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Newly redesigned Ford takes full-size SUV crown

The redesigned 2018 Ford Expedition is the clear leader of the full-size SUV class for its mix of comfort, utility, luxury and relative fuel efficiency. COURTESY PHOTOThe redesigned 2018 Ford Expedition is the clear leader of the full-size SUV class for its mix of comfort, utility, luxury and relative fuel efficiency. COURTESY PHOTO  As SUVs become the default family car for many households, it’s easy to assume that the bigger the family, the bigger the SUV it will need.
That is to say, a small family might be fine in a compact Ford Escape or Toyota RAV4, while a larger one will need to expand to a full-size Ford Expedition or Toyota Sequoia.
But there are some important considerations before you buy the Sequoia or Expedition, or the competing Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon or Nissan Armada.
First things first: While they all offer family-friendly qualities like rear entertainment systems, three rows of seats and plenty of safety equipment, these aren’t purpose-built family cars. These are heavy-duty trucks that are being pressed into family-car duty. While that doesn’t mean they can’t be used as family cars, this situation presents some tradeoffs.

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Three midsize sedans offer a variety of quality

The 2018 Honda Accord, priced from $24,460, offers more daring styling, a fancier interior, and a sportier driving experience than the Toyota Camry. COURTESY PHOTOThe 2018 Honda Accord, priced from $24,460, offers more daring styling, a fancier interior, and a sportier driving experience than the Toyota Camry. COURTESY PHOTO  When two competing cars are both excellent, it’s easy to think of them as interchangeable.
However, look carefully enough and you’ll often find that each one is most outstanding in its own particular niche.
Such is the case in the midsize sedan class. We’ve visited this class’ best-selling Honda Accord and Toyota Camry several times over the past year, as both have been fully redesigned for the 2018 model year. And at last, we’ve gotten to spend a full week in top-of-the-line versions of each best-seller.
This extra time revealed that even as both the Camry and the Accord have gotten sportier and more luxurious, it’s the Honda that has gone above and beyond in those areas. The Toyota, meanwhile, also delivers impressive performance and luxury, yet it does so while remaining a little more conservatively styled and function-oriented.

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Redesigned Camry Hybrid ups its fuel-saving game

The 2018 Toyota Camry Hybrid is priced from $28,695 and can get more than 50 miles per gallon. COURTESY PHOTOThe 2018 Toyota Camry Hybrid is priced from $28,695 and can get more than 50 miles per gallon. COURTESY PHOTO  If you drive a hybrid, odds are that you drive a Toyota. Although competition has become fierce in the gas-electric segment of the market, Toyota has the largest number of hybrid models and most of the bestselling ones.
One of those popular models is the Camry Hybrid midsize sedan, which has been available now for more than a decade. As the gas-electric version of America’s bestselling car, it combines excellent fuel economy with the Camry’s high standards for roominess and comfort.
The Camry Hybrid is now better than ever. All Camry models were fully redesigned for 2018, providing fresh styling, more luxurious interiors and improved driving dynamics. The hybrid also benefits from mechanical upgrades that greatly improve its gas mileage. The base LE model soars from an EPA rating of 40 miles per gallon to a class-leading 52 mpg, while the better-equipped SE and XLE improve from a worst-in-class 38 mpg to an excellent 46 mpg.

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Toyota Prius remains a fuel-saving standout

Toyota Prius front view cropped for webThe Toyota Prius is best known for its aggressively futuristic styling and outstanding fuel economy, but it also boasts a spacious interior and ever-improving driving dynamics. COURTESY PHOTO  A decade ago, the Toyota Prius was practically the only game in town if you wanted the absolute maximum fuel efficiency, as it handily thrashed all the other gas-electric hybrids on the market with its’ unmistakable styling, five-door practicality and -- most importantly -- the absolute best gas mileage.
Today’s buyers, however, have a host of choices when looking to reduce their fuel consumption, whether from the plug-in hybrids that offer miles of electric-only range or a host of all-electric options that eliminate gasoline engines altogether. Conventional hybrids like the Prius are now more numerous than ever, and even today’s ordinary run-of-the-mill compact cars get increasingly impressive fuel economy.
This abundance of riches means Prius sales have slipped, but for the right driver the Prius remains an outstanding choice that’s pleasant to drive yet exceptionally fuel-efficient as well as decently affordable, with prices starting at $24,370.

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Pair of small crossovers has hidden flaws

2018 Toyota C HR cropped for webThe 2018 Toyota C-HR looks sporty and modern, but it’s humdrum to drive and its in-cabin connectivity is below par. COURTESY PHOTO  Sometimes, a car can stand out so positively in certain ways that it is worth forgiving its weak points. Other times, however, a car’s strengths can leave you blind to any flaws. The latter is a far more dangerous proposition, because you might only notice a vehicle’s downsides after you’ve already driven it off the lot.
Such a trap is easy to fall into when considering a pair of subcompact crossovers, the all-new 2018 Toyota C-HR and the freshly updated 2018 Mazda CX-3.
The Toyota mixes concept-car styling with five-door practicality, an elevated seating position, respectable gas mileage and an affordable base price of $23,495. The Mazda, meanwhile, trounces its ordinary-feeling competitors’ driving dynamics with sporty handling that makes it feel comparatively luxurious.
But look carefully at both of these crossovers before buying. While they may indeed fill the right niche for you, their compromises can also leave you wondering: “But... why?”

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Toyota and Honda moving on

2017 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid cropped for webThe Toyota RAV4 Hybrid is a spacious compact crossover that offers fuel-sipping rush hour commutes. COURTESY PHOTO  When the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid hit the market as a 2016 model, it was a remarkably multitalented vehicle. The gas-electric version of Toyota's popular compact crossover, the 2016 RAV4 Hybrid combined a spacious, comfortable interior with outstanding fuel efficiency.
One of the few drawbacks was that you couldn't get a gas-saving hybrid version of the base LE model, meaning that buyers had to step up to the XLE or Limited even if they didn't want the extra features. But now, even that complaint has been resolved. For just $1,350 more than the base LE with its optional all-wheel-drive, Toyota will sell you the hybrid that's not only rated for an extra seven mpg over the gas-only version but is also more powerful.
The hybrid's advantage grows stronger still in lower-speed driving. Normal gasoline-powered vehicles are least efficient in the stop-and-go drag that is I-270 during rush hour or stoplight-clogged Rockville Pike during much of the day. But that's when the RAV4 Hybrid can make the best use of its electric motor. The driver can select EV Mode (standing for "electric vehicle") to lock in moderately peppy all-electric acceleration at speeds up to about 27 mph. After that point, gentle use of the throttle can keep the RAV4's gasoline engine off up to about 47 mph.
EPA ratings for the RAV4 are a whopping 34 miles per gallon in the city, along with a more middling 30 mpg on the highway, and 32 mpg overall. A recent weeklong test returned 35.1 mpg, consistent with a 2016 model tested last year.

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Mitsubishi crossover, big Toyota sedan retain some appeal

2018 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport cropped for webThe 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport doesn't impress for its refinement or fuel efficiency, but it delivers a true crossover experience in a small and affordable package. COURTESY PHOTO  Mitsubishi was ahead of the curve when it launched the 2011 Outlander Sport. A size smaller than a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4, the Outlander Sport offered the high seating position, available all-wheel-drive and useful cargo capacity of competing compact crossovers – just without as much bulk or as high of a price.
Now, an entire market class has joined Mitsubishi: the subcompact crossover. It faces off against such competitors as the Honda HR-V and Toyota C-HR, after those automakers also realized that not everyone wanted a crossover as large as their best-selling models.
The Outlander Sport has changed little since 2011, but it retains its fundamental appeal. From its base price of $21,360, the 2018 Outlander Sport provides a credible crossover experience in a class where some models offer no more cargo space or ground clearance than an economy car. Mitsubishi also boosts its value quotient by including such items as a touchscreen infotainment system, 18-inch alloy wheels and automatic climate control as no-extra-cost standard equipment, along with generous warranty coverage.
That's not to say that it's all good news. Even back in 2011, the Outlander Sport wasn't too impressive for its refinement or driving dynamics – and without major mechanical upgrades since then, it's not surprising that the 2018 also isn't going to blow you away.

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Kia returns to its roots, while Toyota offers options

2018 Kia Rio EX hatchback cropped for webThe redesigned 2018 Kia Rio doesn't have exciting looks or sporty driving dynamics. COURTESY PHOTO  When gas was expensive, most automakers rushed to make their smallest, cheapest cars more appealing. From extra-roomy interiors to sporty handling to more elegant styling, these subcompacts were a way of saying that small cars don't have to be basic.
One model that followed this path was the 2012 Kia Rio. Its impressive interior build quality, surprisingly hushed cabin, European-inspired design and long list of available features made it clear that this little sedan or hatchback could be selected for its merits — not just its price.

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Japan’s big pickups challenge the domestic brands

2017 Nissan Titan cropped for webThe redesigned 2017 Nissan Titan is spacious and relatively affordable for a full-size truck, but it's heavy and lacks some modern tech features. COURTESY PHOTO  Although Japanese vehicles are among the bestsellers in almost every market segment, there's one that the nation's automakers have utterly failed to crack: the full-size pickup truck. There, Ford's F Series, General Motors' Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, and Chrysler's Ram remain dominant on the sales charts.
Toyota, Nissan and Honda all have pickup trucks — they just haven't resonated with buyers the same way. Toyota has had the most luck, which is ironic given that its Tundra hasn't received a major redesign in more than a decade. The newly-overhauled Nissan Titan and Honda Ridgeline sell at a fraction of the Tundra's pace, and the Tundra itself significantly trails pickups from the American “Big Three” automakers.
Are the current sales figures of big pickups the result of buyers' reluctance to stray from familiar brands? Or are the Japanese trucks just not as good as their American counterparts?

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Updated midsize sedans take different approaches

2018 Honda Accord cropped for webThe redesigned 2018 Honda Accord delivers exemplary levels of performance, luxury and everyday utility. COURTESY PHOTO  These days, the once-staid midsize family sedan market segment is quickly becoming anything but boring.
Just look at the class's two bestsellers: the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Both are benefiting from 2018 redesigns that have transformed their characters.
Previously, these two models were as famous for their high degrees of competence as they were for their plain characters – lacking the luxury, style and sporty performance that distinguish mainstream cars from luxury ones. Now, both blur that line, at least based on short preview drives. These sedans remain spacious and affordable, yet they now boast flashier styling, posher interiors, more solid-feeling ride quality, more responsive steering and handling, and zippier acceleration.
The 2018 Camry stood out from the crowd when it appeared over the summer, and the new Accord promises to join it when it hits the market this week. The Camry tops the Accord for brute-force horsepower, but the Accord's turbocharged four-cylinder engines are punchy and light. Both cars are rated for economy-car fuel consumption, with base models comfortably exceeding 30 mpg in mixed driving.

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