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Subaru sticks with AWD while Ram stays big

2017 Subaru Impreza Limited cropped for webThe redesigned 2017 Subaru Impreza is roomy and user-friendly – but it can get expensive without really feeling fancy. COURTESY PHOTO  On most cars, buyers who want all-wheel-drive have to pay a couple thousand dollars extra for the system – if it's even offered at all.
The Subaru Impreza compact car, like most Subarus, bucks the norm by including the system standard. It's the only car in its class to even offer all-wheel-drive. If you're looking for an affordable vehicle that can easily power through mud or snow, the Impreza sedan or five-door hatchback belongs high on your shopping list.


Chevrolet and Jeep redesign and improve their small crossovers

2018 Chevrolet Equinox cropped for webThe 2018 Chevrolet Equinox compact crossover is smaller but more luxurious than its predecessor. COURTESY PHOTO  Two of the oldest small crossovers on the market have just been fully redesigned – and although both make fairly dramatic departures from their predecessors, both are transformed from also-rans into competitive vehicles in this burgeoning segment. These models are the new 2018 Chevrolet Equinox and new 2017 Jeep Compass.


Nissan toughens crossover while Hyundai adds zip

2017 Nissan Pathfinder cropped for webThe 2017 Nissan Pathfinder large crossover is priced from $31,230. COURTESY PHOTO  While Honda, Toyota and General Motors were scoring big with car-based crossovers a decade ago, Nissan remained one of the last holdouts to stick with truck-based SUVs in the critical three-row midsize/large segment. But when Nissan gave in and exchanged its Pathfinder's pickup truck roots for a passenger car's in 2013, the company may have over-corrected for being late to the bandwagon.
Accordingly, for 2017, the Pathfinder has been tweaked to re-emphasize some of its old toughness. You'll find it in boxier front-end styling, looking tougher than last year's gently curved model. Upgrades to its V6 engine also help it tow an extra 1,000 pounds, for a total rating of 6,000 – impressive for a crossover. (For true heavy-duty performance, Nissan also has a newly redesigned Armada, a V8-powered traditional SUV.)


Chevrolet adds rare diesel while Lincoln goes big

2017 Chevrolet Cruze diesel cropped for webThe 2017 Chevrolet Cruze is available with a diesel engine rated for 47 MPG on the highway. COURTESY PHOTO  Until a couple of years ago, if you wanted a diesel passenger car, you probably wanted a Volkswagen. The company's TDI line promised outstanding fuel economy without compromising acceleration.
Now, diesel aficionados have even fewer choices. Volkswagen's magical-seeming “clean diesels” were debunked as illegal polluters, and several other automakers are also under scrutiny.
Undaunted, General Motors pushed forward with a new diesel engine for its Chevrolet Cruze compact economy sedan – and it quietly racks up impressive fuel economy numbers. The EPA rates the diesel Cruze for 31 miles per gallon in the city and a whopping 47 mpg on the highway, compared to 30 city / 40 highway for a standard gas model. Thanks to the low-revving nature of diesel engines and a nine-speed automatic transmission, the Cruze also cruises quietly at 80 mph. (A six-speed manual transmission is standard.)


Lexus RX isn't sporty, while Focus RS stands out

2017 Lexus RX 350 cropped for webThe 2017 Lexus RX 350 makes the most sense if you skip the tested F-Sport model, which compromises this crossover's core strength of a super-smooth ride. COURTESY PHOTO  Many of today's premium crossovers offer more performance than you'd expect from anything that looks at all like an SUV. But it's simple enough to see why: Most of them are basically tall versions of luxury sports sedans.
Lexus is trying to tap into the sporty crossover market with the latest version of its best-selling RX, last redesigned for 2016. Edgier styling and an available F-Sport version try to win over driving enthusiasts from BMW or Jaguar.
But from behind the wheel, the RX 350 F-Sport doesn't deliver. Even worse, it compromises the RX's true appeal: comfortable, relaxed luxury. The F-Sport's stiffer suspension can slam over bumps, and its heavier steering feels unnatural. And the RX still has clumsy handling and disconnected responses that would turn off buyers accustomed to top-tier luxury models.
That said, there's a reason that the RX is a best-seller. Though it's a midsize model, it's priced more like a compact European competitor, with a base price of $44,095. If passenger and cargo space are more important than poised handling, the RX is a strong value. As long as you skip the F-Sport trim, it competes favorably in this niche with the less fuel-efficient Lincoln MKX and the less refined Cadillac XT5 – courtesy of the smooth, quiet ride and comfortable seats.


Kia sedan lets you plug in while Corolla offers alternative

2017 Kia Optima PHEV cropped for webThe 2017 Kia Optima PHEV has a charging port on its driver-side front fender.         COURTESY PHOTO  It's a bit of a brave step to purchase a purely electric car. Prospective buyers must carefully evaluate their driving patterns and foresee few or no cases in which they'll need to drive farther than their car's range between any two charges.
Accordingly, many eco-minded buyers prefer plug-in hybrids – vehicles whose batteries can be charged up on electricity, but which also have a built-in gasoline engine that can switch on once the range is used up. The most famous plug-in hybrid is the pioneering Chevrolet Volt, but green credentials also hide in some more innocuous packages.
One such example is the new 2017 Kia Optima PHEV. The standard Optima is a popular midsize sedan, a roomy and quiet family-friendly four-door. It's also available as a standard gas-electric hybrid, a vehicle that uses the engine's power and the brakes' friction to recharge the batteries as you drive normally.


VW wagon isn't as useful as it looks, while Infiniti coupe offers sleek styling

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack SE cropped for webThe tested 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack SE costs $31,350, despite missing many features that are common at lower prices. COURTESY PHOTO   If you spend a lot of time around self-professed car nuts, you're likely to hear someone praising the station wagon. The humble, humdrum image of an old-timey family car has been replaced in auto enthusiast circles – and now, the wagon is widely seen as the smarter, more fun alternative to the ubiquitous crossovers. Without SUV pretense, a station wagon promises to cut through the crossover hype and bring extra practicality to an affordable, fuel-efficient passenger car.
The new 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack tries to go even further toward this ideal – combining the appeal of both market segments. VW modified the existing Golf Sportwagen, giving it a slightly higher ride height, some styling tweaks, a more advanced all-wheel-drive system and the spiffy new “Alltrack” moniker. With this new wagon, Volkswagen is trying to capture some of the success that Subaru has seen with similar products: the Crosstrek compact hatchback and the Outback midsize wagon.


Mitsubishi crossover seats seven while Genesis rolls

2017 Mitsubishi Outlander cropped for webThe 2017 Mitsubishi Outlander isn't perfect, but it's an affordable, fuel-efficient, maneuverable crossover with three rows of seats. COURTESY PHOTO  It was more than a decade ago when Mitsubishi first squeezed a third-row seat into the Outlander, its compact crossover. But rather than giving the Outlander an edge over the competition, it made the car look almost like a cruel joke. There were seven seat belts, sure, but the third row was basically fabric stretched across a metal frame. Padding was nonexistent and legroom wasn't much better; almost no one had enough space to fit in the far back of the 2006 Outlander, and no one at all could be comfortable.


VW's big crossover is appealing while Fiat fills a niche

2018 Volkswagen Atlas -- cropped for webThe 2018 Volkswagen Atlas is an all-new large crossover that competes well against the Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot. COURTESY PHOTO  

Volkswagen loyalists may remember the Routan. It was a minivan that featured VW styling and interior trim but was actually built by Chrysler, sharing its mechanical components with the Town & Country. Very few others will remember that car, however. The minivan market was already dwindling by the time the Routan reached the market in 2009, and Chrysler's budget focus clashed with Volkswagen's more premium-focused image. The Routan was discontinued after a few years of slow sales.
Now, VW has made a more wholehearted bid for market share among large family vehicles: the 2018 Atlas full-size crossover, an all-out assault on the best-selling Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot. A brief test drive of the Atlas at Volkswagen's American headquarters in Herndon, Va., suggested that this vehicle won't be as easily forgotten.


Infiniti, Lexus premium crossovers strive to be sporty

2017 Infiniti QX30 -- cropped for webThe 2017 Infiniti QX30, priced from $30,945, offers an affordable way to get a premium car, but don't expect its crossover marketing to yield a roomy interior or high seating position. COURTESY PHOTO

When some people picture a luxury car, they picture a vehicle focused on super-smooth cushy comfort. And when some people picture an SUV or crossover, they picture a vehicle with lots of space inside for people and cargo.
But many of today's premium vehicles instead prioritize sporty handling over smooth rides, and sleek styling over stretch-out interior space. And many of today's crossovers offer minimal SUV pretense to justify their price premiums over ordinary passenger cars.
The new 2017 Infiniti QX30 is one model that epitomizes this trend. In Europe, most premium brands are comfortable selling ordinary hatchbacks, and the Infiniti Q30 is among them. But for the American market, Infiniti markets essentially the same vehicle as a crossover – hence the X added to the name. It's an effort to capitalize on the hotter market segment while cautiously avoiding the perception of hatchbacks as basic economy cars.