Henry Payne Blog

Payne: Buick Envision, the second-gen’s the charm

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 26, 2021

In Florida you can have any car you want as long as it’s white. The reflective color is ubiquitous in the Sunshine State as passengers try to keep cool from the relentless ball of fire in the sky.

But the thing about white is it highlights a car’s style. Poor designs have nowhere to hide their awkward lines and sloppy details. They stand out against the white background like acne on Kate Upton’s face.

My white, 2021 Buick Envision ST tester looked lovely.

Thin grille and lights. High cheekbones. Lean rocker panels. Black 20-inch wheels under muscular shoulders. What a difference a generation makes.

The first-gen Envision landed in 2015 with a whimper. Sandwiched between the brand’s cute subcompact Encore and handsome three-row Enclave ocean liner, Envision should have been the brand’s crowning glory. Buick’s bestseller in the industry’s most popular segment. An exclamation point that Buick had completed its historic transformation from stale sedan brand to hip SUV brand.

But the Envision didn’t shout premium. Behind the signature grille was a jowly facia punctuated by old school Buick portholes — er, Ventiports. What were ’50s portholes doing on the brand’s breakthrough compact SUV? The interior was OK, the ride OK, the experience OK. Not what was expected from a brand that had wowed autodom with Encore and Enclave. Envision became better known for the UAW protesting its made-in-China origins.

The 2021 Buick Envision offers comfortable leather seats and lots of console storage.

Sales were, well, OK.

Gen two is an extreme makeover. Driving the Naples, Florida coastline with Mrs. Payne, my Envision may have been white like everything else, but it was vanilla no more. It looked sharp in lots choked with Mercedes GLCs, Audi Q5s and Lexus RX 350s.

The west coast of Florida is teaming with Midwest retirees and snowbirds who have escaped down Interstate 75 from the cold. Yet the auto mix is not much different than the state’s east coast populated by northeasterners who’ve migrated down I-95. German and Japanese luxe brands are everywhere. Like the European (Rolex, Gucci) and Japanese (Uniqlo, Canon) brands that litter ritzy shopping centers.

“We sell fashion,” a GM exec always reminds me, and its Cadillac and Buick brands have struggled in that pursuit.

It’s not just Euro-fashion Buick must contend with. Japanese-made Lexus has been dominant in Naples for years, its mix of affordability and customer service irresistible to monied Floridians. Especially the mid-size RX 350, often referred to as the official vehicle of Florida.

So it’s significant that the Envision turned our Delray-resident pal Alice’s head. She loves her similarly sized Lexus ES 350 sedan, but the Envision checked all her boxes.

Start with that athletic SUV exterior — some two inches lower and wider — which carried none of the baggage that might have reminded her of old Buick sleds. No portholes. No jowls. It looked like no Buick she had ever seen before.

That’s where Buick’s wholesale change to SUVs has been brilliant (even if it meant ditching my favorite Regal sedan sportback. Sigh). It’s a fresh start. Alice might have been a character right out of those Buick TV ads:

“That’s not a Buick!”

Pleased by the toned exterior, 60-something Alice slipped easily into the ute’s raised seat (the older you get, the harder it is to get into sedans, am I right?). The interior sealed the deal.

Reworked like the exterior, the quiet cabin is a pleasing place to be. Comfy front thrones. Roomy rear bench. Sculpted dash. Familiar GM steering wheel volume and cruise controls. Taking a page from Corvette — Corvette! — the center console is driver-centric, its big 10.2-inch infotainment screen rotated toward the driver.

Not that you’ll confuse the Envision’s handling with a ’Vette. The Buick is a Goldilocks ute: not too stiff, not too soft. Just right. Its suspension, 9-speed tranny and 228-horse turbo-4 are plenty peppy without tempting you into stoplight drag races.

But the driver-focused layout puts the touchscreen within easy reach — whether the pilot is your long-armed 6’5” reviewer or wee Alice, who, like a lot of Lexus customers, isn’t enamored with her vehicle’s remote touchpad controller.

“It’s annoying,” she said rolling her eyes. The same affliction dogs the Acura RDX, one of my favorite SUVs in segment — save for its Tru Touchpad screen controller. Oh, I’ve gotten an earful from owners.

The 2021 Buick Envision offers wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto which opens even more room in the center console.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, Buick has stuck with a touchscreen just like your smartphone. Alice loved it. And the lack of a remote controller also opens the console for storage space for her multiple thermoses, keys, etc.

Not that Buick isn’t immune from innovation. Where Lexus and Acura try (unsuccessfully) to impress with touchpad tech, Envision opts for a button “trigger” transmission. A console space saver, it’s easy to learn. It joins other GM innovations that have stood the test of time: head-up display, safety alert seat.

Both these inventions (first found on cousin Cadillac) come with Envision’s $2,500 Tech Package. It’s worth it. The safety seat buzzes your butt when you get too close to an object. Mated to “HD surround vison” — as sharp a front-rear camera as you’ll find — the two systems combine for worry-free mobility in tight spots. Like the Lemon Tree Inn parking lot where my wife and I stayed in Naples.

The tech package also includes wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which further unclutters the console while enabling the best nav apps on the planet.

Given this obsession with detail, noticeably absent from my $40,000 ST tester was Adaptive Cruise Control. It would have come in handy on Florida’s highways — choked with sunbirds fleeing cold temps and nanny-state governors.

GM has been curiously tight-fisted in offering ACC on its vehicles. It’s a notable omission and reminded me of mainstream brands like Nissan, Subaru and Mazda that offer it (and other standard items on the Buick like blind-spot assist and emergency braking) for under $30,000. Technology has shrunk the difference between mainstream and luxe brands, and a loaded AWD Subie Outback or Mazda CX-5 can be had for $5,000 less than a comparable Envision or Acura RDX.

Brand matters, of course. And, within its competitive set, Envison is every bit the value of its Japanese peers. That’s a big step up.

Oh, yes — and be sure and step up with the Envision’s $1,350 Sport Touring package. Those big black wheels and trim details will really show off your Buick’s toned, white beach bod.

All-new for 2021, the 2021 Buick Envision is built on the same FWD chassis as the Cadillac XT4, offers a 228-horse turbo-4, and an athletic design.

2021 Buick Envision

Vehicle type: Front engine, front- or all-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact SUV

Price: $32,995, including $1,195 destination fee ($40,820 FWD Essence ST as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder

Power: 228 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; towing, 1,500 pounds

Weight: 3,732 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA est. mpg, 24 city/31 highway/26 combined (FWD); 22 city/29 highway/25 combined (AWD)

Report card

Highs: Athletic styling; driver-friendly console

Lows: Numb handling; standard adaptive cruise, please?

Overall: 3 stars

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Payne: Wagon or SUV? Audi A6 Allroad vs. Volvo XC90

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 23, 2021

Station wagon or SUV?

It’s almost a moot choice today since so few wagons remain after the SUV tsunami. But in the luxury class, European automakers continue to bring sleek, powerful wagons popular across the pond. They are a reminder that such four-wheeled dinosaurs once ruled North America before a regulatory meteor from Washington in the 1970s rendered them virtually extinct, ushering in the SUV Age.

I took two of the finest examples of the modern European SUV and station wagon — the Volvo XC90 an Audi A6 Allroad, respectively — on the road to ponder the existential question.

The A4 Allroad has been the only Audi wagon to grace U.S. shores in recent years as the German brand swarmed the SUV market with its popular Q5 and A7 utes. But outdoorsy Allroad fans (like Subaru Outback and Jeep Wrangler cultists) are rabidly loyal. So Audi is offering to slake their thirst with the mid-size, 2020 A6 Allroad.

The low, sleek profile of the 2020 Audi A6 Allroad. Despite their good looks, wagons have fallen out of favor in U.S. because they are harder to climb into.

I grew up in wagons and generally prefer them to utes for their lower center of gravity and sleeker looks. But, honestly, the A6 Allroad is not a head-turner. Cruising up north on I-75 to Charlevoix, a Cadillac CTS wagon and a Buick Regal Tour X filled my windscreen. I trailed them both for a few miles, admiring the Caddy’s bold angles — ogling the Buick’s lovely flanks.

Utilitarian and gorgeous. What SUV gives you that?

Yet the Audi left me cold. On road-side stops the A6 didn’t turn heads. Perhaps it’s the big, busy face — its criss-crossed grille bars resemble lattice work on an apple pie. Audi innovated the big front grille (even BMW is belatedly following the trend with grotesque M4 kidneys), but it now swallows the face like a medical mask.

Volvo makes a gorgeous fascia on its V90 wagon. The Audi? Meh.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find a Volvo wagon, so popular is the XC90. It kick-started Volvo sales in the States in 2016, and for good reason. It’s an elegant piece of work. Eschewing grille-zilla, the XC90’s face is a modest, horizontal sculpture. The A6 grille juts outward, like a bulldog’s jaw — XC90 is scalloped like a Maserati and punctuated by that classic Volvo logo.

The 2020 Volvo XC90 SUV has been a huge sales success for a brand once known for its station wagons.

Volvo continues to separate itself from its German peers with signature, Thor’s hammer headlights in front — big, boomerang-shaped taillights out back. Its one of my favorite SUV designs right there with a Mazda CX-9 which, ahem, is $20,000 cheaper while offering the same amenities and BMW-like handling (a comparo for another day).

I took a family trip last fall in the XC90 across the Upper Peninsula to Wisconsin’s Road American race track, and the SUV lived up to its utilitarian reputation.

There’s no denying the creature comforts of the XC90. Loading the big ute is easy. Its hatchback rises to expose a cargo bay at waist level — the load floor is about 2.5 feet off the ground.

The XC90 has a cramped, third-row option, but we used the full space behind the second row seats to fit baggage for three: oversized suitcase, two carry-ons, briefcase, cooler, tennis bag, iRacing game pedals and steering wheel, groceries and a kitchen sink (kidding about that last one).

The 2020 Volvo XC90 sports a fully digital instrument display.

My 6’3” son and I (6’5”) took shifts at the wheel — slipping laterally in and out of the Volvo’s raised seats as we cruised Route 2 along Lake Michigan’s north shore. Both race car drivers, we’re used to bending down to get into low-slung sports racers. But I’ve also become used to the exclaims of SUV-pampered friends when they encounter a wagon these days:

“It’s so low! It’s hard to get into!”

But not hard to drive. The Audi chassis makes for superb handling.

After a monotonous Friday cruise up I-75 to Gaylord in the Audi, the spaghetti-shaped curves of M-32 were a welcome diversion. At 4,486 pounds the Allroad is a big car, but its stiff bones and Quattro AWD system are eager to hustle — pushed by the 48-volt-battery-assisted, 335-horse turbo V-6 under the hood.

Despite a load of luggage in the boot, I put the A6 in DYNAMIC  mode and danced across miles of country roads — occasionally tugging on the paddle shifters to wind the engine out of corner apexes.

In my 366-mile journey through the U.P. to Wisconsin, I never felt a similar temptation in the Volvo.

With Google maps enabled in the 2020 Audi A6 Allroad, the twin touchscreens make for a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape.

The big, 5,105-pound ute is a comfortable ride, its high center of gravity built for lakeshore views. With an 87-horsepower motor (plug it in and the ute will go 18 miles on electricity alone) mated to a supercharged, turbocharged 4-banger, the Volvo puts out an impressive 400 horsepower and launches to 60 mph 0.3 seconds quicker than the Audi. But it’s a drivetrain built for fuel efficiency, not performance. The 27 mpg Volvo will travel 520 miles on a tank of gas, the Audi 505 miles averaging 22 mpg.

The Volvo is 11 inches taller than the 4’8” high Allroad, but otherwise our testers have similar dimensions, a reminder that SUVs are just raised wagons. Similar length, headroom, legroom.

The Volvo may be the SUV, but it’s the Audi that carves out more cargo room: 30 cubic feet behind the second row compared to XC90’s 24. The Volvo’s space advantage is with third-row seats.

Up front, the XC90’s interior exhibits typical Volvo charm with its crystal shifter, rotary starter button and simple, Scandinavian design. But its infotainment tech pales compared to Audi, which has long been a leader in digital tech.

Pack it in. The 2020 Volvo XC90 will swallow a lot of luggage under its rear hatch — though not as much as rival station wagon Audi A6 Allroad.

While I generally recommend ditching in-car nav systems for superior Apple CarPlay/Android Auto navigation, Audi is an exception.

Displaying my route via Google Earth in both the center and instrument displays, Allroad enhanced my scenic trip with its own, beautiful satellite views of the Lake Michigan coastline. The Volvo system is pedestrian by comparison, and I used Apple CarPlay for reliable navigation.

Both Audi and Volvo use touchscreen controls — a new twist for the Audi faithful who have used remote dials in previous generation cars. With its crisp, haptic touch response, the Audi is easy to use and a generation ahead of the Swede.

Crowned 2016 North American Utility of the Year, the lovely XC90 continues to impress as a worthy option in a German-dominated segment. But for those who want the added dimension of performance in their utility vehicle, Audi’s good ol’ station wagon is my preferred long-distance tool.

The distinctive taillights of the 2020 Audi A6 Allroad.

2020 Audi A6 Allroad

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger wagon

Price: $66,895, including $995 destination fee ($71,990 as tested)

Powerplant: 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6 with 48-volt battery assist

Power: 335 horsepower, 369 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 7-speed, dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.2 seconds (Car and Driver); towing, 5,500 pounds

Weight: 4,486 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA, 20 mpg city/26 highway/22 combined

Report card

Highs: Mesmerizing maps; utility with handling

Lows: Oh, that face; lacks console storage

Overall: 3 stars

Now owned by the Chinese firm Geely, the 2020 Volvo XC90 has retained the classic Volvo characteristics of safety and handsome design.

2020 Volvo XC90 e-AWD plug-in 

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, six-passenger wagon

Price: $68,495, including $995 destination fee ($86,790 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter supercharged, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder with 87-horsepower electric motor assist

Power: 400 combined system horsepower, 472 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.9 seconds (Car and Driver); towing, 5,000 pounds

Weight: 5,142 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA, 27 mpg gas/55 MPGe when fully charged

Report card

Highs: Unique styling; Scandinavian interior

Lows: Infotainment tech lags; plug-in gets pricey

Overall: 3 stars

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Payne: Rugged Ford Ranger Tremor hits the slopes

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 11, 2021

So you enjoy off-roading. Done it in the snow?

It is beautiful, challenging and dangerous. And the perfect habitat for the 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor — my four-wheeled snowmobile for a recent trip to wintry Holly Oaks ORV park.

The 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor is the most rugged Ranger on offer. The off-road package is available on XLT and Lariat trims.>

My last foray into Holly Oaks’ twisted canyons was last November in the Ford Bronco Sport, my 2020 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year. Bronco Sport is a superb all-around package of utility, design and fun. Not content to just haul stuff (like two bikes upright under its rear hatch), the unibody-based, $34,000 Bronco Sport Badlands edition features the twin rear clutch pack off a Ford Focus R hot hatch to make for serious off-road capability. I whipped the little stallion around Holly Oaks so hard I popped a tire bead.

But when the going gets really tough, you’ll want a ladder frame under you like the Ranger Tremor. And even then, you’ll still want bead locks as (ahem) I once again torqued a bead off a rim. I’ll get to that in a moment.

The Tremor is the most capable Ranger pickup on offer. And the mid-sizer is a worthwhile daily driver even if you don’t plan on tearing up off-road parks. Tows 7,500 pounds with 2,080 payload. My pal John bought a Ranger because he couldn’t fit an F-150 into his Manistee condo’s garage.

Time for bead locks. The 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor loves to play off-road — and News auto critic Henry Payne managed to separate the tire bead from the rim on a particularly woolly piece of Holly Oaks Park. Good thing there is a spare tire under the bed.>

I can’t fit an F-150 into my two-car garage, either. It’s a technical marvel with six engine options, tablet display with state-of-thee-art SYNC 4 infotainment, zone lighting, self-park-assist, onboard generator, wireless phone apps and a rear seat big enough to fit the Detroit Pistons front court.

Ranger is a generation behind big brother (waiting for hand-me-downs) when it comes to tech. Its cabin has small screens, SYNC 3, no hybrid option, and adaptive cruise control that doesn’t work under 10 mph.

Whoa, Nelly! It’s been a while since I drove ACC that didn’t come to a full stop behind another vehicle.

But throw on the Ranger’s $4,290 Tremor package and the wee pickup comes alive with all-road capability. No, this isn’t a Baby Raptor with Baja suspension and twin-turbo V-6 engine that can leap tall buildings in a single bound. But Ranger still gets upgraded Fox shocks with Ranger’s standard, snarly 2.3-liter engine turbo-4 with class-best 310 pound feet of torque. Heck, it’s shared with the aforementioned Focus RS pocket rocket (oh, I miss that little hellion in North America) and Mustang HiPo. Tremor starts a whopping $30,000 south of Raptor.

And size matters off-road. Small size.

Where F-150 Raptor’s capabilities can only fully be realized by ingesting sand dunes in SoCal’s Borrego Desert at 100 mph, you can satisfy Tremor’s appetite at Holly Oaks (or The Mounds in Flint) just 30 minutes up I-75.

The 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor at play. It's rear-wheel-drive layout and 4x4 traction makes it fun in the snow.>

North Oakland County is pickup country, and I drove in a herd of F-150, F-250, Chevy Silverado, GMC Sierra and Ram 1500 elephants up the interstate. But Holly Oaks’ confines (carved out of an old cement quarry) are more amenable to compact bruisers like the Ranger Tremor.

This is Jeep Wrangler (and soon-to-arrive) Ford Bronco country, with narrow trails and narrow crevices not unlike what you’ll find on rocky Moab terrain in Utah. Mid-size pickups have piggy-backed on the explosion in SUV interest, bringing pickup bed utility to the game. Tremor is joined by the Jeep Gladiator, Chevy Colorado ZR2 and Toyota Tacoma TRD.Get the COVID-19 Update newsletter in your inbox.

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Tremor goodies are a nice value as they sit on top of the already tough FX-4 off-road package — and can be coupled with XLT and Lariat trims starting at $41,000.

The Ranger’s torquey, 270-horse mill and Fox shocks make it a blast around Holly Oaks high-speed bits just like cousin Bronco Sport. But blanket the 235-acre landscape in 6 inches of snow, and the desire for a ladder-frame chassis suddenly become paramount.

The 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor climbs Mt. Magna at Holly Oaks in the snow. The rocks make for slick going, but with 4-wheel-low selected and the locking rear differential on, the Tremor made it to the top.>

Under the powder lurk potholes and ridges and debris that would bend a unibody chassis. The Ranger box-frame absorbed the punishment with steely determination. Add Tremor’s four underbody skid plates, 32-inch tires, 9.7-inch ground clearance and 31-inch approach angle, and my Cyber Orange Ranger was a rhino in tennis shoes.

Whump!

I buried the truck’s nose into a ditch hiding under the snow as I slid sideways around a downhill embankment. Tremor’s skid plate and shocks absorbed the impact (sparing my head from the ceiling), but the shock twisted the tire bead off the rim. Good thing Tremor carries a spare under its belly. Better yet, put bead locks on the rims if you want to explore the limits.

Back in action, I charged up the park’s “Twin Tetons,” all four wheels churning snow to make it to the top. “Maintaining momentum is key to getting through snow,” Holly Oaks designer Tom Zielinski had advised me earlier in the day.

At the top of Teton II, I hesitated. Pondering the steep decline below, I toggled Ranger Tremor’s “Trail Control” feature — low-speed cruise control that I’d first experienced on the Raptor to navigate rocky western terrain. Pedal-free, I inched down the slope at 5 mph — too slow as it turned out.

The 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor features upgrades over the FX-4 off-road trim like Fox shocks, increased ride height and approach angle, and six auxiliary plugs for extra hardware.>

The 4,571-pound truck began to slew sideways, a bad sign in slippery conditions that can — in the worst case — pitch the truck sideways, flipping it into a barrel roll. When in doubt, throttle out! is the off-roaders’ mantra. I overrode Trail Assist with throttle, and the Tremor straightened out, barreling downhill true as an arrow.

The Tremor trim builds on Ranger’s FX4 package (skid plates, 4WD drive modes, tow hooks) by adding signature red grille nostrils, Fox shocks and 32-inch, Continental General Grabber tires. The combination is magic off-road, lifting the truck nearly 10-inches off the ground (four hoop side steps are added to help climb into the cabin) and absorbing sub-snow frozen moguls.

Saucy. The 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor can be had with a special Tremor graphics package.>

Where regular shocks might shake a tooth loose, the Foxes cushion the blows while the Grabbers, well, grab. As it turned out, the pair have a civilized side, too. Daily commuting is quite smooth, with the Grabber quieter than your average off-road claws.

For those who want to bring a dirt bike along, Ranger’s bed offers good utility, though I can’t say the same for the tight rear seats. If your family has long legs, get an F-150.

I miss Ford’s hot hatch sedans. But Ford still offers a stable of affordable vehicles — Bronco, Bronco Sport, Mustang, Escape — with lots of personality. Add Tremor to the list.

2021 Ford Ranger Tremor

Vehicle type: Four-wheel-drive, four-door, midsize pickup

Price: $42,545, including $1,195 destination charge ($47,805 Tremor Lariat as tested)

Powerplant: 2.3-liter turbo-4 cylinder

Power: 270 horsepower, 310 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.5 seconds (Car and Driver est.); towing, 7,500 pounds; payload, 1,430 pounds

Weight: 4,565 pounds as tested

Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/19 highway/19 combined

Report card

Highs: Off-road brute; 32-inch tires

Lows: Dated interior tech; tight back seat

Overall: 3 stars

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Payne: Acura MDX X-cedes X-pectations

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 4, 2021

I knew something had changed when I got into the cockpit of the 2022 Acura MDX. Sci-fi Drive Mode dial and “trigger” shifter like an NSX supercar. Dash-mounted, driver-centric touchscreen like a Mazda3. Digital dash display like an Audi S6.

This is a performance car in SUV drag.

Sure enough, the three-row SUV wanted to boogie. Acura had brought me to Hell, Michigan — home of the state’s most challenging roads — to drive the MDX for a reason. I dialed the fat Mode knob to Sport and floored the MDX onto Hadley Road’s twisties, the torque-vectoring all-wheel drive rotating the behemoth into corner apexes. The ute sped ahead with little body roll, its V-6 engine roaring with pleasure as I fed it more gas.

The 2022 Acura MDX, which comes standard with FWD for about $45,000 — and can be loaded with goodies to over $60,000 like this tester.>

I first experienced the joy of sporty SUVs in the Audi Q7 back in 2015 on California’s own Hell roads — the writhing Route 1 coastal highway. No surprise, the Ohio-made MDX has benchmarked to the Q7 and it shows. The Acura wants to challenge the Germans on the dance floor, which is crowded with entrants from mainstream brands like the Mazda CX-9 and Dodge Durango Hellcat as well.

Call them family utes with a wild side. The world will know just how wild in another year when the MDX debuts its ferocious Type S performance model — a turbocharged, V-6 hellion that promises asphalt-clawing 355-horsepower.

The 2022 MDX is the second SUV to benefit from the “Precision Performance” remake of Acura’s brand. MDX follows the game-changing RDX which, in 2018, debuted a similar offering in the compact class. The new MDX not only shares RDX’s athletic ambitions, it builds on the RDX qualities of standard features and performance.

A boo-yah to MDX for keeping a V-6 engine standard. In this regulation-choked age, luxury automakers have rushed to turbo-charged 4-bangers. Better fuel efficiency! Better CO2 emissions! Better torque!

Less fun.

A comparable, $65,000 Audi Q7 powered by a turbo-4 sounds like a vacuum cleaner compared to my throaty, $61,675 Acura V-6. Who wants to pay 65 grand for an Audi that sounds the same as a $25,000 Jetta?

Of course, most civilians will never flog their family MDX like your insane Detroit News scribe, but they will take notice of a large SUV that is noticeably crisper than the last-gen Acura. The steering is more precise, the body roll minimal, the drive more premium. Acura accomplished this with major hardware upgrades like a double-wishbone front suspension (see BMWs) and 50% increased chassis rigidity.

And Acura did it without compromising MDX’s traditional value play. This is the X-factor that has made MDX the best-selling three-row luxury SUV for two decades.

The 2022 Acura MDX comes standard with panoramic sun roof, leather seats and loads of interior tech.>

At a starting price of $45,000, the Acura comes loaded with standard goodies including digital instrument display, panoramic sunroof, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot assist, automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist and a sauna in the rear cargo bay (kidding about that last one).

Compare that to the BMW X7, which doesn’t include the panoramic roof or adaptive cruise in its $75,000 base price — or Cadillac’s XT6, which won’t sell you adaptive cruise until the price pushes $55,000.

This consumer friendliness is an obsession with Acura (and sister Honda brand). They sweat the small stuff.

The interior of the 2022 Acura MDX includes a wealth of standard features including twin digital displays, trigger shifter with Drive modes, wireless charger, adaptive cruise control and more.>

MDX is stuffed with X-ceptional details. Honda brands are known for their magic seats — the Honda Fit folding second-row, Odyssey minivan sliding rear seat — and MDX makes a splash with the segment’s first removable rear seat. With two pull tabs, the middle section can turn into a console, a middle seat or even be removed entirely — revealing separate, second-row captain’s chairs. Clever.

There’s a self-washing rearview camera. Sub-cargo storage bay. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Wi-Fi hotspot. “Cabin Talk” feature that activates a microphone so you can talk with rear passengers. An easy-to-adjust head-up display button. A single button that will fold the middle seat, opening easy access to the third row (a usable third row where, say, small adults can feel comfortable). Indeed, the console is as busy as an airline cockpit with buttons for everything — call it the anti-Tesla.

Amidst this ergonomic obsession, the MDX’s biggest shortcoming stands out like a sore thumb: the “True Touchpad Interface” which controls the 12.3-inch infotainment screen. In remaking itself as performance brand, Acura has been comprehensive in transforming everything from exterior design to trigger shifter — but the touchpad is an innovation too far.

The 2022 Acura MDX takes on the Audi Q7, left, as a ute with nimble handling. A double wishbone front suspension helps.>

In a smartphone world of touchscreens (even Audi has abandoned its remote rotary controller), the touchpad is a driver distraction. It’s best used when stationary — but even then Mrs. Payne found it hard to work from the passenger’s seat as she tried to manipulate Apple CarPlay.

Genesis has similarly designed a difficult remote controller for its new GV80, but the screen has redundant touch control. If Acura insists on keeping the touchpad, it should do the same.

The touchpad also takes up valuable space in the center console, usually a strength of Acura/Honda. The 2022 MDX cuts back on some of the deep console storage space of its predecessor. What it does have is a standard, wireless phone charger which even worked on my huge, 6.5-inch Samsung Galaxy 20 smartphone.

For all of its gym training, the MDX isn’t quite the athlete the Audi is. Flogging both through Hell, the Q7 is more sure-footed. And its digital display and touchscreen are state of the art. That Audi standard will cost you, but the Acura is hardly cheap — its amenities adding up to $61,000, just 4 grand short of the Q7 (and turbo-5 Genesis GV80).

The Acura should be looking over its shoulder at the Kia Telluride and Mazda CX-9 — two premium-focused mainstream badges that give Acura a run for the value crown. The loaded Telluride SX boasts premium looks, similar features, and even stuffs a 291-horse V-6 under the hood for a ridiculous $44,000. That’s 3 grand less than MDX’s starting price, for goodness sakes. The $49,000, turbo-4 powered Mazda Signature trim, meanwhile, will dance with the best luxury cars for just $49,000.

Who knew three-row SUVs could be so much fun to drive? Just be sure to warn the third-row passengers with the MDX’s Cabin Talk feature — like an airline pilot — before you enter the gates of Hell:

“Make sure your seat belts are securely fastened. We are about to encounter turbulence ahead.”

The 2022 MDX continues Acura's streak for making compelling three-row SUVs.>

2022 Acura MDX

Vehicle type: Front- and all-wheel-drive, four-door, seven-passenger SUV

Price: $47,925, including $1,025 destination charge ($61,675 MDX with Advance Package as tested)

Powerplant: 3.5-liter V-6

Power: 290 horsepower, 267 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.1 seconds (Car and Driver est.); towing, 5,000 pounds (AWD)

Weight: 4,565 pounds as tested

Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/25 highway/21 combined (AWD on 91 octane fuel)

Report card

Highs: Upscale design/handling; standard features galore

Lows: Distracting touchpad controller; reduced console storage

Overall: 3 stars

Payne: Moving day in the worry-free Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 4, 2021

The Toyota RAV4 has taken over sister Prius’ spot as the best-selling hybrid in the brand’s lineup. But not because it’s greener than the iconic sedan: it’s more practical.

On a weekend in which I helped move my son into his Seattle townhouse, green was the least of our priorities.

Happily, my RAV4 tester was everything it needed to be. In so doing it gave insight into the limitations of all-electric vehicles and America’s craving for SUVs. The RAV4’s forefather was the iconic Prius, which put hybrids on the map. It also sold like hot cakes in California because it qualified for $4,000 in state and federal tax breaks — plus free passage to Cal’s coveted high-occupancy vehicle commuter lanes.

The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid delivers utility, 40 mpg, and no range anxiety common to electric SUVs.>

Those benefits are long gone — and Prius must sell as a sedan in an SUV market. Good luck. It’s not hard to see why utes are hot. They are versatile tools in a demanding world like, say, Seattle where, on any given day, consumers need a commuter car, a weekend getaway vehicle or a moving van.

On this weekend we needed the latter with hatchback, cargo bay and roomy rear seats. And no range anxiety.

A wave of all-electric SUVs is coming to challenge the RAV4, including the VW ID.4 and Ford Mustang Mach E. But they are priced significantly higher and they demand plugs to charge their 200- to 300-mile range. My son’s townhouse does not have a fast charger. Oh.

Hybrids are looked down on by greens today because they use gas. But RAV4’s hybrid promised 450 miles range, easy access to gasoline stations if we ran low on fuel, and no range anxiety. At $41,100, we could make back its $1,500 premium over the standard, 27 mpg RAV4 in just three years at 41 mpg. It’s a bargain.

If you can put up with its annoying electric whrrrrr, that is. It’s required at low speeds by the feds (to alert pedestrians of electrified vehicles’ presence under 18.6 mph). It drove my son bonkers. Whrrrrrrrr.

Speaking of annoying, it was nice not to add EV range questions to a moving schedule that included repairman times, plumbing issues and cable TV hookup: Would we lose range in 30-degree winter weather? Would Seattle’s steep hills suck electrons? Would we be able to find open charger bays?

The big-ticket items were first on our shopping list: big-screen TV, table and chairs, work desk.

The RAV4’s cargo hold swallowed them all easily — though the OLED screen required an extra trip to Costco since we didn’t want anything else in back that might harm it. The Costco parking lot was jammed on a Saturday — cash-rich Seattle denizens (their stock portfolios runneth over) are apparently upgrading their domiciles now that COVID-19 has forced them to work at home.

Destination: Seattle Costco. The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid hatchback was just the right SUV for our shopping needs.>

RAV4’s were everywhere in the parking lot (it is America’s best-selling vehicle, after all), and it’s not a bad thing to look at. For the current generation Toyota designers took inspiration from the Tacoma pickup, and the RAV4 has a rugged, off-roady appearance that helps it stand out in the boxy SUV crowd.

Mrs. Payne could care less about styling — her focus was on the center console as she hooked up to Apple CarPlay to navigate us around watery Seattle’s tangle of roads. Knob and button touchscreen controls were easy to use (are you listening Lexus?), and the navigation system never let us down as we hopscotched from one retail superstore to the next.

The console of the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid is useful with Drive modes, storage space, easy-to-use touchscreen, and big knobs for easy control.>

By day we loaded and unloaded boxes, furniture and groceries. The RAV4 has a clever cubby in the cargo hold that helps with fragile items like bananas or eggs. By night we picked up my son’s gal pal and explored Seattle’s culinary scene. In striking contrast to the Prius, RAV4 has lots of rear leg room (38.7 inches compared to 33.4), so even your 6’5” giraffe reviewer could easily take a back seat.

RAV4’s biggest drawback is that we had to shoe-horn it in to my son’s garage. It’s a reminder how much vehicles have grown over the years. Fit America’s best-selling F-150 pickup into his garage? Fugeddaboutit.

My son is also in the market for a car. Scratch a compact ute off his list. But the shopping experience convinced him that he needs a hatchback as well as all-wheel drive for when snow hits Seattle’s vertical streets.

And like his father, he has the need for speed. So he’s looking at a hot hatch Mazda3 or VW Golf R that fits his garage. RAV4 may be versatile, but nimble handling is not one of its attributes.

Pack it in. The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid proved a good pack mule for the Paynes' moving day.>

2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

Vehicle type: Front-wheel-drive, four-door, five-passenger hatchback

Price: $29,675, including $1,175 destination charge ($41,100 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine with lithium-ion battery and AC motor assist

Power: 219 horsepower combined

Transmission: Continuously variable transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.8 seconds (Motor1.com); towing, 1,750 pounds

Weight: 3,780 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 41 mpg city/38 highway/40 combined

Report card

Highs: Rugged looks; no range anxiety hybrid driving

Lows: Numb handling; argh, that low-speed electric sound!

Overall: 3 stars