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Volkswagen gets down and gets funky with two new offerings

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack -- webThe Volkswagen Golf Alltrack. COURTESY PHOTO  

Many automotive pundits looking to the future believe that the four-door sedan is a dying breed – and that the new mainstream choice, the default choice for most consumers, will be crossovers. Their higher seating positions, all-weather capability and handy cargo space give them a compelling advantage over passenger cars. 

Volkswagen is looking to take advantage of the trend with a new version of its Golf compact wagon, the Alltrack, which adds all-wheel-drive, a slightly higher ride height and some decorative trim. Think of it as VW's equivalent to the Subaru Outback, albeit in a smaller package. 

However, Volkswagen has been quietly making significant progress at its ordinary small sedan, the Jetta. It received mixed reviews when it debuted back in 2011, and has changed little cosmetically since then. But the 2017 Jetta, despite its age, makes a better impression than the new Alltrack. VW has been steadily boosting the car's value quotient and improving its fuel economy, and its composed ride and handling continue to shine. 

More attention will be given to the new Alltrack. After all, it's new and it's the vehicle in the hotter market segment. Moreover, Volkswagen's only other non-luxury crossover model, the Tiguan, is even older than the Jetta – and far less competitive, due to a high price and poor crash-test performance. Many shoppers in the VW dealership will definitely be directed toward the Alltrack. 

The Alltrack has some strong points, to be clear. Like the Golf on which it's based, it has a peppy engine; pleasant ride and handling; and cleanly styled, high-quality cabin. And its economy-car roots would seem to promise a level of value and fuel economy that conventional crossovers like a Honda CR-V can't match. 

But the Alltrack's drawbacks consign it to a fairly small niche. 

It's much less roomy than a CR-V or similar crossovers, with a comparatively tight rear seat and cargo hold – the Volkswagen is clearly an alternative to a small sedan, whereas the CR-V is more comparable to a midsize one. You don't get the high seating position of a crossover, either. Moreover, the Alltrack is actually even more expensive, with a lofty base price of $27,770. The tested midlevel SE model is $31,350, without even power seat adjustment or automatic climate control. As a final issue, the EPA fuel economy rating for mixed driving is just 25 mpg – worse than the CR-V and a few other bigger, less expensive crossovers. Even the big Outback is less expensive and more fuel-efficient than the Alltrack. 

You can save a bit of money by picking the new Golf Sportwagen 4Motion, which is the same car – including the all-wheel-drive system – without the 1.4-inch higher ride height or cosmetic enhancements. But in general, these VW wagons focus on premium over utility – consider them as an option, especially if extra space and a high seating position feel more bulky than beneficial, but don't buy one without scoping out the CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Mazda CX-5, Subaru Forester and/or Ford Escape. 

2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE -- webThe Volkswagen Jetta.  COURTESY PHOTO  

The Jetta, meanwhile, is a more mainstream product, and it's grown more so in recent years as VW added more standard features. It's competitively priced at a base price of $18,715, and the tested midlevel SE, at $22,815, is loaded with features that include a touchscreen infotainment system; a proximity key with push-button start; blind-spot monitoring; heated faux-leather seats; and a sunroof.

The cabin appointments can feel budget-grade, but the Jetta delivers impressive composure on the road by the standards of an economy car. It lacks the pizzazz of the latest Honda Civic, the zippy fun of a Mazda3 and the user-friendly simplicity of a Hyundai Elantra, but it's a pleasant and practical overall package. 

Volkswagen made the Jetta much more competitive for the 2016 model year with a new standard engine: a 1.4-liter with 150 horsepower. It replaced a weak, outmoded engine on the base car and a powerful but comparatively fuel-thirsty 1.8-liter on the SE – the engine still standard in the Golf and Alltrack. With the 1.4-liter, the Jetta's EPA ratings aren't class leading at 32 mpg in mixed driving with an automatic transmission, but they're no longer a liability. 

Combined that with the additional standard features, and the Jetta's subdued design aesthetic and pleasant driving experience help it fit a bigger niche than the overpriced Golf Alltrack. 




Reviews of the 2017 Mitsubishi Mirage and Volvo S90

Small Mitsubishi offers modern basics at affordable price

2017 Mitsubishi Mirage G4 SEThe 2017 Mitsubishi Mirage G4 SE is far from invigorating to drive, but it meets modern standards for safety and feature content at a particularly low price point. COURTESY PHOTO  

It's hard to find a truly basic car these days. Every vehicle on the market meets high standards for safety, including crash-test performance that would have been outstanding just a decade ago, and standard electronic stability control. Nearly every vehicle on the market is equipped with electronic features that include USB connectivity and power windows, locks and mirrors.

The Mitsubishi Mirage is the least expensive vehicle sold in the U.S. with those features. Available as a five-door hatchback or a newly introduced four-door sedan, the Mirage hatchback starts at a sticker price of just $13,830 (or $1,000 more for the tested G4 sedan). Even the well-equipped G4 SE – the tested car with an automatic transmission, alloy wheels, automatic climate control, heated front seats, cruise control, a proximity key system with push-button start, Bluetooth connectivity, a backup camera, and a touchscreen infotainment system with Android Auto or Apple CarPlay integration – is just $17,830.


New pickups from Honda, Nissan chart different paths

2016 Nissan Titan XDThe 2016 Nissan Titan XD COURTESY PHOTO  

The large pickup truck market is dominated by the American “Big Three” automakers: the F-Series from Ford, the Chevrolet Silverado from General Motors and the Ram from Chrysler. 

The high profits found in this market keep attracting Japanese competitors, generally with limited success. While Toyota tries to offer the same half-ton experience as the American makes, Honda and Nissan have rolled out models that seek to carve out more specialized – though very different – niches in the market.


Reviews of the Smart Fortwo and Lexus RC F

Redesigned Smart is improved but still flawed

2017 Smart FortwoThe 2017 Smart Fortwo is OK if a tiny footprint is your top priority – and it's really not OK if that isn't. COURTESY PHOTO  

Since the first Smart Fortwo went on sale in the U.S. more than eight years ago, the recognizable two-seat hatchbacks have acquired a small but devoted following, making them regular sights on D.C.-area streets. They're also a staple of the region's car2go car-sharing fleet. 

If you've only seen a Smart but never been in one, your first impression would probably be positive once you gave one a try. Credit goes to high-mounted seats that reduce a feeling of vulnerability and create an unexpectedly airy feel. It's definitely a small car, but not as tiny as you'd likely think from just a glance. 


Reviews of the 2016 Mazda CX-9 and Bentley Mulsanne

Redesigned Mazda crossover avoids bulky feel

2016 Mazda CX-9The 2016 Mazda CX-9 is a large crossover that feels small when you want it, without sacrificing too much interior room. COURTESY PHOTO

There are many ways that people's tastes vary when it comes to cars, and the feel of the interior is one of them. Some drivers like to spread themselves out across a wide seat while remaining a comfortable distance away from their passengers. Others prefer the more intimate, less intimidating feel of a smaller, cozier cabin. 

The redesigned 2016 Mazda CX-9 throws a nice bone to the latter crowd – without actually forcing them into a small vehicle. This full-size crossover can seat seven passengers in reasonable comfort, while feeling one or two sizes smaller from the driver's seat. Mazda pulls off the illusion with a stylish, minimalist dashboard and a high center console between the front seats. The exterior also looks less visually bulky than competitors like the Honda Pilot, though the CX-9 is actually 5 inches longer than the Honda. 


Reviews of the 2017 Toyota Prius Prime and Cadillac XT5 crossover

Toyota Prius Prime impresses for plug-in value 

2017 Toyota Prius PrimeThe 2017 Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid has revised styling compared to the regular Prius. COURTESY PHOTO  If you're buying a Toyota Prius, it's clear that you like getting good gas mileage. Even a basic Prius, using its clever gas-electric hybrid technology, sips fuel at 52 miles per gallon in mixed driving.

But if you can get even better mileage for even less money, it's hard to say no. And that's the draw of the latest Prius model, the plug-in 2017 Prius Prime. Whereas a normal Prius recharges its small electric battery on the go, the Prime gives you an estimated 22 miles of all-electric driving if you charge it up at a power outlet before setting out.


Dodge, Ford offer varied takes on the American performance car

2016 Dodge ChallengerThe 2016 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack is big, bold and loud, with 485 horsepower for under $40,000. COURTESY PHOTO  

The Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger are American performance icons, sporty coupes with retro styling hearkening back to the years when imported cars occupied a quaint little niche rather than the heart of the automotive market.

It's not merely cosmetic. With lots of power – including from available V8 engines – today's Mustang and Challenger fulfill the longstanding American tradition of cars that can go crazily fast even at relatively attainable prices.

But Ford and Chrysler have taken different approaches with the Mustang and the Challenger.


Reviews of the 2017 Mini Clubman and Buick LaCrosse

Mini Clubman is the little brand's roomiest car yet

2017 Mini Clubman SThe 2017 Mini Clubman S offers more space than the original Mini without losing its historic fun factor. COURTESY PHOTO  

Since its introduction 15 years ago, the Mini brand has expanded its model lineup from a single tiny hatchback to a diverse mix of small cars wearing the same rounded retro face. The largest is the new 2017 Clubman, a small wagon that's graduated from the subcompact market class to provide the higher level of utility found in a compact model like the Volkswagen Golf or Mazda3.

But even the biggest Mini is still pretty small, for better or for worse. For better, the Clubman retains the delightfully agile handling that's long made it a favorite among driving enthusiasts – it's as intrinsic to the car's character as its styling. Slight flicks of the steering wheel generate alert, near-instant responses. The tested Clubman S model, with a 189-horsepower four-cylinder engine, is also suitably lively in a straight line.


Reviews of 2017 Hyundai Elantra and 2016 Lexus NX 300h

Compact Hyundai offers pleasant alternative to default choices

2017 Hyundai ElantraThe tested 2017 Hyundai Elantra Limited costs $27,710, but you can still get a lot of features for a more reasonable $19,785. COURTESY PHOTO 

For many people shopping for a compact car, a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla is almost a default choice. If you compare the two, it's easy to spot the differences. The latest Civic is aggressively styled, fun to drive and impressively fuel-efficient; the Corolla is less expensive, isn't as flashy and has more user-friendly controls. 

But it's important to look beyond just those two sales leaders, and if the Corolla's traits in particular seemed tempting, you'll also want to check out the redesigned 2017 Hyundai Elantra. You won't find the Civic's sizzle, and the Hyundai's EPA rating of 32 miles per gallon in mixed driving trails the Honda's class-leading scores of 34 and 36 mpg (depending on the engine). 


Reviews of the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica and 2016 VW Golf R

New Chrysler Pacifica van is the ultimate utility vehicle

2017 Chrysler PacificaThe minivan is generally the most useful vehicle for a large family, and the new 2017 Chrysler Pacifica is the best minivan on the market today. COURTESY PHOTO  

Recent Chrysler minivans – the Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan – have occupied the budget end of the marketplace. Honda, Toyota and then Kia introduced more sophisticated vans with higher levels of comfort, safety and refinement; the Chryslers' main advantage was a relatively low price. 

But Chrysler has once again taken firm control of the class it created back in 1984. The all-new 2017 Chrysler Pacifica, which replaces the Town & Country, impresses in every way. Ride and handling have improved; the van is smoother and less cumbersome, plus quicker and more fuel efficient.