Dodge SUV offers superior performance - again

The 2018 Dodge Durango SRT is a $64,090 high-performance SUV, costing nearly twice as much as the base Durango. COURTESY PHOTOThe 2018 Dodge Durango SRT is a $64,090 high-performance SUV, costing nearly twice as much as the base Durango. COURTESY PHOTO  The Dodge Durango has always stood apart from competing three-row crossovers.
Unlike a Honda Pilot or Toyota Highlander, the Durango is a hardy workhorse of a truck. Ever since the current generation debuted as a 2011 model, it’s offered a class-exclusive V8 engine that allowed it to tow a large trailer. Furthermore, this cousin of the Jeep Grand Cherokee offers the burly, rumbling “tough” feel of a full-size SUV rather than the mild-mannered minivan-esque vibe of most competitors.
For 2018, Dodge has further distanced itself from any competitor by introducing a new Street and Racing Technology version: a high-performance, high-capability SUV with a whopping 475-horsepower V8, an even higher towing capacity and sports-car suspension tuning. The result is brash, ridiculous fun from a vehicle that can seat six passengers, carry tons of cargo and drag an 8,700-pound trailer.


Redesigned Kia subcompact puts economy first

The redesigned 2018 Kia Rio subcompact car strives to be simple, functional and affordable, and generally succeeds. COURTESY PHOTOThe redesigned 2018 Kia Rio subcompact car strives to be simple, functional and affordable, and generally succeeds. COURTESY PHOTO  If you haven’t bought an economy car in a while, it’s easy to get sticker shock. The cheapest automatic-transmission Honda Civic wears a sticker price north of $20,000, and it’s become common for a fully-loaded compact sedan to approach $30,000.
But if you’d like to follow a stricter budget, several subcompact models serve as functional transportation while providing contemporary features such as Bluetooth and USB smartphone connectivity, rearview cameras and touchscreen infotainment systems. And while they won’t match the artfully-refined driving dynamics and spacious interior of today’s Civic, these options don’t have to disappoint you for ride smoothness, driver comfort and cabin build quality.
One such option is the 2018 Kia Rio, which has been freshly redesigned and is available as a four-door sedan and a five-door hatchback. It’s priced from $14,795 and is a perfectly serviceable commuter companion.
As part of this year's redesign, Kia stripped the Rio of its earlier design flair, leaving a plainer but more functional little box on wheels — trading verve for maximum value and improved visibility. That change speaks to the car’s attitude: It handles most tasks with competence, but offers little excellence. While many recent subcompact cars have tried to come off as sporty and upscale — notably, the Ford Fiesta and the last-generation Rio — Kia stuck with basic, functional and affordable.


Midsize Hyundai offers functional value

The 2018 Hyundai Sonata is an affordable, generally pleasant midsize sedan that’s less polished and fancy than the leading competitors. COURTESY PHOTOThe 2018 Hyundai Sonata is an affordable, generally pleasant midsize sedan that’s less polished and fancy than the leading competitors. COURTESY PHOTO  Today’s car shoppers have many options for functionality and value. These qualities once defined the midsize family sedan class, but many buyers have turned instead to less expensive compact cars or to roomier crossover SUVs.
As many purely practical car shoppers look elsewhere, many midsize sedans have increasingly prioritized style and luxury to succeed in a more premium niche. But if you just want something comfortable and functional and still prefer a spacious four-door sedan, you should check out the newly-updated 2018 Hyundai Sonata.
The Sonata isn’t a dramatically-styled sports sedan like the latest Honda Accord, whose luxury-grade looks and driving experience elevate it above the family car norm. But the Sonata is also less expensive, with the well-equipped base SE model presenting a particularly strong value.
The 2018 Sonata starts at $22,935, and according to pricing site, you should be able to haggle it below $20,000. That’s an advantage of some $2,500 over a base Accord, and Hyundai also throws in an Android Auto/Apple CarPlay-compatible touchscreen, a blind-spot monitoring system and a long warranty.


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?”


Land Rover offers blend of function and character

Land Rover Discovery front cropped for webThe Land Rover Discovery is a midsize luxury SUV with true off-road capability.      COURTESY PHOTO  As today's mainstream brands offer loads of features, sumptuous interiors, advanced technology and refined driving experience, it can be difficult for a luxury vehicle to distinguish itself.
Some models offer an incremental improvement over their mainstream alternatives — you pay a little more, and you get a little more. But others take a more radically different approach, providing an experience that you'd never find in an ordinary vehicle.
An example of the latter is the Land Rover Discovery, a British-built midsize luxury SUV that was fully redesigned last year to replace the LR4. The Land Rover brand focuses solely on delivering superior off-road capability, which already puts its vehicles in a different niche from even Mercedes-Benz or Lexus, much less Honda or Chevrolet. Distinctive styling inside and out further separates the Discovery from other SUVs or crossovers, and the latest model also boasts some clever family-friendly features to keep it practical on an everyday basis. Prices start at $53,085.
In recent years, Land Rover sold this vehicle as the LR3 and LR4. But this latest generation marks a return to the market for the storied Discovery name. But while the name brings to mind the model’s aggressively-boxy predecessors, today’s Discovery is more softly styled. The decision to make such a clear departure from the model's roots likely stemmed from aerodynamic considerations as much as aesthetic ones and the result has gotten mixed reviews: Some applaud the new looks as attractive and modern, while others denounce them as generic and derivative.
Inside, however, the new Discovery is pure Land Rover — and better than ever. The tested car’s rich white leather upholstery sets the scene, and the dashboard’s elegantly simple rectangles stand apart from the elaborate swishes and curves found in many contemporary vehicles. A large new 10-inch touchscreen infotainment system keeps the cabin modern, both functionally and visually.


Redesigned Hyundai hatchback comes up short

2018 Hyundai Elantra GT cropped for webThe redesigned 2018 Hyundai Elantra GT compact hatchback is a renamed version of the European Hyundai i30. COURTESY PHOTO  The recipe appears to have the right ingredients.
The redesigned 2018 Hyundai Elantra GT compact hatchback boasts a European-style exterior with classy, restrained design cues; a well-finished, ergonomically sensible interior; and loads of features for the money, starting from a reasonable base price of $20,235.
But some design foibles, engineering shortcomings and hard-to-find tech options hold back the Elantra GT against such outstanding competitors as the Honda Civic and Mazda3.
First of all, don’t confuse the Elantra GT with the Elantra sedan, the Korean brand’s bestselling product. Although the sedan and GT share some mechanical components under the skin, the Elantra GT is essentially a renamed version of the Hyundai i30 that the company developed for the European market – where compact-car buyers expect more sportiness and luxury than Americans are used to.
The Elantra GT starts off its performance specs with more standard horsepower than the sedan: 161 rather than 147, both from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. There’s also different tuning of their six-speed automatic transmissions, and the Elantra GT lacks the fuel-saving but performance-blunting “eco mode” option found in the sedan.


Cadillac and Lexus luxury sedans offer variety

The Cadillac CT6 full-size luxury sedan has sportier, more agile handling than its competitors. COURTESY PHOTO  The Cadillac CT6 full-size luxury sedan has sportier, more agile handling than its competitors. COURTESY PHOTO  For generations of Americans, their parents and grandparents bought Cadillacs that were built for cushy comfort, with softly-tuned suspensions that approximated the ride quality and handling agility of a water bed and seats that felt like living room couches.
You can still get that old-school Cadillac experience with the brand's XTS sedan and Escalade SUV models, but those who haven't been carefully watching General Motors' luxury brand will likely be astonished by the brilliantly executed sports sedans dominating the rest of the lineup: the ATS, the CTS, and Cadillac's current flagship sedan, the CT6.
The CT6 – which comes priced starting at $55,090 and can run beyond $90,000 – has a spacious interior, rides smoothly and quietly, and despite its' full-sized footprint delivers the sprightly handling of a vehicle a size smaller – a level of handling once the exclusive provenance of European luxury brands.


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.


Alfa Romeo, Volvo heat up holiday crossover class

2018 Volvo XC60 cropped for webThe redesigned 2018 Volvo XC60 is a luxurious, well-rounded crossover that's priced from $42,495.  COURTESY PHOTO  As a family car, crossovers have become almost ubiquitous -- having vanquished the station wagon and minivan, and having even overtaken the sedan with their excellent versatility, high seating position, and in-demand image; they're now appealing to buyers across a significant swath of the market.
Volvo was among of the first automakers to recognize the appeal of a compact but luxurious crossover, launching the first-generation XC60 in 2010. It offered the brand's traditional safety, comfort, and Scandinavian aesthetics, but without the bulk of its larger sibling, the XC90.
Since then, a host of comparable luxury marques has made a compact premium crossover offering, including Lexus, Jaguar, Porsche and Alfa Romeo. Most of these models — generally priced starting in the upper $30,000s to lower $40,000s — have emphasized sporty styling and performance, taking advantage of their relatively svelte dimensions to position themselves as the more fun alternative to a larger-sized crossover.
But despite a redesign for 2018, the XC60 is standing by its original formula. More boxy than sleek, it prioritizes a roomy interior and provides respectable outward visibility. The cabin is both posh and quite spacious for a compact crossover, and what comes under the cabin allows the vehicle to boast quite the smooth ride.


Honda engages in an Odyssey while Mercedes rolls

2018 Honda Odyssey croppedThe redesigned 2018 Honda Odyssey minivan is now the class leader for performance, comfort and luxury. COURTESY PHOTO  Last year, Chrysler introduced the 2017 Pacifica – an all-new minivan that offered an outstanding blend of everyday utility with high-end refinement and luxury.
Now, the competing Honda Odyssey is redesigned for the 2018 model year. Although it doesn't leapfrog the Pacifica, the 2018 Odyssey addresses many of the old model's shortcomings while expanding on its strengths. That upgrade is enough to win back some buyers who might otherwise be tempted by the Chrysler, though each minivan leads in a particular niche.
Since 2011, the Odyssey has been a style leader in the minivan class, with a more dramatic appearance than the class norm.

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