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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.


Chrysler minivan is family gold while Audi sedan justifies price

2017 Chrysler Pacifica -- cropped for webThe 2017 Chrysler Pacifica, priced from $30,090, is the most well-rounded minivan sold today. COURTESY PHOTO  

For a large family car, it's difficult to beat the minivan. Vast expanses of passenger and cargo space put SUVs and crossovers to shame, and these merits are joined by pleasant driving dynamics, decent gas mileage, ample safety and convenience features, and relatively affordable prices.
And for a minivan, at least today, it's difficult to beat the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica. The all-new replacement for the popular Town & Country represents a major advancement for Chrysler and also breaks new ground against its competitors.


Midsize sedans from Mazda and Volkswagen offer alternatives

2017 Mazda6 -- cropped for webThe 2017 Mazda6 is a stylish, sporty alternative to midsize sedans. COURTESY PHOTO 

Walk through any supermarket parking lot or look at the cars stopped at a light around you, and you're bound to see multiple samples of various best-selling models. In the midsize sedan class, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord are the ubiquitous sales leaders; the Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata also abound.
Perhaps you're looking for an automotive experience that's not identical to your neighbors, but still want many of the same virtues that make those bestsellers appealing. Two models to consider are the Mazda6 and the Volkswagen Passat.


Kia Soul hides sensibility with style as Jaguar gets into crossover game



2017 Kia Soul -- cropped for webThe Kia Soul is a useful, comfortable and affordable tall hatchback that competes well with compact crossovers. COURTESY PHOTO  

With bright orange paint, exuberant styling and a turbocharged 201-horsepower engine, the recently tested 2017 Kia Soul looks like a car that's designed for fun more than functionality. But for better or for worse, the Soul is the most successful as a roomy, refined, affordable box – not as a sporty car.


Updates to Ford crossover bring it up to par while Chevy is rudimentary

2017 Ford Escape -- cropped for webThe 2017 Ford Escape was updated with revised styling and other upgrades that help it to be competitive with other compact crossovers. COURTESY PHOTO  

The Ford Escape compact crossover is consistently one of the best-selling vehicles in the country – a pleasant vehicle in a hot market segment. Ever since its 2013-model redesign, the Escape has neatly married respectable, almost sporty driving dynamics with a spacious interior and affordable prices. That proved to be a winning combination on the sales front.
However, the Escape had its weak points: mediocre gas mileage, some missing safety features, poor performance in one crash test and a finicky dashboard touchscreen. Ford has now taken steps toward addressing them as part of a comprehensive 2017 update.