Karl Brauer, executive analyst at automotive research firm iSeeCars. An automotive journalist for more than 25 years, he is a jury member for both the North American Car and Truck of the Year and the World Car of the Year awards. iSeeCars.com
Cars and trucks for the 2021 model year are finally reaching showrooms following pandemic-related production delays. Buyers will find options that are well worth the wait, including appealing all-new models…and exciting updates of some of America’s most popular vehicles.
Hybrids are among the highlights of the 2021 model year, but there also are plenty of new vehicles powered by conventional internal-combustion engines and more than a few interesting new electric vehicles (EVs).
Nine of the highlights from the 2021 model year…
Subcompact SUV bargain: Kia Seltos looks and drives like it costs thousands more than its entry-level price. It has the most cargo space of any subcompact SUV—62.8 cubic feet with the back seats folded down—and its 38 inches of rear-seat legroom will seem roomy even for adults. Most trim levels come with all-wheel drive and advanced safety features, such as automatic emergency braking and lane-keep assist. The base 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine delivers 146 horsepower (hp) and fuel economy of 29 mpg city/34 highway. Prices start at $23,110*.
Midsize sedan that’s a large-size bargain: Kia K5, like its stablemate Seltos above, offers exterior styling and interior refinement that feel more upscale than its sticker price. It’s a worthy all-new competitor to the venerable Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. The K5 feels surprisingly spacious inside for a midsize sedan, with plenty of room for four adults. Its ride is quiet and refined, and its 1.6-liter four-cylinder base engine produces 180 hp. Higher-level trims feature all-wheel drive and a 2.5-liter turbo delivering 290 hp. The base model gets 29 mpg city/38 highway. Prices start at $24,455.
Subcompact SUV that can tackle all terrains: Ford Bronco Sport, due out by the end of this year, impresses both on road and off. Its standard all-wheel drive, robust suspension and advanced terrain-management system make it at least as capable off-road as the Jeep Renegade, previously the leader among subcompact off-roaders. And the Bronco Sport is equally adept on road, with a comfortable ride and standard advanced safety features such as cross-traffic alert, automatic high beams and automatic emergency braking. Its 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder base engine produces 181 hp and is likely to be fuel-efficient, though fuel-economy figures were not available at press time. Abundant headroom makes it feel much roomier than most
subcompacts. Prices start at $28,155.
Hybrid version of America’s favorite pickup: Ford F-150, perennially America’s best-selling vehicle, will be available as a hybrid for the first time for the 2021 model year. Fuel-economy figures were not available as of press time, but Ford has announced that the 3.5-liter six-cylinder EcoBoost hybrid F-150 will travel 700 miles on a 30.6-gallon tank of gas, implying that it should get at least 23 mpg (versus around 22 mpg for the nonhybrid F-150). One neat feature—it has 120-volt electrical outlets in its bed, so that you can tap into the hybrid batteries’ power when parked. Prices for the 2021 F-150 will start around $30,000 when it arrives late this year, and the hybrid is expected to add around $4,500 to the price.
Stylish compact luxury sedan for thousands less than a similar German car: Acura TLX, an entry-level compact luxury sedan that competes with the BMW 3-Series, has been completely redesigned for 2021. Its new styling is aggressive and sporty—lower, longer and wider than the 2020 TLX. The new 272-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder base engine is more powerful than the engine it replaces, too, and the restyled interior features upscale materials such as wood and leather. An impressive list of advanced-safety and driver-assistance technologies are included standard, including traffic-sign recognition and traffic-jam assist, which helps maintain an appropriate distance from the vehicle ahead in traffic. Prices and fuel economy had not been announced at press time, but it’s expected to start at around $35,000 when it reaches showrooms this fall, compared with upward of $40,000 for a comparable BMW 3-Series.
Plug-in hybrid version of an ultra-popular SUV: Toyota RAV4 Prime could be the car for you if you don’t want to choose between gas and electric…or between practicality and power.
It is a “plug-in hybrid,” which means it provides the low per-mile costs of an EV—it can travel 42 miles on battery power alone at the equivalent of 94 mpg…but when its batteries are depleted, it also can run on gas, eliminating EV range anxiety. With a full charge and a full tank of gas, it can travel 600 miles before needing to refuel. It provides the practicality and versatility that RAV4s are known for…but unlike most RAV4s, it’s also quick and powerful, with 302 hp and 0-to-60 acceleration in just 5.7 seconds. Prices start at $39,220, but it’s eligible for the $7,500 EV federal tax credit. It will be available by late 2020, though supplies might be limited into 2021.
Tesla 3 competitor from a well-established automaker: Polestar 2 is an all-wheel-drive EV sports sedan worth considering if you’d like to buy a Tesla Model 3 but hesitate to buy a car from a young automaker with a spotty reputation for quality. Polestar might not be a familiar name, but it is the EV brand from Volvo. Polestar 2 is manufactured in the same facility that makes the excellent Volvo XC40. It can travel 275 miles on a charge and offers an impressive 408 hp. The interior feels upscale and intelligently designed, and advanced-safety technology, including automatic emergency braking, blind-spot warnings and rear cross-traffic warning systems, are included standard, as you would expect from Volvo. Prices start at $61,200, which is considerably more than the base price of the Tesla 3 but comparable to the higher trim levels of the Tesla, especially when you consider that the Polestar is eligible for the $7,500 EV rebate and the Tesla is not.
King of full-size SUVs reclaims its crown: Cadillac Escalade, long seen as one of the best three-row luxury SUVs, was dethroned in 2018 by the impressively redesigned Lincoln Navigator. Now the Escalade has been completely redesigned, too, and it’s once again fully competitive if you want a very large, luxurious SUV. The interior is roomier than ever—even the third row has plenty of legroom for adults. With that third row folded down, there’s a cavernous 63 cubic feet of cargo room. The Escalade’s technology has taken a massive leap forward as well—its dash features a 38-inch organic light-emitting-diode (OLED) display that’s probably a lot crisper and clearer than the TV in your living room. Wireless phone charging and three-zone climate control also are included standard. An optional “super cruise” system comes as close to fully autonomous driving as any vehicle on the market. The Escalade’s 6.2-liter V8 delivers 420 hp and 15 mpg highway/20 city. A 3.0-liter 277 hp turbodiesel six-cylinder will be offered as a no-cost option, with fuel-economy expected to be around 30 mpg on the highway, though official fuel-economy figures are not yet available. The 2021 Escalade should be available late this year with prices starting at $77,490.
All-new elite luxury performance convertible: Lexus LC 500 Convertible can keep you comfortable even when you drive with the top down and outdoor temperatures are lower than ideal. This two-seat convertible’s advanced “climate concierge” system automatically adjusts the temperature and neck heaters, seat heaters and steering-wheel heaters to keep driver and passenger comfortable. If it does get too cold for comfort or raindrops begin to fall, its top can be raised or lowered at the push of a button in just 15 or 16 seconds while traveling at speeds up to 31 mph. This convertible is distinctively styled, comfortable and elegant inside and smooth and engaging to drive. Its 5.0-liter V8 delivers 471 hp at 15 mpg city/25 highway. That’s not stellar fuel economy—but if paying for gas is an issue, this probably isn’t the car for you anyway. It starts at $102,025.
*All models are currently available for sale unless otherwise noted.