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Surprising sedans

Three four-doors that stand out in the crowd

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To cut through the clutter of so many sedans — there are more than 220 models available — many automakers are giving their four-door mavens extreme makeovers. This includes such popular rides as the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Honda Accord, Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Camry and VW Passat. Even the tried-and-true Buick Regal is getting an eye-popping redo. Yet most of these faves won’t be available until next year. Luckily, some automakers have beaten their competitors to the punch, often with surprising results. Below are three of the best.

Kia Optima

$18,500

MPG: 20 city/29 highway

Biggest surprise: Sexier than the luxe Sonata

Kia has always been Hyundai’s poor relation, and it showed: lackluster designs, put-put engines and frumpy handling that only your great aunt would love. But that all changed when Kia snagged Audi’s design chief — the man responsible for the uber-hot Audi TT — and decided to remake its entire lineup. For the Optima, this means styling that’s a cut above the handsome Hyundai Sonata, which is built on the same stellar platform. But while the Sonata tries to emulate the much pricier— and relatively bland —Lexus ES 330, the Optima opts for originality, with Origami-like creases in the side panels and a bat-wing grille surrounded by sleek wraparound headlights.

Three engine choices: a capable 200-hp four-cylinder in the base model, a peppy 274-turbo and a hybrid due next year. These are the first turbo and hybrid power plants from Kia, which shows the automaker is trying to offer more thrilling and more eco-friendly models at the same time. And there are plenty of standard features, even on the LX base model: satellite radio, USB input jack, Bluetooth, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, power everything and an air-conditioned glove box. The midlevel EX adds voice recognition system, rearview camera, keyless entry/ignition, dual-zone automatic climate control and power driver seat. And the top-of-the-line SX adds leather seats and upgraded interior trim.

Suzuki Kizashi

$19,000

MPG: 20 city/29 highway

Biggest surprise: Two new models — already

Suzuki introduced its all-new Kizashi less than a year ago, yet already this flagship sedan, which received plenty of accolades the first go-round, is getting a glitzy Sport version of its high-end GTS and SLS trim levels. While the engines, transmission and tires are still the same, the GTS Sport and SLS Sport are lower to the ground and have a tighter, tuner-like suspension for better cornering and acceleration. The exterior styling gets kicked up a notch, as well, with crisper front fascia, grille and rocker panels, along with a subtle rear spoiler. All Kizashis — even the base model — have a trendy Euro-like cabin, with metallic accents, keyless entry/ignition, power doors/windows, dual-zone automatic climate control and nine-speaker stereo. Upper-level models add iPod interface, cruise control, heated seats, rear-parking sensors and a blaring Rockford Fosgate audio system.

VW Jetta

$16,000

MPG: 24 city/34 highway

Biggest surprise: Cheaper this year

Bigger, roomier and less expensive — that was the VW game plan for the reworked Jetta. And it works, sort of. All models are $1,700 to $2,300 less than their predecessors. And all come with standard stability control — often a pricey option — as well as free routine maintenance for three years or 36,000 miles. Yet to cut costs, VW put in a smaller engine with 55 less horsepower and nixed the rear disc brakes and independent rear suspension — replacing both with cheaper alternatives. And the classy Audi-like cabins also are now a bit, well, cheaper, in both design and build quality. Still, the Jetta hasn’t lost its sport-sedan roots, with primo handling, accelerating and braking. And it still takes corners and navigates around potholes better than the competition. Another plus: there’s plenty of headroom, legroom and trunk space. Best of all, there soon will be three other engine choices: a clean diesel, a sporty turbo and a hybrid

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Autos

Standout SUVs: Jeep Compass, Subaru Crosstrek

Americans still prefer larger vehicles to sedans

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Jeep Compass

Last year Americans left many old-school chariots in the dust, buying twice as many SUVs as sedans. But while early pioneers like the Jeep Cherokee and Ford Explorer get props for leading the sport-ute charge, today there are more than 170 models. I recently test drove two newish SUVs that kinda-sorta remind me of my Pride bracelet: They make a statement, but at an affordable price. 

JEEP COMPASS
$29,000
MPG: 24 city/32 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.5 seconds
Cargo room: 27.2 cu. ft.

PROS: lots of amenities, good storage, all-wheel drive

CONS: some pricey options, stiff ride, bit noisy cabin

IN A NUTSHELL: Redesigned last year, the Jeep Compass gets a stronger engine for 2023. More power usually means reduced fuel efficiency, but mileage is up almost 10% from the previous model. Another plus: More stowage space, which had been sorely lacking. And all-wheel drive is now standard, so better traction and handling, especially on slick or gravelly terrain. 

Despite having chiseled looks like the midsize Jeep Cherokee, the smaller Compass feels lighter and more limber. But while this compact SUV can handle light off-roading, the short wheelbase makes it hard to ignore potholes or speed bumps. In fact, I often had to slow down to a crawl to not seesaw jarringly over them. In other words, any Barbie or Ken wannabes with perfectly coiffed hair will want to stick to smoother surfaces when driving this vehicle.  

The well-built cabin is much improved, with higher quality materials. The dash is covered in soft-touch leather—a nice touch—with a 7-inch digital instrument cluster and 10.1-inch touchscreen. Plenty of legroom and headroom in front, but tallish backseat passengers may feel a bit squished. 

There are five trim levels, including the top-of-the-line Trailhawk, with more aggressive styling and solid off-road capability. I tested the mid-range Latitude Lux, which costs $5,000 more than the base model but comes with larger wheels, heated seats, and other niceties. 

Notable tech features: smartphone integration, Wi-Fi hot spot, Bluetooth, wireless charging, voice recognition, remote start and nine-speaker Alpine stereo. 

But it’s the list of safety gear that rally wowed me, such as rearview camera, park assist, lane-departure warning, driver-attention monitoring, rear-seat passenger reminder, pedestrian and cyclist detection, blind-spot monitor, forward collision warning with active braking, and—whew!—so much more. 

SUBARU CROSSTREK
$27,000
MPG: 28 city/34 highway
0 to 60 mph: 9.1 seconds
Cargo room: 20 cu. ft.

PROS: decent mileage, comfy seats, user-friendly cabin

CONS: poky base engine, so-so storage, plasticky dashboard

IN A NUTSHELL: With so much sport-ute competition these days, automakers seem to be revamping their SUV models each year (not every four to six years, as in the past). This time, the Subaru Crosstrek receives some nifty design flourishes and major cabin upgrades. Compared to the butch Jeep Compass, the curvier Crosstrek looks trés chic. Think boyish Buck versus trendy Eddie on “911.” 

Based on the nimble Impreza hatchback, the subcompact Crosstrek feels car-like and agile. Two engine choices, but opt for the more potent powerplant so it doesn’t feel like you’re just treading water. While the Crosstrek is smaller and slower than the Compass, the ride here is smoother and more composed. Higher ground clearance, tighter suspension and quick all-wheel drive system all help, as does a new direct-steering system. Plus, paddle shifters, which I only needed to use once or twice when merging into traffic, provide plenty of extra oomph. 

The Crosstrek cabin, which is surprisingly quiet, offers good legroom for passengers in both the front and back. An optional 11.6-inch infotainment touchscreen is mounted vertically, similar to those iPad-like displays found in the Ford Mustang Mach-E and various luxury vehicles. 

It says something when my biggest beef with the Crosstrek is the placement of the odometer reset button, which is only a smidge above the remote start button. Both buttons are completely obscured behind the steering wheel, so I was constantly reaching around and pressing the wrong one. A minor annoyance, to be sure. But if Subaru could fix this ergonomic annoyance, then I wouldn’t have to listen to my husband claim that the problem is actually my own “user error.”

Subaru Crosstrek
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Autos

Tip-top pocket rockets: BMW M2, BMW Z4

German automaker leads in rankings for user-friendly options

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BMW M2 Coupe

Sure, German cars are uber exciting, but Asian brands are much more reliable. Right? Well, not exactly. 

This year, for the first time, BMW tops the list in what is considered the holy grail of product-quality resources: Consumer Reports. Along with improved reliability, BMW leads in the rankings for user-friendly options—including innovative infotainment systems. 

To be sure, seven of the top 10 most-reliable vehicles are still made by Asian automakers. 

But today’s BMW drivers can enjoy both style and substance, with rides that are fun, fast, furious—and now very dependable. 

BMW M2 COUPE

$64,000

MPG: 16 city/24 highway

0 to 60 mph: 3.9 seconds

Cargo room: 13.8 cu. ft.

PROS: lively acceleration, taut handling, sexy exhaust growl

CONS: rigid front seats, tight backseat, hard-to-access seatbelts

IN A NUTSHELL: I have a love-hate relationship with two-door cars. They fail the test when it comes to ferrying lots of people or more than a few suitcases. And forget about cross-country trips, especially if you want to pull over and catch 40 winks by stretching out in any sort of rear cargo area. But it’s hard to resist the convenience of a coupe or convertible when scooching into tight parking spaces or weaving through congested traffic. And these rides can be a blast to drive. That’s the case with the BMW M2 super-coupe, a pocket rocket that comes standard with a 435-hp engine and six-speed manual transmission. Expect automotive purists to forgo the optional eight-speed automatic, though it is a tad faster. 

The feisty styling boasts flared fenders, muscular side panels and an arousing rear spoiler.  As my husband Robert said, “This car is ‘sex on wheels.’ ” Yes, indeed. 

Of all the BMW high-performance M cars, the M2 is the smallest and least expensive. Yet it’s loaded with the latest bells and whistles: sport-tuned suspension, track-oriented tires, side-impact airbags, knee airbags, Harman Kardon surround-sound stereo, 12.3-inch digital gauge display and an even-larger 14.9-inch infotainment touchscreen. This second-generation M2 is also longer and wider than before, which adds more leg and elbow room inside. 

My test car came with the weight-saving carbon-fiber package. This included bucket seats with rigid thigh bolsters, as well as a quirky hard protrusion that stuck up awkwardly between my legs. Intended to keep you seated firmly in place when swooshing in and out of twisty curves, the intrusive seat design can sometimes smoosh your nether regions. In other words, there’s a reason these seats are called “ball busters.”

BMW Z4 ROADSTER

$55,000

MPG: 25 city/33 highway

0 to 60 mph: 5.2 seconds

Cargo room: 9.9 cu. ft.

PROS: wicked fast, easy to drive, cushy cabin

CONS: low ground clearance, no second row, skimpy storage

IN A NUTSHELL: Built on the same platform as the less-expensive but also less-luxurious Toyota Supra coupe, the BMW Z4 convertible is more of a comfortable cruiser than cheeky racecar. Two fine engine choices are available, though neither propels the Z4 as fast as the Supra or BMW M2 coupes. Still, handling and braking are splendid. Most important, my tush appreciated the more traditional seating in the Z4 compared with those butt-blasting seats in the M2. 

As with all BMWs, styling on this two-seater is dramatically sculpted. My only complaint was with the doors, which are so darn long you need to lean over and reach into another county to close them. 

The high-quality cabin is surprisingly spacious, with plenty of headroom, even with the top up. But storage cubbies are few and far between. Luckily, the trunk offers decent stowage, thanks to the power-operated top that takes up no cargo space when lowered. And despite having a fabric top instead of a thick metal one, there’s very little road noise.

As with the M2, the Z4 is actually a lot of car for the money. Pricey competitors to the Z4 include the $101,000 Porsche Boxster S and $110,000 Mercedes SL-Class. 

While crossovers and other SUVs may rule most showrooms today, these two rousing, reliable and relatively affordable two-door rides offer plenty of temptation. 

BMW Z4 Roadster
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Autos

Hip hybrids: Ford Escape, Kia Sorento, Lincoln Corsair

These rides have the lowest lifetime maintenance costs

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Ford Escape plug-in hybrid

How cool are hybrids? Let us count the ways.

First, hybrids aren’t fully electric, so there’s no range anxiety about your battery conking out during a trip. Second, sticker prices are lower for hybrids than for electric vehicles. Third, hybrids—especially plug-in hybrids like those reviewed here—have the lowest lifetime maintenance costs. 

And, oh yes, hybrids also boast a hoity-toity lineage: The first hybrid, the Mixte, was built in 1902 by Ferdinand Porsche. 

FORD ESCAPE PLUG-IN HYBRID 

$41,000

MPG: 40 city/40 highway

Electric-only range: 37 miles

0 to 60 mph: 7.7 seconds

PROS: Refreshed design, good fuel economy, roomy.

CONS: Some cheap interior plastics, no ventilated seats, no all-wheel drive. 

IN A NUTSHELL: The Ford Escape plug-in hybrid is $13,000 less than its luxe sibling, the Lincoln Corsair. But cheaper doesn’t mean lackluster. Exterior styling on an Escape is snazzy, with tasteful LED accent lighting stretching across the top of the grille. Handling is highly responsive, as are the brakes. And there’s plenty of zip when driving in all-electric mode. Ford says this Escape can go 37 miles on battery power alone, but for me it was even better—up to 40 miles. Other nice surprises: a hushed cabin and crystal-clear stereo. There’s only one trim level, but it’s loaded: heated seats, heated steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, tinted rear windows, nav system and more. My test vehicle also came with many sweet options: head-up display, 360-degree split-screen camera, panoramic roof and active park assist. Overall, the Escape may not be as fully upscale as a Lincoln Corsair, but it’s pretty close. 

KIA SORENTO PLUG-IN HYBRID

$54,000

MPG: 35 city/33 highway

Electric-only range: 32 miles

0 to 60 mph: 7.9 seconds

Kia Sorento plug-in hybrid

PROS: Fuel efficient, easy to drive, third-row seating.

CONS: Not so sporty, low towing capacity, third row for kids only.

IN A NUTSHELL: Need a larger hauler? The Kia Sorento plug-in hybrid is the most affordable midsize crossovers with third-row seating. A tad slower and less sporty than various competitors, this Kia is still one smooth ride. It felt especially steady as I was weaving through stop-and-go Beltway congestion after some unexpectedly long days at work. In fact, not once did I swear like a New York City cab driver under my breath. What’s more, there’s plenty of bang for the buck: remote keyless entry, hands-free power liftgate, LED interior lighting, second-row sunshades, 12-speaker premium Bose stereo and other goodies. The seating features alone are impressive: heated/ventilated front seats, heated second-row seats, 14-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, 10-way front passenger seat, second-row captain chairs, and 50/50-split folding third-row seat. There are so many safety systems that even Volvo—renowned for its safety innovations—would likely be impressed. I know I was. 

LINCOLN CORSAIR PLUG-IN HYBRID

$54,000

MPG: 34 city/32 highway

Electric-only range: 28 miles

0 to 60 mph: 7.0 seconds

Lincoln Corsair plug-in hybrid

PROS: Glitzy outside, cushy inside, creature comforts galore.

CONS: Pricey, some touchscreen anomalies, battery-only range not so far.

IN A NUTSHELL: As with various other hybrid crossovers, the Lincoln Corsair plug-in is only available in one high-end trim level. Built on the same platform as the less expensive Ford Escape, the Corsair is the better choice for drivers itching for a refined ride. Handling is comparable to a Lexus sedan versus a BMW speedster, though the Corsair is notably faster than an Escape. The Corsair also has a swanky cabin with primo materials. Two new interior colors say it all: Smoked Truffle and Eternal Red. The dash flaunts two large display monitors: 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster and 13.2-inch infotainment touchscreen (note that a few navigation features were less-than-intuitive at first). Nifty amenities include massaging seats, hands-free liftgate, automated parking system and limited hands-free driving. While overall car sales were down last year, sales of EVs and plug-in hybrids were up. These three fuel-friendly rides help explain why. 

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