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Japan’s big pickups challenge the domestic brands

2017 Nissan Titan cropped for webThe redesigned 2017 Nissan Titan is spacious and relatively affordable for a full-size truck, but it's heavy and lacks some modern tech features. COURTESY PHOTO  Although Japanese vehicles are among the bestsellers in almost every market segment, there's one that the nation's automakers have utterly failed to crack: the full-size pickup truck. There, Ford's F Series, General Motors' Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, and Chrysler's Ram remain dominant on the sales charts.
Toyota, Nissan and Honda all have pickup trucks — they just haven't resonated with buyers the same way. Toyota has had the most luck, which is ironic given that its Tundra hasn't received a major redesign in more than a decade. The newly-overhauled Nissan Titan and Honda Ridgeline sell at a fraction of the Tundra's pace, and the Tundra itself significantly trails pickups from the American “Big Three” automakers.
Are the current sales figures of big pickups the result of buyers' reluctance to stray from familiar brands? Or are the Japanese trucks just not as good as their American counterparts?

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Updated midsize sedans take different approaches

2018 Honda Accord cropped for webThe redesigned 2018 Honda Accord delivers exemplary levels of performance, luxury and everyday utility. COURTESY PHOTO  These days, the once-staid midsize family sedan market segment is quickly becoming anything but boring.
Just look at the class's two bestsellers: the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Both are benefiting from 2018 redesigns that have transformed their characters.
Previously, these two models were as famous for their high degrees of competence as they were for their plain characters – lacking the luxury, style and sporty performance that distinguish mainstream cars from luxury ones. Now, both blur that line, at least based on short preview drives. These sedans remain spacious and affordable, yet they now boast flashier styling, posher interiors, more solid-feeling ride quality, more responsive steering and handling, and zippier acceleration.
The 2018 Camry stood out from the crowd when it appeared over the summer, and the new Accord promises to join it when it hits the market this week. The Camry tops the Accord for brute-force horsepower, but the Accord's turbocharged four-cylinder engines are punchy and light. Both cars are rated for economy-car fuel consumption, with base models comfortably exceeding 30 mpg in mixed driving.

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Fiat and Jeep offer distinctive crossover flavors

2017 Fiat 500X cropped for webThe 2017 Fiat 500X looks sportier than the Jeep Renegade, but the Jeep has more interior space. COURTESY PHOTOYou'd never guess from looking at them, but the tested 2017 Fiat 500X and 2017 Jeep Renegade have more in common than their boldly orange paint jobs. Hidden below carefully distinctive styling — both brands pile on heaps of their respective flavors — these two subcompact crossovers are fundamentally identical.
The unexpected relationship between the curvy, retro Fiat and the assertively boxy Jeep stems from the merger between Fiat and Jeep's owner, Chrysler. The two models ride upon a Fiat-designed platform and are powered by Fiat-designed four-cylinder engines.
Their mechanical relationship ensures that they share many strengths and weaknesses, even as they offer decidedly different flavors.
Regardless of whether you pick the Renegade or the 500X, you end up with an abundance of personality — a characteristic that's lacking from such popular subcompact crossovers as the Honda H-RV, Nissan Rogue Sport and Chevrolet Trax. The impression is that the design teams genuinely enjoyed themselves.

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VW goes electric while Toyota goes off road - again

2017 Volkswagen e Golf cropped for webThe 2017 Volkswagen e-Golf is an all-electric version of the company's small hatchback. COURTESY PHOTO  When I showed up to a family function and said I'd arrived in an electric Volkswagen Golf, the reaction was perhaps predictable: “A golf cart?”
Not at all.
Volkswagen has been selling the e-Golf — an all-electric version of its globally popular Golf hatchback — since the 2015 model year. For 2017, VW upped its range from a mediocre 83 miles per charge to a more respectable 125. That's better than the competing Nissan Leaf and the electric version of the Ford Focus, though it trails the upcoming redesigned 2018 Leaf's 150 miles and the pricier Chevrolet Bolt's 238.

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Nissan, Hyundai offer appealing compact crossovers

2017 Nissan Rogue cropped for webThe 2017 Nissan Rogue is a spacious and practical compact crossover without tremendous verve. COURTESY PHOTO  If you're looking to buy a compact crossover and hate the burdens of visiting multiple dealerships to conduct test drives and compare prices, there's a simple choice: the Honda CR-V. The popular Honda's 2017 model redesign yielded class-leading fuel economy and class-leading interior space, along with decently sporty driving dynamics and a respectably-polished interior — all at reasonable prices.
But the CR-V isn't perfect. Some drivers will seek a better bargain or a simpler control layout. Others will crave a more luxurious experience or a higher-tech cabin. Others still will just want to try out additional options.
Depending on your own particular preferences, two recently-tested compact crossovers offer appealing alternatives to the CR-V. The Nissan Rogue nearly matches the Honda's outstanding gas mileage and interior room, while offering steeper discounts. And the slightly larger Hyundai Santa Fe Sport feels like a bigger, more substantial and more expensive car, while also being available with a more powerful engine.

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Ford offers an alternative van while Toyota goes sporty

2017 Ford Transit Connect cropped for webThe 2017 Ford Transit Connect is roomy and fun to drive, but it's missing some valuable features. COURTESY PHOTO  Every day, you're probably seeing countless Ford Transit Connect vans without paying them a second glance. Most are built as rolling boxes with no rear windows, emblazoned with the names of plumbing companies or home-security specialists.
But Ford also sells versions of the 2017 Transit Connect that are designed as family cars. And despite their work-van origins — and their associated drawbacks — these vans are surprisingly appealing to drive.

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VW crossover and the redesigned Camry stand out

2018 Volkswagen Atlas cropped for webThe 2018 Volkswagen Atlas is a must-see full-size crossover for shoppers who care about interior space and handling agility. COURTESY PHOTO  The best method of breaking into a new market segment: being better than the competition.
In many key ways, Volkswagen pulls off that approach with the 2018 Atlas, the German carmaker's first full-size seven-passenger crossover. Exceptional interior volume benefits both passengers and cargo, and composed ride and handling lend it a sense of mechanical sophistication.
Priced from $31,425, the Atlas faces strong competition from the best-selling Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot; the updated Nissan Pathfinder; the sporty and luxurious Mazda CX-9; the fuel-efficient Toyota Highlander; and the 2018 redesign of the extra-roomy Chevrolet Traverse.

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Prius adds efficiency while Audi hides its utility

2017 Toyota Prius Prime cropped for webThe 2017 Toyota Prius Prime plug-in offers a mix of zero or minimal gasoline usage, and it's priced from just $23,495 after a federal tax credit. COURTESY PHOTO  Say you're looking to buy a Toyota Prius — one of the most fuel-efficient cars sold in the U.S. — and were told that you could get even better gas mileage and a fancier interior for the same money.
Or say you favor an all-electric car to avoid using any gasoline at all, but worry about what happens when your battery runs out.
In either case, you might find a surprisingly good fit in the new 2017 Toyota Prius Prime.

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Infiniti and Mazda crossovers blend style, value

2017 Infiniti QX60 cropped for webThe 2017 Infiniti QX60 large crossover is the luxury version of the Nissan Pathfinder. COURTESY PHOTO  What separates a mainstream car from a luxury one? It's easy to find vehicles that blur the line.
For example, a premium brand might sell its own version of a less-expensive vehicle from a mainstream one. Or a mainstream brand might offer a stylish, classy and feature-laden model that essentially matches the luxury competition on substance, if not on reputation.
A pair of seven-passenger crossovers represents these respective approaches. Respectively, they're the Infiniti QX60, recently updated for 2017, and the Mazda CX-9, which was last redesigned for 2016.

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Ford gets tough while Hyundai gets electric

2017 Ford F 150 Raptor cropped for webThe 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor full-size pickup offers extreme off-road capability at a lofty base price of nearly $50,000. COURTESY PHOTO  In 2009, Ford took its best-selling F-150 pickup truck and turned it into a big brawny off-road toy. The F-150 Raptor was built for high-speed off-roading in the desert, sturdy enough to soar into the air and land safely. But its ultra-tough image and styling made it popular even in the D.C. area.
For 2017, the Raptor has entered its second generation without a radical departure from the first generation's successful theme. Rather, it merely followed the evolution of the standard F-150, which had been redesigned in 2015. Aside from additional safety, luxury and convenience features, the new Raptor's biggest change is under the hood: A turbocharged V6 engine replaces last year's V8, bringing better fuel efficiency (16 mpg instead of 13 mpg) along with more power (450 horsepower instead of 411).

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