American Size, VW Spunk

By Derek Price

The Atlas is Volkswagen’s biggest, most Americanized vehicle to date.
Its roomy cabin, ample proportions, rugged shape and high seating position could easily be mistaken for a Chevy or Ford — or a Canyonero on “The Simpsons,” if you’re feeling cynical. It’s the stereotypical SUV, albeit with a noticeable German zing in the driving feel.
What I’m driving this week, though, isn’t a regular Atlas. It’s the Atlas Cross Sport, which trades the third-row seat for sportier looks. It seats five people, not seven as in the boxier Atlas, and gives you a sleek, sloping roofline and prettier rear styling in exchange.
In a way, the Atlas Cross Sport reminds me of the pricey BMW and Mercedes-Benz vehicles that try to blend coupe-like styling with SUV spaciousness. It’s not as posh on the inside or flashy on the outside as those German luxe rides, but it’s not nearly as expensive, either, ringing up at about half what the X4 or GLE Coupe do.
The base engine is a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder, which is a fine engine in a small sedan, but its 235 horsepower is merely adequate in a big, heavy SUV like the Atlas. A better choice is the six-cylinder VR6 engine, which makes 276 horsepower.

The 2021 Atlas Cross Sport has seating for five. It loses the third-row seat found in the regular Atlas, offering a huge cargo space and sportier, sloping roofline instead.

Highway fuel economy is 24 with the four-cylinder and 23 with the V6. Interestingly, that’s the same whether you choose front-wheel or all-wheel drive, so there’s not much tradeoff if you pick the V6 with AWD versus the four-cylinder with front-wheel drive, according to government testing.
This year the Atlas Cross Sport is available in a staggering eight trim levels that vary the equipment and the look, ranging from basic to premium and sporty to classy.
An improved version of Volkswagen’s digital interface, called MIB3, is new this year. It responds quickly to inputs and is designed to pair with smartphones wirelessly or through a USB or USB-C cable.
The Atlas Cross Sport is also taking another baby step toward autonomous driving with a new system called Travel Assist. When you press a button on the steering wheel, it uses adaptive cruise and lane-watching sensors to keep the car centered in the lane — and changing speed in traffic — with minimal driver input. It can even automatically change lanes when the driver commands it if equipped with VW’s Side Assist feature.
Still, the driver has to keep their attention on the road and hands on the steering wheel when Travel Assist is on. Capacitve sensors on the wheel ensure the driver is actually touching it, and the system will disengage if the driver doesn’t offer input.

A revised version of Volkswagen’s digital interface, called MIB3, is one of the Atlas’ upgrades for 2021.

A closely related new feature, Emergency Assist, is also new for 2021. If the vehicle senses that the driver is incapacitated, it will automatically reduce speed and come to a complete stop in its lane. I can imagine this system saving lives in a medical emergency when a driver could otherwise unknowingly drive off the road while passed out.
Other than those new upgrades, the Atlas is keeping pace with the competition. It has the standard suite of safety and comfort features that all new cars seem to be offering, including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, autonomous emergency braking, blind spot sensors and driver assistance systems.
What sets it apart is its spunky driving feel.
While most SUVs this large seem to float high above the pavement, the Atlas wants to connect the driver to the road. You get good feedback in turns and when parking, the sensation of a more direct connection to the wheels then in most three-row SUVs. It’s a major selling point to people who like than engaging, almost sporty feel from the driver’s seat.
Pricing covers a wide range. The two-row Atlas Cross Sport starts at $30,855 for the front-wheel-drive S trim, which is just $700 less than the three-row Atlas. Opting for all-wheel drive adds $1,900 to the cost.
The Premium R-Line trim tops the lineup at $50,025. Options include a V6 towing package for $550 and a panoramic sunroof for $1,200.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2021 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport V6 SE with Technology ($37,645). Options: None. Price as tested (including $1,195 destination charge): $38,840
Wheelbase: 117.3 in.
Length: 195.5 in.
Width: 78.4 in.
Height: 68.3 in.
Engine: 3.6-liter V6 (276 hp, 266 ft.-lbs.)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 18 city, 23 highway

Style: 8
Performance: 6
Price: 7
Handling: 7
Ride: 6
Comfort: 7
Quality: 7
Overall: 7

Why buy it?
It offers a lot of space for the money, plus Volkswagen’s signature zippy driving feel that’s unusual in vehicles this big. New driver assistance features make it smarter than before.

Posted in Volkswagen

Panache and Practicality

By Derek Price

For families who want something a bit different, Volvo is serving up the V90 wagon on a quirky platter.
This is one of the few cars that appeals for equally logical and emotional reasons. It has all the boring benefits of a crossover SUV — ample cargo space, a roomy cabin, modern features and all-wheel drive — with a not-so-conventional wagon shape, all of which is wrapped up in a sleek, modern, upscale design.
Personally, I think the current V90 is one of the prettiest utilitarian cars I’ve ever seen. It’s meant to haul kids and cargo, but it doesn’t sacrifice sexiness in the process.
A low-slung shape, sloping roofline, long hood and contemporary creases are all styling tropes that belong on a movie star’s two-door coupe, yet they’re applied to this wagon with great effect. Coupled with some of the nicest accent materials you’ll find in any luxury car, both inside and out, and it’s a recipe for automotive lust.
Again, that’s assuming you’re a contrarian. If you want to go with the flow, just buy an SUV like everyone else does. The V90 is different by design.

Volvo’s V90 wagon is a sleek, sexy alternative to more common SUVs. Its upscale design, rich feature set and low-slung, sleek look are unusual for such a practical vehicle.

My tester was the Cross Country version that blurs the line between wagon and SUV. With protective body molding and a bit more ground clearance, it’s designed with some off-road adventuring in mind, but I also think it detracts from the best part of the V90: that gorgeous shape.
This wagon’s cabin comes in a close second. Gorgeous, open-pore wood trim, rich leather and clean, classically Scandinavian design make it a visually relaxing place to spend time.
Its driving feel is more lively than sedate, though, especially with the powerful T6 engine option on my tester. It doesn’t exactly carve corners like a sports sedan, but it doesn’t waft, either. It’s comfortable on the highway and responsive enough when you need to change lanes or have fun on a winding road, a well-balanced car, as I see it.
Part of the V90’s quirky charm is its unconventional engine lineup. There are two different versions of its turbocharged, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine available, an odd choice in the luxury segment but one that works beautifully if your goal is blending performance with efficiency.

A vertical touchscreen anchors the interior of the Volvo V90. Metal, wood and leather combine with Volvo’s clean, modern aesthetic to create a relaxing place to spend driving time.

The base T5 engine makes 250 horsepower, enough to give it a premium feel but hardly overkill.
The upgraded T6 makes a meatier 316 horsepower yet still manages to eke out a respectable 30-mpg government rating for highway driving, even with all-wheel drive. That’s an astounding mix.
You can find more powerful cars than the V90, and more fuel efficient ones. I don’t know any that combine performance with efficiency quite like the current crop of Volvos, though.
No surprise for this brand, the level of safety equipment is substantial. One of my favorite features is Volvo’s brilliant Pilot Assist function, standard on every V90, that does a good job keeping the car centered and following traffic without driver input for brief periods of time.
Pricing starts at $52,895 for the V90 or $55,995 for the more rugged looking, off-road-focused Cross Country.
The more powerful T6 engine is a $6,000 upgrade on the V90 and standard on the Cross Country.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2021 Volvo V90 Cross Country T6 AWD ($54,900). Options: Lounge package ($2,800), advanced package ($1,700), metallic paint ($45), premium sound ($4,000), adaptive air suspension ($1,200), air cleaner ($250), 20-inch wheels ($800). Price as tested (including $995 destination charge): $67,740
Wheelbase: 115.8 in.
Length: 195.2 in.
Width: 74.9 in.
Height: 60.7 in.
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder (316 hp, 295 ft.-lbs.)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 20 city, 30 highway

Style: 10
Performance: 7
Price: 5
Handling: 8
Ride: 8
Comfort: 9
Quality: 10
Overall: 8

Why buy it?
It’s equal parts beautiful and practical. Its wagon shape is more unusual than cookie-cutter SUVs, but it doesn’t sacrifice functionality. Its Scandinavian design is outstanding inside and out.

Posted in Volvo

MDX Gets Athletic

By Derek Price

Acura has been on a roll lately as it overhauls its entire lineup to be more rewarding to drivers, including what the brand is calling its new flagship: the 2022 MDX.
It’s interesting that a supposedly driver-focused brand would apply the word “flagship” — a term Acura uses prominently and repeatedly to describe the MDX as its top-of-the-line vehicle — to a three-row, family-friendly SUV. If you want your brand to appeal to serious driving enthusiasts, a heavy, spacious, high-riding SUV isn’t a logical place to focus.
But that’s exactly what Acura did when redesigning the MDX for 2022. This all-new version seems to be built with driving feedback at the top of its priority list after many years of touting comfort, reliability and storage space.
The difference is stark, and it’s one you can see as well as feel.
For starters, the MDX gets a sharp new body. It mixes the visual DNA of a sports sedan with the practical, upright shape of an SUV, and I think the elongated hood and angular creases are a nice improvement.
My eyes are especially drawn to the new grille with its intricate, almost sculptural texture that seems to undulate like ripples in a pond. It’s striking, the kind of design that looks great in person but is hard to capture in photos.
The interior gets a similar improvement to make it more upscale and modern.
Solid construction has always been an Acura hallmark, although it’s easy to see where the Honda parts bin was raided in its past products. That bad habit still exists in the new MDX, but it’s harder to see, buried amid a beautiful array of soft materials, perfect stitching and supple leather. The the new MDX’s cabin feels more befitting of a premium brand than it ever has before.

An elongated hood and angular creases make the all-new 2022 Acura MDX look more like a sports sedan and less like an SUV.

So does the way it drives.
With a fast, athletic feeling from the driver’s seat, this is one of the sharpest handling SUVs I’ve driven lately. It delivers sensations from the road better than most of its competitors, and its steering, brakes and engine all aim for the precise, communicative feeling of a sports sedan.
The new MDX retains and improves one of my favorite things about the old one: its responsive and smooth V6 engine. The newest version of Acura’s 3.5-liter V6 pairs nicely with its 10-speed automatic transmission, which — thanks in part to new active grille shutters that can close to reduce drag — help it earn a fuel economy rating of 26 mpg on the highway. That number drops to 25 if you opt for all-wheel drive.
If you’re skeptical about Acura’s new driver-focused mission, especially on a three-row SUV, consider this fact: they’re just about to release a Type S version of the MDX. That’s the label Acura has traditionally put on its aggressive, high-performance, hard-edged cars, and I look forward to seeing how well engineers and designers apply that formula to the brand’s biggest vehicle.

Acura puts technology front and center in the new MDX, including a fully digital gauge cluster behind the steering wheel.

This new-generation MDX is designed to put technology front and center, and it does a brilliant job of that for the most part. An all-digital gauge cluster is a great example of that, letting the driver easily customize the look and information on a 12.3-inch display behind the steering wheel. The location of knobs and buttons all seem well thought-out, feeling easy and natural to reach for all the commonly used controls.
There’s one notable exception, though. I found the MDX’s True Touchpad interface a bit fussy to use with Apple CarPlay in my tester. It seemed to work much better with Acura’s own infotainment setup and is a noticeable improvement over previous versions. Still, it makes me wish luxury car makers would abandon their touchpad interfaces for a simple, intuitive touchscreen instead.
Pricing for the new MDX starts at $46,900 with front-wheel drive. The all-wheel drive version starts at $48,900, and it tops out at $60,650 with the Advance Package.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2022 Acura MDX SH-AWD Advance ($60,650). Options: None. Price as tested (including $1,025 destination charge): $61,675
Wheelbase: 113.8 in.
Length: 198.4 in.
Width: 78.7 in.
Height: 67.1 in.
Engine: 3.5-liter V6 (290 hp, 267 ft.-lbs.)
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 19 city, 25 highway

Style: 9
Performance: 8
Price: 8
Handling: 9
Ride: 6
Comfort: 7
Quality: 9
Overall: 8

Why buy it?
An all-new MDX focuses more on driving feedback than ever before. It’s designed for people who enjoy the feeling of the road but still want to be pampered in a luxurious, tech-filled cabin.

Posted in Acura