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Volkswagen goes mainstream while Lexus just ages

2018 Volkswagen Tiguan cropped for webThe 2018 Volkswagen Tiguan is roomier and safer than its predecessor, but it remains on the pricey side for the compact crossover class. COURTESY PHOTO  Look at the characteristics of the most popular vehicles in the U.S., and the two key attributes that will stand out to you are size and price, as Americans understandably look for cars that hit the sweet spot of roominess and affordability.
In recent years, the compact crossover class has exploded for precisely those reasons. At prices well below $30,000, buyers can find well-equipped vehicles with comfortable seating for five passengers and ample cargo.
But one of those compact crossovers – the Volkswagen Tiguan – has in recent years excelled in neither area. Smaller yet more expensive than a Ford Escape, Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4, the Tiguan tried to provide a luxury experience at a discount – the sporty performance and outstanding build quality of an Audi, for prices closer to a Honda. But that sales pitch never really worked. While some buyers appreciated the Volkswagen's unique niche, the heart of the market remained elsewhere.

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Chevrolet adds some style while Lexus tries to save gas

Chevrolet Malibu cropped for webThe latest Chevrolet Malibu midsize sedan is an appealing blend of style, luxury, functionality and value. COURTESY PHOTO  The last generation of the Chevrolet Malibu midsize sedan, sold from the 2013 through 2015 model years, offered an odd mix of strengths and weaknesses.
On the one hand, the old Malibu offered impressive driving dynamics – a particularly solid feel that lent composure to its ride and handling, leaving a Toyota Camry or Hyundai Sonata feeling flimsy in comparison. But this luxurious ambiance was undercut by humdrum styling inside and out, and the old Malibu also suffered from skimpy rear-seat room.
Chevrolet fully redesigned the Malibu last year to address these issues, and transformed the car into a more thoroughly impressive car. Priced from $22,555, it brings a more thoroughly premium feel to the mainstream class, while also improving on important family-car values. The current Malibu regains the mojo of the 2008 to 2012 Malibu, yet it sacrifices less outward visibility and rear headroom to make a styling statement. And although sticker prices can be high, pricing site Truecar.com projects ample room for haggling that can turn this Chevrolet into a relative bargain despite its premium feel.

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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.

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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.

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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 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. 

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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). 

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