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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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Infiniti and Mazda crossovers blend style, value

2017 Infiniti QX60 cropped for webThe 2017 Infiniti QX60 large crossover is the luxury version of the Nissan Pathfinder. COURTESY PHOTO  What separates a mainstream car from a luxury one? It's easy to find vehicles that blur the line.
For example, a premium brand might sell its own version of a less-expensive vehicle from a mainstream one. Or a mainstream brand might offer a stylish, classy and feature-laden model that essentially matches the luxury competition on substance, if not on reputation.
A pair of seven-passenger crossovers represents these respective approaches. Respectively, they're the Infiniti QX60, recently updated for 2017, and the Mazda CX-9, which was last redesigned for 2016.

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Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5 are outstanding crossover entries

2017 Honda CR V Touring cropped for webThe redesigned 2017 Honda CR-V addresses predecessor's biggest shortcomings while maintaining a familiar flavor of pleasant practicality.  COURTESY PHOTO  The Honda CR-V is one of the best-selling vehicles in the country, and the best-selling crossover. The market doesn't always pick the best car – strong name recognition or a positive brand reputation sometimes reward undeserving cars, and some lesser-known or little-trusted models are unfairly ignored.
But it's hard to argue with consumer tastes in the compact crossover segment. Thanks to a new redesign for 2017, the CR-V delivers outstanding interior space and fuel economy along with thorough competence at pretty much everything else.
This redesign comes at an important time for the CR-V. Honda had bungled a few details in a 2015 update, saddling this crucial model with a stiff ride and a cumbersome infotainment system. The 2017 CR-V addresses its predecessor's flaws, builds on its strengths and adds valuable new safety features – turning it into the most well-rounded vehicle in its class. Owners of past CR-Vs will welcome the new car's familiar flavor, and the improvements will help win over fresh customers as well.

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Nissan offers smaller crossover while Bentley bulks up

2017 Nissan Rogue Sport cropped for webThe 2017 Nissan Rogue Sport subcompact crossover emulates its more popular big brother, the Rogue, at a slightly lower price. COURTESY PHOTO  Nissan’s bestselling vehicle in the United States is the Rogue, a compact crossover whose top strengths include an extra-roomy interior at an affordable price. But for buyers who prefer something even smaller or less expensive, Nissan has introduced the new 2017 Rogue Sport — “Sport” meaning “small.”
The Rogue Sport is a renamed version of the Nissan Qashqai, an unpronounceable vehicle that’s nonetheless been wildly popular in Europe. With Europeans preferring smaller vehicles, Nissan never saw fit to sell our Rogue there, but the company is optimistic that there’s room for its American lineup to grow. The Rogue Sport slots in size between the larger Rogue and the even smaller, quirkier Juke.

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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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Subaru sticks with AWD while Ram stays big

2017 Subaru Impreza Limited cropped for webThe redesigned 2017 Subaru Impreza is roomy and user-friendly – but it can get expensive without really feeling fancy. COURTESY PHOTO  On most cars, buyers who want all-wheel-drive have to pay a couple thousand dollars extra for the system – if it's even offered at all.
The Subaru Impreza compact car, like most Subarus, bucks the norm by including the system standard. It's the only car in its class to even offer all-wheel-drive. If you're looking for an affordable vehicle that can easily power through mud or snow, the Impreza sedan or five-door hatchback belongs high on your shopping list.

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Reviews of the GMC Acadia and Toyota Yaris iA

GMC's big crossover sheds bulk during redesign

2017 GMC Acadia Denali -- cropped for webThe redesigned 2017 GMC Acadia Denali gives up its predecessor's massive interior volume in favor of superior handling, fuel efficiency and maneuverability. COURTESY PHOTO 

Until recently, shoppers seeking a General Motors crossover with three rows of seats had relatively limited options. GM did offer three such models – the Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia – but the trio was mechanically identical under the skin. And notably, all three were notably bigger than such popular competitors as the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander.

But with the redesigned 2017 Acadia, GM is now covering a broader swath of the market. The Acadia is now smaller and lighter – sized more like those competitors – and, consequently, more agile, maneuverable and fuel-efficient. Meanwhile, a redesigned 2018 Traverse that was unveiled this month continues to be bigger, heavier and more spacious.

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Modern Jeeps haven't abandoned off-road heritage

2016 Jeep Cherokee -- cropped for webThe 2016 Jeep Cherokee is a compromise between the everyday comfort of a crossover and the all-out off-road ability of a traditional Jeep. COURTESY PHOTO  

During a recent test of a 2016 Jeep Cherokee, a passenger remarked that it wasn't what she pictured when she thought of the brand. Indeed, from the vertical slats on the grille, there isn't much resemblance between the Cherokee and the World War II military vehicle that birthed today's Chrysler-owned SUV brand.

This Cherokee was the official 75th Anniversary Edition – “Since 1941” is printed on the steering wheel, and profile views of vintage military Jeeps adorn badges on the front doors. But otherwise, from looking at this vehicle, could be any of the many modern crossovers that are popular today for merging SUV-like style with the everyday comfort and convenience of a station wagon.

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Reviews of the Hyundai Santa Fe and Lexus GS

 With updated crossover, Hyundai bobbled shot at being a class leader

2017 Hyundai Santa Fe Ultimate -- cropped for webWhile no longer one of the best big crossovers, the 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe Ultimate offers three rows of seats without feeling big and bulky. COURTESY PHOTO

When it first came out as a 2013 model, the current generation of the Hyundai Santa Fe was a breath of fresh air compared to most of its competitors: a big crossover with three rows of seats that felt like a much smaller vehicle from behind the wheel.

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Volkswagen gets down and gets funky with two new offerings

2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack -- webThe Volkswagen Golf Alltrack. COURTESY PHOTO  

Many automotive pundits looking to the future believe that the four-door sedan is a dying breed – and that the new mainstream choice, the default choice for most consumers, will be crossovers. Their higher seating positions, all-weather capability and handy cargo space give them a compelling advantage over passenger cars. 

Volkswagen is looking to take advantage of the trend with a new version of its Golf compact wagon, the Alltrack, which adds all-wheel-drive, a slightly higher ride height and some decorative trim. Think of it as VW's equivalent to the Subaru Outback, albeit in a smaller package. 

However, Volkswagen has been quietly making significant progress at its ordinary small sedan, the Jetta. It received mixed reviews when it debuted back in 2011, and has changed little cosmetically since then. But the 2017 Jetta, despite its age, makes a better impression than the new Alltrack. VW has been steadily boosting the car's value quotient and improving its fuel economy, and its composed ride and handling continue to shine. 

More attention will be given to the new Alltrack. After all, it's new and it's the vehicle in the hotter market segment. Moreover, Volkswagen's only other non-luxury crossover model, the Tiguan, is even older than the Jetta – and far less competitive, due to a high price and poor crash-test performance. Many shoppers in the VW dealership will definitely be directed toward the Alltrack. 

The Alltrack has some strong points, to be clear. Like the Golf on which it's based, it has a peppy engine; pleasant ride and handling; and cleanly styled, high-quality cabin. And its economy-car roots would seem to promise a level of value and fuel economy that conventional crossovers like a Honda CR-V can't match. 

But the Alltrack's drawbacks consign it to a fairly small niche. 

It's much less roomy than a CR-V or similar crossovers, with a comparatively tight rear seat and cargo hold – the Volkswagen is clearly an alternative to a small sedan, whereas the CR-V is more comparable to a midsize one. You don't get the high seating position of a crossover, either. Moreover, the Alltrack is actually even more expensive, with a lofty base price of $27,770. The tested midlevel SE model is $31,350, without even power seat adjustment or automatic climate control. As a final issue, the EPA fuel economy rating for mixed driving is just 25 mpg – worse than the CR-V and a few other bigger, less expensive crossovers. Even the big Outback is less expensive and more fuel-efficient than the Alltrack. 

You can save a bit of money by picking the new Golf Sportwagen 4Motion, which is the same car – including the all-wheel-drive system – without the 1.4-inch higher ride height or cosmetic enhancements. But in general, these VW wagons focus on premium over utility – consider them as an option, especially if extra space and a high seating position feel more bulky than beneficial, but don't buy one without scoping out the CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Mazda CX-5, Subaru Forester and/or Ford Escape. 

2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE -- webThe Volkswagen Jetta.  COURTESY PHOTO  

The Jetta, meanwhile, is a more mainstream product, and it's grown more so in recent years as VW added more standard features. It's competitively priced at a base price of $18,715, and the tested midlevel SE, at $22,815, is loaded with features that include a touchscreen infotainment system; a proximity key with push-button start; blind-spot monitoring; heated faux-leather seats; and a sunroof.

The cabin appointments can feel budget-grade, but the Jetta delivers impressive composure on the road by the standards of an economy car. It lacks the pizzazz of the latest Honda Civic, the zippy fun of a Mazda3 and the user-friendly simplicity of a Hyundai Elantra, but it's a pleasant and practical overall package. 

Volkswagen made the Jetta much more competitive for the 2016 model year with a new standard engine: a 1.4-liter with 150 horsepower. It replaced a weak, outmoded engine on the base car and a powerful but comparatively fuel-thirsty 1.8-liter on the SE – the engine still standard in the Golf and Alltrack. With the 1.4-liter, the Jetta's EPA ratings aren't class leading at 32 mpg in mixed driving with an automatic transmission, but they're no longer a liability. 

Combined that with the additional standard features, and the Jetta's subdued design aesthetic and pleasant driving experience help it fit a bigger niche than the overpriced Golf Alltrack. 

@BradyHoltAutos

 

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