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.

And for buyers seeking best-in-class fuel efficiency can buy the excellent Highlander Hybrid, whose powerful V6 is mated with an electric motor to return an EPA rating of 28 mpg. Once available only as a costly, fully loaded model, the Highlander Hybrid is now barely more expensive than similarly equipped entry-level gas versions.

But there are still some remaining issues that Toyota hasn't resolved for 2017. There's still less passenger and cargo space than such competitors as the Honda Pilot and Ford Explorer, especially behind the third-row seat. An oddly designed dashboard curves away from the driver and passenger, making many functions hard to reach; the radio's volume and tuning knobs are also too shallow to easily grasp and twirl. There's still no Android Auto or Apple CarPlay connectivity for the infotainment system. Ride and handling are still merely acceptable, not outstanding. And some areas of the cabin feel cheap given the Highlander's $31,590 base price and the as-tested price of $42,315 for the mid-level SE.

None of these issues is necessarily a deal-breaker – except perhaps the interior volume, where the Highlander has been at least competitive, if not stellar, since 2014. But start adding them together, and Toyota starts to look a little shaky next to stellar competitors that include the roomy, quiet Pilot; the stylish, luxurious and fuel-efficient Mazda CX-9; the polished and maneuverable Kia Sorento; and a pair of promising new crossovers hitting the market soon: the redesigned Chevrolet Traverse and all-new Volkswagen Atlas. The Highlander is still competitive, but it's not a default choice; shop it carefully. And if you consider the Highlander, consider upgrading to the fuel-efficient hybrid model.

2017 Mazda3 -- cropped for webThe 2017 Mazda3 compact car has a new feature that reduces the need for steering corrections. COURTESY PHOTO

From its famous “zoom-zoom” ad campaign to the zippy handling found across its product lineup, Mazda has been known for sporty cars. The Mazda3 compact sedan or hatchback, now in its third generation, lives up to that reputation with peppy acceleration and commendable agility.

But Mazda has also made great strides in other areas. Despite their fun-to-drive characters, they now also tend to offer above-average gas mileage. And for 2017, the Mazda3 (and the midsize Mazda6) have received a novel new steering system that aim to make these cars more road-trip friendly.

The new “G-Vectoring Control” technology is essentially a computer that detects the direction in which the driver wants to go, and makes slight, imperceptible cuts to engine power to help direct the car that way. The result: less need for a driver to make frequent little steering corrections, either around a curve or in a straight line. Mazda engineers concluded that one of the fatiguing aspects of a long drive is to pay constant attention to staying in a straight line, and the tested Mazda3 tracked straight and true without needing much help.

This tech, which comes as standard equipment, also protects driving enthusiasts from the unwanted intrusions of computers into the driving experience. While it's not really sports-car brilliant, the Mazda3 is a fun little car, and G-Vectoring Control enhances that quality rather than diminishing it.

The Mazda3 also benefits from a stylish, well-finished cabin with comfortable, supportive front seats; excellent safety ratings; and EPA ratings of up to 32 miles per gallon in mixed driving. A tight rear seat will be a drawback for some buyers, and although the base price looks cheap at $18,720, you can get some comparably equipped competitors for less money.

But overall, the Mazda3 comes across as more than just an economy car – based on how it looks, how it feels inside and how it drives. Shop it against the Honda Civic as the leading competitor among fun, relatively upscale small cars that are also affordable and fuel-efficient.


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