What matters most to you in a performance car? Zero to 100 km/h? Top speed? Handling? The ideal mix of everything?
Most will give the nod to the latter, wanting a perfect combination of acceleration, ultimate speed and road-holding, and to be fair this is probably best with respect to road cars and performance SUVs. Still, achieving a high mark in every category requires compromise all-round, yet
In fact, it’s tied for fastest off the line in its compact luxury SUV class (with Mercedes-AMG’s GLC 63 S), comes close to tying for the segment’s top track speed (BMW’s X3 M Competition beats it by 1.6 km/h), and holds more track lap records than any SUV currently made. About the only thing it can’t do is beat a Jeep Wrangler up Cadillac Hill.
That Alfa Romeo is infused with more racing pedigree than most of its competitors doesn’t hurt matters either, the brand even fielding a Formula One team, which can’t be said for all of its key competitors except Mercedes-AMG—Aston Martin’s larger and much pricier DBX isn’t a direct competitor.
That hardly matters, however, as the DBX only bests the Stelvio Quadrifoglio in terminal velocity, managing 291 km/h (181 mph) compared to 283 (176), the one parameter most of us will never attempt to verify. The little Italian is dominant from standstill to 100 km/h, leaving the Brit behind like it’s standing still, the two brands’ official 0-100 km/h times claimed to be 3.8 seconds to 4.5. That’s not even remotely close.
No doubt Aston will follow up this first foray into family hauling with a more formidable version of the DBX, just like Porsche provides its Cayenne Turbo S E-Hybrid and Bentley defies physics with the Bentayga Speed, but for the time being we can’t deny the numbers, and the Stelvio Quad even beats these bad boys off the line. To be very clear, it’s not the quickest SUV of all. That honour is bestowed upon Lamborghini’s Urus, capable of whisking past the 100 km/h mark in just 3.4 seconds, while independent testers are even claiming faster sprint times.
I won’t pretend that jamming my right foot down on the Quad’s pedal when first away from stoplights wasn’t fun, especially when factoring the sensational audio track that accompanied the G-forces slapping my backside into the ideally shaped leather- and Alcantara-covered driver’s sport seat, but for me a vehicle’s performance matters more through the curves than merely in a straight line.
Believe me, I tried to go slow. I really did. I somewhat succeeded in maintaining the posted limit around town and on rural freeways, where I know evil radar gun-toting fun-suckers lay in waiting, but failed miserably when past my city’s suburbanites and within its wilder valley region, where perfectly paved patches of ultimately straight tarmac stretch diagonally across farmland to join tiny communities with circuitous secondary backroads and faster-paced connecting highways. This is where the Stelvio Quadrifoglio was born to rule, and where I became enamoured with its shockingly quick capabilities.
Rotate the Quad’s DNA drive mode selector to the “d” position for a sportier Dynamic range, or twist it one position farther for “RACE” mode, resulting in even greater intensity (just why Alfa uses both lowercase and uppercase designations for this dial is anyone’s guess, but it disturbs my inner need for grammatic equilibrium), and get ready for outrageous speed and one of the most delectable crackling and popping exhaust systems anywhere.
Alfa shoes the Stelvio Quad in 255/45R20 front and 285/40R20 rear Pirelli P Zero performance tires that can hang onto most any type of manmade road surface, these combining ideally with a wonderfully sorted chassis that defies the SUV’s top-heavy profile. Don’t get me wrong, as its roofline is relatively low as far as sport utilities go, but it’s no sport wagon either.
The driving position is excellent, combining a partially squared-off leather-clad sport steering wheel that’s just large enough to feel substantive without being cumbersome, with thumb spats ideally formed and a long set of alloy paddles just behind, fitted to the steering column rather than the wheel, so they’re always where you expect them to be. That column’s tilt and reach are ample too, the latter joining good seat adjustability for fitting my long-legged, short-torso body, resulting in optimal control and good comfort overall.
No wonder Alfa’s bevy of professional drivers had no problem besting track lap times across the world, the Stelvio Quadrifoglio leading all SUVs at Silverstone (2:31.6), Donington Park (1:21.1), and the Indy Circuit at Brands Hatch (55.9), although in fairness I need to make sure you know that its record-setting 7:51.7-minute lap around the Nürburgring Nordschleife was broken after only a few months by the previously mentioned GLC 63 S, the Merc managing just 7.49.369 minutes.
Both are quicker around the 20.832-km mountainside track than the next-best Porsche Cayenne Turbo S, mind you, which managed a respectable 7:59.7 minutes just the same, or for that matter a Range Rover Sport SVR that could only lap the course in 8:14 minutes. Until one of the aforementioned VW-underpinned super-SUVs (Urus, RS Q8, Bentayga Speed, or Cayenne S E-Hybrid) choose to take on the wee compacts, they’ll remain the undisputed kings of the “Green Hell”.
Back to being unreasonably fair, Lamborghini’s Urus took the Stelvio Q’s title away at one of my personal favourite race tracks, Laguna Seca. The 641-hp raging bull pulled off a 1:40.9-minute single lap compared to the Stelvio’s 1:43.5-minute stint, which is impressive until we start comparing bang for the buck.
Yes, the 2021 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio starts at only $98,995, compared to $285,000 for Lambo’s SUV. The hyper-fast Merc-AMG GLC will set you back $94,900, incidentally, while a W12-infused Bentayga will cost you even more than the Urus. A happy medium might be the super-quick Audi at $126,500, but that’s still a lot of extra coin for slower straight-line speed and a bit more at the top end. Of course, there’s a lot more to any of these SUVs than pure performance, but this said the top-tier Stelvio will hardly have you feeling like you’re living in the slums.
No matter which premium branded super SUV you choose, its interior comes complete with all the contrast-stitched hides, plush faux suede, brushed and polished aluminum, and high-gloss carbon-fibre weave you can handle, not to mention premium soft-touch composites where the above materials can’t be added, the Stelvio Quadrifoglio no exception. Anyone joining you in the passenger’s seat will be impressed, with its interior design and beautifully crafted build quality.
Additionally, I was pleasantly surprised to experience a much-improved infotainment display in this test model, compared to one used in a four-cylinder Stelvio driven previously. It’s more intuitive graphically, making it easier to use, while it’s also more customizable due to a drag and drop tile/widget layout. It can do anything its rivals can, as well as compile performance stats via a number of “pages” displaying boost, torque, lateral Gs, and more.
While I’ve really liked some of the fully digital displays offered by Alfa’s competitors, I can’t say I was disappointed to see a set of analogue dials housed within sporty circular shrouds, not unlike the beautiful dual-gauge clusters found in the marque’s collectable classics. The speedometer and tachometer flanked a large high-definition multi-information display at centre, filled with loads of useful info, so it was as modern as it needed to be, but that nod to the past is always appreciated in a brand with as much rich history as Alfa Romeo.
As impressive as the Stelvio Quadrifoglio’s beautifully finished interior and insane performance is, I’d be remiss for not mentioning anything about its practical attributes. This is an SUV after all, and thus it comes with a comfortable, accommodating second row featuring three seatbelts abreast, plus window seat warmers with three temperature settings, dual USB-A charging ports on the backside of the front console, excellent rear ventilation found just above, plus overall rear finishings as well executed as those up front. Likewise, the cargo compartment is as nicely finished as its compact luxury SUV segment gets, plus it’s large enough for most peoples’ needs and made even bigger via ultra-useful 40/20/40 split-folding rear seats. Alfa even includes an intelligently engineered aluminum track system for tying down your belongings, which is a good thing when considering the lateral Gs those items may be forced to deal with.
Although we’re well into the 2021 model year, there’s a pretty good chance that 2020 models may be available and this SUV hasn’t changed at all in its top-line Quadrifoglio trim, which means you can save about $2,800 right off the top, due to the latest version going up in price by that amount since last year. Alfa Romeo is offering factory leasing and financing rates from zero percent on either model year, while CarCostCanada can provide additional info about any available manufacturer rebates, as well as dealer invoice pricing to help you pay the lowest possible price when negotiating. Find out how their system works, and also be sure to download their free app from the Apple Store or Google Play Store in order to have such critical information on your phone when you need it most.
As I went over in detail earlier, the Stelvio Quadrifoglio is up against plenty of high-performance competitors, but only Lamborghini’s Urus completely outguns it. Mercedes’ quickest GLC is a better match and should be considered, but its twin-turbo V8 won’t provide the higher-pitched aural edginess as Alfa’s 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6, which will be less appealing to some (including yours truly). There’s also the standard features and options issue, with the Stelvio Quadrifoglio mostly loaded except for about $4k worth of extras, compared to the AMG GLC 63 S that starts a bit lower, but can be configured with more than $26k of options that mostly come standard from Alfa. All of a sudden the Stelvio Quadrifoglio looks like a really good deal, even though once you’ve driven it you probably won’t care what it costs.
Story and photos by Trevor Hofmann
What do you get when you combine a Camaro and a Traverse? No, I wasn’t going to say Caverse or Tamaro, as fun as such word games are (not), but if you guessed Blazer (the title might’ve given it away)…
What do you get when you combine a Camaro and a Traverse? No, I wasn’t going to say Caverse or Tamaro, as fun as such word games are (not), but if you guessed Blazer (the title might’ve given it away) you’d be right.
Of course, any comparisons to the Camaro are relegated to the new Blazer’s outlandish styling, especially in sportiest RS trim, along with the top-line models’ 3.6-litre V6, which combine for one of the hottest looking and fastest crossover SUVs in the mainstream volume sector.
What it’s not is, um, a Blazer, or at least not in the traditional sense. Unlike in other markets where the similarly named Trailblazer is a now non-conventional body-on-frame truck-based SUV that shares its underpinnings and body shell hard points with the Isuzu mu-X, our Blazer is a similarly sized crossover SUV based on Chevy’s new(ish) C1XX platform architecture shared with the GMC Acadia and Cadillac XT5, plus the aforementioned Traverse, Buick Enclave and Caddy XT6 in extended form, and via the car-designated E2XX platform, the Chevy Malibu, various now discontinued Buick Regal models, and Cadillac XT4 (as well as the defunct Chevy Impala and Buick Lacrosse in extended P2XX form). Got that?
While that 2.8-litre turbo-diesel-powered Trailblazer is a go-anywhere rock crawler, river runner, mud-spewer, etcetera capable of negotiating the nether-regions of the Grand Canyon (possible via the Diamond Creek road that departs from the town of Peach Springs, Arizona located on the famed Route 66, incidentally), mated to a solidly built six-speed automatic that drives a part-time 4WD system, the new Blazer RS is more of a canyon carver sporting a detuned version of the aforementioned Camaro V6, a new nine-speed autobox, and standard AWD.
This is where I start grumbling about an opportunity lost, especially egregious now that FoMoCo fanatics are whooping it up over the all-new Bronco lineup, and the Jeep faithful are forever laughing in the faces of disenfranchised bowtie fanboys crying in their herbal tea at the loss of the once great Blazer nameplate.
Sure, the General still makes a body-on-frame SUV, but for many the full-size Chevy Tahoe/GMC Yukon are too big, these Silverado/Sierra related SUVs actually the spiritual successors of the original 1969–1994 Blazer K5/Jimmy. The ‘70s fuel crisis and call to go small that followed, resulted in the compact pickup-based 1983–2005 S-10 Blazer and S-15 Jimmy, which were sized more along the lines of the current Wrangler and Bronco, this now being the 4×4 sweet spot due to off-road manoeuvrability, agility and the ability to drive farther into wilderness on a tank of fuel. But where is the Blazer? It’s taking the kids to school and running mall errands.
It’s not like 4×4-capable SUVs aren’t popular these days. They’re selling well and doing their best to enhance brand images that, trucks aside, are somewhat soft around their edges now that most SUVs are car-based. Like this Blazer, the majority aren’t even attempting to look like traditional sport utilities anymore, let alone claim any off-road territory. Those who read my ramblings regularly know that I’d never normally complain about this soft-ute scenario, because some truly spectacular performance-oriented car-based utilities have been introduced in recent years, but diluting a classic 4×4 name like Blazer to grocery-getter status is almost as bad as slapping the Camaro badge on an electric crossover! Yup, I’m talking to you Mustang Mach-E.
At least the Blazer RS kind of looks like a Camaro, especially in its raciest red colour scheme. Love it or lump it, no one can argue against its ability to pull eyeballs, but don’t expect its squared-off dual exhaust to rumble like a ZL1, let alone an LT1 with the V6 upgrade. The Blazer’s version of Chevy’s 3.6-litre six doesn’t make 335 horsepower and 284 lb-ft of torque either, although in this bread-and-butter class its 308 hp and 270 ft-lb are nothing to sneeze at, resulting in a respectable sprint of about 6.5 seconds from zero to 100 km/h. Sure, that’s still 0.5 seconds shy of Ford’s Edge ST, but you look faster standing still in the Chevy.
That in mind, be grateful we don’t get the U.S.-spec 2.5-litre four as our base engine, that mill only churning out 193 horsepower and 188 lb-ft of torque. Instead, our entry-level Blazer powerplant is more or less the same 2.0-litre turbo-four found in the base Camaro (see a pattern here?), pushing out 227 ponies and 258 lb-ft instead of 275 and 295 respectively in the less muscular version of Chevy’s muscle car. This is where I probably shouldn’t mention that the 2.0-litre turbo in Ford’s base Edge is good for 250 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque, but I never was very good at holding back things I shouldn’t say.
The just-noted Ford gets an eight-speed automatic throughout its range, which is impressive, but kudos to Chevy for going one step further by mating both Blazer engines to a fancy new nine-speed autobox. It gets no paddles, mind you, even in its sportiest RS trim, leaving those who want to get frisky a little thumb-actuated rocker switch on the shifter knob that, truth be told, isn’t any more engaging than slapping the entire gear lever back and forth. Fortunately, the transmission shifts effortlessly if not quickly, but even with its racy looks I don’t see most owners rowing through their Blazer RS gears as if this SUV were a Le Mans-spec’d Corvette C7.R.
As noted earlier, all RS trimmed Blazers come standard with all-wheel drive in Canada, and I like that it’s a part-time system that can be driven solely by the front wheels when rear traction is not needed, helping save money at the pump, where V6-powered Blazers get a claimed 13.1 L/100km in the city, 9.4 on the highway and 11.4 combined. When all wheels are required, simply turn a rotating knob on the lower console from “x2” to “x4” and you won’t be slip-sliding away any longer. Another twist of the dial engages sport mode, while mountain and towing modes are also included.
With sport mode engaged, the V6-equipped Blazer really pulls strongly from standstill, almost fully living up to the performance promised by its neck-snapping styling. The transmission’s two-second-plus shift intervals will quickly tame any unbridled enthusiasm, which is likely why no paddles were included, but the gearbox kicks down nicely for passing purposes and very real power is ever-present, this a real bonus through the corners was well.
Yes, the RS, complete with nice meaty 265/45R21 Continental CrossContact all-seasons, did a good job carving up the local country backroads, always remaining planted in its lane even when pushed hard, and not leaning over as much as most in this class. Still, its well-sorted suspension never got too harsh, defaulting to compliance as a vehicle in this family class should.
Comfort is king in the SUV sector, and nowhere is this more obvious than the new Blazer RS’ cabin. Sure, its interior styling does its best to pull off a five-seat Camaro look, but Chevy isn’t fooling anyone, which is a good thing. Let’s face it, as impressive as the Camaro is as a muscle car, it’s not designed for hauling families. That’s the Blazer’s first priority, and it does a better job of this than anything else.
It’s wide and long for a five-seater, with ample cabin space for large folks front to rear, not to mention cargo aplenty in back. It gets the usual 60/40-split rear seatbacks for expanding its gear-toting capacity, so should serve most buyers’ needs to a tee.
It’s also quite luxurious for the class, with no shortage of soft-touch surfacing throughout, Chevy continuing the black on red exterior theme with a red on black motif inside, including the circular dash-mounted HVAC bezels, the perforated leather seats, the piping and contrast stitching on those seats and elsewhere, and even a little “RS” badge on the shift knob. The interior further gets a tasteful assortment of bright and brushed metallic trim too, with its general fit, finish, materials quality up to par with others in this class.
Better than many, however, is the Blazer’s collection of electronic displays, this being a criterion that Chevy deserves high marks. The gauge cluster isn’t fully digital, but the 8.0-inch multi-information display at centre is brilliantly executed with clear, high resolution quality, nice brightly coloured graphics, and a serious assortment of functions. The main infotainment touchscreen at dash-central is even better, mostly because of its simple, straightforward yet highly attractive graphics and all-round ease-of-use. It also comes packed full of features, including Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, an accurate navigation system, a clear rearview camera, and more.
Additional RS features included a large panoramic glass sunroof overhead, a heatable steering wheel and heated front seats, dual-zone auto HVAC, a hands-free power liftgate, a sportier grille, and all the blackened exterior trim noted before.
In the end, the new Blazer RS is either going to rock your world or leave you wondering what Chevy was even thinking, there is no middle ground. I like the brand’s boldness in this regard, and on that note the Blazer name is theirs, and they can do with it what they want, Chevy 4×4 loyalists be damned. You’ve got to respect that kind of bravado, good choice or bad.
Base Blazer LT pricing starts at $37,198 plus freight and fees, with the as-tested RS model available from $46,698. Sales of all trims have been quite strong, so obviously it has targeted the Canadian market well and deserves the success it’s achieving.
How I wish it were that easy to summarize a week with one of the most impressive compact sedans ever produced by a mainstream volume brand. I’d call it the most impressive compact sedan ever produced by a mainstream volume brand, but I haven’t driven the new 2021 turbo or 100th Anniversary Edition yet, so I’ll curb my enthusiasm until these two hit my driveway.
We all have brand and model biases formed over years of ownership, or in my case 20-plus years of testing. This said, I try to limit any biases that might be based on the good or poor brand PR staff communications I’ve received over the years (although, in full disclosure, Mazda’s professionalism has been amongst the best in recent years), only sharing my thoughts on all aspects of the vehicle in question, its expected dependability, and its relevance in the marketplace.
First off (or maybe second off), the Mazda3 competitors named above are arguably the very best iterations of each model ever made, and very good cars overall. In fact, I’m sure you’d be happy with any of this segment’s top four, as well as most others on offer in this segment. I’m just saying you might be happier with the Mazda3, especially when comparing fully loaded variants.
Your opinion of this car will no doubt be influenced by its styling, so let’s get that out of the way immediately. If you prefer smaller grille designs Mazda’s compact might not be for you, but then again, most seem to agree the brand’s large heptagonal air intake is attractively shaped and tastefully integrated into the design, nicely fitting the 3’s overall look without appearing overbearing or out of place. I especially like the way its outermost chrome edges frame the lower inside corner and bottom edge of each LED headlamp, and appreciate the simple elegance of the car’s lower front fascia.
Interestingly, the Mazda3 looks widest of all the competitors mentioned above, at least to my eyes, yet it’s the second narrowest of the four, albeit only by a handful of millimeters. Sometimes this effect is created by lowering a car’s height, but in fact the 3’s roofline is 20 mm taller than the Corolla and Elantra, and reaches 39 mm higher than the lowest Civic. The 3’s styling makes it look wider, which is the result of good design, while its greater length from nose to tail lends to its sleek side profile.
Deeply carved door panels do their part too, the dramatic depth of their indent almost making the 3 look as if it’s been sideswiped ever so neatly (check out my photo of the car’s side profile in the gallery and you’ll see what I mean). The car’s rear styling is neat and tidy too, with a slender pair of LED taillights, visually supported by an uncluttered rear apron and sporty set of circular chromed tailpipes. The rear design might not win points for uniqueness, but it scores high marks when it comes to understated good taste.
Much the same can be said about the 3’s cabin when it comes to tastefulness, although to be fair it gains some strong character points too. The dash, which is completely covered in a high-grade soft composite, seems to float above the instrument panel as it flows over the primary gauge cluster and wraps around the infotainment display, its outer edges meeting albeit not melding into the front door uppers made from the same material. These swoop downward from the front to rear of each door, starting out almost entirely flat and rounding downward as they grow thicker. Unusually, the 3’s inner rear door panels duplicate those up front, complete with pliable uppers, a feature normally only found in luxury branded models in this compact class.
Just below each soft-touch door upper is a thickly padded leather-like bolster with stylish French-stitched seams down the middle, an attractive and luxurious feature that’s also found just under the aforementioned floating dash. It visually envelopes the entire interior, even more so when combined with finished in contrasting Pure White leatherette to match an upgrade that also includes white leather seat upholstery. The 3 looks particularly stylish when finished in this two-tone motif, although it can be a bit challenging to keep clean. The 3 Sport gets the same optional treatment in Garnet Red, by the way, as does the previously noted 100th Anniversary model. I should also point out that the lower front console’s top edges receive similar stitched and padded leatherette to protect the inside knees, although these are always finished in black.
The GT’s leather-covered seats feature perforated inserts for breathability, while most of their bolsters are a solid leather like the beautifully crafted steering wheel rim and each top portion of the horizontal spokes, not to mention the shifter knob and boot. Both the steering wheel spokes and shifter feature gorgeous satin-aluminum detailing too, the latter really chunky and solid feeling. The high-grade metallic trim is in fact a theme throughout the entire cabin, highlighted by drilled aluminum speaker grilles for the great-sounding Bose audio system.
While those latter items aren’t exactly unique, the thin aluminum accent spanning most of the instrument panel, even striking through the dual-zone automatic climate control system interface, is pure industrial art. This line of brightwork underscores the centre vents as well, culminating in C-shaped (at least on the driver’s side) flourishes that wrap around the corner vents. Suffice to say there’s plenty to keep an owner in love with a 3 GT long after the honeymoon is over, which is exactly why most premium buyers spend more for a luxury brand.
All said, Mazda is not a luxury brand, with pricing for the 2020 3 sedan starting well under $20k, and the front-wheel drive version of my top-line trim priced much below Acura’s ILX, a sedan that’s front-drive only and starts at $30,490. In fact, even after increasing in price by $300 from 2019 to 2020, thanks to proximity-sensing keyless entry made standard (previously part of the Premium upgrade package), the Mazda3 GT with its automatic only came to $26,500, nearly $4,000 less than the ILX (which is really an upgraded previous-generation Honda Civic under the metal), whereas the GT with i-ACTIV AWD (that only comes with an automatic) went up $100 to $30,500 this year, a near identical price to the front-drive-only ILX. By the way, the 2020 GT Premium now includes a sharp-looking frameless centre mirror, as well as the updated alloy wheels mentioned earlier.
Also take note, the Mazda3 GT i-ACTIV AWD goes up to $32,200 for 2021, an increase of $1,700 due to features being made standard that were only previously found in the Premium upgrade package, such as a 10-way powered driver’s seat with power lumbar support and memory that also links to the side mirrors, leather upholstery, a navigation system, and tech features including SiriusXM satellite radio (with a three-month trial subscription), plus SiriusXM Traffic Plus and Travel Link (with a complimentary five-year trial subscription), and lastly Traffic Sign Recognition. Incidentally, the front-wheel drive GT auto moves up by $2,000 to $28,500 for the same reasons.
As noted earlier, there’s also been the addition of a new 2021 turbocharged GT AWD model that’s a mere $700 pricier at $32,900, so you might want to wait for that, and this upgrade in mind, Mazda dealers may want to consider how many non-turbo GTs they bring into inventory, being that soon these less potent 3s will probably only appeal to fuel-stingy commuters that want the creature comforts of a GT.
Some additional GT features include the 12-speaker Bose audio system noted earlier, plus advanced keyless entry, paddle shifters on automatic-equipped models, adaptive cornering for the auto-levelling LED signature headlamps, signature LED taillights, and 18-inch alloys, while the new Premium package includes glossy black front grille, a front wiper de-icer, an auto-dimming driver’s side mirror, reverse tilt-down on both exterior mirrors, a frameless centre mirror with auto-dimming, a HomeLink garage door transceiver, a head-up display, a 360-degree overhead parking monitor, front and rear parking sensors, emergency automatic braking for reversing, and traffic jam assist.
The GT isn’t the only Mazda3 sedan to get a price boost in 2021, with the base GX model increasing from $18,000 to $20,500 thanks to standard 16-inch alloy wheels, body-colour power-actuated side mirrors with integrated LED turn signals, manual air conditioning, heatable front seats, cruise control, and advanced blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, all previously only available with the Convenience package, while yet more new 2021 standard 3 gear includes auto on/off headlights and rain-sensing wipers. Of note, the same model with the automatic goes up by $2,500 as well.
Mid-range GS trim remains the most affordable way to get all of Mazda’s i-Activsense safety features, including adaptive cruise control with stop and go, automatic high beams, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning and lane keeping assist, plus driver attention alert. The GS increases in price by $200 to $22,900 for 2021.
Finally, a new 100th Anniversary Edition based on turbocharged GT i-ACTIV AWD trim approaches premium compact levels at $36,100, so you’ll have to be a real serious Mazda fan to pay the extra $3,200 needed to partake. For that money you’ll get special Snowflake White Pearl exterior paint, aforementioned Garnet Red leather upholstery and accents inside (normally reserved for the 3 Sport), red carpets and mats, the latter including unique 100th Anniversary embroidery, plus the same logo stamped onto the headrests, the key fob, the wheel centre caps, and each front fender.
I should also mention that both 2020 and 2021 Mazda3s are being offered with up to $750 in additional incentives according to CarCostCanada, where you can find out about all the latest manufacturer leasing and financing deals, rebate information, and best of all, dealer invoice pricing that can save you thousands when purchasing a new vehicle. Check out how the CarCostCanada system works, and make sure to download their free app so you can have all this important information on your smartphone when you need it most.
Of note, the five-door Mazda3 Sport gets similar year-by-year updates and price hikes, except for the base model that only increases by $200 from 2019 through 2021 due to including most of the standard features mentioned above from inception, and therefore already retailing for thousands more than 2019 and 2020 versions of the base sedan. The 100th Anniversary Edition hatchback pushes this Mazda3 model into a new near-premium price point of $37,100 too, but I won’t say anything more about the five-door Sport body style as I’ll be reviewing it separately.
Sportiness in mind, however, both Mazda3 models are available with three Skyactiv-G engine choices, all of which are fun to drive, although the new turbo dusts off distant memories of the late-great Mazdaspeed3. That engine, which makes 250 horsepower and a whopping 320 lb-ft of torque, will be covered in an upcoming review as well, being that I haven’t even driven it yet, so I’ll keep my comments to the 2.0-litre variant that makes 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque in base trim, and the non-turbo 2.5 that’s good for a respective 186 units apiece.
Performance from these two naturally aspirated engines haven’t changed since 2019, and there’s actually plenty to like about the base engine, which incidentally can only be had with GX manual and auto trims, plus GS manual trims for 2021, and comes standard with the base GX and all non-AWD versions of the GS in 2020. Its main selling point is fuel efficiency, good for a claimed 8.7 L/100km city, 6.4 highway and 7.7 combined when hooked up to the six-speed manual or 8.4, 6.6 and 7.6 respectively when mated to the six-speed auto (note, the Mazda3 doesn’t include a continuously variable transmission/CVT like most competitors, so while it may give up some thrift compared to rivals, it arguably improves drivability).
The 2.5-litre four, standard with the GS auto, all non-turbo AWD models, and the GT for 2021, makes a noticeable difference in performance without sacrificing much in fuel economy at 8.8 L/100km city, 6.6 highway and 7.8 combined with FWD or a respective 7.0, 9.2 and 8.2 with AWD.
Paddle shifters make the most of the Skyactiv-Drive automatic, especially in sport mode, and let me say it really doesn’t need more than six forward speeds, except maybe for marketing purposes. There’s something wonderful (and reliable) about a simple six-speed auto, and considering I was testing compacts with four- and five-speed automatics when I started out in this business, this is still a comparatively advanced transmission. As noted, Mazda incorporates its Skyactiv technologies, which they say combine all the advantages of conventional automatics, CVTs and dual-clutch gearboxes together—one big fat claim.
For starters, the Skyactiv-Drive autobox incorporates a significantly widened lock-up range to improve torque transfer efficiency while realizing a direct driving feel that Mazda reports as being the equivalent to a manual transmission, whereas fuel efficiency is improved by four to seven percent compared to the brand’s older non-Skyactiv automatic. While I can’t prove any of this from the wheel, it was certainly thrifty throughout my weeklong drive and responded well to input, shifting quickly and, like I mentioned a moment ago, a lot more positively than any CVT I’ve ever used (although the Corolla Hatchback’s CVT is surprisingly good).
Likewise, the Mazda3’s suspension ideally balances comfort and performance, but it goes about this in a surprisingly unsophisticated way. To be fair, the brand’s engineers chose to keep a simpler torsion-beam rear suspension in play rather than adopt an independent multi-link setup in back, and not just because it would save money that could be used elsewhere. First and foremost, it’s lighter, whereas the more straightforward design is easier to tune for the desired results. What you get is a smooth riding suspension that transitions to quick, fast-paced inputs nicely, only getting a bit unsettled when hammered through really bad patches of pavement at high speeds, mid-turn. This is where a multi-link design works better, but all said I found the 3’s torsion-beam setup hard to fault, even when pushed hard over broken road surfaces.
Fortunately, Mazda has isolated the 3’s passenger compartment so that most bumps, potholes and bridge expansion joins don’t translate to discomfort within. The body structure feels tight and solid, plus it seems as if this car gets a lot more sound-deadening insulation between outer and inner door panels than its key competitors. Again, it feels more 3 Series than Corolla in this respect, no offence to Toyota, or maybe more A-Class and A3-like, but either way resulting in that premium-like experience I’ve been going on and on about.
The 3’s driving position is similarly impressive, with enough reach from its tilt and telescopic steering column to make my long-legged, short-torso frame feel right at home, and certainly more in control than when piloting the Corolla, which needs more steering wheel extension for people shaped like me. The driver’s seat was a perfect fit too, its two-way power-adjustable lumbar support even pushing up against the small of my back where I need it most.
When seated just behind in the second row, the driver’s seat having been set up for a guy that measures five feet, eight inches tall with (once again) longish legs, and backrest canted rearward marginally, I benefited from approximately five inches of knee space to the seatback ahead, which is pretty good for this class, and no shortage of foot space below. The aforementioned taller than average roof height resulted in about three inches of room for growth above my head, while side-to-side space was more than adequate for two adults, along with reasonable room for a third when required.
Rear seat accoutrements include a fold-down centre armrest with two integrated cupholders, and that’s it. No heatable rear outboard seats, and even stranger, no air vents or USB charge ports on the backside of the front console. This is only odd due to Mazda finishing off all rear surfaces as nicely as those up front, as noted earlier in this review.
As for this sedan’s trunk, it’s about average in size for this class at 358 litres, and includes expandability via the segment’s usual 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks. If Mazda wanted to appeal even more to the premium crowd, 40/20/40-split rear seats, or at least a centre pass-through would help, this potentially a dealmaker for outdoor sports enthusiasts who might choose an all-wheel drive 3 over a competitor thanks to its all-weather traction, especially if they can fit their skis safely inside with four occupants onboard.
I wouldn’t mention this for a car in this class if Mazda wasn’t already one of the only mainstream manufacturers to provide 40/20/40-split rear seatbacks in its compact CX-5 SUV, meaning they’ve proven to understand how important passenger/cargo flexibility is to their buyers.
I wouldn’t call that last issue a complaint, but I do have a few negatives to bring up with the Mazda3 GT. For starters, I found the sensitivity of the auto braking and lane change alerts a bit annoying, but not as much as the nagging digital voice’s constant speed limit announcements. If this had been my personal car, I would’ve quickly found a way to turn that feature off.
Also, the dual auto HVAC system was more difficult to set to a comfortable temperature than what I normally experience in other brands. I therefore chose 20C so it wasn’t overly hot, but take note 20.5C was already uncomfortably warm. This means there was no middle ground, with 20C being on the cool side and 20.5C requiring the windows powered down a crack. I ended up setting it to 20C and using the three-way heated seats to keep my backside warm, not to mention the heatable steering wheel rim.
I’d also like to see Mazda improve the otherwise handy radio volume/tuner knob on the lower console, which rotates for the former and can be modulated from side-to-side for the latter. It works perfectly for changing AM/FM stations, but scrolling through satellite stations requires a tedious multi-step process within the infotainment system’s audio interface, each and every time you want to do so. I ended up saving my favourite stations to a list accessible from the star button just next to the volume/tuner knob, so at least a shortcut method has been provided, but I’d like to see some sort of improvement for tuning in satellite stations just the same.
You might find my little complaints more annoying to read than these issues actually are in real life, this probable after factoring in just how excellent the Mazda3 is in every other respect. If I were buying in this class, this car would be right at the top of my list and probably get the nod, albeit with that new turbocharged engine upgrade and potentially the Sport body style.
It’s hard to argue against a car that recently won the 2020 World Car Design of the Year award after all, let alone took top honours in AJAC’s 2020 Canadian Car of the Year earlier, and the 2019 Women’s World Car of the Year before that, while earning an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award is an accolade worth mentioning too. All that aside, I like its styling, love its interior design and materials quality, find it comfortably accommodating, appreciate its expected reliability, and always enjoy spending time in its driver’s seat. In other words, I highly recommend the Mazda3.
Story and photos by Trevor Hofmann
Everyone knows Lexus SUVs are amongst the most reliable in the luxury sector, but just one look at Audi’s Q8 and I don’t give a rip. Certainly, today’s RX is an attractive crossover that deserves…
Everyone knows Lexus SUVs are amongst the most reliable in the luxury sector, but just one look at Audi’s Q8 and I don’t give a rip. Certainly, today’s RX is an attractive crossover that deserves its place atop the sales heap, but the Q8 is downright gorgeous, which can’t be said about the majority of utility vehicles this side of a Lamborghini Urus. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that the ultra-hot Lambo shares much of its underpinnings with the top-tier Audi, not to mention Porsche’s Cayenne Coupe and, through its Q7 roots, Bentley’s Bentayga, too.
Yes, I just named two of today’s five available exotic SUVs, and while the Cayenne might not be considered exotic, it arguably sits higher in the ultra-premium pecking order than anything from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and, yes, Audi. The rest of the super-SUV segment is made up by Maserati’s Levante (that’s only exotic because Ferrari’s upcoming Purosangue hasn’t arrived yet), Aston Martin’s DBX, and the Rolls-Royce Cullinan, in order of exclusivity. Two out of five super-SUVs, all based on the Q7/Q8 (which is actually VW’s MLB platform) is impressive to say the least, so therefore we need to agree that the comparatively affordable Q8 Technik 55 TFSI Quattro shown here plays in a rarified, prestigious crowd.
The Q8 was introduced for the 2019 model year, incidentally, and except for a handful of tech features that have made their way to base Progressiv trim in newer versions, 2019, 2020 and 2021 models pretty well the same. Fortunately, the Q8 Technik being reviewed here included most everything Audi had on offer when tested, and thus all that’s available for 2021.
You wouldn’t be alone if you’re wondering how the Q8 fits into Audi’s SUV lineup, because in effect it’s the two-row, five-seat version of the three-row, seven-occupant Q7, yet costs more. Audi seems to be targeting sportier SUV variants like BMW’s X6 and Mercedes’ GLE Coupe, even though the Q8 is only slightly less practical than the just-noted German brands’ respective X5 and more upright GLE, not to mention the five-passenger Lexus RX mentioned a moment ago.
Specifically, the Q8’s 605 litres of dedicated cargo volume is down 90 litres when compared to the RX, although at 1,719 litres total it has 140 additional litres of gear-toting space than the Japanese alternative when their rear seats are folded flat. Likewise, the Q8 has 40 litres less area behind its second row than the X5 and 25 more than the X6, although gets pragmatically walloped by a sizeable 328 litres when laying the bigger BMW’s seats down. Still, it’s 194 litres more accommodating than the X6 when fully optimized. As for Mercedes’ GLE and GLE Coupe entries, they’re both more commodious in the cargo area, with the former up 85 litres behind the second row and 336 litres when those seats are lowered, and the latter improving on the Q8 by 45 litres and 1 litre respectively.
How did I go from comparing the Q8 and Lamborghini’s Urus to talking about cargo carrying mundanities? I might as well of started off talking about fuel economy, which is (I can’t help myself) rated at 13.8 L/100km city, 11.7 highway and 12.7 combined. Now that I’ve completely lost your interest, my boring, pragmatic point is that despite being on a more performance-focused mission than, say, the Q7 that comes standard with a 248-horsepower turbo-four in base trim and can’t be had with the Q8’s top-line 591-horsepower RS powertrain, my sporty looking tester’s 335-horsepower V6 hardly challenges anything from Sant’Agata Bolognese.
With 369 lb-ft of torque available, the 3.0-litre V6-powered Q8 is quick, mind you, or at least quicker than most will require more often than not, and if you absolutely must have more when needed, Audi offers the 500 horsepower SQ8 that puts 568 lb-ft of torque down to tarmac, and the already mentioned RS Q8 that incidentally puts out a formidable 590 lb-ft.
The most potent variety is good for a 3.8-second run to 100 km/h, which in fact mirrors the straight-line performance produced by Bentley’s W12-powered Bentayga, but still comes up 0.2 seconds shy of the Urus’ 3.6-second run. This said, if you can tell the difference from the seat of your pants I’ll be impressed. As for the mid-range SQ8, it’s good for a 4.3-second rip from standstill to 100 km/h, while Audi claims 6.0 seconds for the same feat in my tester’s 55 TFSI Quattro configuration. That’s pretty damn fast for a luxury SUV, by the way, so while this is the slowpoke of this very speedy bunch, it’s by no means a snail.
Part of the go-fast equation is ZF’s well-proven eight-speed automatic that does double-duty in the Q7 as well as plenty of other luxury models in and out of the Audi family. It’s as effortlessly smooth during everyday driving and as brilliantly quick-shifting when pushed hard as in the Q7, while Quattro continues Audi’s all-wheel drive leadership with sensational traction no matter the road conditions. The Q8 includes Comfort, Auto, Dynamic (sport), Individual and Off Road “drive select” modes too, the sportiest of which make the most of the SUV’s direct electromechanical steering setup and capably tuned five-link front and rear suspension design, resulting in a luxury crossover that’s as comfortably docile as required, or as entertaining as most could want, at least this side of a more performance-oriented trim.
Truly, as enjoyable as I found the Q8 to drive, this base model is more about comfort than speed. This is immediately noticeable when looking inside, where one of the industry’s most attractive interior designs is joined by Audi’s renowned materials quality and build execution. Like the Q8’s exterior styling, the cabin features a stylish array of sharply shaped soft and hard surfaces organized within a horizontal layout that visually enhances the SUV’s width, resulting in a very spacious look, feel and reality; the expansive panoramic sunroof overhead doesn’t hurt matters either.
My tester’s interior was mostly charcoal grey except for large sections of piano black surfacing across the instrument panel and lower console, which melded perfectly with various integrated electronic displays, plus the warming addition of some brown to the otherwise grey-stained open-pore hardwood inlays found on the outside of the same lower console as well as the doors.
While hardly the type of traditional warmth still provided by some luxury brands, the Q8’s cabin is far from austere, helped out significantly by Audi’s usual tastefully applied aluminum accents and the just-noted electronic screens, which colourfully brighten the gauge cluster and centre stack.
Not just high in resolution, these are clear, colourful, graphically stimulating high-definition displays filled with functionality, starting with Audi’s “Virtual Cockpit,” a fully digital gauge cluster that’s like no other, and followed up by two touchscreens on the centre stack, the main infotainment interface up top and a smaller secondary unit dedicated to the heating and ventilation system below.
I’ve gone on at length about Audi’s Virtual Cockpit in previous reviews going back years, initially blown away with its “VIEW” button-actuated capability of expanding multi-information features to encompass the entire display, except for tiny primary driving dials that remain in each lower corner. Now, a number of competitors provide similar functionality, but Audi’s remains one of the slickest operators for its ease of use and ample personalization capability.
I especially like expanding the navigation map within that gauge cluster, as it’s not only an eye-popping conversation starter when friends are riding along, but really helpful when wanting to focus on the road ahead. Better yet, utilizing a larger multi-information display for such functions frees the main infotainment display for front passenger use, while the HVAC controls are always close at hand.
Certainly, the latter effect is much the same as with cars that keep analogue HVAC controls in similar positions, but the Q8’s slick-looking, nicely organized interface modernizes the entire experience, while also preventing coffee spills and food crumbs from slipping between the cracks of buttons, knobs and switches, therefore maintaining a cleaner and more hygienic environment.
By the way, the aforementioned “drive select” modes are incorporated into a narrow, touch-sensitive strip just below the HVAC interface, which also includes a button for cancelling traction and stability control, switching on the hazard lights, and choosing defog/defrost settings. This switchgear, and all others in the Q8’s tidy cabin, is extremely well made.
Such attention to detail is expected from Audi, as is interior comfort. Number one with me is a vehicle’s driving position, because my legs are longer than my torso, so once I’ve moved my seat rearward enough to accommodate the former, I need more reach from the telescopic steering column than some vehicle’s offer in order to comfortably hold onto the rim of the wheel, without cranking my seatback to a near vertical position. This is critical for control too, because the ability to lay one’s wrist over the top of the wheel is optimal, allowing relaxed, bent elbows when the hands are positioned at the 9 and 3 o’clock positions. To make a short story long, the Q8’s driving position is near perfect, making it the perfect companion for all situations.
The driver’s seat also included plenty of adjustments, including a lower cushion that could be extended to cup below the knees, one of my favourite features, while along with the usual fore/aft, up/down, recline, and four-way lumbar, was a comprehensive massage feature providing wave, pulse, stretch, relaxation, shoulder, and activation modes, plus a trio of intensity levels, while the usual three-way warming cushions were accompanied by three-temperature cooling.
When my seat was pushed back far enough to accommodate my long-legged five-foot-eight frame, I still had ample room overhead, which makes sense being that Ingolstadt’s team of product planners live amongst a relatively tall Germanic population. Likewise, for all other directions, of course, not to mention the SUV’s rear quarters that are very generous as well. In fact, I could almost fully stretch out in back, which is unusually good even for the luxury class.
When the third passenger stays home, rear occupants benefit from a wide, comfortable fold-down centre armrest, complete with dual cupholders, as well as power-operated side sunshades that can both be modulated at either side of the cabin. The climate control system is four-zone, so Audi provides another touch-capacitive control interface on the backside of the front console, complete with switches for the rear outboard seat warmers, all of which sit just under a set of HVAC vents that combine with one more on the rear of each B-pillar.
I spoke about cargo capacity at the beginning of this review, so at the risk of banging on about even more dimensional specs, suffice to say it should be roomy enough for most peoples’ needs while providing an extremely well-finished, fully-carpeted compartment with an attractive aluminum protective plate on the door sill, bright metal tie-down hoops, and a neat little webbed storage area, while the seatbacks are configured in the optimal 40/20/40 split-folding configuration, allowing longer items like skis to be stored down the middle while rear passengers enjoy the more comfortable heated window seats.
This said, the Q8 is a good place to start shopping. From its handsome design and beautifully finished interior, to its strong performance and many practical elements, such as its strong set of standard and optional features, its superb comfort front to back, and its all-round generous accommodations, the Q8 is hard to beat.
Story by Trevor Hofmann
Photos by Karen Tuggay
Want a great deal on one of the best cars currently available? Mercedes-Benz is offering up to $7,500 in additional incentives on the outgoing 2020 E-Class, and some quick research shows there are still…
Mercedes has given the 2021 E-Class a refresh, updating the entire front fascia with a fresh, sporty take on the brand’s classic open oval, replacing the 2020 model’s horizontal slats with vertical dividers, while adding redesigned LED headlamps to each side. Updates to the lower front intakes are more subtle, but evident, as are changes to the car’s side profile, my E 450 4Matic tester swapping blackened window surrounds for bright metal and vice versa for the door handle trim. Of course, the wheels are new, but not because the 2020 rims were any less attractive.
Unlike most refreshes, the 2021 E-Class sedan’s taillights were dramatically updated, swapping out the 2020 model’s large, somewhat droopy ovoid clusters for a sharp new set of horizontally positioned lenses, these now cutting into the trunk lid, while the rest of the car’s hind end looks much the same as its predecessor, excepting some bright metal trim visually tying its tailpipes together. The modifications really make a difference to the E sedan’s looks, taking it from attractive to downright stunning, and bringing it up to date with other recently redesigned Mercedes’ sedans in the lineup, particularly the entry-level A-Class.
Moving inside, the German luxury brand added a new steering-wheel design and its latest MBUX infotainment system, enhancing what was already a very good interface, while additional advanced driver-assistance technology has been added to the mix too.
Lastly, the E 450 model says goodbye to its twin-turbo V6 for an entirely new turbocharged inline-six, which is a surprising move back in engine configurations for a brand that once solely made its six-cylinder engines in linear form. Inline six-cylinder engines are inherently smoother than V6s, which should bode well for enhanced refinement levels, not that the V6 is anything to harshly criticize. I should also mention that the 2021 model year sees the E 350e plug-in hybrid enter the fray, providing strong performance, improved fuel economy and the ability to utilize high-occupancy lanes during rush hour (depending on the regulations in your market).
I realize now that calling the 2021 E-Class a refresh is probably an understatement, as it’s more of a full redesign, at least in E 450 guise. Still, it’s most the same under the skin and inside, and to be fair to this 2020 version, little was needed to smarten up its interior. It starts with the most technologically impressive gauge cluster and infotainment combinations in the industry, Mercedes’ aforementioned MBUX display. Nothing looks anywhere near as advanced, with the only negative I could find being my personal need to spend less time in front of smartphone, tablet and TV screens.
The two conjoined displays are graphically stimulating, bright and colourful, high in definition, and impressively configurable, the left-side primary instrument and multi-information combo controllable via steering wheel switchgear, and one on the right incorporating modulated by way of lower console controls. I’d personally appreciate being able to tap, swipe and pinch directly on the display, but I also like having a set of remote dials and buttons closer at hand. As it is, the system’s only touch capacitive capability is atop the rotating dial, which was actually very effective.
Infotainment features are wide and diverse, some highlights including a dual-screen backup/overhead parking camera, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration, accurate navigation, satellite radio, myriad car setting functions including the adjustment of various coloured mood lighting, HVAC control including plenty of seat adjustments and multiple massage settings, and the list goes on.
Those seats are fabulous, as you might expect from the planet’s best-selling mid-size luxury car. Mercedes has always made superbly supportive and comfortable driver’s seats, even going back to my old ’72 280SE (how I loved that car). It comes complete with three-way heating, three-way cooling, a powered headrest, an extendable lower cushion, and powered side bolsters that can be set to automatically increase support to the opposite side in which you’re turning, plus all the usual fore and aft, up and down, and recline controls. It’s even possible to adjust the front passenger’s seat from the driver’s side switchgear, including its lower cushion extension and all other functions. That’s pretty amazing.
The driving position is excellent too, with ample reach from the tilt and telescopic steering wheel, not always the case which can be a problem for some body types (like mine). The seats’ leatherwork is beautifully crafted, as are all the open-grain hardwood inlays across the dash, console and door panels, while other niceties include a tasteful assortment of satin-finish aluminum and inky piano black lacquered trim in key areas around the cabin.
Gorgeous dark brown leather covered the entire dash top and door uppers too, with wonderful beige cream stitching. It was really a feast for cappuccino starved eyes. That Mercedes chose to emulate Rolex’ first-generation Explorer for the E’s dash-mounted clock is perfectly fitting, the circular time-teller following a similarly round interior theme dominated by a row of aluminum-trimmed air vents across the dash, and drilled aluminum speaker grilles (complete with a centre “f” hole that fans of the Gibson ES 335, Guild Country Gentleman, and similar hollow-body guitars will adore) for the sensational Burmester audio system. Truly, everything about the E 450’s interior was impeccably made from the best materials, even including the overhead console and rubberized sunglasses holder, the switches for the LED reading lights, and the rocker switch for the large dual pane powered panoramic sunroof and shade.
Of course, all roof pillars are fabric wrapped, while each door panel is soft to the touch all the way down to their bottoms. The sides of the centre console are pliable too, so as not to chafe the knees. Unlike some lesser models, the E-Class goes all the way with luxury, not matching the S-Class, of course, but getting very close.
This is true for rear seat occupants too, yet while the S-Class is certainly more accommodating and more luxurious, the E won’t doesn’t leave anyone wanting for too much more. There should be ample legroom, headroom, and width for most body types, and three-way heatable outboard seats were included in my tester as well. So was excellent venting from the backside of the front console, this hovering above a pop-out panel revealing two USB-A ports and a 12-volt charger, while a folding centre armrest includes a set of complex extendable cupholders as well as a lidded storage compartment under its padded cushion.
That armrest is attached to a foldable backing that, once lowered, provides a large pass-through from the trunk, ideal for longer cargo such as skis. The seats can be lowered in the usual 60/40 configuration after that, although should really be referred to as a 40/20/40 split. That trunk is nicely finished, by the way, as anyone who’s spent time with a Mercedes should expect.
Back up front, I found myself searching online to figure out how to heat up the steering wheel rim. The switch can be found on the end of the tilt and telescopic power steering column stalk. Just give it a twist and it even warms all the way around. The three-way heated driver’s seat was easier to source, as it’s right on the door panel above the seat controls that incidentally include three-way memory functions.
I started my driving impressions with warmth because getting comfortable is what the E 450 is mostly about, at least initially. Following this theme, the E’s ride is cloud-like. I hesitate using the word cloud because it denotes the feeling of floating, which reminds me of a particularly nauseating ride to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport as a child, in the back of a Netherlands taxi cab.
Of course, like most European taxis at that time, it was a Mercedes-Benz, similar to the one I expressed my love for earlier in this review. If you know anything about that drive, you’ll have memory of the plentiful dikes that need to be passed over along the way. Unfortunately, my dear brother wasn’t paying attention to the road ahead and the numerous dikes we repeatedly floated over and became violently car sick. Truly, that Merc’s suspension was much more pillowy than the domestic cars we’d grown up with in Canada. Those were car bodies on truck chassis, so it was safe to say we had never experienced anything this smooth before. I think the same could be said for anyone that’s never driven a mid- to full-size Mercedes-Benz car, and may be one of the key reasons a luxury buyer might consider purchasing one of the brand’s cars over their SUVs, not that the SUVs are particularly harsh.
While comfortable beyond measure, the E 450 4Matic also provides shocking good grip when pushed hard around fast-paced corners, no matter the weather conditions. Much of my weeklong test including wet road surfaces, although we also had a day of snow thrown in for good measure. Fortunately, I also experienced this E-Class in the dry, which allows me to attest to the fact this E 450 can manage everything thrown at it with grace and composure. I’d venture to say it’s one of the most well-rounded luxury sedans I’ve ever driven, and I’ve been behind the wheel of most.
Much of that driving prowess comes from the aforementioned powertrain, which provides impressive forward thrust thanks to the six cylinders mentioned earlier. This 2020 model’s engine featured the outgoing V configuration, which is still a force to be reckoned with thanks to 362 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque from a twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre V6. To be very clear, output hasn’t changed one iota despite the move to a 3.0-litre inline six for 2021, although due to the inclusion of EQ Boost, a 48-volt mild-hybrid assist system featuring a starter/generator that makes 21 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque on its own.
Therefore, the new power unit is significantly more efficient, with the 2020 model good for a claimed fuel economy rating of 12.5 L/100 city, 9.1 highway and 11.0 combined, and the 2021 car estimated at 10.4 city, 7.8 highway and 9.2 combined. That’s a massive gain, so the step up to the 2021 model is worthwhile for those trying to eke out the most from every drop of premium unleaded, not to mention lessen their environmental impact.
We can be certain the aluminized toggle switch on the lower console wasn’t set to Dynamic sport mode when achieving those numbers in either car, while the E 450 includes a Sport Plus mode as well. The latter turns it into a ferocious beast with a much more exhilarating exhaust growl and more of a necessity to use its paddle shifters for swapping gears, at which point it automatically blips the throttle upon downshifts. It’s like a Jekyll and Hyde personality change, transforming from an absolutely relaxed luxury liner to I really edgy, thoroughly engaging performer. The regular sport mode simply tightens the E’s responses, enhancing transmission shifts albeit upshifting and downshifting without holding a given gear as stubbornly, and while it blips the throttle too, it doesn’t noticeably stiffen the chassis. Default Comfort mode is comfortably, quiet, and Eco mode automatically shuts the engine off when it would otherwise be idling, something done less often in Comfort mode. All said it’s one of the more intelligent transmissions on offer.
That line pretty well sums up the entire car. It’s one of the more intelligent cars in its class, and it’s probably one of the smarter purchases from a resale value perspective too. I just happen to like it a lot, and would choose an E-Class over any direct competitor. New 2021 model’s styling upgrades and more efficient powertrain makes it even more enticing, although the potential savings on the 2020 might make sense for you too. You’ll need to move fast to take advantage of the latter, however, and connect with CarCostCanada to sort out the savings.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a 2020 Gran Coupe available for this review, so instead I’ll point you back to a 2015 BMW 428i xDrive I previously reviewed, and on that note the two cars featured in this road test are actually 2019 models that fell between the cracks, so allow me some creative license as these two were not fundamentally changed from model years 2019 to 2020, and reviewing them now allows the opportunity to point out where aesthetic updates and trim modifications were made.
This last point is fairly easy, with the only changes made from 2019 to 2020 being colour options, the Coupe losing Glacier Silver and Melbourne Red metallics and thus reducing its exterior colour count to two standard solid shades and three metallic options. The same seven interior motifs are available, and there are no changes with its myriad option packages. The Cabriolet loses its alternative black mirror caps in base trim (at least from the factory) and drops the same two hues as the Coupe, but adds a new metallic called Sunset Orange, while swapping Tanzanite Blue for Tanzanite Blue II. Lastly, the Gran Coupe eliminates Glacier Silver too (it didn’t have Melbourne Red), while adding Aventurine Red II Metallic, plus it trades the same two Tanzanite hues while swapping Frozen Silver for Frozen Dark Grey. And that’s it.
My two testers were painted in $895 optional Glacier Silver and Estoril Blue metallics, by the way, the latter getting plenty of looks with the top down thanks to beautifully contrasting Ivory White leather clad interior. It’s hard to believe that BMW no longer offers three of its sportiest models in Germany’s official racing livery, but the brand was never part of the silver arrows era anyway, its chosen colour in motorsport always being white with mostly blue accents. It nevertheless looks good in classic silver, especially with the blackened trim and wheels.
Both testers were near fully loaded, being 440i powered and xDrive controlled. Base 4 Series models come with the 430i powerplant, which denotes BMW’s 2.0-litre turbo-four with 248 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, resulting in lively performance albeit par for the course in this class, whereas 440i models receive the automaker’s turbocharged 3.0-litre inline-six good for a much more spirited 326 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque. The only model available without all-wheel drive is the 440i Coupe, but a quick glance at the back of my tester reveals the BMW’s “xDrive” emblem, which meant mine was not one of these rare rear-drive beasts.
Much to my chagrin, BMW didn’t include its wonderful six-speed manual in either car, although it is (was) available in the 440i Coupe (only). Was? Yes, this time of year you’ll need to take whatever you can get, meaning snap up a rear- or all-wheel drive 440i Coupe with a manual if you can find one, because there are obviously no more factory orders for this now updated car, and only M4s will offer manuals hereafter.
Alas, BMW has abandoned both the manual transmission and silver, no less at a time when we should all be considering investing in precious metals. What could be next? I’ll point you to my exhaustive overview of the new M3 and M4 for some of those details, at which point you’ll clearly appreciate that the German brand’s twin-kidney grille remains at large for 2021, or rather larger than life, which, I reiterate, is a good reason any available 2020 models will be hot commodities right about now. Let’s face it, while BMW deserves kudos for bravery, its significant stretch from conservatism hasn’t been universally praised to say the least.
I, for one, happen to love these two cars’ styling, and might even appreciate the outgoing Gran Coupe more. They’re all elegantly balanced designs with classic BMW cues as well as more visual muscle than any predecessors, plus they combine the most impressively crafted interiors, highest levels of technology, and best overall performance offered in any non-M-branded compact BMW ahead of the new 2021 models.
The 440i’s cabin is at a level of quality and refinement above most everything in this class. Along with the expected soft-touch synthetic surfaces normally found in this segment, BMW covered the entire dash-top and door uppers of the Cabriolet in rich, high-quality French-stitched leather, while the door panels received gorgeous white diamond-pattern leather inserts. The Coupe was less opulently attired, preferring a sportier black on black interior with a regular pliable composite dash and a tighter diamond pattern for its leather door inserts. Either way, both 4 Series doors wore premium soft-touch surfaces right to their very bottoms.
Both cars’ seats were exquisitely detailed in perforated hides, the Coupe’s even sporting contrasting light grey piping and stitching, whereas the Cabriolet’s creamy leather was sewn together with black thread. Plenty of satin-finished aluminum and piano black lacquered trim highlighted key areas in both models, while the instrument panel, lower console and doors were enhanced with a tasteful array of glossy dark hardwood in the Cabriolet and ideally suited patterned aluminum inlays for the Coupe. The switchgear in both cabins was once again of the highest quality, BMW cutting zero corners in this respect.
Moving up to 2021 4 Series models will allow for a fully digital primary gauge cluster, which for some will be a worthwhile expense, and while I’ve enjoyed playing around with such devices from other brands, I’d have no issue staying put with the outgoing 4’s mostly analogue dials. They’re classic BMW kit after all, with a small full-colour, high resolution multi-information display at centre, but all infotainment features, such as navigation mapping, audio details, phone queries, car setup functions, parking camera, etcetera are best done from the widescreen display atop the centre stack.
Again, there are more advanced infotainment systems in the industry, particularly in the new 4 Series, but this setup is easy on the eyes, fully featured and responds to inputs more than fast enough. I like BMW’s tile layout that allows finger swiping from function to function or modulation from the console-mounted rotating iDrive controller and surround quick-access buttons. This is well sorted and should be easy for anyone to learn how to use, given some time and practice.
Tooling around town is a wholly different experience depending on which model you purchase. The 440i Cab made for a wonderful winter reprieve, almost causing me to feel as if summer was back and the good times of evening drinks on patio bistros were around the corner. Yes, that thought might seem masochistic to contemplate amid our current health crisis, but personal luxury cars like this 4 Series Coupe and Convertible are ideal for getting away from all the madness, whether during your daily commute or on a weekend retreat. The well-insulated retractable hard-top made it feel coupe-like as well, and it takes barely a moment to lower, plus can be done while on the move.
Getting off the line and ahead of packed traffic is no issue when the “440i” emblem is stamped on the rear deck lid, each car’s ability to shoot forward from standstill smile inducing to say the least. Then again, the 430i Coupe doesn’t give up much forward momentum, scooting from zero to 100 km/h in just 5.8 seconds compared to the all-wheel drive Coupe’s 4.9 and rear-drive version’s 5.1 seconds. Yes, four-wheel traction matters more than the extra 39 kilos of curb weight, but mass does cut into the 200-kilogram heavier Cabriolet’s performance with less energetic times of 6.4 and 5.4 seconds for the 430i and 440i variants respectively. The Gran Coupe merely adds 0.1 seconds to each all-wheel drive Coupe sprint, resulting in 5.9 and 5.0 seconds from 430i to 440i. All 4 Series models are limited to a 210-km/h (130-mph) top speed.
Likewise, I could feel the Cabriolet’s heft in the corners, but not so much that it became unwieldy. In fact, if I had never driven the Coupe before I’d be wholly satisfied, as its handling is wonderfully predictable and oh-so capable when coursing through serpentine stretches at high speeds. The Coupe is just that much better, its lighter curb weight and stiffer body structure providing a more playful attitude that seems to always want to please.
This side of an M4, the only way to make the 440i Coupe better would’ve been the six-speed manual, but the eight-speed auto was impressive as far as commuter transmissions go, shifting quickly in its sportiest mode, when the steering wheel-mounted paddles came into play, yet smooth all the time.
Likewise, both cars’ suspensions soaked up road imperfections well, and never unsettled my forward trajectory, even when pushing hard over some poorly paved sections of curving backroad. They were a pleasure to drive around town too, their comfortable seats, both featuring extendable lower cushions, wonderfully supportive.
The Cabriolet is about as practical as this class gets in back, which isn’t all that much, but the Coupe offers room enough for two adults and the Gran Coupe more so. The same goes for cargo space that ranges from 220 litres in the Cab to 445 litres in either hard-top car, while all cars get a 40/20/40 split-folding rear seat with a particularly wide and accommodating centre pass-through.
Now that I’m being pragmatic, fuel economy is actually quite good in all of the 4 Series models, the best being the base 430i Coupe and Grand Coupe that share a 10.2 L/100km city, 7.2 highway and 8.8 combined rating, whereas the 430i Cab is good for a claimed 10.6 city, 7.3 highway and 9.1 combined. The thriftiest six-cylinder 4 Series is the rear-drive automatic 440i Coupe at 11.2 L/100km in the city, 7.3 on the highway and 9.4 combined, followed by the both the 440i xDrive auto Coupe and Gran Coupe with ratings of 11.4 city, 7.6 highway and 9.7 combined. The 440i Cab achieves a respective 11.8, 7.9 and 10.0, and lastly the two manually-driven Coupes come in at 12.8, 8.8 and 11.0 for the rear-drive model and 13.0, 8.5 and 11.0 for the xDrive version. All require pricier premium fuel, but that’s par for the course with German luxury vehicles.
Now that I’ve lulled you to sleep, I should wake you up by mentioning that BMW is currently offering up to $10,500 in additional incentives for 2020 4 Series models, one of the most aggressive discounts I’ve ever seen offered by any manufacturer on any car, so you might want to head over to the CarCostCanada 2020 BMW 4 Series Canada Prices page to learn more. You can build each model right down to their 20-plus options and aforementioned colours, plus you can learn about any manufacturer leasing and financing deals, available rebates and dealer invoice pricing that will give you a major edge when negotiating your deal. Find out how the CarCostCanada system works, and make sure to download their free app so you can have all of this critical info with you when you’re at the dealership.
I can’t look into the future to guess whether or not the new 2021 4 Series models will eventually be accepted by pre-owned BMW buyers in order to predict their future resale values, because it really will take some time for fans of the brand to make up their collective minds. I don’t even want to think too far ahead regarding my own future tastes, but I can say for sure this most recent 4 Series design has weathered the test of time well. I see it as a future classic, and would be more inclined to pick one of these sure bets up instead of risking my investment on its unorthodox replacement. All I can say is, get one while you can.
Story and photos by Trevor Hofmann
Icons can be a blessing and a curse, as so many auto manufacturers have learned. From Volkswagen’s rear engine, rear-drive Beetle that was reincarnated as the front-engine, front-drive New Beetle and…
Icons can be a blessing and a curse, as so many auto manufacturers have learned. From Volkswagen’s rear engine, rear-drive Beetle that was reincarnated as the front-engine, front-drive New Beetle and saw reasonable short-term success from mostly gender-specific non-enthusiasts, and British Leyland’s Mini that eventually became BMW’s entry-level Mini brand, even incorporating a subcompact SUV and accepted by regular consumers and diehard petrolheads alike, to Ford’s Mustang that, after going through some dark years is once again the quintessential muscle car, and Porsche’s 911 that has quite possibly been the best managed icon of all, gracefully transitioning through the decades with its only blight being the somewhat awkward looking 1998–2005 996 variant.
That last example shows how important it is not to mess with the secret sauce that makes an icon iconic. In Porsche’s case it came down to replacing the 911’s 34 years of circular headlamps with Boxster/RSK-inspired teardrops, which, along with the demise of the air-cooled flat-six and a totally revamped interior, caused near “New Coke” levels of outrage.
Land Rover’s Defender 90 and 110 fall into iconic territory as well, which is why many have criticized the British brand’s entirely new Defender, that shares no similarities with its predecessor. Like Ford’s Bronco, the Defender has been gone from the market for long enough that enthusiasts may not only allow it to live, but might possibly become its defenders (sorry for the pun). This said, Mercedes doesn’t have to worry about such issues with respect to its new second-generation G-Class, because no one will mistake this SUV for anything but the real deal.
Like anything, whether you love it or loath it is personal. I happen to love it. I’m more of a classic Geländewagen fan, mind you, but only because it can be had with a fuel-saving, torque-rich diesel, it wouldn’t be worth crying over if scratched when out in the woods, and it falls within the realm of possibilities with respect to my personal budget, but 4×4 capability aside, the recently updated G 550 I’m reviewing here has very little in common with the original civilian 460 or military-spec 461 that arrived in 1979, or for that matter those made in the ‘80s that added a four-door option along with an automatic transmission, plus more comfortable Mercedes sedan seats, air conditioning, power windows, luxury trimmings, and much, much more. In fact, this new W463 is monumentally improved over first-generation examples I tested just a few years back, even if those less familiar with this SUV won’t notice its many visual updates.
The new second-gen G-Class launched in 2018 as a 2019 model, in both G 550 and sportier AMG G 63 trims. The more trail-spec’d 2017-2018 G 550 4×4 Squared and the even more performance-oriented 2016-2018 AMG G 65 have yet to appear in this new generation, nor has the outrageous six-wheel variant, so we’ll just have to wait and see if Mercedes wants to take this latest version to similarly extreme levels. Updates include many new body panels, completely fresh lighting designs (that most notably don’t deviate too far from the original), and trim changes all around. The SUV’s boxy, utilitarian shape remains intact, which means its numerous fans remain faithful.
Unlike the exterior design that only appears different to the trained eye, the renewed G-Class is dramatically redesigned inside. It now incorporates the level of refinement and jewel-like finishings found in Mercedes’ other offerings, not to mention renewed electronic interfaces that completely change the cockpit’s look and usability. On that last note, Mercedes installed its latest MBUX digital instrument cluster/infotainment touchscreen design that houses twin 12.3-inch displays behind one long, cool, sheet of transparent glass-like surfacing.
The left display isn’t touch-capacitive, but amongst other switchgear it’s controlled by a micro-pad on the left steering wheel spoke, just like the infotainment system’s otherwise touch-sensitive screen can be actuated via the usual fingertip-activated palm rest/scrolling wheel combination as well as an identical Blackberry Trackpad-like controller on the right-side steering wheel spoke. It all works brilliantly, making this one of my favourite multi-information/infotainment system setups, which incidentally comes filled with all the functions expected in this class.
Most other buttons and switches are made from satin-finish or knurled aluminum for a truly upscale environment, which as noted earlier is nothing new for Mercedes, but some of these details majorly upgrade the G 550. Knurled metal can be found elsewhere in the cabin, as can plenty of additional satin-finish aluminum, the beautifully drilled Burmester surround sound speaker grilles amongst the nicest I’ve seen, while gorgeous open-pore hardwood envelopes the primary instrument/infotainment binnacle as well as the lower console surface and door armrest trim.
Some harder plastics exist, but I wouldn’t sound an alarm for centre console side panels that don’t quite measure up to pricey expectations, especially when the door panel and seat upholstery leatherwork is so rich, supple and finely detailed. My tester wore a lovely chocolate brown hue that worked well against its electrifying blue exterior paint, the combination doing a great job of pulling off bold and daring while coming across almost conservative, if that’s even possible.
The driver’s seat has excellent side bolsters and most of the adjustments I’d want if purchasing as an everyday commuter, only missing an extendable thigh support. This said the static lower cushion cupped nicely below my knees, which while potentially problematic for shorter drivers was nice and comfortable for me. Mercedes makes no such mistakes with its lumbar support, however, which is four-way powered and therefore should be a perfect fit for most body types. The G’s tilt and telescopic steering column provided more than enough fore and aft adjustability too, leaving me with a great driving position in spite of my shorter-torso, longer-legged body.
Mercedes has importantly added much more rear legroom behind the G’s front seats, so that even tall rear passengers can stretch out comfortably. In addition, the upgraded back seats are almost as supportive as those up front, with those sitting next to the window ultra-easy on the backside. The centre position is best left for smaller folks, with anyone placed there crowding all three rear passengers. Such is the reality with an SUV designed for negotiating tightly treed trails, or narrow rocky crevices, depending on where you’re tackling the wild. Let’s not forget, especially this time of year, that the G-Class was designed for military and rescue purposes first and foremost, and even put into service by our Canadian armed forces.
Before anyone starts complaining about taxpayer dollars funding six-figure SUVs for our military elite, CAF-spec’d models are utilitarian at best, and don’t cost anywhere near a 2020 G 550’s base price of $147,900 plus freight and fees. On this note, CarCostCanada is currently reporting factory leasing and financing rates from zero-percent, which can certainly go a long way to making a new G-Class affordable. The zero-interest rate deal appears to apply to the $195,900 G 63 AMG too, which is a lot of paper for Mercedes to carry.
This is a good time to point out that CarCostCanada also provides Canadian consumers with information about manufacturer rebates, when available, as well as dealer invoice pricing that can give you a significant edge when negotiating on any new vehicle. Find out more about how the CarCostCanada system works so you can take advantage of the savings that could put thousands back into your pocket, and while you’re at it, download their free smartphone app from the Google Play Store or Apple Store.
There’s no need to spend all those savings on aftermarket 4×4 gear if you’re at the wheel of a G 550, as this ute is about as capable off-road as anything on the market. I’ve had plenty of fun guiding this tank of an SUV into and out of otherwise unsavoury situations over the decades, including swampy marshes, even swampier mud holes, fast-running creeks, loose rocky embankments, solid rock abutments, and more, and can attest to its unwavering abilities. This said I wasn’t willing to risk damaging my G 550 tester’s stylish set of 14-spoke alloy wheels on hardly off-road spec 275/50 Pirelli Scorpion Zero tires, at least anywhere near my usual 4×4 playgrounds. This one was set up for the street, where most G-Class owners will spend the majority of their driving time.
Even with these lower-profile performance tires, the G 550 rides sublimely. Really, those who think truck-based SUVs are less refined than their car-based unibody alternatives need to spend some time in a new G-Class, because its tight body structure, rigid frame and ample suspension travel result in one very comfortable riding utility. I found it ideal for city traffic, its suspension reducing deep ruts, bridge expansion joints and other pavement imperfections to minor intrusions while its towering height allowed for superb visibility all-round.
The G 550 was equally adept on the open highway, and while I never tested its 7,000-pound trailer rating I have no doubt it’s up to the task, especially considering its 2,650-kilo (5,845-lb) curb weight. That heft adds to its ride quality while keeping it planted nicely in its lane at high-speed, not even allowing sharp wind gusts to push its slab-sided body around. It performs well through curves too, those aforementioned Pirellis providing a nice, wide contact patch for what would’ve been surprisingly adept manoeuvrability if I hadn’t already experienced just how capable the G-Class can be on the road. I’d previously experienced an AMG-tuned G 63 on California’s circuitous coastal highway system, not to mention the fabulous Laguna Seca racetrack, so believe me when I tell you that this SUV is much more fun to drive on pavement than its brick-like profile makes one assume, although arriving at the famed downward spiralling Corkscrew turn from such great heights is akin to plunging down the initial drop on Vancouver’s Playland ‘Coaster (or, I can imagine, while riding the even larger classic wooden Wilde Beast at Canada’s Wonderland—or the Toronto-based theme park’s 16 other roller coasters). The G 550 won’t deliver the same handling agility as the AMG version, but it’s more than capable through the corners, while its braking is impressive as well.
Stopping power is critical in such a heavy SUV, particularly one that can get up to speed so quickly. While the 416-horsepower G 550 can’t sprint from zero to 100 km/h in the 577-hp G 63’s 4.5-second time frame, it is capable of a relatively quick 5.9 seconds, all thanks to a 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 capable of 450 lb-ft of torque and a quick-shifting eight-speed automatic sending power down to all four wheels, not to mention a really reactive Sport mode.
This is where it might even be too jarring for some peoples’ tastes, the G 550’s snap off the line so responsive that the backside of my head met up with the comfortably padded headrest more abruptly than expected, albeit only when slamming right foot to throttle in Sport mode. I tried adjusting this more aggressive driving style by delicately feathering the go-pedal during quick takeoffs, but alternatively found it was easier to maintain a smoother response while still being fast after selecting the SUV’s Eco setting, and trust me it was still plenty quick in this more environmentally sensitive setup.
Going green in mind, there’s really no way to get past the G 550’s previously mentioned mass and just-noted power, resulting in a Transport Canada fuel economy rating of 18.0 L/100km in the city, 14.1 on the highway, and 16.3 combined. This is no worse than many other full-size, V8-powered SUVs, nor is its thirst for pricier premium fuel, but there’s a reason military-spec models still come with turbo-diesel powertrains.
Just a side note for diesel-lovers like me, earlier examples came with Rudolf’s highly efficient, torque-rich creation, and while kind of expensive for decades-old 4x4s, they’re reasonable considering their cult-like collector status, ultimately dependable service and off-road capability. This is where I would personally look for a future G wagon, because it’s possible to get into an early ‘80s two-door 230 GE or 280 GE in the mid-$20k range. I’d prefer one of the 5-door LWB station wagons, but take heed even older version will likely sell for more than $30k, with really nice ones sporting the larger 300 GD engine going for more than $40k. Do some searching and you’ll quickly find more advanced V8-powered G’s from the early 2000s for similar prices, even some AMGs, but you’ll need a thick wallet to keep these fancy beasts on the road, as their reliability is not as bulletproof as the earlier diesels, and they require sophisticated diagnostic equipment to source problems.
Now that I’m talking practical issues, all G-Class models come up a bit short on cargo space when compared to full-size American alternatives like Cadillac’s Escalade, Lincoln’s Navigator or their less luxurious volume-branded counterparts. G’s fare better when put up against similarly equipped premium Europeans, however, with the 1,079-litre (38.1 cu-ft) luggage area behind my tester’s rear seats a significant 178 litres (6.3 cu ft) more accommodating than the full-size Range Rover’s dedicated gear-toting maximum, and both SUV’s top load-carrying capacity identical at 1,942 litres (68.6 cu ft). I certainly could live with that.
In the end there’s not much I can complain about with Mercedes’ new G-Class update. Sure, I was initially a bit miffed at the smallish powered glass sunroof overhead, at least in these days of expansive panoramic light emitters, but in truth I could care less if there were no sunroof at all, and a larger one would likely weaken the SUV’s body structure and potentially crack under pressure. I would’ve appreciated a wireless phone charger, mind you, and would install one if these were my long-term ride.
I’m also hoping to enjoy future forays into the wild green (and brown) yonder in a modernized gen-2 G 550 4×4², previous examples of which incorporated portal axles like Mercedes’ outrageously capable Unimogs, but in most every other respect I’m over the moon about this impeccably crafted luxury ute, and I’m especially grateful that Mercedes stayed true to its iconic 4×4 roots. This, to me, is the ultimate off-roader, and I’d purchase one today if money were no object.
Story and photos: Trevor Hofmann
The health crisis has caused mayhem in many industries, and while the auto sector hasn’t been hit as hard as travel and hospitality, it’s definitely taken its toll. This reality, while bad for many…
The health crisis has caused mayhem in many industries, and while the auto sector hasn’t been hit as hard as travel and hospitality, it’s definitely taken its toll. This reality, while bad for many manufacturers and their independent retailers, poses some opportunity for those that want to make a deal.
Many Volkswagen dealers, in fact, have new, non-demo 2019 models available. Yes, I realize we’re entering the 2021 model year, and even the “peoples’ car” brand is advertising 2021 versions of its cars, but that doesn’t change the fact that many 2019 vehicles remain unsold.
Believe it or not, one of such vehicles is the mid-size three-row Atlas crossover SUV, a relatively new model that’s received a lot of praise from pundits like me, and reasonably good sales. Nevertheless, some dealers have multiple new 2019 Atlas models in their inventory, which is reason enough for VW to offer up to $6,000 in additional incentives on models like the top-line $54,975 Atlas V6 4Motion Execline R Line being reviewed here, shows CarCostCanada on their 2019 Volkswagen Atlas Canada Prices page (find out more about CarCostCanada here and remember to download their free app from the Apple Store and Google Play Store).
They’re also reporting up to $700 in incentives on the subtly refreshed 2021 Atlas, so there’s even a small discount available despite these having just arriving on retailer lots, but the big money is on the 2019, as Volkswagen and its dealers are highly motivated to get rid of this nearly two-year old SUV.
To be clear, VW Canada never imported the 2020 Atlas from Chattanooga, Tennessee where it’s built, but instead received its allotment of all-new five-passenger 2020 Atlas Cross Sport models, while allowing nationwide inventory of the larger seven-passenger version to slowly sell off. Seeing that 2019s are still available, this was a very smart move.
Moving into 2021, VW has given the Atlas a deeper grille that now includes a third bright metal-like crossbar, plus new LED headlamps, and fresh front and rear fascias that add 75 millimeters (2.9 in) to the SUV’s overall length. Inside, the steering wheel is new while contrast stitching is added to higher end trims with leather. Mechanically, all-wheel drive is now standard across the line, and the base turbocharged four-cylinder engine is more widely available.
As you might imagine, the 2021 Atlas’ starting price is considerably higher now that it comes standard with AWD, the new MSRP being $40,095 (plus freight and fees) for its base Trendline trim, compared to $36,740 for this same trim line in the 2019 model year, a difference of $3,355. Comfortline, Highline and Execline trims are still available, all of which are priced higher except for Highline, which now comes standard with the aforementioned 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder. Just-above-base Comfortline trim continues to offer both engines, but the entry-level 2021 Trendline can now only be had with the turbo-four, while 2021 Execline trim continues to come standard with the 3.6-litre V6.
I won’t go into much more detail about the 2021, because, frontal styling, new steering wheel and some contrast-coloured thread aside, it doesn’t appear to have changed much from this outgoing model. This is no bad thing, however, as its first two model years were well received. I tested a 2018 and this 2019, the first version experiencing a couple of teething problems including a broken second-row sliding seat handle. Otherwise it was an exceptionally good SUV that I enjoyed spending a week with, just like the even more luxuriously appointed 2019 model.
I was surprised by all the positive comments I received from friends and even passersby during my test week, all shocked that VW would produce anything so big and truck-like, the latter when it comes to styling at least, but I quickly reminded all that the old beloved Vanagon and front-engine T5 van (which were available here a long time ago) weren’t exactly small, and pretty boxy as well, so the Atlas mostly fits into the brand’s DNA. I think they made a good choice from a styling perspective, as the majority of today’s crossover SUV buyers seem to want a rugged looking utility, the Atlas’ bulky fender flairs and ample chrome doing a fine job of relaying visual toughness.
Inside, even without the 2021 updates, the Atlas provides a nice ambience, with wide open spaces and no shortage of attractive design elements. This is especially true in my tester’s top-tier Execline trim that came with cream-coloured perforated leather upholstery, woodgrain and satin-silver accents, plus loads of impressive display screens including a fully digital and brightly coloured instrument cluster, along with a large centre touchscreen display.
Before I get too far into this review, I need to mention what I see as the elephant in VW’s garage. Where Volkswagen was once the go-to mainstream volume brand for those of us who prefer premium-like interior quality and finishings, this is no longer the case. Some of the Atlas’ details are excellent, like the steering wheel, that’s one of the best in its class as far as the way it feels in the hands as per to leather quality and shape, plus its overall sporty design, while no one should complain about the SUV’s front seats that are Germanic in their firmness and therefore wonderfully supportive, but VW is now falling short by failing to nail the interior refinement details that used to make them reign supreme, such as fabric-wrapped roof pillars, plus the tactile quality of plastics used below the waistline, and in some cases even above.
The dash-top is a rubberized black synthetic, which is reasonably good, but the woodgrain on the dash and doors feels cheap and hollow, similar to what GM used to offer years ago. The same can be said for the metallic trim that surrounds it, which only feels a little bit denser due to being closer to the trim piece’s outer extremities and therefore strengthened by its complex construction. Volkswagen does add padded leather inserts on the doors, and does a decent job with the armrests, but that’s it for soft-touch surfaces. The lower doors and lower portion of the dash and centre stack are all made from hard plastic, and while most is finished with a matte semi-soft paint, it’s nowhere near up to the levels offered by others in this class.
For instance, just after my weeklong Atlas test, I spent another week in an almost loaded Kia Telluride SX, plus the week after that I drove Hyundai’s Palisade, and must say that both are as close to premium products as anything ever offered by mainstream brands. The former even wrapped both A and B pillars in the same high-quality fabric used for the roof liner, while the latter does so with a plush suede-like material. Additionally, Kia’s faux wood felt so dense and realistic I had to verify that it wasn’t real. Likewise, the interior metals are excellent and feel genuine, while even the exterior metal surrounding the windows felt like Lexus’ polished nickel.
Volkswagen does a better job when it comes to gauge clusters and infotainment, but only when compared to the Kia. Hyundai’s fully digital cluster in the Palisade includes side-view cameras within its outer “dials” when changing lanes, a wonderfully useful safety feature on such a large vehicle, while Kia does similar, albeit places the image within the multi-information display between conventional analogue dials.
All said, I’m not about to bash Volkswagen for having one of the best digital driver displays in the industry. It actually comes very close to matching the Audi Virtual Cockpit, which I consider to be one of the best in the industry. I especially like how VW’s display reduces the size of its analogue-style speedometer and tachometer to the size of wristwatch faces as it fills the entire screen with a given infotainment function, such as navigation directions complete with full digital mapping.
The centre touchscreen is also amongst the best in the business, with superb high-resolution quality including beautiful depth of contrast and superb colours, as well as excellent graphics and speedy actuation. It’s filled with all the features you might expect in this class, such as aforementioned navigation, a large, clear and useful backup camera, full climate control and audio functions, the latter system including Bluetooth streaming and satellite radio capability, plus Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity, etcetera.
The Atlas’ switchgear is fairly good overall, but the rotating outer dials around the tri-zone automatic climate control interface were wiggly and sloppy, something I didn’t find on the just-noted Kia or Hyundai, or for that matter the majority of their competitors.
Now that I’ve once again mentioned the two South Koreans, it should be noted that both fully loaded SUVs are less expensive than the Atlas, but not by much. The Telluride SX that I tested just after the Atlas was quite a bit more approachable at only $49,995, but since then a fancier 2021 Telluride SX Limited with Nappa leather was added to the lineup, increasing its retail price to $54,695 before discount. That’s a nominal difference of $280, incidentally, so make sure to drive both the Kia and VW when it comes time to buy. The top-tier 2020 Palisade Ultimate would now be the least expensive of the bunch at $54,199, but the $54,699 2021 Ultimate Calligraphy just happens to be $5 more than the priciest Telluride. Either way I recommend spending some time with this one as well, not to mention Toyota’s latest Highlander and Mazda’s CX-9 that deserve high praise in this class too.
My Atlas tester’s heatable steering wheel rim was nice, and the driving position superb. The tilt and telescopic steering column reaches far enough rearward to provide the type of control and comfort I required, due to having a body with proportionally longer legs than torso. The seats were comfortable too, with good lower back support.
Additionally, the rear seating area is very accommodating, even for those in the third row that received comfortable backrests and ample space for feet under the upgraded second-row captain’s chairs in my test model. Those individual second-row chairs allowed space in between to access the rearmost seats, making life easier when kids are aboard. There’s a place for what-have-you plus cupholders to each side, and also good you’ll find third-row vents in the C pillars so rear passengers won’t feel claustrophobic. This in mind, the rear side quarter windows are easy to see out of, and Volkswagen also includes reading lights overhead. I can’t see any child or average-sized person complaining about the Atlas’ rearmost compartment, even during a long trip.
Back to the second-row seating area, VW includes ventilation on the backside of the front console, as well as a digital display for the SUV’s automatic rear temperature control system’s third zone. The only negative about the Atlas’ otherwise excellent HVAC system is that the aforementioned Telluride and Palisade offer quad-zone auto climate control systems. They also make heated and cooled second-row seats available, whereas this VW only included three-way warmers in back, plus the South Korean models get USB charging ports in the third row, this important feature found only in the Atlas’ first and second rows.
Volkswagen provides a powered rear door to access the large cargo area, par for the course in this class, which impressively measures 583 litres (20.6 cubic feet) behind the third row, 1,571 litres (55.5 cu ft) behind the second row, and 2,741 litres (96.8 cu ft) when all seats are folded flat.
Lifting up the load floor exposes the usual tire changing equipment and a subwoofer for the audio system, but unexpectedly appreciated was a handy storage location for the retractable cargo cover when not in use. The 50/50-split third row folds down easily and provides a flat loading floor, and while you’ll eventually get a nice, mostly flat loading floor from lowering the second-row seats as well, you’ll be forced to walk around to the side doors in order to do so. The Kia and Hyundai competitors provide power-folding rear seats.
As you may have guessed, Volkswagen delivers in spades when taking the Atlas out on the road. The brand has long been respected for endowing its vehicles German performance characteristics at a budget price, and to that end the big SUV’s 3.6-litre V6 really gets up and goes thanks to 276 horsepower and 266 lb-ft of torque mated to a smooth and snappy eight-speed automatic transmission. Still, that’s not quite as much oomph as the Telluride and Palisade’s V6, which puts out 291 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque while also conjoined to an eight-speed automatic, and while all three SUVs sport all-wheel drive, the South Koreans weigh about 300 lbs less, so they feel a bit more engaging off the line.
That extra weight may be contributing to the Atlas’ less appealing fuel economy, which at a claimed 13.7 L/100km in the city, 10.1 on the highway and 12.1 combined is a bit thirstier than the two Koreans’ 12.3 city, 9.6 highway and 11.1 combined ratings. All of these estimates pale in comparison to the Subaru Ascent’s 11.6 city, 9.0 highway and 10.4 combined rating, mind you, not to mention the Toyota Highlander’s respective 11.7, 8.6 and 10.3 rating, plus the Mazda CX-9’s phenomenal rating of 10.6, 8.4 and 9.6.
The Atlas’ handling is better than most in this class, however, prompting me to call this the driver’s SUV of the three-row bunch. This is where its German engineering pays off, even without as much power, and while the two Koreans and most others in this class should keep up through the curves without much effort, the Atlas feels better then pushed hard. Nevertheless, I noticed more interior noise in the Volkswagen than others, and I’m not necessarily talking about road and wind noise, but instead what seemed like the sound of plastic panels chafing up against each other when traveling over rougher roads.
To be fair, Volkswagen may have exorcised out some of the gremlins that plagued my tester since introducing the Atlas, so I’ll need to spend a week with a new one in order to learn how it measures up. I certainly appreciate the way it drives, can give it two thumbs way up for exterior styling and interior design, was impressed with its spacious, comfortable cabin, and truly like its advanced electronics, but some tactile and very real quality issues lowered its score, as well as a number of convenience and luxury features that were missing compared to rivals.
All in all, the Atlas is a solid first effort in the highly competitive three-row SUV segment, and I look forward to experiencing any improvements in the new 2021. As far as buying a 2019 model goes, the deep discount now available could make it very worthwhile.