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Dodge adds traction to its storied muscle car

The 2018 Dodge Challenger is a surprisingly roomy retro-styled sports coupe that’s priced from $28,640. COURTESY PHOTOThe 2018 Dodge Challenger is a surprisingly roomy retro-styled sports coupe that’s priced from $28,640. COURTESY PHOTO  When you look at the Dodge Challenger, it’s unlikely that your first reaction will be “practical.”
This isn’t a sensible four-door family sedan. It’s not a minivan or an SUV.
It’s a sinister-looking, retro-styled muscle car, a two-door performance coupe that recalls the gas-guzzling hot rods of the early-1970s.
But since its reintroduction as a 2009 model, the Challenger has always been among the most-functional sports coupes. Compared to its chief rivals — the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang — the Challenger has a spacious, family-friendly interior. This coupe’s upright silhouette and full-size dimensions provide unusually generous rear-seat accommodations, enough to fit two adults or three children in relative comfort.
Now, the Challenger has yet another advantage over its Detroit rivals: an available all-wheel-drive system.

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Hybrid Volvos blend power, luxury and efficiency

The 2018 Volvo XC60 luxury crossover is available as a plug-in hybrid, which can travel up to 17 miles per electric charge. COURTESY PHOTOThe 2018 Volvo XC60 luxury crossover is available as a plug-in hybrid, which can travel up to 17 miles per electric charge. COURTESY PHOTO  If you think of a hybrid car, you’re probably picturing a pokey little fuel-saver — a Toyota Prius, or something like it. A compact, affordable economy car that’s built to use as little gas as possible while you’re sitting in traffic or running errands.
But in the luxury market, many hybrids are a different beast. In addition to saving gas, many luxury hybrids use their electric motors to provide stronger acceleration. Electric motors make maximum torque right off the line, unlike gas engines that have to rev up to reach peak performance. So these two powertrains can work together to make a car fast under any condition.
Volvo is a market leader in these luxury performance hybrids. It offers plug-in hybrid variants of three popular models: the XC60 and XC90 crossovers and the S90 sedan. The trio shares a powertrain that Volvo calls the “T8,” a 2.0-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine with a supercharger and a turbocharger, plus two electric motors. The total output rivals a sports car’s 400 horsepower and 472 pound-feet of torque. That’s more torque than a Chevrolet Corvette Stingray.

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New Chevrolet hatchback offers refined versatility

The 2018 Chevrolet Cruze is a refined compact sedan or hatchback that’s priced from $16,975. COURTESY PHOTOThe 2018 Chevrolet Cruze is a refined compact sedan or hatchback that’s priced from $16,975. COURTESY PHOTO  Why buy a big car?
There are many reasons, of course. Interior volume is often the leading factor — space and comfort for the driver and passengers, and enough room for their cargo.
But another reason many folks seek larger cars is that bigger, more-expensive models often deliver a higher grade of refinement. They’re quieter, and they ride more smoothly. They look more elegant or mature. They feel more confidently planted even at high speeds. They aren’t cheap, basic transportation — they’re a cut above.
But not every big car offers those qualities. Instead, you’ll regularly find one that’s just as underwhelming as an economy car, albeit with some extra leg room.
If you’re looking for a car that feels satisfyingly non-basic, and don’t need maximum interior volume, you’ll want to consider the Chevrolet Cruze. It’s a compact four-door sedan or five-door hatchback that’s more affordable and fuel-efficient than a larger class of vehicle, competing against such models as the Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, and Hyundai Elantra.

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Mazda’s Miata is made for fun but not for snow

The 2018 Mazda MX-5 Miata is a delightful two-seat roadster that’s priced from $26,185. COURTESY PHOTOThe 2018 Mazda MX-5 Miata is a delightful two-seat roadster that’s priced from $26,185. COURTESY PHOTO  A classic Buick slogan boasted, “When better automobiles are built, Buick will build them.”
But perhaps that sentiment is more appropriate to the Mazda MX-5 Miata, a uniquely endearing two-seat roadster that’s been providing affordable grins for nearly three decades. The only way to get a better Miata is for Mazda to develop an improvement.
For 2018, Mazda made some modest updates to the Miata. It’s nothing that will likely make you rush out and buy one, but it continued to hone a package that’s already tremendously appealing to the right customer.

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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.

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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.

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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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