If you write about cars, you can have new cars just delivered to your house continuously. I don’t think most Jalops have done this historically, but I’ve been taking advantage of the borrowing cars thing lately.
Before taking this job, I spent about eight months doing non-car-writing work and kind of lost track of what’s being offered. So, I’m going to drive cars and write my thoughts on them until I feel like I’m caught up, or if people like reading these, maybe I keep going.
NOTE TO READERS WHO ARE WEIRDLY PARTICULAR ABOUT REVIEWS: These are not full reviews. Most of these cars have been out for a while, we’ve reviewed a lot of them. If you need to know everything about a car, read those posts. If you need to know what I, a moron, think of them, read on.
2021 Mazda CX5 Carbon Edition
When someone is dead set on owning a smallish crossover, this is almost always what I recommend. Since it’s first iteration, it’s managed to be affordable, good looking and even reasonably fun to drive despite some middling powertrains.
This was the first Mazda I’ve driven in a while and and I was a little surprised how effective the interiors are at spiffing the CX-5 up. I don’t believe that reaching up into the historically difficult to penetrate luxury market is a good idea for Mazda, but the interior materials/fit and finish are really lovely. This one had red leather, which is real good.
The CX-5 Carbon Edition I borrowed was, like all CX-5s, equipped with an automatic transmission, which didn’t do it any favors in the “fun to drive” or “acceleration” departments. But once it was up to speed, it felt great hustling on rainy backroads. Mazda talks a lot about steering and suspension feel, but they’re right to. The CX-5 feels like a good sports sedan/wagon. In an ideal world, it would be one.
Performance/luxury automakers make crossovers in a similar size class now, but they’re weighed down with psychic baggage and remind onlookers of the much better and cooler cars those companies also make. The CX-5 is a kind of secret handshake among enthusiasts—everyone knows that it’s actually alright to drive so they forgive you for buying a car in the normiest of segments.
If someone is forcing you to buy a small crossover, this is still the one to buy.
Toyota Sienna Limited
As I said in my Odyssey review, job one when designing a minivan is maximizing utility. You’re not going to hide the general shape or size, so in my opinion, you may as well make your minivan look fun/wild. The Toyota Alphard is probably the best contemporary expression of this idea (whether Toyota intended that to be the case or not) but the new Sienna is as pleasantly unrestrained as I could hope for.
It’s not out of line with the look of other Toyotas, it’s just that on a canvas as big as the Sienna, it’s a lot MORE. Look at those haunches. Does a minivan need flares and fake duct work? It does not. But I love Toyota for giving us styling this wild on a mainstream, US-market minivan.
The front end looks similarly zany, but again, it’s good. Look at that massive grille. We’re touching Alphard territory. If you find that’s too much, the XSE trim package gets a big, black mesh grille treatment. It also gets a sportier suspension setup.
Look at it. Imagine we’re a little lower, with some bronze TE37s. (I’m imagining it and it’s good.) Especially because while the stock wheels are certainly novel with their little checkered surface treatment, I’m not crazy about them.
The interior is exactly what you’d want from a fancy minivan—low floor, tons of space, second row seats that slide fore and aft, with a drop down monitor in the ceiling. The leather feels durable, like it’s well suited to longterm minivan duty—plus it comes in brown, which contrasts nicely with the green paint that’s only available in this Limited trim.
The powertrain was a little disappointing. It was very hard to keep it in EV mode, even at neighborhood speeds and the CVT did the CVT thing where the throttle pedal and the engine seem like they’re communicating by mail. The sporty mode makes this less bad, but my dream of a true driver’s minivan continues to elude me—not that anyone other than me cares. Still, I’d really like to check out an XSE, maybe that’s the one for me.
But, if you’re after standard minivan things like safety, fuel economy, comfort, and cargo capacity, this, given the styling is probably what I’d get. If the styling’s too much, the Honda Odyssey is great and a quite a bit more bland-looking. I haven’t driven the new Kia Carnival but I’ll try to track one down.
Volvo XC60 T8 E-AWD Polestar Engineered
Ok, we start out with the XC60, a car we should be familiar with. Then we get T8 E-AWD and Polestar Engineered. The T8, as you almost certainly know is a 2-liter four-cylinder engine that is both supercharged and turbocharged. Here, it’s hooked up to one electric motor on the rear axle and another on the transaxle. In total, the combination makes 415HP and 494 FT-LBS of torque. This is not clearly explained on the Volvo site, I don’t know why. Polestar Engineered means it gets the adjustable Ohlins dampers, bigger Akebono brakes with gold calipers, a strut brace and special 21 inch wheels that I really like. Do you want adjustable dampers? Do you know how to adjust dampers? I can’t say that I do.
That’s a lot of power, and a lot of go-fast equipment AND the X60 even looks reasonably sporty with its body kit and Polestar badges. Looking at the numbers, it’d be fair to assume that this one is in the same rough wheelhouse as other fast crossovers. It kind of is, and kind of isn’t.
In a really fast car, there’s a sense of potential, even at low speed. Touching the throttle coming away from a stop sign, you know that the car is capable of tearing ass through the neighborhood, even if that’s not in the cards at that moment. It’s a small part of the day to day drama of driving something fast.
Here, the use of a forced induction engine in combination with the two electric units creates a disjointed experience at low speed. You get a lot of engine noise before anything really happens. Once something does happen, the X60 is fast enough, but it’s not the same “fast car” experience you might be expecting. The car doesn’t really feel like a performance oriented car most of the timeIt does handle, the brakes work very well, etc. It’s not as though the car isn’t sporty, it is. It’s just a very different experience from say an Audi SQ5.
Mazda3 Hatch Turbo Premium Plus
Ah the classic formula, once-in-a-generation-perfect hatchback bodywork, perky turbo motor, startlingly nice interior, all-wheel-drive. Now, let’s add torque converter automatic transmission. Perfect, a car for no one.
To be clear, this is an excellent car. It handles, it’s gorgeous, the interior is way nicer than it has to be. The transmission isn’t even bad as automatics go. But why on earth would anyone buy one? Who is it for?
With a manual or even a DCT, this would be a highly compelling alternative to the GTI, Golf R, WRX, etc. As it sits, it’s an entry to into the small, near luxury hatchback segment and I don’t know that buyers are clamoring for more of those. I’m pretty confident that if they were, they would not be asking Mazda for them. The small car/hatch market is tough these days—and not in the sense that it’s competitive.
If you wanted to build something that reminds people of Mazda’s “driver’s car” bona fides, there’s value in that even if you don’t sell a million of them. But trotting this thing out to fail in the market and while getting reviews that say “Nice car, wish it had a stick” isn’t helping anybody.
I’m guessing this car’s combination of engine/trans was made possible by the introduction of this powertrain in other Mazdas and I assume that’s why a manual/turbo combo wasn’t in the cards. And, with where Mazda is and where it’s going, it probably doesn’t make sense to go charging after the hot-selling GTI with a real Mazdaspeed3 successor, even if that would make us very happy. But, I think they should have pumped the brakes here the moment it became clear that the car was going to be a “stuck between two worlds” proposition.
I’m not going to say the money would have been better spent on a handling package for the fantastic standard Mazda3, but it would have certainly been cooler.
Like any good auto writer, I’ve put a lot of the people who ask me for car recommendations into Mazdas over the years. They’ve made some of my favorite road and race cars, and they just know how to imbue normie cars with soul—an incredibly rare thing these days.
I don’t know how their push upmarket is going to be received by the buying public, but I know the people who work there still know how to build special cars. I hope they’re able to keep doing that.
I guess the thing about this car is, it’s an RS6 for people who couldn’t get an allocation for an RS6. It’s really similar to that car, the experience isn’t all that different except that this one is about chest high at the roof and the RS6 is very close to perfection.
Both Audis need to be prodded and coaxed a little before they get rowdy. I drove the RS6 and the E63 AMG S last year nearly back to back and I was surprised how much more raw and dramatic the Mercedes felt. The two cars were pretty evenly matched as far as specs, and I think the Audi is a good deal better to look at—but I ended up preferring the Mercedes. Sitting in that car with both pedals mashed, waiting to let go of the left one, the car squirms and roars like if you hold it there too long it’s going to tear itself apart.
The Audis are, to be sure, capable, but the veneer of civility is a little heavier. Launch control is brutal, the first second or so off the line feels like you’ll get to 60 much faster than Audi’s claimed 3.7 seconds. But punching it from a stop sign in one of the more pedestrian modes, the car loafs a little. VAG has a mechanically nearly identical Lamborghini Urus for people who want something shocking—the RSQ8 is for people who are 20 percent more buttoned down.
The interior is, like recent top-dollar Audi interiors, perfect. It looks sharp from the outside too, though I’d imagine it will inspire a lot of owners to conclude that they should have waited in line for the station wagon.
Genesis G80 3.5T Prestige
We’re going to have to figure out something else to say about Genesis, it’s just not at all surprising that they can deliver a car like this. What is Genesis if not a plucky upstart? What are they doing if they’re not punching above their weight and are now just punching? This is a luxury sedan that compares favorably to any other mainstream luxury sedan being made by any car company.
My one big complaint is that placing the rotary dial that controls the shifter within a couple inches of the rotary dial that controls the the infotainment system was a very bad idea. Otherwise, the interior is benchmark stuff, satisfying material choices assembled perfectly. Like, actually, to-the-stitch perfect. The surfaces all flow together beautifully with lines swooping and diving around the cabin, it feels a little concept car.
From a design standpoint, it’s really the only avant garde car in the class. Everything else looks a little “standard issue” while Genesis does the swoopy interior, the stacked linear headlights and the monster shield grille. Crucially, they pull it off.
Power from the 375 HP 3.5L turbo-six is delivered with an almost EV-like effortlessness and even though this is the Prestige version, if you get the chance to sling one around, you’ll find it’s an excellent back-roader.
The luxury car pecking order as been in place for decades. Oddly enough, building a car that’s as good or better than the established leaders hasn’t been enough to guarantee a place in the hierarchy, but I can say for sure that Genesis deserves one. This car is just another reason why.