Automakers are back with a vengeanceserving up the most advanced, fuel-efficient, and intelligent crop of new cars and SUVs we've ever seen. Additional reporting by Roman Mica and Michael Sheena.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Power for the People
Chevy VoltChevy Volt
THE SELL: Finally, an electric car that makes sense. After an overnight charge, the Volt’s all-electric mode lets drivers go gas-free for about the length of most commutes—25 to 50 miles. When the juice dies, the 1.4-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine kicks in to generate electrical power for 300-odd more miles.
THE TEST: Even battling L.A. traffic and climbing a long way into the San Gabriel Mountains, the no-frills Volt went an honest 46 miles before using a drop of gas. Bummer: The small backseat is best suited for kids.
THE VERDICT: The Volt is the new undisputed king of green commuting—though it’s more exciting for what it represents (say, hope for mankind) than for its rental-car-like driving performance. $40,280 (from the low $30s with tax credits); equivalent to 93 mpg in electric mode, 35 city/40 hwy in gas mode; chevrolet.com
THE SELL: The all-time bestselling SUV is now 25 percent more fuel-efficient, more versatile, and nearly idiotproof on wet, icy, and sandy roads.
THE TEST: Among the off-roaders we tested, the 3.5-liter, 290-hp V6 Explorer was merely decent, but through the muck of Michigan forest roads, the terrain-management system kept up with burlier 4x4s, and the automatic descent control brought us safely down a steep and slippery slope. Bonus: With seats for seven (or 80 cubic feet of cargo room), you’ll never be short on space.
THE VERDICT: The Explorer is born to serve, not astound, but for the money it’s an admirable workhorse. $30,190; 17 mpg city/25 hwy; ford.com
Mini Cooper S Countryman All4
THE SELL: The SUV according to Mini.
THE TEST: The four-door, AWD Countryman is still a Mini (it’s just 13.4 feet long), but it comfortably fits four six-foot adults, with hidden storage areas for packing in gear and adjustable rear bucket seats that let skis, boards, or rods fit easily between them. It’s quick, tight, and responsive, but, since it’s the biggest and heaviest Mini yet, the turbocharged 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine (with 181 hp) felt a bit wimpy when passing.
THE VERDICT: Calling it an SUV is a stretch, but it manages to pack in four people (and 16.5 cubic feet of luggage) while still fitting into compact spots. $27,650; 25 mpg city/31 hwy; miniusa.com
THE SELL: A zero-emissions car for the masses.
THE TEST: After an eight-hour charge (in a 220-volt plug), the four-door hatchback can travel 100 miles in eerie silence. But since it lacks a gas-engine backup, like the Volt’s, once you’re out of power you’re hosed. In the hill country outside Nashville, the Leaf reached a top speed of 90 mph, though the car is all about efficiency—skinny tires, stripped-down interior, and basic suspension—so it didn’t win any awards for performance.
THE VERDICT: If you don’t leave town, the Leaf is a green dream. Heading to Grandma’s for the weekend? You’ll need another car. $32,780 (mid-$20s with tax credits); 99 mpg equivalent; nissanusa.com
Land Rover LR4
Land Rover LR4Land Rover LR4
THE SELL: A ruling off-roader that’s also king of the interstate.
THE TEST: The boxy LR4 packs a monstrous 5.0-liter, 375-hp V8 that makes short work of trail obstacles and passing lanes. On a nasty, boulder-strewn doubletrack trail in the Rockies, I put the nearly three-ton LR4 into “rock crawl” mode to adjust the air suspension, transmission, and traction control. The Rover rolled through it easily, though it felt unnervingly top-heavy on sloping traverses.
THE VERDICT: Abysmal gas mileage aside—I averaged 14 mpg around town—the LR4 was the smoothest (both on- and off-road) and most luxurious full-size SUV in the test this year. $47,650; 12 mpg city/17 hwy; landrover.com
Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid
THE SELL: It’s big, it’s fast, it’s German— and it’s (technically) a hybrid.
THE TEST: By “technically,” we mean the Touareg’s 47-hp electric motor is primarily there to boost the supercharged 3.0-liter, 333-hp V6 into warp drive, not save fuel. But it also makes the AWD Touareg surprisingly nimble for a hefty midsize SUV. It made easy work of the medieval streets of Florence, Italy, and tight, off-road obstacles in Tuscany. One complaint: the regenerative brakes often felt either squishy or unsettlingly firm.
THE VERDICT: Despite its power and heft, this sophisticated and luxurious, quasi-hybrid SUV has decent fuel economy. $60,565; 21 mpg city/25 hwy; vw.com
Toyota Sienna AWD
THE SELL: A minivan that can handle the mountains.
THE TEST: With all-wheel drive and traction control; a top-of-its-class 6.6 inches of ground clearance; and a 3.5-liter, 265-hp V6, the Sienna handled snow, ice, and rutted dirt roads like a crossover half its size. And then there’s the cargo hold: seating for seven or 150 cubic feet of room for gear. On a camping trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, it fit six people and all our bags, tents, and food, with room left over for firewood.
THE VERDICT: Good luck finding an AWD vehicle better suited for hauling a serious amount of toys and people into the hills. $31,330; 16 mpg city/22 hwy; toyota.com
Kia Sportage EX AWD
THE SELL: A midsize, all-wheel-drive SUV with heated and air-cooled leather seats, a huge sunroof, seating for five, and a booming sound system—all priced thousands less than comparable rides.
THE TEST: The sleek and uncluttered interior has the look and feel of a higher-end brand, and the gas mileage is impressive—I managed to get almost 25 mpg while tooling around Denver. Once the road tilted up, however, the small 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine, with its scant 176 hp, left me wishing for more power.
THE VERDICT: The Kia is not built for serious off-roading, but for hauling cargo in virtually all conditions, it shines—especially at this price. $29,295; 21 mpg city/28 hwy; kiamotors.com
THE SELL: A load-hauling SUV built for the ‘burbs.
THE TEST: With seats for seven and lower ground clearance than with the Jeep Grand Cherokee (to improve on-road performance), the 5.7-liter, 360-hp V8-powered Durango rides on a tight sport suspension that floats over potholes and damps road noise. But nothing did more to sell me on the Durango’s solid handling than effortlessly towing a 7,200-pound boat up a twisty dirt road in Sonoma at 30 mph—without white knuckles.
THE VERDICT: Best for weekend warriors more interested in hauling troops and toys than hardcore rock crawling. $35,535; 14 mpg city/20 hwy; dodge.com
Honda CR-Z Hybrid
THE SELL: A sporty, fuel-sipping hybrid that’s actually fun to drive.
THE TEST: It’s no Lotus, but the compact, two-door CR-Z—the first hybrid with a stick shift—is a step up for eco-car handling. The supportive seats, snappy gear changes, and taut, athletic responsiveness made careering up and down the winding roads around Boulder, Colorado, a thrill—to a point. On a two-lane highway, the 1.5-liter, four-cylinder, 122-hp engine got smoked by a passing minivan.
THE VERDICT: The CR-Z is the Justin Bieber of hybrids—it’s fun and looks good, but it lacks guts, and the fuel efficiency isn’t much better than a gas-powered Honda Civic’s. Still, it’s cooler than a Prius. $19,200; 31 mpg city/37 hwy (manual); honda.com
Subaru Impreza WRX
THE SELL: With rally-car handling and AWD, it’s a thrill to drive in any conditions.
THE TEST: Subaru made the WRX two inches wider than last year’s model, slapped fatter tires on it, and beefed up the suspension for better handling. But it kept the four doors and the hatchback, so you can squeeze two bikes inside with the backseats down. With its 2.5-liter, four-cylinder turbo engine pumping out 265 hp, I found it impossible to stay under the speed limit on switchbacks, freeways, and—sorry, neighbors—my block.
THE VERDICT: Porsche-like control and room for gear—at an impressively low price. $25,495; 19 mpg city/25 hwy; subaru.com
Lincoln MKZ Hybrid
THE SELL: A hybrid that’s as luxurious as it is eco-conscious.
THE TEST: It feels like a Lexus. The MKZ coddles passengers with temperature-controlled seats, sustainably sourced leather, and a sound-sealed cabin—then drives more efficiently (41 mpg) than almost any hybrid. A gauge on the dash warned when I was using too much power and was going to need the gas engine, giving me time to ease back to stay in the more efficient all-electric mode.
THE VERDICT: The MKZ hits the spot between maximizing fuel efficiency and outrageous comfort—without a lofty price tag to match. $34,330 (from the high $20s depending on state tax credits); 41 mpg city/36 hwy; lincoln.com
Ford Fiesta SES
THE SELL: Hybrid-like fuel economy (up to 38 mpg) and European style without the premium price.
THE TEST: The relatively tiny four-door, hatchback with a 5-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive handles like a sportscar and made driving—and parking—in downtown Denver unexpectedly fun. And I still clocked 35.5 mpg on a tank’s worth of aggressive, traffic-packed city travel. Drag: The miniscule backseats accomodated nobody bigger than elementary-school kids—best to fold the rear seats down and simply use the space for cargo (Sorry, cyclists. Your rigs need to go up top on a roof rack).
THE VERDICT: An arrow on the tachometer lights up to tell drivers to up-shift at a low rpm to save fuel. Ignore it. By shifting at 3,500 rpm or higher, the 1.6L, 4-cyl engine burns a little more gas, but you’ll unleash the Fiesta’s sporty side, the one that features 120-hp and an hp-to-weight ratio that’s the equal of an early 1970s Porsche 911. $17,120; 29 mpg city/38 hwy; ford.com
Toyota Tacoma Double Cab 4×4
THE SELL: Toyota’s bomber 4WD pick-up added a full-size rear passenger area and now seats five adults.
THE TEST: This Toyota may look small on the outside, but it drives like a big truck. Or more specifically, it drives like a long and narrow 2×4 piece of lumber: three-point turns on my suburban street were a challenge. Steering around tight doubletrack in the Colorado mountains was a no-go. Nice: the spacious rear bench seats are as comfortable as the front seats, and the six-foot-long bed can haul all five passengers’ gear.
THE VERDICT: What the Tacoma’s 4.0L, V6 lacks in horsepower (236) it makes up for with legendary reliability and capable low-end torque. Already pricey at $27,250, our test vehicle’s fully-optioned $33,000 outfit induced multiple cases of sticker shock. $33,183; 16 mpg city/20 hwy; toyota.com