid-size SUVs is only beaten by (once again) the FJ Cruiser at 98 (the 4Runner only scored 89 for third), this study combining the scores of models over a 20-year period, with the most reliable Highlanders actually being the most recent two generations, each scoring perfect 100s.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
The Highlander’s new dash layout is truly unique.

What about all-important resale/residual values? These say more about what you’ll actually end up paying for a vehicle over the duration of ownership than its initial price, so the fact the Highlander placed second to Toyota’s 4Runner in Canadian Black Book’s 2020 and 2019 Best Retained Value Awards, plus third in 2018 and 2017, the latter only because Toyota’s FJ Cruiser pushed the 4Runner and Highlander down a notch each, means you’ll likely retain more of your initial investment in a Highlander than any other crossover SUV.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
The Highlander Hybrid comes with a 7.0-inch digital display inside its mostly analogue gauge cluster.

This testament to its value proposition is further backed up by J.D. Power’s 2021 ALG Residual Value Awards, in which the Highlander earned highest retained value in its “Midsize Utility Vehicle—3rd Row Seating” category. Additionally, Vincentric’s 2021 Best Value in America Awards placed the Highlander Hybrid on top of its “Hybrid SUV/Crossover” category, while the RAV4 Hybrid won this sector in Canada.

Styling plays a part in holding resale values, and to that end most Highlanders have benefited from attractive designs that still look good after years and even decades. I’ve recently seen first-generation models fixed up to look like off-roaders thanks to much more interest in off-grid living and camping, which of course necessitates all types of 4x4s for exploring the wild unknown. Overlanding, as it’s now called, has even caused Lexus to create a dedicated off-road variant of its Land Cruiser Prado-based GX 460, the one-off exercise named GXOR Concept, and while sales of this impressive yet unpopular model would likely double or triple if they actually built something similar (Lexus Canada had only sold 161 GX 460s up to the halfway mark of this year), it’s probably not in the cards.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Limited features an 8.0-inch centre touchscreen, but a 12.3-inch version is available with Platinum trim.

What is very real indeed, is a fourth-generation Highlander that’s returned to more of a rugged, classic SUV design, pulling more visual cues up from my personal favourite 2014–2016 third-generation variant than that model’s 2017–2019 refresh, which featured one of the largest grilles ever offered on a Toyota vehicle, seemingly inspired by the just-noted Lexus brand. This move should help prop up aforementioned residual values of early third-gen models too, although this probably wasn’t part of Toyota’s plan, making that Highlander a good long-term used car bet, if the current chip shortage hasn’t made it impossible to still get one for a decent price.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
The infotainment system comes filled with plenty of features, including this animated graphic showing hybrid energy flow.

Suffice to say, the Highlander is one of my favourite new SUVs from a styling standpoint, and if sales are anything to go by (and they usually are), I’m not alone in my admiration. The Highlander was the only mid-size SUV in Canada to surpass five figures over the first six months of 2021, with 10,403 sales to its credit, followed by the perennial best-selling Ford Explorer with 8,359 deliveries over the same two quarters.

Even more impressive, Toyota sold 144,380 Highlanders by the year’s halfway mark in the U.S., while the second-best-selling Explorer only managed 118,241 units. There’s no way for us to easily tell how many of these sales (or lack thereof) were affected by the chip shortage, with Ford having been particularly hard hit in this crisis thus far. Recent news of Toyota preparing to halt up to 40 percent of its new vehicle production in September, for the same reason, will no doubt impact Q3 totals, and may be a reason for you to act quickly if you want to purchase a new Highlander.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
The standard back-up camera included moving guidelines, but a move up to Platinum trim adds an overhead bird’s eye view.

The Explorer outsold the Highlander in the U.S. last year, with 226,215 units to 212,276, which still left them one and two in the segment, but Toyota was ahead in Canada last year at 16,457 units to 15,283 Explorers, leaving them second and fourth, with both being outsold by Jeep’s current Cherokee and Hyundai’s Santa Fe that managed third (of course, the Highlander and Explorer were still one and two amongst three-row mid-size SUVs).

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Automatic tri-zone climate control comes standard, as does this handy shelf for stowing your smartphone, complete with a handy pass-through for charging cords.

There are a lot reasons why the Highlander earns such loyalty year in and year out, many of which I’ve already covered, but the model’s interior execution certainly took a big leap forward when the third-generation arrived, which no doubt kept owners happy long after its new car smell faded away. That older model featured such niceties as fabric-wrapped A-pillars and a soft-touch dash top and door uppers, plus more pliable composite surfaces elsewhere, as well as additional features like perforated leather upholstery, a heatable steering wheel, three-way heated and cooled front seats, an 8.0-inch centre touchscreen (large for the time), tri-zone automatic climate control with a separate rear control interface, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a HomeLink transceiver, dynamic cruise control, clearance and backup sensors, LED ambient interior lighting, a panoramic glass sunroof, rear window sunshades, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, rear cross traffic alert, a pre-collision system, and much more, these items becoming more commonplace in this segment now, but not as much back then.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
An attractive glossy ash-grey woodgrain covers the lower console surround.

Of course, the 2021 Highlander Hybrid Limited comes with all of the above and more. For starters, its interior touchpoints use improved-quality materials and an even more upscale design, my tester’s including rich chocolate brown across the dash top, door uppers and lower dash and door panels, plus a cream-coloured hue for a padded mid-dash bolster, as well as the door inserts and armrests, the padded centre console edges that keep inner knees from chafing, the centre armrest, and the seats. Additionally, the former brown colour features copper-coloured contrast stitching, while the latter creamy tone uses a contrasting dark brown thread (except the seats).

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
The centre armrest’s storage bin lid smartly slides rearward, exposing a wireless charging pad, which unfortunately might not be big enough to fit larger devices.

My 2014 Highlander Hybrid Limited included some chocolate brown elements too, but these were mostly hard plastic highlights, while the rest of its mostly tan leather interior was complemented by the usual chrome- and satin-finish metallic accents, plus medium-tone woodgrain in a nice matte finish. My 2021 example, on the other hand, boasted even more faux metal, albeit in a satiny titanium finish, with the most notable application of this treatment being a large section that spanned the dash ahead of the front passenger before forking off to surround the main touchscreen. It’s a dramatic design statement for sure, while Toyota’s choice of woodgrain looked like more of a light brownish/grey ash with a gloss finish, covering most of the lower console and trimming the tops of each door.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
The Highlander Hybrid Limited’s driver’s seat is inherently comfortable, but its two-way powered lumbar support might not fit the small of your back ideally.

Updated Highlander Hybrid Limited features now include LED low/high beam headlamps with automatic high beams, LED fog lights, LED mirror-mounted turn signals, LED puddle lamps that project a “Highlander” logo onto the road below, and LED taillights, plus 20-inch alloys instead of 19s, an electromechanical parking brake in place of the old foot-operated one, a much more vibrant primary gauge cluster featuring a large 7.0-inch colour TFT multi-information display instead of the old vertically rectangular unit that was really more of a colourful trip computer, a higher resolution glossy centre display with updated (albeit mostly monochromatic) graphics, which still only measures 8.0 inches and continues to benefit from two rows of physical buttons down each side for quick access to key functions, plus dials for power/volume and tuning/scrolling, while inside that infotainment system is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
A powered panoramic glass sunroof provides plenty of sunlight from front to back.

There are now three USB ports located in a cubby at the base of the centre stack, instead of just one, and they still feed up through a slot to a mid-dash shelf, although now that shelf is split into two, including a separate one for the front passenger. A rubberized tray just below the USB chargers is large enough for most any smartphone, but I kept mine in a wireless charger found on a flip-up tray in the storage bin under the centre armrest. I’ve heard some folks complain that the wireless charging tray is too small for their devices, and being that it fit my Samsung S9 perfectly with its case on probably means that any of the larger plus-sized phones won’t fit. Toyota will want to address problem, because most people I know have larger phones than my aging S9.

Two more USB ports can be found on the backside of the front console for rear passengers, incidentally, while there’s also a three-prong household-style plug for charging laptops, external DVD players, game consoles, etcetera. If you want second-row seat warmers in back, you’ll need to move up to the Highlander Hybrid’s Platinum package, which increases the price by $2,300, but provides a lot of extra features that I’ll mention in a minute.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
The roomy second-row seating area includes a standard bench for more total positions than the optional captain’s chairs.

If you want to communicate with those in back, Toyota now includes Driver Easy Speak together with a conversation mirror that doubles as a sunglasses holder in the overhead console, similar to the one found in the old model. Also new, a Rear Seat Reminder lets you know if you’ve left something or someone in the back seat when leaving the vehicle.

Additional advanced driver safety and convenience features standard in top-line Limited trim include Full-Speed Range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Front-to-Front Risk Detection, Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection and Bicycle Detection, Intelligent Clearance Sonar with Rear Cross Traffic Brake, Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist, Left Turn Intersection Support, Risk Avoidance (Semi-Automated Emergency Steering to Avoid Pedestrian, Bicyclist or Vehicle), and Lane Tracing Assist.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Each side of the second row slides forward and out of the way, providing easy access to the third row.

The biggest change in this latest Highlander Hybrid, however, is found behind its sportier new winged grille, because Toyota smartly chose to say goodbye to its more potent 3.5-litre V6-powered Hybrid Synergy Drive system, which made a net 280-horsepower from its dual electric motor-assisted drivetrain, and hello to a much more fuel-friendly 2.5-litre-powered alternative that once again uses two electric motors, including a separate one in the rear for eAWD. The electric motor now powering the front wheels is more capable thanks to 19 additional horsepower, resulting in a maximum of 186, although the rear one is down 14 horsepower for a total of 54, leaving the new model’s net horsepower at 243.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
The Highlander’s third row is spacious and comfortable for this class.

In the end, Toyota managed to squeeze the aforementioned 6.6 L/100km in the city, 6.8 on the highway and 6.7 combined out of the new power unit, compared to 6.8 city, 7.2 highway and 7.0 combined in the old one. And yes, that does seem like a lot of reconfiguring for just a few L/100km difference, but more importantly this drivetrain is now being used in the two-row mid-size Venza and the Sienna minivan, which are no longer available with conventional powertrains. Additionally, the decision to focus the Highlander Hybrid more on fuel economy leaves the V6-powered hybrid drivetrain to Lexus’ more premium RX 450h, which now benefits from stronger performance than its Toyota-badged equivalent.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
The Highlander Hybrid offers up 453 litres of dedicated cargo space behind the third row.

As you can probably appreciate, the new powertrain doesn’t have quite the same amount of punch off the line as the old one, but its performance deficiency isn’t all that noticeable, while it’s electronically-controlled CVT is still as smooth as ever. Smooth is the ideal descriptor of the Highlander Hybrid’s ride quality and overall refinement as well, a quality that likely lines up with most buyers in this class. This in mind, there are no paddle shifters on the steering wheel, but Sport mode really does make a difference off the line, and fast-paced handling is plenty good for this class, the Limited model’s 235/55R20 all-season tires no doubt making a difference when it comes to road-holding.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
You can stow up to 1,370 litres of gear behind the second row, but some sort of centre pass-through would have been appreciated for longer items like skis.

As good as the hybrid is, the conventionally-powered Highlander will be the go-to model for those wanting more performance, as it provides a standard 3.5-litre V6 with 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque, plus its quick-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission is a real joy to put through its paces. This said, we’re back at the big six-cylinder’s fuel economy that’s nowhere near as efficient at 10.3 L/100km combined, so stepping up to the hybrid makes perfect sense, especially in my part of Canada where a recent temporary low of $1.65 per litre for regular unleaded had me peeling off the road in order to top up my 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe tester, after waiting in a line of likeminded consumers to do so (more on that SUV in a future review).

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
With all the seats folded flat, the Highlander Hybrid can accommodate up to 2,387 litres of what-have-you.

The 2021 Highlander Hybrid’s premium over its solely internal combustion-powered equivalent is just $2,000, or at least that’s the case when comparing the base Hybrid LE AWD ($45,950) to the regular LE AWD ($43,950), although there’s still a less expensive V6-powered L trim that brings the Highlander’s actual base price down to $40,450 plus freight and fees (interestingly, the 2014 base Highlander Hybrid was more expensive at $43,720). The same $2,000 price gap is found amongst conventionally-powered and hybridized Limited trims.

I’d certainly be willing to pay another $2,300 for the Highlander’s aforementioned Platinum package, which incidentally includes second-row captain’s chairs to go along with the rear butt warmers, plus reverse auto-tilting side mirrors, a head-up display, rain-sensing wipers, a 360-degree bird’s eye surround parking camera, a larger 12.3-inch infotainment touchscreen, a digital display system for the rearview mirror (you can use either the regular or digital version by flicking a switch), and a number of styling tweaks, all for $56,450, but I also wish Toyota included a couple useful extras like auto-dimming side mirrors, a powered tilt and telescopic steering column (the worked with memory), and four-way powered lumbar support for the front seats, features many rivals provide.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
A shallow compartment can be found under the cargo floor, including a place to store the retractable cargo cover when not in use.

The driver’s seat was nevertheless extremely comfortable, other than its two-way powered lumbar support hitting the small of my back slightly high. Others might find it too low, and being that it only moves in and out, it’s always going to be a hit or miss affair. Otherwise, most body types should find the front seats more than adequate, while the non-powered tilt and telescopic steering wheel provides plenty of rearward reach, which meant my long-legged, short-torso frame was both comfortable and in full control.

Second-row roominess is about as good as this class gets too, with seats that could only be made more comfortable if the regular Highlander’s heatable captain’s chairs were offered, but they easily flip forward and out of the way for accessing the rearmost third row, which I found quite spacious and comfortable for the class, albeit missing USB charging ports.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
A new 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine provides most of the energy for the Highlander Hybrid’s updated drivetrain, assisted by a new 186-hp front electric motor and 54-hp rear motor, resulting in a net 243-hp and eAWD.

There’s a total of 453 litres of dedicated cargo space behind that rear row, by the way, or 1,370 litres behind the second row when the third row’s 60/40-split backrests are folded forward, while 2,387 litres of space can be had behind the first row when the 60/40-split second row is lowered. That’s a lot of cargo capacity, but I would’ve liked to see Toyota utilize the 40/20/40-configured second-row seat from Lexus’ RX instead of this one, as it would allow for longer items, such as skis, to be stowed down the middle while second-row passengers were more comfortably positioned to either side.

So, while Toyota’s Highlander Hybrid Limited is not perfect, it’s easily one of the best available in its three-row mid-size crossover segment. Factoring in its enviable dependability and best-in-class residual value, it’s hard to argue against it, and therefore would be my choice, despite how good the two aforementioned Korean upstarts are. Now it’s just a matter of locating one before the chip shortage dries up availability.

Review and photos by Trevor Hofmann

The Murano has been with us for a long time, at least as far as crossovers are concerned. Sports car nameplates like Corvette, SL, 911 and Mustang date back to the mid-‘50s and ‘60s, while economy…

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD Road Test

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
Nissan refreshed its mid-size Murano for 2019, but the basic design is going on eight years old and therefore could use an update.

The Murano has been with us for a long time, at least as far as crossovers are concerned.

Sports car nameplates like Corvette, SL, 911 and Mustang date back to the mid-‘50s and ‘60s, while economy cars have a couple of old-timers in their midst too, particularly the Corolla and Civic that have been with us since 1968 and 1973 respectively. The oldest mid-size sedan still available is Honda’s Accord, which dates back to 1976, while BMW’s 3 Series holds title to the most seasoned compact luxury car name, having arrived in 1975, and Mercedes’ S-Class the most experienced premium four-door model of all, hailing from ’72.

Interestingly, two of the three oldest automotive names still in use denote SUVs, specifically Toyota’s Land Cruiser (albeit not in our market) that arrived in 1951, and Chevy’s Suburban that goes all the way back to 1935, making it the oldest surviving nameplate of all—the second-oldest vehicle name, incidentally, is Ford’s venerable F-Series that began life in 1948.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
Long, low and lean, and taller in back that its sleek design appears, the Murano provide a lot of interior room.

Excluding car-based unibody or integrated-frame models that started life as traditional body-on-frame SUVs, such as Jeep’s Wagoneer that helped initiate the sport utility craze way back in 1963, Chevy’s full-size Blazer that soon followed up in ‘68, Jeep’s Cherokee that took on the K5 in 1974 (along with GMC’s Jimmy that together with the Blazer more directly targeted Ford’s Bronco—the latter first arriving in 1965, with the full-size variant showing up in 1977), the just-noted blue-oval brand’s Explorer that became the go-to soccer mom conveyance in 1982, Jeep’s Grand Wagoneer that added a surprising amount of luxury to the original Wagoneer in 1984, Nissan’s Pathfinder that challenged the two-year-old Toyota 4Runner in 1985, Honda’s Passport that was nothing more than a rebadged Isuzu Rodeo (without the hilarious Joe Isuzu ads) in 1993, Hyundai’s Santa Fe that hit Canadian roads and trails in 2000, Kia’s Sorento that did likewise in 2002, the Grand Cherokee that successfully pulled in the premium SUV crowd in 1992, and the Dodge Durango (which currently shares the GC’s unibody underpinnings) that was a big hit in 1997, plus at the smaller end of the spectrum Kia’s Sportage that arrived on U.S. shores (with some pretty funny TV ads of its own) in 1993, yet wasn’t available in Canada until the end of the last millennia along with the entire Kia brand, the earliest purely crossover names I can think of that are still in existence have to be Toyota’s RAV4 and Subaru’s Outback, which both entered our market in 1994, with the Honda CR-V showing up a year later, the Subaru Forester in 1997, and the Ford Escape in 2000.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
The Murano remains one of the sportiest looking crossovers in its class.

OK, I admit that intro was even long for my standards, not to mention one of the lengthiest run-on sentences I’ve written since, I don’t know, last week? Anyway, to get back to the plot, Nissan’s Murano, which dates back to 2002, is a time-tested name amongst mid-size crossover SUV forerunners, only pre-dated by Toyota’s Highlander that arrived two years earlier. Now that we’ve ventured so far down this rabbit hole, you might as well know that Honda’s Pilot entered the picture in 2003, Ford’s Edge, GMC’s Acadia and Mazda’s CX-9 showed up in 2006, while Chevy’s Traverse and the Toyota Venza arrived in 2008, with everything else no more than a decade old. Plenty of crossover names have come and gone too, but don’t worry, I’ll leave those for another look down memory lane at some point in the not-too-distant future.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
Nissan updated most of the Murano’s front fascia a few years ago, but the changes were nevertheless subtle to all but previous owners.

I was on the Murano’s original Canadian press launch back in 2002, by the way, and I think it’s fair to say that it thoroughly impressed most of the auto scribes who drove it around Vancouver’s Fraser Valley on that cloudy day. It was one of, if not the first mid-size SUV with a continuously variable transmission that I’d ever driven (although not the first all-wheel drive vehicle with a CVT, that being my dad’s mid-‘80s Subaru Justy). Nowadays, an SUV with a CVT is hardly novel, but combined with its 245 horsepower 3.5-litre V6, standard all-wheel drivetrain, and nicely sorted chassis, it made for smooth yet sporty performance, while its styling really pushed boundaries for the time.

That first-generation Murano lasted just five model years, from 2003 to 2007, and while the second-gen Murano was better in every way, I didn’t find the styling as alluring during its heyday, but looking back its design probably aged better. Once again, powered solely by a 3.5-litre V6 (at least in our market), and mated to a CVT with standard AWD (plus FWD in the U.S.), albeit upgraded by 20 horsepower to 265, it was a force to be reckoned with in its two-row mid-size class, but after six model years, from 2009 to 2014, Nissan smartly updated it to the current design, which truly was as eye-popping when it came out as the original in the early aughts.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
Auto on/off LED headlights with high beam assist come standard across the Murano line.

Now, seven years later, or eight if we include the upcoming 2022 model that will see no significant changes, the Murano is somewhat dated. Don’t get me wrong, as it’s still an attractive utility that remains sleeker and more progressive looking than many in its segment, but thanks to styling trends that are diverting away from sinuous curves and other types of organic forms to more abrupt angles combined with complex folds and creases, time has a way of making anything look old. Why Nissan has chosen to leave the Murano so long between updates, other than a subtle mid-cycle refresh that you’d need to be an owner to notice, is anyone’s guess, but this certainly hasn’t helped it remain near the top of the sales charts.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
Fog lamps are standard, but the 20-inch alloy wheels on 235/55R20 all-season tires are exclusive to Platinum trim.

After six months of 2021, the Murano sits in fourth place amongst dedicated two-row crossover SUVs due to just 3,691 Canadian deliveries, which isn’t a bad ranking considering all the competition in this segment, not to mention all the challenges the automotive market has been facing over the past two years, but it’s a far cry from the success enjoyed in previous years, 2017 its best year ever at 15,120 unit-sales. Then again, when factoring in mid-size models that provide three rows, the Murano plunges to 12th place in the mid-size SUV segment. That’s a long downward slide from third in the two-row class and fifth overall in 2016, which at least in part shows the importance of regular redesigns.

So far this year, the top-selling model in the entire mid-size crossover SUV segment is Toyota’s Highlander with 10,403 units down the road, while Ford’s Explorer comes in second with 8,359 deliveries. Third is Hyundai’s Santa Fe with 7,514 new customers to its credit, while Jeep’s Grand Cherokee (arguably more of a true 4×4) is a close fourth at 7,234 units. I could go on, but it’s easy to see that Nissan’s five-occupant contender now lags far behind these front-runners, therefore a replacement is long past due.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
These powered and heated exterior mirrors with LED turn signal indicators come standard on all Muranos.

Of course, the Murano was never a top-three player solely due to styling. Its single 3.5-litre V6, which was considered a no-cost bonus when pump prices were lower, is hardly the most fuel-efficient these days either, the AWD variant that I most recently tested achieving a less-than-ideal rating of 12.0 L/100km in the city, 8.5 on the highway and 10.4 combined, although at least now there’s a base FWD version in Canada for those wanting to reduce both initial and ongoing costs, thanks to a slight mileage improvement to 11.7, 8.3 and 10.2 respectively. How does that compare to others in the class?

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
AWD models feature a standard panoramic glass sunroof.

It’s actually not that bad when sidled up to the segment-leading Highlander, at least when compared to its base 3.5-litre V6 that’s rated at 10.3 L/100km combined, but that model is available with a hybrid drivetrain as well, which allows for a much more appealing 6.7 L/100km estimated rating, plus the new five-passenger Venza, which is only available as a hybrid and targets the Murano more directly, ekes out a shockingly good 6.1 L/100km rating. The base Santa Fe isn’t as thrifty as the Venza at 9.1 L/100km combined, while the same SUV with AWD is rated at 9.9, but a new hybridized version is good for 7.4 combined (just how Toyota makes its Venza and Highlander Hybrid so efficient is anyone’s guess?). A more common comparison might be Ford’s Edge, which while doing better on the sales charts (despite the blue-oval brand’s especially difficult time allocating microchips), only slightly edges the Murano out when it comes to fuel economy at 9.8 for the FWD model and 10.0 with AWD.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
The Murano’s standard LED taillights make an distinctive design at night.

Interestingly, the Murano was available as a hybrid in the U.S. market for one single model year, 2016, but Nissan didn’t have high hopes for the electrified model, with expectations of selling just 600 units, or about one percent of all the V6-powered Muranos sold the year prior. As it was, Nissan’s U.S. division had a stellar 12 months in 2016 with 86,953 Murano deliveries, but I’m guessing the take-rate on the Murano Hybrid was even worse than hoped for, because it was killed off before most potential buyers even found out it existed. At 8.1 L/100km combined (reached by converting its 29-mpg combined EPA rating), its fuel economy wasn’t as good as Toyota’s hybrid SUVs either, which might be why would-be buyers didn’t take the bait, but its combination of a supercharged 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine, electric motor, and lithium-ion battery pack certainly sounds intriguing.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
The Murano might be going on eight years of age, but its interior remains one of the most luxurious in its mid-size mainstream volume-branded class.

Moving inside, a feature that especially ages badly in this modern age is in-car electronics, and to be kind the Murano could use an update to its primary gauge cluster and infotainment system. The former is actually pretty good, having received a big, colourful multi-information display back when this third-gen version was new. Of course, the graphics require some attention and the screen’s resolution isn’t exactly high-definition, but most users shouldn’t be put off, and it’s certainly packed full of useful features. This said, some of the Murano’s rivals are sporting fully digital driving displays that can even be configured for personal style and info, with some Korean models even integrating monitors that automatically project rear-facing cameras onto the display when using the turn signals, but the Murano’s electroluminescent dials to either side of the MID are wonderfully bright and easy to read in any lighting condition, plus they look really good.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
The Murano provides a nice, bright, inviting interior that really ups the luxury ante, bordering on premium.

As for the centre display, it’s a nice, straightforward touchscreen measuring a reasonable 8.0 inches and appearing unchanged over the past seven or so years, which of course is way too long for any user interface to go without a significant update. Again, its resolution is not up to today’s standards, and graphics, while colourful, are a bit remedial, plus its response times to inputs aren’t exactly the quickest. All the expected features are either standard or available, even including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration. My tester included a helpful overhead parking camera too, as well as a very accurate navigation system, which comes standard in all trims above base, while as-tested Platinum trim adds SiriusXM-powered NissanConnect Services for improving in-car safety, security and convenience.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
The instrument cluster is pretty impressive for the Murano’s age, with a nice, large, colourful multi-information display at centre.

Where the Murano continues to shine despite its age is in near premium levels of materials quality. Truly, it’ll make you wonder why Nissan didn’t just badge it with Infiniti’s logo, thanks to thickly padded fabric wrapping around each roof pillar, a soft composite dash top, an even nicer padded leatherette instrument hood complete with contrast stitching, the same high-quality surfacing used for the dash on the door uppers front to back, nicely padded door panels that stay pliable all the way down to the very bottom of the doors, yet more padded leatherette used around the outer edges of the centre console, and gorgeous diamond-quilted leather upholstery with breathable perforations covering the seats from front to back.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
The Murano’s centre stack is intelligently laid out and wholly functional, but the styling of its buttons, dials and other controls comes across a tad dated.

Nissan finished my tester’s cabin in a rich looking ivory-cream hue dubbed Cashmere, which while a tad challenging to keep clean, looked absolutely gorgeous (a more chocolaty Mocha colour is also available). While the hides on the seats were very real, and soft semi-aniline leather to boot, the matte-finish woodgrain inlays across the dash, centre console, centre armrest, plus door panels only looked and felt authentic, attributes that can also be lauded upon the satin-finish silver accents and chrome detailing found throughout the entire interior.

There’s a premium level of solidity to the Murano too, which few in this class measure up to. This likely comes from unseen features, such as thick insulation used within the doors and under the floor, not to mention overhead within the roof liner and outer panel, plus the bulkheads separating the engine compartment from passengers, etcetera. It all comes together to create a wonderful hush that once again feels more like what one would expect from an Infiniti, rather than a Nissan. In fact, this fully-loaded Murano comes close to matching the dearly-departed Infiniti QX70, a vehicle I particularly liked, especially due to its diamond-pattern upholstery.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
The optional dual-screen parking camera is very nice, but feel free to check out the gallery if you want to see how old-school the centre touchscreen looks.

The Murano Platinum’s seats are wonderfully comfortable too, and provide plenty of accommodation for larger body types. Nevertheless, my smallish five-foot-eight frame also fit in well, while the power steering column was able to reach far enough rearward to provide a good seating position for my somewhat awkward long-legged, short-torso body type, thus allowing for optimal comfort and control.

When seated behind the driver’s seat that, as just noted was setup for my relatively longish legs, I had plenty of room for legs and feet, this being a key benefit that comes when choosing a five-passenger utility over most competitors with three rows, as the rearmost row can often compromise second-row spaciousness. There was ample room from side-to-side in back too, plus more than enough headroom for taller folk.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
The Murano’s CVT is smooth and linear, but sporty it’s not, as there’s no manual mode at all.

Likewise, the Murano’s cargo compartment is sizeable thanks to the SUV’s long, low and lean profile design being more of an optical illusion than actually incorporating a radically raked rear hatch. This is partially created by the Murano’s floating roof design, which melds fluidly into a blackened rear rooftop spoiler. All said, Nissan’s two-row mid-sizer provides 941 litres of dedicated cargo space, whereas lowering both its 60/40-split rear seatbacks, via handy levers located on both sides of the cargo wall, results in 1,890 litres of total cargo volume. That should be more than enough for most families’ needs, but of course Nissan provides its three-row Pathfinder for those who require more. The only improvement I’d make to this setup for the next-generation Murano is to divide the rear seats into a 40/20/40 configuration, which provides space down the middle for longer items like skis while both rear passengers enjoy the more comfortable window seats, not to mention warmed cushions if so equipped.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
Surprisingly, this aging SUV incorporates very advanced USB-C charging ports, along with USB-A connectors, auxiliary inputs and 12-volt chargers, but no wireless device charging pad.

The Murano Platinum does provide two-way rear seat heaters in those outboard positions, incidentally, plus USB-A and -C charging outlets on the backside of the front console, along with a set of HVAC vents. A centre armrest can be folded down when only two are in back, filled with large cupholders and a small storage tray. Also benefiting rear passengers is a panoramic glass sunroof overhead, which stretches all the way back for a wonderfully open and airy ambiance that elevates the luxury experience to (dare I once again say) a premium level.

Features in mind, the Platinum model’s leather-wrapped steering wheel rim is heatable, and the front seats heated or cooled via two metal-edged rotating dials on the lower console, including three settings per function. Additionally, powered USB-A and -C ports can be found on the base of the centre stack just ahead, right between the ignition button and a 12-volt charger. There is no wireless charging pad, however, a downer for those of us who live with such conveniences at home.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
The Platinum’s matte woodgrain trim is really well done, feeling and looking authentic.

Another negative, the HVAC system, which sits just above on the centre stack, is only dual-zone in a market that sometimes offers three zones or more with rear controls in its loftiest trims, but the Murano’s simple twin-dial and multi-button interface design is easy to sort out and works well, while just above, an overhead console boasts LED illumination as well as a much-appreciated sunglasses holder.

Other Platinum features (some of which are pulled up from lesser trims) include auto on/off LED headlights with high beam assist, fog lamps, redundant LED turn signals within the side mirror housings, LED taillights, roof rails, remote start, proximity key, a motion-activated powered liftgate, front illuminated aluminum kick plates, adjustable ambient interior lighting, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a HomeLink garage door opener, front and rear parking sensors, adaptive cruise control, hands-free text messaging, a great sounding Bose audio system with 11 speakers and two subwoofers, satellite radio, an eight-way powered driver’s seat with two-way power lumbar, a four-way powered front passenger seat, driver-side memory for the seat, steering column and mirrors, and a haptic steering wheel that vibrates in order to alert a driver of impending danger.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
The Murano Platinum’s front seats look gorgeous and feel good too, with numerous adjustments resulting in a good driving position.

This brings up the Murano’s advanced safety features, which for 2021 include Intelligent Forward Collision Warning, Moving Object Detection, Intelligent Emergency Braking with Pedestrian Detection, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Rear Intelligent Emergency Braking, Blind Spot Warning, Lane Departure Warning, Intelligent Lane Departure Intervention, Intelligent Driver Alertness, Traffic Sign Recognition, and Rear Door Alert.

Speaking of highly advanced features, the Murano’s parking brake is not one of them. Then again, I can remember back to the days you needed to reach down and pull a lever under the dash to unlatch the emergency brake of automatic-equipped cars, which made the first time I was able to merely press my left foot down to release an engaged parking brake pedal a newfound luxury. Of course, this was in an era that a tap from one’s right foot switched the high beams on and off, so we should best leave such “technologies” in the past, as I’m sure Nissan will eventually do with the Murano’s old-school parking brake pedal.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
Check out the Murano’s big panoramic sunroof from inside.

All the other pedals work as expected, the rightmost one quite adequately thanks to 260 horsepower and 240 lb-ft of torque from the aforementioned 3.5-litre V6, and yes, I’m aware that’s 5 horsepower less than the previous second-gen Murano, not to mention 8 lb-ft less torque. What’s that about? It’s probably a fuel-efficiency issue, although it’s possible Nissan merely provided a more accurate reading of an engine that actually made the same output. Either way, it’s more than enough to get this 1,873-kilo (4,129-lb) SUV up to highway speeds quickly.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
The rear seats are roomy and comfortable.

It’s a smooth engine too, especially combined to its velvety CVT, but keep in mind there’s no way to shift “gears”, and Nissan doesn’t offer a Sport mode to make the experience any more exciting. The transmission does simulate automatic shifts well, however, mimicking a regular autobox, and once again it’s a highly efficient design that pays off at the pump, while it’s proven to provide good dependability over the long haul.

Like the drivetrain, the Murano’s fully-independent front strut and rear multi-link suspension is smooth and comfortable, adding to the premium feel I keep going on and on about, while its handling is easily up to the majority of mid-size crossovers on the market, and better than some.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
Rear seating amenities include USB-C and -A charging ports, plus two-way heaters for the outboard positions.

That’s the thing. If this current Murano was alternatively an all-new model this year, complete with up-to-date electronics, an electromechanical parking brake, and a few other modernizations, it would probably fly out of Nissan’s showrooms. It’s that good, and to my eyes at least, remains a very attractive offering. The problem is it’s going on eight years old, and there’s no way an automaker can maintain customer loyalty without updating its most important models regularly.

Last year’s compact Rogue was getting a bit long-in-the-tooth before being updated this year too, but the new one is superb (more about my week with that SUV coming soon), while I’m guessing the upcoming 2022 Pathfinder redesign will impress just as well (its fourth-generation predecessor went back farther than the current Murano). That model’s new nine-speed automatic transmission bodes well for the next-gen Murano ditching its CVT as well, so good things are in store for this SUV at some point in the future. Let’s hope it’s sooner than later.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
The Murano’s dedicated cargo space is generous at 941 litres.

As it is, Nissan is offering up to $3,300 in additional incentives for a new 2021 Murano, while CarCostCanada members have been saving an average of $4,300 after first finding out about its dealer invoice price, and then using that money-saving information to negotiate their best deal (find out how there system can save you thousands, and be sure to download their free app as well). With a decent discount the Murano becomes an attractive offering, especially considering that AWD versions start at $40,098, plus freight and fees. The base Murano S FWD, on the other hand, is the model’s loss leader thanks to a $34,098 starting point, while just above the just-noted SV AWD is the third-rung $43,898 SL AWD, plus the $45,098 Midnight Edition AWD (which basically blackens out most of the bright metal trim and wheels), and finally this $46,898 top-line Platinum AWD. None of these prices are unreasonable when factoring in the high level of refinement and quality provided, but a healthy discount is probably needed to pull in buyers that might otherwise look across the street at Toyota’s Venza, which starts at $38,490 with a hybrid drivetrain and AWD, or something similar.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum AWD
The 60/40-split rear seatbacks fold down easily via handy release levers on the cargo walls.

So, should you buy a new Murano? Again, with a decent discount, go ahead. It should be a reliable SUV, being that Nissan has had plenty of time to get it right, but then again, the Murano doesn’t place in first, second or even third in any of the latest third-party analytical firms’ dependability studies, and hasn’t won any of the most recent residual value awards either. Some of the above only show one winner while others show runners up too, with the Canadian Black Book’s 2020 Best Retained Value Awards putting Toyota’s 4Runner on top, the same brand’s Highlander in second, and Mazda’s CX-9 in third, plus J.D. Power’s 2021 ALG Residual Value Awards featuring Honda’s Passport atop its “Midsize Utility Vehicle—2nd Row Seating” category, which might mean a well-cared-for pre-owned Murano could be a better bet.

Hopefully Nissan will have a new Murano available sometime next year for the 2023 model year, which will allow me to sing praises to it as easily as can for the new Rogue, but I’ll guess you’re not here to contemplate new models we know nothing about yet. Until then, choose wisely.

Review and photos by Trevor Hofmann

Mercedes was a forerunner in the subcompact luxury class with its B-Class MPV back in 2005. The practical little runabout provided a higher level of interior quality and better overall solidity than more…

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch Road Test

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
Mercedes’ A 250 4Matic Hatch is one of the sportiest cars in its subcompact luxury class, at least before AMG gets their hands on it.

Mercedes was a forerunner in the subcompact luxury class with its B-Class MPV back in 2005. The practical little runabout provided a higher level of interior quality and better overall solidity than more mainstream volume-branded small cars of the era, and therefore quickly became a hit here in Canada. No doubt many miss that intelligently designed people mover, but this said far fewer seem saddened by its loss than are now buying into its replacement, the much more universally appealing A-Class.

Mercedes brought its stylish four-door A 220 sedan and A 250 Hatch to market three years ago for the 2019 model year, and it quickly became the entry-level luxury sector’s most popular model, unless we’re including Mini’s Cooper (that edged the A out by 67 units in 2019) as a true premium-level car. Nevertheless, the A-Class, together with its sportier CLA sibling, dominate the subcompact luxury car segment, and believe me it’s not difficult to understand why.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
Featuring classic five-door hatchback lines, the A 250 combines a sporty look with plenty of practicality.

I’ve driven all of the above, and therefore can attest to the many improvements Mercedes has brought to the fledgeling entry-level luxury sector. I say fledgeling because most premium brands continue to ignore it completely, instead focusing on entry-level crossover SUVs. Including the upright Mini hatchback and comparatively long, low and sleek CLA, only seven models occupy this smaller subcompact arena, the Cooper and A-Class followed by Audi’s A3 (and derivatives), BMW’s 2 Series, Acura’s ILX, and BMW’s i3, the latter of which probably fits more ideally into a separate entry-level electric luxury car category that doesn’t really exist yet.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
An available Sport Package upgrades the grille, lower front fascia and while, plus plenty of interior features.

The latter list is based on their sales volume in calendar year 2020, by the way, and on that note, I expected the much less expensive four-door Gran Coupé body-style would give BMW’s 2 Series line a solid leg up the segment’s sales chart order last year, but it didn’t even manage to outpace the aging Audi A3, which never even received a 2021 version to boost sales at the end of last year, due to soon being replaced for 2022.

That last car in mind makes me wonder why Audi doesn’t believe it can sell the hatchback version of its A3 in North America, while Mercedes obviously can. Sedans have long done better in the U.S. market, but there’s a place for arguably sportier looking and definitely more practical liftbacks, that is unless trunk security is a big issue in your city. Property crime is rampant in my town, especially from cars, but I’d still prefer a hatch over a sedan for general convenience’ sake, especially when loading it full of gear.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
The sharper more aggressive front fascia and corner vents are part of an optional Sport Package, as are the 18-inch AMG alloys.

Fortunately, I was able to test the A 220 4Matic late last year, plus this slightly quicker A 250 4Matic Hatch, and AMG versions of both (those two reviews are shortly forthcoming), and while I might find it difficult to choose from the four, opting for Mercedes over the others wouldn’t be as difficult a decision. After all, along with their good looks, fabulous interior design, and impressive all-round performance, they scored highest amongst their Compact Luxury Car classmates in AutoPacific’s latest 2021 Vehicle Satisfaction Award (VSA), after doing the same in that third-party analytical firm’s 2020 Ideal Vehicle Awards (IVA) study.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
Gotta love these twinned five-spoke alloy rims wrapped in 225/45R18 Michelin Primacy MXM4 all-season rubber.

Likewise, Vincentric (another third-party analytical firm) awarded the A 220 4Matic with the Best Fleet Value in Canada in its Luxury Compact segment, and they even include larger compacts within this category, such as Mercedes’ own C-Class and BMW’s 3 Series. Speaking of holding value, the Canadian Black Book gave similar accolades to the just-noted C-Class in their 2020 “Best Retained Value” Award (2021 hasn’t been revealed yet) that, like Vincentric, includes subcompacts as well, so that honour should rub off a bit on its little A-Class brother’s shoulders, but then again BMW’s 2 Series is said to have held onto most of its “investment” in the Premium Compact Car category of J.D. Power’s 2021 Canada ALG Residual Value Awards, while that firm’s 2021 Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS) puts the most affordable Bimmer on top of its Small Premium Car segment too.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
The A-Class’ interior is a cut above all competitors when it comes to style.

I obviously need to call BMW in order to book a test drive, hopefully in the newish Gran Coupé, which I must admit is one great looking sport sedan, plus if it drives anywhere near as well as the M2 I tested previously, it has to be a serious contender in this class. Of course, BMW has yet to offer anything so practical in the entry-level sector with its sportiest M badge, something Mercedes has been doing with its AMG division for as long as its CLA has been in existence (model year 2014), so kudos to the F1-inspired mega-luxury brand for bestowing power on the masses so early. Audi followed shortly thereafter with its S3 for 2015 and RS 3 for 2018, while it took BMW until model year 2016 to arrive with its M2, which to this day remains available in two-door Coupe form only.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
The A 250’s cockpit is just like the A 220’s, although this example features the optional dual-display MBUX driver’s display and infotainment touchscreen that come as part of the Premium Package.

Just how I fell down this subcompact luxury/performance car rabbit hole and remained trapped inside for so long, says a lot about my undisciplined personality, but suffice to say Mercedes’ go-fast attitude trickles down to its more fuel-conscious trim lines. Before delving into the exact A 250 Hatch shown on this page, it might interest you to know about the various trims and how they all fit together to form the most diverse lineup in the subcompact luxury car segment.

For starters, the A 220 sedan receives a 188-horsepower version of Mercedes’ 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine that’s good for 221 lb-ft of torque, driving all four wheels through a quick-shifting yet smooth-operating seven-speed dual-clutch automated gearbox. The A 250 Hatch ups the ante with a much more potent spin on the same engine, enhanced with 221 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, which just happens to be the same output as found in the base CLA 250 4Matic.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
Just look at the crisp high-definition graphics and beautifully deep colours the MBUX system provides, in a driver’s display that’s very configurable.

While all this sounds great, take note of the AMG A 35’s claimed output of 302 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, regardless of sedan or hatchback body styles, while the AMG CLA 45 puts out a staggering 382 horsepower and 354 lb-ft of torque. That one I must drive, as it comes mighty close to the M2’s 405 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque, yet as already noted does so in a much more livable four-door package.

Coming back to earth, the A 250 Hatch is a very spirited daily driver, that not only puts fun back into the weekly commute, but combines that with a bit of thrifty pragmatism at the pump thanks to an estimated fuel economy rating of 9.4 L/100km in the city, 6.8 on the highway, and 8.2 combined when driving modestly in Eco mode. Surprisingly, that rating makes it more efficient than the less powerful A 220, which nevertheless sips fuel at the fairly easy rate of 9.6 L/100km city, 6.9 highway and 8.4 combined, which either means the A 250 Hatch provides a best-of-all-world’s performance/efficiency scenario, or Canada’s five-cycle testing method is somehow out of whack.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
The centre stack is highlighted by the other half of the colourful MBUX display, although the gorgeous aluminum air vents are definitely vying for attention.

The two AMG-powered A-Class models are pretty stingy on fuel too, by the way, with identical ratings of 9.5 combined, while the quickest CLA isn’t much thirstier at 10.3 combined, that latter giving some buyers reason enough to choose the Merc over the comparatively gluttonous M2, which slurps up 12.6 L/100km of pricey premium. Don’t get me wrong, because I absolutely love the M2, but something more practical as a daily driver would be a necessity in my life.

Enter the A 250 4Matic Hatch, what I think is the ideal balance of luxury, spaciousness, and performance in this class, all for a reasonable price. It sneaks under the $40k threshold at $39,900, albeit before adding freight and fees (plus options you’ll definitely want), yet after subtracting up to $1,000 in additional factory incentives, according to CarCostCanada’s 2021 Mercedes-Benz A-Class Canada Prices page.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
It’s difficult to imagine anyone feeling let down by Mercedes’ MBUX infotainment system, making it easily worth the $2,950 price hike for the Premium Package alone, although it comes with much more.

The A 220 4Matic sedan, incidentally, is available for $2,100 less at a price of $37,800, plus identical fees and minus the same discounts, although an affordable CarCostCanada membership will provide you with dealer invoice pricing that you can use to negotiate a better price, as proven by its members’ A-Class savings that currently average $3,350. Check out how membership benefits work, and be sure to download their free app from the Google Play Store or Apple Store so you can have all their info on your device when needed.

While we’re talking pricing, both AMG A 35 models start at $49,800, also fair for all the added performance, features and styling upgrades, so don’t count this one out before doing the requires maths to see if you can fit one into your budget. This said, I would totally understand if someone chose an A 250 hatch instead, being that its straight-line performance is more than adequate, handling prowess excellent, and overall refinement easily up to premium standards.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
The infotainment display is a touchscreen, at least until the backup camera takes over. It features active guidelines, proximity warnings, and an available overhead view.

I’ll let you decide how you feel about its exterior styling, as it’s a personal taste issue, but for what it’s worth I love the way this car, and the rest of the A-Class lineup looks. Its sport grille pulls on classic Mercedes design cues going all the way back to “Silver Arrows” race cars of the 1950s, the W196 Streamliner a personal favourite, which, along with an open-wheel variant, helped the three-pointed star brand sweep the Formula One World Championships in 1954 and ’55 by claiming victory at the old high-speed Monza, Italy track (with its fabulous high-banked curves) in Streamlined Type Monza bodywork (they had more flexible regulations back then), with two legends, Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss, at the wheel.

I love Mercedes’ storied history, something you really can’t put a price on. Sure, Asian luxury brands provide some nice premium alternatives, but few marques come close to offering up what Mercedes has in store, no matter the premium segment they’re competing in. For an example, Porsche’s brilliant 911 GT2 RS (991.2) only recently unseated the phenomenal AMG GT Black Series’ fastest production car lap record on the famed Nürburgring Nordschleife race track, and I’m willing to bet Mercedes will be back to once again contest single-lap bragging rights at some point in the near future, while it should also be noted the German automaker (with help from Brackley) has owned the top spot in F1 for seven consecutive years running.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
This lower console-mounted touchpad with surrounding switchgear allows for redundant control of the infotainment system.

Back at the Nürburgring, a current A 45 S 4Matic+ (W177) was piloted around the 20.8-km course in October of 2019, managing a respectable time of 7:48.80 minutes, which while not quite as quick as the GT Black Series that ran the ‘Ring in just 6:43.616 in order to earn fastest production car status back in November of 2020, makes me ponder how much fun this A 250 4Matic would be on a closed course.

Alas, no opportunity arose for me to take this little liftback to my local raceway, not that the 2-km, nine-turn road course is anything to get particularly excited about, especially when considering all the circuitous mountainside roads located throughout my area. Thus, my weeklong test of this A 250 4Matic Hatch, which included a dedicated day-trip, was most enjoyable, which of course included a few stints that hovered slightly over posted speeds for short durations.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
These sport seats provide superb comfort and good support, plus plenty of adjustability for an excellent driving position.

The engine’s aforementioned output gives the A 250 good power off the line, resulting in a claimed zero to 100 km/h time of 6.2 seconds (which is 1.5 seconds slower than the A 35 Hatch, in case you were wondering), while its dual-clutch gearbox, complete with steering wheel paddles and a very engaging Dynamic Sport mode, shortens input reaction times to make the most of the drivetrain and nicely sorted chassis setup.

To be clear, Sport mode doesn’t make any changes to the front strut and rear multi-link suspension’s pre-set characteristics, which is already lowered slightly from the A 220 sedan. My tester, which rode on 225/45R18 Michelin Primacy MXM4 all-season rubber encircling four gorgeous AMG-branded five-spoke alloys, was noticeably sharper in most every other way, which certainly seemed to enhance its overall performance through corners. Braking is strong too, and totally controllable, even when clamping down hard from high speeds, something I was able to do repeatedly with very little fade.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
Kudos to Mercedes for the extendable driver’s seat cushion that nicely cups below the knees for additional comfort.

The other three modes are Eco, Comfort, and Individual, the first one being where I left it more often than not in order to minimize fuel consumption, the second a default mode it automatically reverted to at start up, and the final fourth setting allowing some personal choice between performance parameters. Eco and Comfort modes transform the compact hatch into a fairly refined city commuter and highway cruiser, although to be frank this isn’t the most cosseting of suspensions in the class. You will feel the road below, something Mercedes drivers openly appreciate, but I didn’t find it as firm as a similarly optioned 2 Series.

Driving more casually gives opportunity to appreciate the A 250’s beautiful interior. I know BMW does a good job with quality, as does Audi, all the Germans being leaps and bounds ahead of the sole Japanese contender in this class, but Mercedes is the absolute king of bling inside. The A-Class has a drop-dead gorgeous cabin, starting with its two-in-one MBUX digital gauge cluster/infotainment touchscreen that provides such brilliantly crisp and sensationally colourful graphics it’ll take your breath away.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
Overhead is a very large powered glass sunroof, shedding light on the A 250’s impressive interior.

The driver’s display allows each user to choose a design that suits their personal style, all of which are more vibrant than anything I’ve seen from the competition. The integrated multi-information display is as full of functions as anything in this class too, providing loads of discoverable options to keep the love alive long after the initial excitement of purchase might otherwise subside.

The attached infotainment display is a touchscreen, as noted, and therefore fully capable of tablet-like tap, swipe and pinch gesture controls, depending on the function being used. I should also note that Mercedes provides a redundant infotainment controller on the lower console that’s easier to reach when sitting back in the driver’s seat. It includes a touchpad that works identically to the touchscreen, other than providing haptic feedback, plus is surrounded by a number of quick-access switchgear for immediate access to regularly used functions. Yet more infotainment redundancy can be found on the steering wheel spokes, so Mercedes has you covered no matter how you want to integrate with the MBUX system.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
The rear seating area is spacious and accommodating for the subcompact luxury class, plus can be filled with premium features.

The infotainment monitor is just as high in definition as the driver’s display, by the way, and includes all the expected features when moving up through Mercedes’ checklist of options. What this means is you’ll need to spend more to get features that might come standard in cars from the Asian brands, such as Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration which, believe it or not, come as part of the $2,950 Premium Package.

There’s a lot more in that package that you’ll most likely want, including a wireless device charger, proximity-sensing keyless access, ambient lighting, an auto-dimming centre mirror and driver’s side mirror, power-folding exterior mirrors, blind spot assist, vehicle exit warning, live traffic info, a Connect 20 Mid audio upgrade, and get this, a digital instrument cluster, 10.25-inch central media display, and MBUX extended functions, such as an automatic front camera that warns of stationary obstacles (even cars ahead when pulling up to a stoplight), or a similar feature that does the same thing when a pedestrian is walking across a crosswalk. This said, the ultra-wide combined displays I made such a fuss about earlier, are not standard.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
Dedicated cargo capacity is very accommodating and nicely finished.

This I didn’t know before writing this review, because I’ve never seen the alternative. In fact, just try to look through online images for a photo of a base model with analogue gauges and a separate display screen and you probably won’t be able to locate anything, something I did at length in multiple search tools. Even Mercedes doesn’t show this interior when configuring an A 250 on their retail website, this base car always showing the upgraded instrument panel photo in its interior gallery. It’s as if it didn’t exist at all. I’m guessing the Premium Package is chosen by each and every dealer, because who’d want an A-Class without it? It’s a smart way to get the advertised retail price below $40k, but probably not reflective of anything you’re going to find on the lot. I suppose you could order one if you really wanted to remain analogue.

Navigation is optional too, which is normal for this class. The $1,000 augmented reality-enhanced upgrade provides live traffic information as well, plus traffic sign assist, while a $1,600 Technology Package adds active Multibeam LED headlights with adaptive high beams, and Distronic active distance assist.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
The 40/20/40 split-folding rear seatbacks allow for plenty of storage configurations, a personal favourite being the ability to stow longer items, like skis, down the middle while two rear passengers enjoy the more comfortable window seats.

Advanced driver aids and safety equipment in mind, a $1,900 Intelligent Drive Package adds Distronic active distance assist separately, plus active speed limit assist, map-based speed adaptation, enhanced automated stop-and-go, active brake assist with cross-traffic function, active emergency stop assist, active blind spot assist, active steering assist, evasive steering assist, active lane change assist, and active lane keeping assist.

Should I go on? Maybe it’s better if you go to Mercedes’ retail site to build this car yourself, or for that matter over to the CarCostCanada page I mentioned earlier, where you can configure it similarly, right down to the wide array of $890 to $2,500 optional paint colours.

Before departing completely from the options menu, I should probably point out that the AMG-style wheels noted before are in fact part of a $1,500 Sport Package that also changes up the grille with a chromed diamond-block insert, plus it modifies the lower front fascia with a more aggressive AMG design featuring attractive metallic accents. Inside, your feet will rest upon special AMG floor mats when they’re not pressing down on a set of AMG brushed stainless steel sport pedals, while your backside settles in to upgraded sport front seats and your hands grip a much nicer sport steering wheel wrapped in fine Nappa leather, the aluminum shift paddles on its backside part of this package as well. A bit more ($2,000) will swap the Sport Package out for an all-black Night Package, if a more menacing look is your thing.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
Below the cargo floor, are items for fixing a flat and a shallow area for hiding valuables from prying eyes.

The steering wheel rim can be heatable for an additional $250, or for $1,200 more the just-noted front seats can be climate cooled to reduce perspiration during hot summer months. Other extras include a $450 powered front passenger seat with memory, a $300 universal remote, a $650 overhead parking camera, a $1,500 head-up display, a $900 active parking assist system, a $700 Burmester audio upgrade with 12 speakers and 450 watts of power (that would be high on my list, despite the regular audio system sounding just fine), $450 for satellite radio, and more. A car with all of these options and a simple metallic paint will add about $17,000 to the base model’s list price, resulting in about $57k before any discount, which is more or less the level of top-tier pricing you’ll find with most of the A 250 Hatch’s rivals.

What you won’t find with any of these are the interior details hinted at earlier, the dual-display MBUX system only part of the car’s wow factor. The stunning five circular HVAC vents on the dash are eye-arresting enough, their brushed aluminum finish looking like a quintet of retro jet engines. Likewise, knurled metal trim bits adorn some of the key buttons, knobs and toggles, while plenty of other interior accents are finished in aluminum or aluminized composite. If the little A 250’s interior doesn’t titillate your senses, I’m afraid you’ve lost your love for cars, or at least modern, tech-filled conveyances.

2021 Mercedes-Benz A 250 4Matic Hatch
An engine worth celebrating, particularly if you’re moving up from the 188-hp A 220, thanks to a much more energizing 221-hp.

If you’re more into taller SUVs than classically shaped cars, most everything that makes the A 250 4Matic great can be had in the GLA 250 4Matic, so keep that in mind while shopping. Likewise, the A-Class’ general styling, on the outside and inside, is much like its larger brethren, although the C-Class never received Mercedes’ dual MBUX display, and will soon skip right past that infotainment era for the 2022 model year, which introduces a new version of the system featuring individual driving and media interfaces, the latter a lot larger and closer to the driver, thus negating the redundant lower console-mounted touchpad and controls that come as part of an upgraded A-Class and so many other models in Mercedes’ lineup.

Eventually we’ll see how this next chapter in interior design plays out in future A-Class models, but until then, today’s A remains the most advanced subcompact luxury car on the planet (when so equipped). So, if you’re in the market for an entry-level premium car, you’ve really got to check the A-Class out in person.

Review and photos by Trevor Hofmann

In the burgeoning subcompact SUV segment, one model stands above them all. Kia’s Kona only arrived on the scene in March of 2018, but in only its first partial year it rose to sales prominence in Canada,…

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate Road Test

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate
Hyundai’s Kona is one sweet looking ride, especially as-tested in top-line 1.6T AWD Ultimate trim.

In the burgeoning subcompact SUV segment, one model stands above them all. Kia’s Kona only arrived on the scene in March of 2018, but in only its first partial year it rose to sales prominence in Canada, placing third in its class, and even then, it was a mere 42 units behind the next most popular Subaru Crosstrek.

Nissan’s Qashqai was number one that year, but it would quickly lose this status during the following 12 months when the Kona’s sales increased by a staggering 78-percent to 25,817 examples, dwarfing the next-best-selling Qashqai’s 18,526-unit total. Calendar year 2020 saw another bump up the sales charts to 31,733 deliveries, with the best-of-the-rest Crosstrek managing a very respectable 22,161 units, albeit still about a third, or 9,572 deliveries behind, while today, the impressive little Kona is on its way to approximately the same sales results for 2021, once again leading the pack in popularity with 15,715 examples down the road after six months.

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate
Funky, fun and forward-looking, the Kona is fortunately not too whacky and weird, like some small SUVs that have come before.

Why such dominance? One look should immediately give it away. This little ute is a knockout, combining plenty of unorthodox styling cues, but doing so in a way that’s appealing to most buyers in the entry-level SUV marketplace. Up front and centre it features Hyundai’s unique hexagonal grille, although its bold, assertive design is surrounded by some rather fun styling features, including a narrow slat just above, two slim bi-functional LED headlamps with active cornering lights positioned high above the front fenders to each side (projectors are standard below Ultimate trim), some beefy blocks of matte grey/black composite just under those, which are integrated with squarish metallic bezels that look like sporty brake vents, and house LED driving lights inside.

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate
The Kona has plenty of interesting design elements arounds its big, open grille.

A sporty lower lip spoiler filled with fog lamps sits below everything, the blackened matte material joining up with thick, meaty grey/black fender extensions that circle each wheel cut-out, while more of the darkened trim spans the rocker panels, other than a thin strip of metal-look trim that sits on top.

Hyundai continues a similar look at back, where a thin trip of black trim on the fourth pillar forms a floating roof design that follows the rear window down to an elegant set of horizontally-positioned LED taillights, all of which sit above another blocky cluster of black-cladding that frames backup and reflector lamps before forming into a big black and grey diffuser-style rear bumper.

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate
Slim bi-functional LED headlamps with active cornering lights, exclusive to Ultimate trim, are positioned high above the front fenders.

It might sound to some as if I’m describing a mix of the more controversially styled fifth-generation Jeep Cherokee, available from 2014 to 2018, and Nissan’s ultimately whacky Juke (that I honestly kind of like), but it all works so well that it’s sparked zero controversy at all.

My top-line Kona Ultimate AWD tester added a set of 18-inch machine-finished alloy rims with gray-painted pockets (shared with lesser Trend trim), wrapped around 235/45 Goodyear Eagle Touring all-season rubber. Its Blue Lagoon paintwork borders on radical, but somehow still comes across as tasteful with the Kona, while all the just-noted dark matte grey body cladding across the bottom actually features a slightly glossed up metallic look in Ultimate trim. Some of the metallic bits mentioned a moment ago are partially exclusive to top-line trim too, while the metallic brightwork edging the front grille can also be found on the Trend model.

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate
Along with the LED headlights, the silver trim and the larger 18-inch machine-finished alloy wheels come standard on Ultimate trim.

Climb inside, and the Kona continues its expressive attitude, albeit with a dose of upscale refinement. Hyundai mixes dark greys on most surfaces with light grey tones that almost border on white, for the mid-section of the dash and door uppers, while the seats are surfaced in more of a medium grey.

The light grey is dimpled for a nice textured effect, and finished in soft-touch synthetic along the dash facing, while Hyundai utilizes a nice soft paint to make the door uppers a bit more appealing, if not more comfortable for those that rest their elbows on the side window sills. The rest of the interior plastics are harder, although they’re comprised of good, solid-feeling composites and seem as if they’re designed to put up with abuse over the long haul, while the cabin’s overall design is very appealing.

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate
These LED taillights are standard across the entire Kona range.

This is especially true of its details, such as the nice leather-wrapped sport steering wheel that includes comfortable thumb spats and elegantly thin spokes dotted with high-quality switchgear, some of the toggles even aluminized. The stalks behind the steering wheel are very high in quality too, while all of the buttons, knobs and toggles throughout the interior are tightly fitted and well damped, despite not being always made from particularly dense composites.

The primary instrument cluster is mostly a backlit analogue design (for now… keep reading), although a narrow, vertical 4.2-inch TFT Supervision multi-information display sits in the middle of the tachometer and speedometer, adding a bit of colour for highlighting key functions. Better yet, a useful head-up display system sits overtop on the dash, projecting key info in the driver’s line of sight where it’s safer to pay attention to.

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate
The Kona Ultimate provides a two-tone grey interior that’s quite upscale for the subcompact SUV class.

Over to the right, the centre stack is nicely laid out, with the usual fixed tablet-style infotainment display on top, seeming to stick up and out of the dash. The 8.0-inch touchscreen (up an inch from lesser trims) is flanked by two rows of buttons and dials, nothing new here, but I like the way Hyundai has design the pod-like controls, which are all backlit for easy use at night.

The user interface itself is not up to Hyundai’s newer standards, with older graphics and a matte screen, but it’s still easy to use and filled with functions. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration come standard, as does an accurate navigation system in Ultimate trim, while the backup camera includes helpful active guidelines. The Infinity audio system offers good sound quality, ideally suited to my favourite SiriusXM satellite radio stations, or alternatively one of the many podcasts I regularly listen too, the latter streamed via Bluetooth (which incidentally includes voice command).

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate
The Kona boasts a well laid out cockpit that’s stock full of features in Ultimate trim.

USB ports for smartphone integration and/or charging can be found at the base of the centre stack, along with dual 12-volt chargers, although you might find the Ultimate’s exclusive wireless charging pad more to your liking, a real bonus in this entry-level segment.

Separating the two-shelf phone storage/charging area from the infotainment display is a simple, straightforward single-zone automatic climate control interface comprised of two dials and a digital display, the left knob for temperature settings and the right one for fan speeds, this non-manual system only found on the Kona’s Ultimate trim, while a row of quick-access HVAC buttons sits just below.

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate
The mostly analogue gauge cluster is bright and attractive for the class.

The three-way front seat heater controls are located on the lower console, right in front of a separate button for turning the heatable steering wheel rim on and off, and not far away from two separate buttons for hill descent control and rear parking sensors (this last item exclusive to Ultimate trim), not to mention the gear lever at centre, complete with a leather-clad knob and boot.

Now that we’re talking mechanicals, the shifter sends commands down to a sporty seven-speed Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT), standard in all AWD models. Right next to the shifter in these three trims, that include Trend, Luxury and as-tested Ultimate, is another button for four-wheel drive lock, which really helps when trying to get unstuck from the snow, mud or out of any other type of slippery situation, while a Drive Mode button on the opposite side of the console lets you swap between default, Eco and Sport settings, the latter really increasing the fun factor.

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate
A bit old school yet still totally functional and filled with all the most important features, the Kona’s top-line 8.0-inch display does the job.

To that end, Hyundai gives its AWD models a little more oomph from a 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, this engine making 175 horsepower and 195 lb-ft torque compared to the base 2.0-litre mill’s 146 horsepower and 132 lb-ft. The former powerplant is sporty for this tiny tyke class, but I won’t go so far to say that it sounds sporty, at least not all the time due to a slightly anemic exhaust note when driven slowly, but put your foot into the throttle and a nice growly tone accompanies its brisk acceleration.

In this way, the Kona 1.6T AWD kind of fills the shoes of the aforementioned Juke, which in Nismo AWD-form, or better yet the even more potent Nismo RS, was one seriously zippy performer thanks to 215 horsepower and 210 lb-ft of torque driving a reasonably sophisticated AWD system via a six-speed manual gearbox. That little screamer was killed off five years ago, however, leaving this top-line Kona as one of the segment’s most aggressive performers.

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate
A wireless device charger was a pleasant surprise, Hyundai having long been ahead of the curve when it comes to adopting new technologies.

It moves off the line with plenty of chutzpa, although strangely Hyundai forgot to fit a set of paddles to the sporty steering wheel in order to provide any hands-on entertainment. It’s certainly shiftable via the gear lever, which merely takes a leftward flick of the wrist to actuate, but folks these days, myself included, would rather flick away in the upper regions of the cockpit. We’ll see if Hyundai addresses this in the model’s forthcoming refresh, or for that matter updates this model’s handbrake with an electromechanical one, although this last point isn’t an issue for me.

At least the gearbox allows the engine to rev right up to redline before it automatically shifts, this working best in Sport mode, of course, but shifts are truly quicker than most in this class no matter the mode you’re in, due to its dual-clutch design. It’s smooth when doing so too, thus a best-of-both-worlds scenario, while its claimed fuel economy rating is about the same as the less powerful engine when optimized with AWD, at 9.0 L/100km in the city, 8.0 on the highway and 8.6 combined, compared to 9.2, 7.8 and 8.6 respectively for the 2.0 AWD. The base 2.0 FWD Kona, incidentally, gets an estimated 8.6 L/100km city, 7.0 highway and 7.9 combined rating.

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate
The leather-wrapped shift knob controls a very advanced 7-speed dual-clutch automated gearbox.

Possibly most important in this class is ride quality and overall comfort, which the Kona provides in spades. Of course, this is a small SUV, so don’t expect Palisade levels of poshness or quietude, but within this class it’s a refinement superstar, and therefore ideal for everything from inner-city commutes to fast-paced highway road trips, with a little serpentine action thrown in the middle just for fun. Yes, this little ute provides good grip around such circuitous corners for an overall fun experience, which made it my go-to vehicle during its test week.

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate
The Kona Ultimate’s seats are excellent, and driving position very good too.

Another reason the Kona sells well is overall practicality, this a critical factor that even mighty Toyota is only starting to figure out with its upcoming Corolla Sport Cross (the CH-R’s cargo capacity is miniscule). Settling into the Kona Ultimate’s perforated leather-covered eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, which includes two-way powered lumbar and hides that have a particularly upscale feel, I couldn’t help but be impressed by its substantive bolsters that ideally enveloped my backside. All around, it provided the ideal amount of comfort, plus good, firm support, almost Germanic in its design. The tilt and telescopic steering column’s reach and rake was superb too, easily finding a good driving position for my short-torso, long-legged frame, which is not always possible in this class or others.

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate
A powered glass sunroof is always nice.

No one should feel claustrophobic up front either, thanks to lofty headroom and plenty of shoulder space, while the same can also be said for rear occupants that offer no shortage of room for legs and feet. The Kona seats three abreast, although two adults in back is best, with the centre armrest folded down to maximize comfort and provide a place for drinks. The outboard seatbacks offer decent lower back support, but other than that, rear creature comforts are nowhere near up to the levels of Ultimate trims in Hyundai’s larger SUV lineup—although the netted magazine holders on the backsides of the front seats are nice.

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate
The rear seating area is roomy and the outboard seatbacks very comfortable with good lower support.

Features in mind, Ultimate trim does come well-equipped for this class, with items like solar front glass, rear privacy glass, rain-sensing wipers, powered and timer-heated exterior mirrors, proximity-sensing keyless access with pushbutton start/stop, a multifunctional auto-dimming centre mirror, a HomeLink universal transceiver, an overhead console integrating a nice padded sunglasses holder and reading lights, plus controls for the powered glass sunroof, lidded and lit vanity mirrors in the front sun visors, plus more.

Advanced safety technologies found in top-tier Ultimate trim include Forward Collision-Avoidance Assist with Pedestrian Detection, Blind-Spot Collision Warning, Lane Change Assist, Lane Keeping Assist, Rear Cross-Traffic Collision Warning, and Driver Attention Warning, while High Beam Assist and Adaptive Cruise Control make the Kona much easier to live with on long commutes and trips.

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate
The Kona’s dedicated cargo area measures a generous 544 litres.

My tester included a handy cargo net attached to all four chromed tie-down hooks at each corner, while the substantive cargo floor is both removable and capable of being raised to match the same level as the seatbacks when folded. Hyundai provides a shallow divided container just below, made from a solid-feeling foam, which is also removable, and when lifted exposes the spare tire below. Likewise, the hard-shell tonneau cover can be removed easily. Expanding on the 544-litre dedicated luggage area are rear seatbacks that fold in the usual 60/40 configuration, which when laid flat via latches on the seat tops makes a sizeable 1,296 litres.

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate
This shallow tray sits atop the spare tire under the cargo floor.

To be honest, due to styling alone the Kona has long been a personal favourite in this class, but after a week behind the wheel I can truly say the rest of the package attests to its popularity. It does everything a subcompact SUV should and more, so it will likely remain on top until some other manufacturer comes up with something that checks off more boxes for similar pricing.

Money in mind, the most basic Kona in Essential trim starts at $21,299 plus freight and fees, while Preferred trim can be had for $23,049, and AWD adds $2,000 to either. The Kona Trend, which comes standard with AWD, starts at $26,899, while Luxury trim does likewise for $27,999. The special Urban Edition, which gets upgraded to the 1.6-litre turbo-four AWD powertrain, is available from $28,049, while the Limited Edition also features the upgraded engine for $28,049. Finally, the as-tested Ultimate can be had from $32,299. On a side note, Hyundai makes the FWD-only Kona Electric, which ranges from $43,699 in Preferred trim to $49,199 for the Ultimate, less government rebates, depending where you live. I’ll be covering this one in a separate review soon.

2021 Hyundai Kona 1.6T AWD Ultimate
With a sizeable 1,296 litres to its credit when both 60/40-split rear seatbacks are lowered, the Kona is quite accommodating for gear.

Of note, Hyundai is currently offering up to $5,000 in additional incentives for the 2021 Kona Electric, or up to $1,000 in incentives for conventionally-powered 2021 Kona models, while CarCostCanada members are saving an average of $2,157 when purchasing the latter SUV. To find out how you can access dealer invoice pricing and learn about other CarCostCanada benefits, such as factory leasing and financing rates, check out how their affordable membership works, plus be sure to download their free app from the Apple Store or Google Play Store so you can have all of their valuable info and features at your fingertips when you’re ready to negotiate.

Before signing off, it’s important for you to know the 2022 Kona will see a fairly dramatic styling refresh from the outside in, including a wider, shallower grille, new headlamps and driving lights, a deeper front fascia, plus changes to the rear lighting elements, bumper, and more. Inside, a new dash design offers an optional digital gauge cluster, while available heated rear seats will give rear passengers more to celebrate on cold mornings. Atop the centre stack, an 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen will be standard, with the upgraded version stretching to 10.3 inches. Lastly, a sportier N Line trim will soon vie for most entertaining subcompact performance SUV credentials, thanks to a 195-horsepower version of the same 1.6-litre turbo-four used in today’s top-line Kona. Details on this last upgrade are not yet available, so we’ll keep you posted.

Review and photos by Trevor Hofmann