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Two new models offer subtle ways to significantly reduce fuel usage

2017 Kia Niro -- cropped for webThe all-new 2017 Kia Niro is a gas-electric hybrid that saves on gas without demanding many sacrifices or calling much attention to itself. COURTESY PHOTO

Ever since Toyota launched the 2004 Prius with an unmistakably unique shape, fuel savings have been associated with unique looks. Subsequent generations of Toyota's best-selling gas-electric hybrid have followed that mold, as have a number of competitors.
But two tall hatchbacks that are all new for 2017 promise impressive fuel savings without styling that telegraphs anything special under the hood: the Kia Niro hybrid and the Chevrolet Bolt EV all-electric car.

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Corolla puts value above other qualities while Volvo flagship marries interior and sporty handling

2017 Toyota Corolla -- cropped for webThe updated 2017 Toyota Corolla trails competing compact cars in many ways, but it's still worth a look for safety on a tight budget. COURTESY PHOTO  

A few decades ago – or even more recently, depending on who you ask – American economy cars were sorry pieces of junk, undesirable models that were built only reluctantly by automakers that just wanted to improve their average fleet fuel economy. Meanwhile, Korean competitors hit the scene without competitive engineering or quality control.

This was the era in which the Toyota Corolla shone, offering solid engineering and thoughtful design that was contrasted against the indifference or inadequacy found in many competitors.

These days, though, the Corolla is in a very different market position. Against its increasingly solid competition, it feels like basic transportation; many other compact cars feel sophisticated by comparison, with well-finished interiors; polished ride and handling; and clever in-dash technology.

The Corolla, to be blunt, has none of those things – at least not by the standards of 2017.

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Ford, Honda midsize sedans offer excellent fuel-saving choice

2017 Ford Fusion Hybrid -- cropped for webThe 2017 Ford Fusion Hybrid is a modern, sophisticated midsize sedan that doesn't have outstanding interior space or outward visibility. COURTESY PHOTO  Buyers seeking maximum fuel efficiency are very familiar with the Toyota Prius, the nation's best-selling hybrid vehicle – a car with both a gasoline engine and a self-charging electric motor that reduces fuel use.

But you can also get that same technology in a variety of spacious, refined, stylish midsize sedans, which boost EPA fuel efficiency ratings to the 40s, representing improvements of about 15 mpg over comparable gas-only versions. With little to no visual changes compared to their gas versions, these hybrids quietly save on fuel without telegraphing the driver's hybrid choice like the instantly recognizable Prius.

Two of the best midsize hybrids are the Ford Fusion and Honda Accord, both of which were updated for 2017. And these two sedans fill complementary sections of their market niche.

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Midsize Toyota crossover offers improvements; updated Mazda combats road-trip fatigue

2017 Toyota Highlander -- cropped for webThe 2017 Toyota Highlander midsize crossover has been recently improved but still isn't perfect. COURTESY PHOTO  

As one of the most popular vehicles in its class, the Toyota Highlander midsize crossover manages to fit acceptable seating for up to eight passengers into a package that avoids looking or feeling overly bulky. Throw in such clever features as a flip-up rear windshield for quick cargo access and a microphone that projects the driver's voice into the rear speakers, and the appeal is easy to see.

For 2017, Toyota has further upgraded the Highlander. In addition to revising the styling, Toyota has improved gas mileage – EPA ratings rose from 20 miles per gallon to 22 on the tested V6 all-wheel-drive version – added more standard safety features, smoothed out a stiff ride quality and sprinkled more USB ports throughout the cabin. The new tested SE model also promises sportier driving dynamics, though it's more of a snazzy appearance package than transformative to handling.

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Three new full-size sedans liven up the marketplace

2017 Genesis G80 -- cropped for webThe 2017 Genesis G80 is the new name for the Hyundai Genesis.          COURTESY PHOTO  

It's become vogue in automotive journalism to declare that the sedan – a bedrock of the automotive marketplace – as a dying breed in the face of roomier, more versatile crossovers. First to go, pundits contend, are the full-size four-doors.

But if you are looking for a big comfortable sedan, your options these days are better than ever, as recent tests of three leading contenders in this class suggest. The freshly rebranded Genesis G80 and the newly redesigned Buick LaCrosse and Kia Cadenza effectively use their extra size both to flaunt their styling and to improve their interior space. And all have the sophisticated interior quality, long list of available features, and quiet ride that you'd expect of a luxury car – though it would be hard to expect otherwise at these sedans' price points.

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Hyundai's Elantra, Sonata see great benefit from 'Eco' treatment

2017 Hyundai Elantra Eco -- cropped for webThe 2017 Hyundai Elantra Eco is a sensible, affordable compact sedan that competes well with the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. COURTESY PHOTO  

On many cars, you have to buy a lot of luxury features if you want to get the best engine. Curiously, though, Hyundai has taken nearly the opposite approach with its Elantra compact sedan and Sonata midsize sedan.

On both of those popular models, few buyers will get a chance to purchase the engine that's the best blend of acceleration, refinement and fuel efficiency. Hyundai has limited the turbocharged 1.4-liter and 1.6-liter engines to the Elantra Eco and Sonata Eco models, respectively, and doesn't offer those trims with such niceties as leather upholstery or a sunroof, or advanced safety features such as automatic emergency braking.

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Reviews of the 2017 Buick Envision and Honda Accord

Buick's premium crossover isn't Mercedes-grade

2017 Buick Envision -- cropped for webThe 2017 Buick Envision is a compact crossover that's more luxurious than it looks. COURTESY PHOTO  

At first glance, the new Buick Envision doesn't look particularly notable. This compact crossover blends quietly into traffic, without dramatic styling cues or a badge that screams luxury.

But there's more to it than meets the eye. The Envision, first introduced as a 2016 model, boasts a posh, feature-laden interior and wears a price tag that starts at $34,990 and can surpass $50,000. And it's notable as the first model line to be fully imported to the U.S. from a factory in China.

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Reviews of the Subaru Impreza and Acura MDX

Compact Subaru edges toward mainstream appeal

2017 Subaru Impreza -- cropped for webThe redesigned 2017 Subaru Impreza doesn't have dramatic styling but it has significant improvements under the skin. COURTESY PHOTO  

Subaru has often played in the fringes of the passenger-car market, with its most popular vehicles being the Forester and Outback crossovers. But the company's long-running Impreza compact car just saw a redesign for 2017, bringing this vehicle more in line with competitors' in-car technology, fuel efficiency and overall refinement – while retaining the existing qualities of a roomy interior, excellent safety record and class-exclusive all-wheel-drive system.

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Auto Drive: Reviews of the Honda CR-V and the Lexus RC 200t

Redesigned CR-V is the crossover that does it all

2017 Honda CR-V -- cropped for webThe redesigned 2017 Honda CR-V is a marked improvement over an already excellent compact crossover. COURTESY PHOTO  

As crossovers grow in popularity, they've begun to outsell sedans as some automakers' highest-volume vehicles. It's understandable – these vehicles blend the everyday comfort and fuel economy of a car with the versatility and high seating position of an SUV. 

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Reviews of the Acura ILX and Mazda MX-5 Miata

Acura's premium compact sedan misses the luxury mark

2017 Acura ILX -- cropped for webThe 2017 Acura ILX offers a premium badge at an affordable price – but the humdrum experience isn't worth the money. COURTESY PHOTO  

Ever since Acura started trying to turn the Honda Civic into a luxury sedan back in 2013, the idea had potential. The Civic had solid bones, as a roomy and pleasant-to-drive little car; all Acura needed to add was more upscale styling, a fancier interior, more features and a more powerful engine.

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