Everyone knows the stars of a segment, where vehicles like the Toyota Camry and Ford F-150 are the obvious choices. But taking a look at the alternatives can mean an excellent ride for less cash. Here are six great rides that are definitely worth a second look.
The Acura RDX is a compact luxury crossover with great style and tech. It slots below the always popular mid-size Acura MDX. The RDX features one engine, a 3.5-liter V6 with 279 horsepower. A smooth shifting six-speed auto sends that power to just the front wheels, or all four in all-wheel-drive trim. Fuel efficiency isn’t bad for the class either, at 28 MPG highway. The outside is Acura’s chiseled design with turbine-like 18-inch alloy wheels, while inside continues the high-end design theme noticeably packed with leather. The cabin is spacious and comfortable, making for a great road tripper. The options list is packed with tech like the AcuraWatch active safety package. The RDX is also an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award winner, the highest safety rating they offer.
Cadillac first targeted the competitive entry-luxury market with the first generation Cadillac CTS. It was as big as a 5 Series, but priced like a 3 Series. Buyers didn’t get it, so a decade later, enter the better and smaller ATS. It’s lighter and more driver-focused than the competition, with near perfect 50/50 front/rear weight balance. No kids? Get the slick looking ATS coupe. Skip the early base car’s 2.5-liter four cylinder, as it was just adequate. The turbo 2.0-liter and 3.6-liter V6 engines are plenty powerful with 272 and 335 horsepower respectively. That power goes to the rear wheels, unless you select the AWD option. The high power ATS-V generates 464 horsepower, directly targeting the BMW M3, and is adored by car magazine reviewers as basically a more practical everyday Corvette.
Mid-size SUVs are popular sellers, but the Ford Explorer outsells the Ford Flex 10 to 1. That’s too bad, as the Flex has more space and more cool factor. The fun blocky retro/modern design is like a stretched Scion xB, the result looking like it should come from the factory with a pair of surfboards secured to the roof. Since it is a good-sized vehicle, the Flex seats seven comfortably, like a minivan but without the unfair stigma. The base 3.5-liter Duratec V6 isn’t bad for performance, with 287 horsepower, but the EcoBoost is what you should be looking for. With 365 horsepower and all-wheel-drive, the Flex becomes a do-everything family hauler and tow rig, capable of hauling 4,500 pounds. Look to the 2013+ models for updated styling and technology.
No one would fault you for buying a Chevrolet Equinox, as they are capable, reliable, adapt to any family’s needs, and achieve surprisingly good fuel economy. However, the Equinox is everywhere, so take a look at its rarer corporate sibling, the GMC Terrain. This compact crossover debuted back in 2005, but the 2013+ models are where you should start looking, as that year introduced more powerful engines, improved suspension, and Chevy’s MyLink infotainment. 2016 saw a facelift, with updated interior, more safety tech, and better wheel designs. Want something more upscale? Get the Denali trim for leather seats, lots of chrome, and sweet 19-inch wheels. Stay frugal with the 2.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder making 182 horsepower and 32 MPG, or go for performance with a 301 horsepower 3.6-liter V6. Even with all-wheel drive, you’re looking at a solid 29 MPG.
Most people think the words “affordable” and “Jaguar” don’t go together. They’re wrong. The entry-level Jaguar XE is an excellent example of how good affordable luxury can be. Like the ATS above, the XE is a competitor with the 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz CLA, but arguably looks better than all of them. The base trim offers a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 247 horsepower, but the supercharged 3.0-liter making 340 horsepower is more fun. Four and six cylinder engines and optional all-wheel-drive are standard for this class, but with Jaguar’s uniquely British exhaust note, you won’t mistake this for a Lexus. The interior is very nicely done, perfectly blending luxury and sporty themes. The “sport” button on the eight-speed automatic actually works, holding revs and quickening shifts. The XE is a blast to drive hard.
The most fun to drive subcompact crossover is also one of the most unnoticed. Mazda is well known for adding “zoom zoom” personality to all their vehicles. From the outward visibility, to the steering feel, comfortable seats, and responsive handling, the CX-3 is a reviewer favorite and multiple award winner. The exterior looks like a more edgy Subaru, and the interior has an upscale and sporty interior design, like what you would expect to see in a Mini Cooper S. Under the hood is Mazda’s spelling-challenged SKYACTIV 2.0-liter four-cylinder making 146 horsepower. If you need fuel efficiency and all-wheel drive capability, the CX-3 is hard to beat, with 32 MPG highway. While small, it’s big on safety, with five stars from the NHTSA.