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Three smaller cars promise big driving pleasure

The 2018 Volkswagen GTI is a delightful blend of performance, comfort, refinement, utility and value. COURTESY PHOTOThe 2018 Volkswagen GTI is a delightful blend of performance, comfort, refinement, utility and value. COURTESY PHOTO  When driving enthusiasts pick their favorite cars, the results are usually pretty low on practicality. Most of the world’s best-driving sports cars are small and sleek, with cozy cabins, stiff rides, and high prices.
But if you don’t need the style of a sports car, you can find some outstanding driving experiences even from affordable, ordinary-looking versions of mainstream models.
Perhaps the best of this breed is the Volkswagen Golf GTI. The GTI pioneered the “hot hatch” segment of souped-up economy cars back in 1976, and VW has polished it to near-perfection over the years.

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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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