You’d have a hard time finding three vehicles more different than those in my driveway recently: A high-mpg version of the year’s biggest new SUV; a contender to be 2021’s best new small car, and a brand-defining luxury vehicle.
My neighbors recognize this congestion: It’s Vehicle of the Year season, when contenders for best new car, truck and SUV make their last pitches before journalists cast their votes.
Here are some brief impressions of the latest ones:
2021 Chevrolet Suburban 4WD Premier diesel
The broad strokes of the new Suburban’s story are well known by now: Bigger, smoother, more advanced than GM’s previous big SUVs.
The news was under the hood of the big blue SUV in my driveway: a 3.0L inline-six diesel engine that delivers better fuel economy than some midsize pickups more than a foot shorter.
It’s widely accepted that diesel engines are on the way out, their reputation terminally tarnished by automakers that cheated emissions rules. Investment that might have gone to diesels in past decades has been redirected to electric powertrains that are cleaner, both in terms of their environmental impact and public image.
Judging on the new Suburban, diesels will go out with a roar. A rear-drive Suburban scored an exceptional 21 mpg in the city, 27 highway and 22 combined in EPA fuel economy tests. The combined figure is 6 mpg higher than a comparable Suburban with a 6.2L gasoline V8. Just for yuks, it’s also 2 mpg better than the combined figure for a rear-drive V6 Toyota Tacoma midsize pickup. The crew cab Tacoma is a foot shorter and nearly a ton lighter, at 4,180 pounds.
Big vehicles that haul heavy trailers long distance — vehicles like the Suburban, newly luxurious for 2021 — are likely to be diesel’s last stand. GM’s 3.0L suggests the technology will go out with a roar, not a whimper.
2021 Hyundai Elantra SEL
Like diesel engines, small cars are supposed to be a dying breed, but there’s plenty of life in the new Hyundai Elantra SEL. With a sharply creased body reminiscent of Hyundai’s bigger midsize Sonata sedan, the new Elantra looks more expensive than its $19,650 base price. That goes for the interior, too, where modern, stylish shapes offset the fact that most of the trim is made from hard materials, unlike the soft surfaces widely preferred for the dash and upper doors, where drivers often lean their elbows.
Best of all, because it’ll greet the driver every time, the Elantra starts with a crisp, attractive display of gauges that puts many luxury brands to shame.
Speaking of shaming luxury brands, the affordable Elantra has wireless Apple CarPlay, a feature that’s rare on economy cars and inexplicably missing from even the new $65K GV80 luxury SUV I tested from Hyundai’s Genesis brand.
I tested an Elantra SEL with a few options that are likely to be popular. Its base price was $20,800. Adding features like 17-inch aluminum wheels, power sunroof, Bose audio and a power driver’s seat raised the tab to $24,405. All prices exclude destination charges.
2021 Genesis GV80 3.5T AWD Advanced+
The GV80 is the vehicle that should put Hyundai’s Genesis luxury brand on the map. SUVs are the luxury market’s sweet spot. Brands with decades-old reputations for performance and style can barely give a new sport sedan away, but dealers can’t keep midsize and large luxury SUVs on the lot.
Genesis is only five years old. The new five- or seven-seat GV80 is its first SUV. In a perfect world, the Korean brand would’ve debuted with the GV80 and another SUV rather than the two sedans it started with, but consumers’ shift from sedans to SUVs caught the auto industry by surprise.
The GV80 is a strong first effort. About the size of a Lincoln Aviator, it’s got the looks, inside and out, but a couple of features fall short, as they do on the G80 sedan that’s the SUV’s sibling.
The GV80’s interior is wrapped in attractive, soft leather and trimmed with genuine metal and open-pore wood. Sweeping horizontal lines accentuate the sense of a spacious cockpit. The leather seats in the $64,450 GV80 3.5T Advanced+ I tested look more like architectural than automotive design. All prices exclude destination charges.
The dashboard is similarly attractive, but three key controls are harder to use than necessary. A wide touch screen display for control navigation, phone, etc. is located atop the dash, out of the driver’s reach. That’s because Genesis wants you to use a less than intuitive combination of a touch pad and dial. In addition, the “home” and “back” buttons didn’t take me to the main menu. Minor annoyances, but they add up over a long drive, particularly when there was more than enough room atop the dashboard to move the touch screen within easy reach.
The touch pad/dial is located on the center console between the front seats. It’s next to a similar-size rotary shifter. The shifter doesn’t provide much feedback, and I continually found myself in neutral when I thought I’d selected drive or reverse.
The GV80’s style and comfort will win it plenty of buyers. Most will be satisfied with its controls, but next time, the brand might consider more conventional controls, like those in its sister brand Hyundai’s new Elantra.
Speaking of the Elantra — base price less than a third of the GV80 I drove — that sedan had wireless Apple CarPlay, while the luxury model required your phone to be plugged into a USB. Given that the two vehicles were in development by the same company at the same time, it’s hard to call that anything but an oversight by Genesis.
Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.