Mini Clubman is the little brand's roomiest car yet
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.
The Clubman is relatively refined when it's driven gently, though. This isn't one of the sporty cars that exacts revenge on a driver who was attracted mainly by its looks; the ride quality is respectable, and the steering isn't overly heavy or frenetic when you're moving at a gentle pace.
Passenger and cargo accommodations will be a main draw for the Clubman over other Mini models – it's the roomiest vehicle the brand has produced to date. That's not saying much; as noted, it's still pretty small. But there are now full-size rear doors to access the back seat and up to 47.9 cubic feet of cargo space. And like the Countryman crossover (which is based on the previous-generation Mini Cooper), the Clubman now offers all-wheel-drive.
Two longtime complaints about Minis do recur in the new Clubman. One is a quirky interior that favors styling gimmicks over sensible user-friendliness. While ergonomics have improved, there are still some annoyances like a confusing gas gauge; when checking the fuel level, most drivers are probably going to favor clarity over whimsy. The swing-out cargo doors are also fussy to open.
But the bigger issue with Mini is its pricing. These little cars have fairly high base prices that quickly reach luxury levels as you start adding options. The tested 2017 Clubman wore a sticker price of $35,850, and didn't even provide power-adjustable seats for that much money; the base price is about $11,000 less with cloth seats, a three-cylinder engine and a manual transmission. If you're willing to give up a little interior room, you can also get a five-door version of the standard Cooper starting at $22,800 – just be warned that its options, too, can also go quickly crazy.
And you won't make up the Clubman's extra price with fuel savings. Even the most efficient Clubman is rated for just 28 mpg in mixed driving on premium fuel; the tested S with all-wheel-drive is a crossover-like 26 mpg, also on premium.
Buick amps up luxury with redesigned LaCrosse
Is Buick a luxury brand? General Motors would say yes, and it's priced the redesigned 2017 LaCrosse full-size sedan accordingly. Though starting out at $32,990 is par for the course in its class, those numbers quickly rise. A fully loaded model surpasses $50,000. On its website, Buick's compare-to-competitors feature pits it against the Lexus ES 350 and Lincoln MKZ rather than their mainstream-branded equivalents from Toyota and Ford.
On the merits, the redesigned LaCrosse does stack up fairly well. The new styling is modern without looking garish or overly trendy. It's an elegant, flowing design; even where there are creases in the bodywork, the creases follow gentle curves rather than straight lines.
A great improvement over the old LaCrosse is the new seats, which are magnificently soft and cushy while still being supportive. The outgoing LaCrosse had rather hard, rather narrow seats – perhaps an overcorrection from the brand's sofa-like stereotype. The interior ambiance is also notably superior to GM's less expensive Chevrolet Impala, helping justify the LaCrosse's higher price point.
A brief drive didn't suggest that the LaCrosse was designed to wow on the road, but it didn't stumble either. It's not a fancy rear-wheel-drive luxury car like Hyundai's Genesis G80, but it still has a comfortable and quiet ride without driving like a ponderous barge. The LaCrosse does boast more power than most competitors – 310 horsepower from its 3.6-liter V6 – but acceleration isn't ferocious. Its EPA rating of 25 miles per gallon in mixed driving is outstanding for a big V6 car.
Overall, the LaCrosse feels more modern and sophisticated than a Toyota Avalon or Ford Taurus, and more polished than a Chrysler 300. But it faces tough competition from a newly redesigned and competitively priced Kia Cadenza and from the fancier Genesis G80.