Photo: Andrés Nieto Porras

17 Adventure-Ready Cars and Trucks

From sleek electric cars to a cool (and surprisingly fuel-efficient) truck, we present the best new vehicles of 2015.  

Jeep Renegade

The Renegade is more compact but almost entirely as capable as its older brother, the Wrangler. Photo: Courtesy of Jeep

Jeep Renegade

Good-looking and ready to go off-road

The Sell: An entry-level off-roader that sips fuel.

The Test: Outfitted with a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and the six-speed manual shifter from a Fiat 500, the base-model Jeep Renegade Sport ($19,995) was, incredibly, a fun vehicle to throw into corners on Stunt Road, which snakes 2,000 vertical feet up the Santa Monica mountains west of Los Angeles. That’s an experience we’ve never had in a $20,000 Jeep on pavement.

But then no Jeep has ever looked or been engineered like the all-new, four-door Renegade. The car-based chassis is borrowed from Fiat, (this compact SUV is even made in Italy), which explains the nimble, car-like handling. The Renegade is made for Europe’s tight alpine roads—and pricey gas. Hence its 30-plus mpg highway rating.

But Jeeps are expected to shine off-road, and despite its boxy cuteness, the $25,995 Trailhawk edition of the Renegade punches above its class. It’s outfitted with the Renegade’s 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine, a nine-speed transmission, and Jeep’s terrain-response system that lets you adjust the gearing and allocate power between the front and rear wheels for snow, mud, sand and rock-crawling.

On a dirt track in the mountains, the Trailhawk, with 8.7 inches of ground clearance, danced over boulders and sand, and easily climbed up and over steep pitches of loose dirt. In other words, it was almost as capable off-road as its older brother, the Wrangler. In fact, thanks to the Renegade’s svelte size, it can squeeze through spaces where the bigger Wrangler can’t, which gives new meaning to the term “canyon carver.”

What’s Missing: A more powerful engine option for serious rock-crawling and towing.

The Verdict: Good luck finding a 4WD SUV for less than $20,000 that seats four adults and feels at home in terrain where few other SUVs dare to venture.

Filed To: Cars
Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon Crew Cab 4x4

GMC worked with Thule on a crossbar system that fits neatly along the top edges of the truck bed for racking bikes, boats, and SUPs, leaving space underneath for everything else. Photo: Courtesy of Genearl Motors

Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon Crew Cab 4x4

Nimbler than your average pick-up, with plenty of room and nice extras

The Sell: The pick-up for the SUV and crossover set

The Test: These two midsize siblings from GMC and Chevy ($30,055; 17 mpg city/24 mpg hwy) deliver a crossover-like ride and feature set that puts them at the head of the small truck class. Check it: their 305-hp, 3.6-liter V6 clocked a respectable 27.5 miles per gallon on the freeways north of San Diego. And thanks to noise-reduction tech, the interior is quiet without the rattles we’d expect from a pick-up. From the driver’s seat forward we forgot we were driving a truck.

They’re also more family-friendly than most full-sized trucks, with lower entry for shorter drivers and kids. The hydraulic lift-gate drops slowly down and can be lifted back up with one finger. General Motors worked with Thule on an exclusive crossbar rack system that fits neatly along the top of the truck bed to create storage for bikes, boats, and SUPs. The truck can also turn into a 4G Wi-Fi hotspot in case you really, really need to upload your latest GoPro adventure from the field.

Canyon and Colorado drive smaller than they are, with the handling manners of a high-end SUV. That premium feel includes heated front seats, an automatic-locking rear differential (the stuff of gnarly off-roading Jeeps and Land Rovers), and air shutters in the grill that close at highway speeds to bump up the wind-tunnel-tested aerodynamics. It’s the most impressive midsize pickup available right now.

And, looking ahead to 2016, the Chevy will offer a 2.8-liter diesel engine that should push highway fuel economy well into the 30-plus mpg range.

What’s Missing? While these new trucks are smaller than their full-size brethren, they’re not as small and nimble as small-truck offerings from Nissan and Toyota, something we noticed when executing a three-point turn on a narrow street at the beach.

The Verdict: For those who yearn for a pick-up but need the real-world practicality and fuel-economy of crossover, your ride has arrived.

Filed To: Cars
Ford Transit Connect LWB

The Ford can cart 104 cubic feet of gear—that's a lot of mountain bikes. Photo: Courtesy of Ford

Ford Transit Connect LWB

Move over, Volkswagen. There's a new adventure vehicle on the street.

The Sell: A European-built Ford Minivan gets imported stateside.

The Test: The third row in most full-size SUVs is cramped and difficult to clamber into. That’s not the case in Ford’s new seven-passenger Transit Connect ($29,000; 20 mpg city/28 hwy), which has ten more inches of backseat legroom than the Chevy Tahoe. Every single row in the Ford has enough headroom for a six-foot-tall passenger (46.9 inches of headroom for the driver is probably enough for a seven-footer), and you still get a combined 5mpg better fuel economy than the Tahoe.

The Ford even carries more stuff: although it’s 14 inches shorter than the Tahoe is, it can cart a massive 104 cubic feet of gear (with the two backseat rows folded flat). We stopped counting at five mountain bikes (because we ran out of bikes), but easily could have loaded more. Even with four passengers aboard, that insanely tall roof left room for three pairs of skis and a snowboard, as well as boots and luggage.

True, you can’t tow a boat with your Transit Connect LWB like you can with a big SUV, but for everyday duties, Transit Connect, with its Ford Focus chassis, is a much easier rig to drive. Handling isn’t sporty, but site lines for parking and driving in traffic are superb.

The default front-wheel drive provides better grip in the snow than the RWD base option found on many truck-based SUVs. Sure, we’d take more ground clearance, but 6.6 inches is more than most cars (and many minivans) have.

Bonus: Spring $300 for the heated front windshield with invisible wires in the glass and you’ll never scrape ice again.

What’s Missing: The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine can feel taxed when you cram your crew in this bread van. It’s not a deal breaker though, particularly considering the sticker.

The Verdict: It’s the second coming of the VW Vanagon. But it’s way more reliable, fuel efficient, and practical than the old classic.

Filed To: Cars
BMW X4 xDrive28i

The BMW x4 xDrive28i will direct you to the greenest route and shuts off fuel while coasting. Photo: Courtesy of BMW

BMW X4 xDrive28i

Surprise! BMW is trying to become an eco-friendly brand. (And it's working.)

The Sell: Sleeker than BMW’s X3, taller than a three-series wagon, this is a mix between a tall coupe and a small crossover. 

The Test: You can forgive us for not thinking of BMW as an “eco” brand. It’s the “Ultimate Driving Machine,” not the ultimate tree-hugging machine. But a week in the i3 and the X4 offers a glimpse at where BMW’s going, not where the brand’s been.

The X4 ($44,700; 20 mpg city/28 hwy) has what BMW calls Eco Pro, which directs you to the greenest route (avoiding big climbs and traffic), and shuts off fuel while the car’s coasting. There’s an auto-stop/start mode that kills the engine when you’re stuck in traffic or sitting at a red light. Instead of a stick shift, the X4 gets an ultra-smooth-shifting, eight-speed automatic transmission that you can also shift manually.

The car has AWD, as well as about 50 cubic feet of cargo room. And the rear seat splits 40/20/40, the better to create a bespoke wagon-like space for gear and passengers.

You might be wondering why you’d get the X4 instead of the amazing $43,450 diesel-powered 328d wagon we praised last year, which has a hair more cargo room, AWD, and gets an astonishing 43 mpg on the highway. But the 328d rides at a ground-hugging 5.7 inches, while the X4 has eight inches of ground clearance, but still corners like a classic sporty BMW.

What’s Missing: More rear seat legroom

The Verdict: Wagon-like utility, fire-road ride height, and European sports-sedan handling.

Filed To: Cars
Land Rover Discovery Sport

Harrowing driving conditions are no match for the Discover Sport's off-road capabilities. Photo: Courtesy of Land Rover

Land Rover Discovery Sport

It makes even dangerous driving conditions blasé.

The Sell: A luxury compact SUV that makes day-to-day driving and mild adventures a breeze.

The Test: Driving through a nighttime snowstorm on a hilly, snow-packed, two-lane road in the middle of Iceland’s highlands, Land Rover’s new Discovery ($37,070; 21 mpg city/28 mpg hwy) turned what could’ve been a harrowing adventure into a benign drive in Pingvellir National Park.

That’s because the compact SUV, one of the easiest and least expensive Land Rover’s on the market, is packed with the company’s off-road capability. To wit: it has 8.35 inches of ground clearance, 23.6 inches of wading depth for crossing rivers, and the ability to climb a 45-degree incline. The Discovery pulls this off thanks to its torque-vectoring tech- and terrain-response modes, which adjust the gas pedal responsiveness, gearing, brakes, and stability control modules for optimum traction on snow, sand, rocks or pavement.

Inside, the relatively small SUV has a surprising amount of second row head- and legroom. We fit two six-foot adults and there was still plenty of room in the cargo area for dogs, packs, and coolers. Fold down the rear seats to open up 60 cubic feet of cargo space. (Compare that to the 2015 Subaru Outback, which has 73 cubic feet of cargo space with the backseat folded down.) Covering that space is an unobstructed moon roof (optional) that runs almost to the second row’s backrest. Even more thoughtful: the backseat sits two inches higher than the front row, making it easier for passengers to see out the windows.

Under the hood, the Discovery has a turbocharged two-liter, four-cylinder engine that puts out 240 horsepower and 250-ft pounds of torque (the stuff that pulls you up a muddy hill). While those numbers don’t make the Discovery a sport SUV, it’s no slow-moving fuel sipper. It has plenty of power for everyday driving and light off-roading. In fact, if there’s one complaint that we had with the Discovery, it’s that it made everything from driving on solid ice to descending steep, slush-filled tracks on the side of an ancient volcano feel easy. Never before has being dull been so rewarding.

What’s Missing: A third row option that can seat adults and a sense of Land Rover’s adventure-minded legacy.

The Verdict: The premium compact SUV for those who want Euro-style with their off-roading bad-assery.

Filed To: Cars
Mini Cooper

Unless you live in the mountains, pass on the Mini's $3,400 engine upgrade and stick with the perfectly spunky 1.5-liter, 134-horsepower base. Photo: Courtesy of Mini USA

Mini Cooper

Fun, powerful, and now road-trip ready

The Sell: Tauter and less thirsty than the Honda Fit—but also more expensive.

The Test: This is the third generation of Minis and the thematics that were once comically cute now strike a better balanced between flash and substance. The speedometer and tachometer are still huge, and there are nifty toggle switches everywhere, even to control the push-button ignition (it glows red, like a missile-launch switch), but all of this is easier to operate.

There are two new front-wheel-drive Minis ($20,700 for the base hardtop; $21,450 for the base 4-door; 29 mpg city/40 hwy)—the two-door hatch, and the four-door hatch. We tested both models over mountain roads in Vermont and across battered New Jersey byways. Overall the cars ditch just a bit of hairball sportiness in favor of easier tracking on the highway, a worthwhile trade-off on long road trips. But both cars are still ripping fun on a curvy country byway.

Although you might crave a little more muscle from the optional Cooper S’s 189hp 2.0-liter engine, we’d save the $4,500 and stick with the base 134hp 1.5-liter engine—unless you live at altitude. It’s still spunky: the Mini duo not only sprints from stoplights, but has plenty of muscle for passing, too.

As far as adventure vehicles go, we have to give the nod to the four-door. It’s a full six inches longer than its smaller sibling and gains precious rear-seat knee room as well as several feet of cargo capacity. We managed to cram two mountain bikes in back, wheels removed.

What’s Missing? Space. The Minis are too small to haul more than a weekend’s worth of adventure gear for two.

The Verdict: Greener, wiser, and more pragmatic Minis that are still the life of the party.

Filed To: Cars
Ram 1500 EcoDiesel Crew Cab 4x4

Optional RamBox sidewall compartments (not shown; $1,295) stow wet, muddy gear—and, thanks to drain ports, also work as ice chests. Photo: Courtesy of Chrysler Group

Ram 1500 EcoDiesel Crew Cab 4x4

A powerful truck with the fuel-sipping soul of an eco-friendly car

The Sell: A full-size pickup with car-sized fuel economy

The Test: While we were speeding toward a trailhead for a mountain-bike ride, the three-liter turbo V6 diesel engine and eight-speed transmission in the 1500 EcoDiesel ($40,215; 19 mpg city/27 hwy) did something we’ve never seen a giant pickup do: deliver greater than 28 miles to the gallon. All things considered, that’s better performance than the Subaru Outback. Further blowing our minds: the Ram pulled this off with a 5.5-foot-long bed, a 4x4 power train that can tow up to 9,100 pounds (say, a 30-foot Airstream), and a massive cabin that can seat five adults. Its plush ride comes thanks to the optional adjustable air-suspension ($1,695) that can take the standard 8.7 inches of ground clearance and raise it two inches or lower it an inch for improved aerodynamics.

Inside, Ram freed up space by replacing the gear shifter with a rotary dial on the dash. UConnect, Ram’s 8.4-inch infotainment touchscreen interface, sets the standard for simplicity and functionality among this year’s vehicles. Out back, optional locking Ram Box compartments ($1,295) in the bed walls store wet gear or tools—they can even serve as ice chests thanks to drainage ports on the bottom. In short, the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel forever warps the idea that driving a big pickup equals sacrificing ride quality and fuel efficiency.

What’s Missing? The “eco” in EcoDiesel doesn’t refer to “economy.” The truck costs $4,500 over the comparable V8-equipped model, putting it almost into luxury-car territory.

The Verdict: A giant pick-up with the soul of a green machine.

Filed To: Cars
Porsche Macan

Porsche engineering ensures controlled driving in rain and especially snow. Photo: Courtesy of Porsche

Porsche Macan

The sports-car company's best isn't even a sports car

The Sell: Porsche styling and performance in a small (but not too small) package.

The Test: Drive an AWD Macan ($50,895; 17city/23 hwy) to an off-road trailhead, and you’ll understand why Porsche’s best selling cars aren’t the two-seat 911 or Boxster, but the Cayenne—the Macan’s big sister. That beast is quite capable off-road, wicked quick, and like the Macan (and unlike a 911) useful.

The tauter, smaller, lighter Macan is more agile and intimate than the Cayenne. The seats are superb, probably the most supportive we’ve experienced in any vehicle at this price range, and the cockpit is rich with sports-car cues, from real aluminum trim to three inter-locked circular gauges. The center console even has buttons to control the stiffness of the (optional) air suspension.

Porsche is famous for giving you everything you want—and making you order a la carte. No other compact crossover offers air suspension that lets you add 1.5 inches of lift and provides automatic load leveling, adapting instantly to acceleration and cornering forces. Yes, there’s a 340-horsepower, twin-turbo V-6 under the hood, but what’s surprising about the Macan is that instead of handling like an SUV, this Porsche drives like a sports sedan, with precise steering and a controlled but not punishing ride.

We also love the 40-20-40 split to the rear seats, enabling a broader center slot for skis than the typical armrest shove-through that’s never quite wide enough. Of course, Porsche’s engineering is part of what you’re buying. On a cold, rainy evening, we experienced how torque vectoring can keep the car from veering wide on a turn by braking only the rear inside wheel; this is well beyond stability control and works even more aggressively in the snow. Likewise, a dedicated four-wheel-drive mode focuses the transmission on maintaining each tire’s grip and preventing the rear end from breaking free.

What’s Missing? At this price you could pile every option into Volvo’s $37,000 V60 wagon and still come out with better fuel economy, similar cargo capacity, and a spirited (if not quite Porsche-like) ride.

The Verdict: The most sprightly, entertaining, non-sports-car Porsche ever made.

Filed To: Cars
Nissan Murano

Nissan now offers luxury-car options like LED headlights and a pulse-touch display, which helps you adjust settings without taking your eyes off the road. Photo: Courtesy of Nissan USA

Nissan Murano

Practical features and pleasant driving in one very sleek package

The Sell: One of the biggest five-passenger SUVs is now more luxurious

The Test: The third-generation AWD Murano (Estimated: $29,560; 22 city/27 hwy) is clearly the best yet. It’s big, but it doesn’t drive that way. It’s 20 percent more efficient without losing power. It’s slick and serenely quiet inside. In every way, it’s more like a luxury crossover than the price would lead you to believe.

To make the fuel economy jump, Nissan cut 165 pounds of fat and greatly increased aerodynamics. Yes, it lowered the Murano a half-inch, but that also makes it more hush at interstate speeds. Nissan even added laminated glass on the windshield to deaden road noise. The cabin is design-focused, with deeply sculpted shapes to the dash and doors, all edged in a soft-brushed metallic. We especially dig the optional pearl trim that’s sharper than the staid choices of wood or metal, and knurled dials that are easy to adjust.

Nissan’s offering luxury-car options like LED headlamps, and a capacitive-touch display that pulses under your finger as you adjust settings, so you feel when a change has been made without needing to eyeball the screen.

Sizewise, this sucker’s huge inside. We loaded four tall passengers into our tester and nobody felt smushed. The cargo room (39.6 cubic feet) is ampler than in a Jeep Grand Cherokee, whether the rear seats are flipped down or left upright. That pays off when loading gear, too. The Murano’s cargo bay with five passengers in place is nearly as large as that of the Volvo V60—with its rear seats folded down.

Most compelling of all: even as the Murano has gained utility and style, it’s become easier and more fun to drive, with athletic steering, a responsive ride, and seamlessly integrated AWD.

What’s Missing? A transmission built for off-roading. The CVT can simulate lower gears, but you'd want something else for very steep fire roads.

The Verdict: Class meets utility without breaking the bank.

Filed To: Cars
Lexus NX Hybrid

An optional charging plate ($220) mounted in the Lexus's armrest juices your phone wirelessly. Photo: David Dewhurst

Lexus NX Hybrid

Stands out for its luxury features and super-smooth ride, if not for its economy as a hybrid

The Sell: The hybrid compact crossover gets AWD and goes upscale.

The Test: Rolling through the foothills east of Seattle, we notched 36 miles per gallon—not a spectacular number for a hybrid, but it climbed to almost 40 while stuck in traffic on our return to the urban core. That’s thanks to the NX’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine ($40,645; 33 mpg city/30 hwy), which automatically shuts off at traffic lights, and the electric motor attached to the rear wheels to propel the vehicle from a stop. Prius owners have experienced this phenomenon for years, but no Prius comes with AWD and 6.7 inches of ground clearance (higher than a Toyota RAV4) and 54.6 cubic feet of cargo room—more than the Honda Fit.

From the driver’s seat, the NX fits like a glove. The seat has just the right amount of bolstered support and softness, and the ergonomics of steering wheel and dash controls put everything within easy reach. To operate the 7-inch touchscreen infotainment and navigation system, all we had to do was rest our right arm on the armrest and work the laptop-like mousepad at our fingertips. There’s even an optional charging plate that can wirelessly power up a smartphone.

Despite its small size, the NX rolls like the luxury vehicle it is. The suspension eats up bumps, and the cabin is so quiet that, in some models, Lexus pipes in engine noise to compensate. The rear seats were wide enough to squeeze in three adults, although our taller members wished for more headroom.

What’s Missing? The trend to spec small windows in the name of design gets out of hand in the Lexus. Rear-seat passengers will be hard pressed to enjoy the views.

The Verdict: A hybrid that’s a pleasure to drive on slippery, chewed-up tarmac.

Filed To: Cars
Lincoln MKC AWD

The Lincoln's six-speed automatic transmission also has a sport mode that lets you use engine braking for better control off-road. Photo: Jim Fets Photography

Lincoln MKC AWD

A luxury ride you'll want to bring camping

The Sell: If the Audi Q5 and Lexus NX had a love child it would be the MKC.

The Test: We didn’t see this one coming. Plopped behind the wheel of the MKC ($33,995; 19 mpg city/26 hwy) on a rainy afternoon, plying our way north on the winding roads of New York’s Hudson Valley, every feature grew on us. First, the slick cabin: Where rivals charge more for electronically controlled, heated leather seats and touchscreen navigation, here it’s part of the package. Even active noise canceling is included—the sound system works like a pair of Bose headphones, filtering out engine roar.

Handling, too, is impressive: more precise and kinetic than the Lexus NX. Its six-speed automatic transmission also has a sport mode that lets you use engine braking for better control off-road. And with 7.9 inches of ground clearance and AWD, the MKC is cut out to go anywhere you’d take a Subaru Outback. Plus, it comes standard with course-correcting nannies that augment stability and traction control and can help prevent a rollover.

Lincoln is also an outlier in giving you an actual temporary spare tire, where increasingly (especially in the luxury segment) you’re stuck with a can of Fix-a-Flat and an 800 number—which won’t do you much good when you’re out of cell range on a backwoods fire road.

What’s Missing? A little more space.

The Verdict: An adventure car with luxury features to spare

Filed To: Cars
Volvo V60

Volvo is known for its alphabet soup of safety features. The V60 has BLIS (blind-spot warning), CTA (cross-traffic alert), DSTC (traction control), and RAB (advanced braking alert). Photo: Courtesy of Volvo Cars of North

Volvo V60

Tackles nightmare conditions, feels like a dream

The Sell: The premium AWD sports wagon

The Test: Our first impression of Volvo’s new compact wagon ($37,250; 20 mpg city/29 hwy)? These are the most comfortable and supportive front seats we’ve ever sat on.

From there, the V60 only got better. Attacking a series of S turns in the Rocky Mountains above Denver, the chassis pulled off the schizoid feat of staying glued to the road while rolling softly over rutted and potholed tarmac. The 2.5-liter, five-cylinder turbo engine catapulted the V60 out of corners and up steep inclines, even in the thin air above 8,000 feet. Powering through gravel hairpins, the Instant Traction AWD system shepherded power to whichever tire had the best grip to hold the vehicle’s line. All the while, the whisper-quiet cabin and plush materials made us feel like we were piloting an interstate cruiser rather than a nimble canyon carver.

Big picture: The V60 makes difficult roads and driving conditions feel easy.

What’s Missing? We found the V60 has a cramped rear seat that skimps on legroom (the Honda Fit’s back seat feels luxurious by comparison) and dismal fuel economy—roughly 20 miles per gallon average on interstate and mountain roads. These days there are full-size pickups that do better. Still, it’s hard to dwell on gas mileage when punching past a conga line of grom-packed SUVs on the way to the ski hill on a powder day.

The Verdict: A luxe cross-country road-tripper disguised as a spritely sports wagon

Filed To: Cars
Volkswagen e-Golf

The electric version of Volkswagen's Golf is comparable to other offerings on the market, but with nice additions like LED headlights. Photo: Courtesy of Volkswagen

Volkswagen e-Golf

A sporty favorite goes electric

The Sell: The “people’s” carmaker goes EV for a lot less money than BMW and Mercedes.

The Test: When Volkswagen converted the standard Golf into electric ($35,445; 126 city, 105 hwy, MPGe), it kept everything but the power source as Golf-like as possible (heated seats, ultra-precise drivetrain).

The e-Golf’s handling was predictable, poised, and stable while practicing a few maneuvers on Virginia highways and dirt roads. It’s also sportier than the Nissan Leaf. VW even gave the e-Golf all-season, rather than range-extending, tires. We’ve found that all-season rubber maintains wet- and cold-weather traction, while low-rolling-resistance tires give up grip as soon as temperatures dip below 40 degrees.

Its 83-mile range is on par with the competition, but the e-Golf also comes standard with goodies like fast-charging navigation and LED headlights. Metrics should also include utility, and there the e-Golf pulls past its rivals. The 22.8 cubic feet of cargo space easily bests the Mercedes B-Class, the Honda Fit, and the high-riding Porsche Macan.

Flip down the e-Golf’s second-row seats, and the e-Golf matches the Fit and the Porsche for bike-ski-backpack-swallowing utility. It beats the cargo capacity of the Leaf by 75 percent. (Granted, the Leaf, with a starting price of $29,010, costs about $6,000 less than the e-Golf.)

What’s Missing? A lower price. VW’s Golf TDI sells for $21,995 and gets an impressive 45 mpg on the highway. Even with federal and state tax credits on the e-Golf, it’d take years to break even on that cost discrepancy.

The Verdict: A Golf in every single way, save the means of propulsion.

Filed To: Cars
Subaru Outback

The adventurer's perfect car keeps an eye out for you while reversing, and holds onto your keys with an optional number-pad lock. Photo: Jessica Lynn Walker

Subaru Outback

The adventurer's favorite car, perfected

The Sell: The ultimate outdoor recreation support vehicle

The Test: Maneuvering through a rutted sandpit of a road in the Willamette National Forest, the new five-passenger Outback ($24,895; 25 mpg city/33 hwy) drives like it’s in its natural element. Helping the cause is the Sube’s 8.7 inches of ground clearance and all-conditions, off-road X-Mode AWD system, which boosts power and reduces wheel spin.

Out on the highway, the wagon’s signature Boxer engine provides smooth power and solid handling, albeit merely decent fuel economy. (The 2.5-liter four-cylinder version averaged 24 miles per gallon.)

The interior has been significantly upgraded from last year’s model, with two more cubic feet of cargo space and a supremely comfortable and supportive driver’s seat (finally). The new 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system is marvelously intuitive. Subaru even flattened the door wells, turning them into wide steps to make it easier to access the built-in adjustable roof-rack rails. A back-up camera comes standard, and an optional number-pad lock lets you leave your keys behind at the trailhead or beach. 

What’s Missing? The CVT automatic transmission is the only one available. Subaru nixed a stick-shift option.

The Verdict: What was once near perfect for kayakers, bikers, car-campers, skiers, anglers, road trippers, and dog lovers has been perfected.

Filed To: Cars
Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive

Mercedes-Benz has made a green car that's less green than competitors but more pragmatic. Photo: Courtesy of Mercedes-Benz USA

Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive

A classic car that knows what it's doing, sans-gas

The Sell: BMW isn’t the only one with an electric hatchback. And this one’s roomier.

The Test: Why get the heavier, slightly less eco-friendly Mercedes B-Class ($41,450, 85 city/83 hwy MPGe) over the rival BMW i3? It’s bigger. That means it needs a larger motor and more charge, though it also gives you slightly greater range (87 miles versus 81).

But at 21.6 cubic feet, the rear cargo area is nearly double that of the i3—which could make the difference between taking a third buddy and his gear to the crag or driving a second car, obviating your green intentions. Fold down the rear seats and the total space is just shy of the Volvo V60’s. Testing the B-Class around Silicon Valley, it was zero trouble to load up a few road bikes, thanks partly to the nearly flat-load floor of the hatch space.

Do note, however, that this car is heavier than the i3 by more than 1,000 pounds, and at times it drives that way. It accelerates fast from a stoplight, with front-drive rubber grabbing on for traction, and passing juice is immediate on the highway. But handling is only sporty if you really push it, and it’s not nearly as happy bombing around two-lane s-turns.

We did like the paddle-shift adjustment of the drag that charges the batteries. Toggle the paddles that halo the steering column for more or less drag and it’s like downshifting a manual-transmission car. It’s a great way to charge the batteries and gain more traction while descending a steep two-lane road.

The exterior and interior styling is decidedly less daring than the BMW: unlike the i3, no one asked about it when parked at a coffee shop. This feels like a Mercedes with standard leather, wood, and 5.8-inch touchscreen navigation.

What’s Missing? Personality. While the VW eGolf is funky and the i3 is super futuristic, this B-Class is classic Mercedes. Confident, capable, but less fun.

The Verdict: Not quite as green—or as fun—as the BMW but roomier and more pragmatic.

Filed To: Cars
Honda Fit

Over the course of 285 miles of heavy urban driving, the Honda Fit delivered 35 miles per gallon. Not hybrid numbers, but still impressive for the price. Photo: Courtesy of Honda

Honda Fit

A snap to drive, deceptively roomy, and easy on the wallet

The Sell: The fun-to-drive practical commuter at a killer price

The Test: The six-speed stick shift on the all-new Honda Fit ($18,380; 29 mpg city/37 hwy) is not a down-market move. Instead, it plays to the Fit’s strength as a sporty ride despite its puny 130-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. That engine, coupled with its svelte weight, allowed us to zip through traffic with ease. In this day of ever bigger vehicles, the Fit is a snap to park, helped by its rearview camera. Over 285 miles of heavy urban driving at altitude in Denver, the mighty mite delivered 35 mpg. On the highway it returned miles per gallon in the mid 40s. Not hybrid numbers, but for a vehicle that costs $18,000, we were impressed.

But the car’s signature is its brilliant use of interior room and its cargo-carrying juju. The second row’s seat cushions fold up to create a three-foot-tall space, enough for us to load a 61-centimeter road bike vertically after removing the front wheel. Folding the back row forward and flat gave us nearly 53 cubic feet of room, which beats what you’ll find in Subaru’s XV Crosstrek and is plenty large enough to accommodate two 29ers and all our gear. Need even more room? The front passenger seat folds back and flat to accommodate a surfboard, skis or a rod up to 7 feet, 9 inches long.

What’s Missing? While the Fit shines in the city, the 1.5-liter engine works hard to maintain 80 mph on the interstate. Passing can be a nerve-wracking adventure. At more than 65 miles per hour, and especially in windy conditions, we found the Fit’s small, lightweight tires affected its stability.

The Verdict: The best urban commuter for under $20,000 with room for all your gear

Filed To: Cars
BMW i3

The BMW app does last-mile navigation from your parking spot to your destination. Photo: Courtesy of BMW of North America

BMW i3

A luxury electric car you can take on forest roads.

The Sell: Toyota, meet BMW. Electric cars get fun.

The Test: Even though we were running late for a trailhead meet-up, we didn’t think twice about bombing down a Catskill mountain road. Simply put, an electric car that handles this sharply ($42,300; 137 city/111 hwy MPGe) doesn’t exist this side of Tesla. We credit the rear-wheel drive, which helps give it the handling of a traditional BMW sports sedan. Muscle it around a corner and it’ll keep you on line with zero drama. More important: it feels capable, safe, and agile. That’s party because it’s even lighter (by 650 pounds) than the four-door Mini.

BMW pulled this off by starting with a carbon-fiber chassis, co-engineered with the same supplier used by Boeing for the 787. That fat-cutting led to lighter suspension and batteries, too.

The i3’s footprint and cargo capacity are nearly identical to the Mini’s, but it feels far roomier, in part because there’s no transmission tunnel, so the cabin floor is totally flat, and because the rear doors open backward Lambo-style, so getting into the second row is much easier.

And the car is crazy eco, with a cabin constructed from recycled and sustainable materials. The i3 comes with its own app that finds charging stations and offers slick navigation from where you parked to your destination via public transit or walking. It lets you use your phone to auto-adjust off-peak charging and you can even pre-heat or pre-cool the car from your phone while the i3 is still plugged in. It’s not just for show: the upholstery maintains a neutral temperature, so you’re less apt to run the AC.

Add it all up and you have a car with 81 miles of range that corners like a BMW.

What’s Missing? A look that blends. The i3 is uber-cool, but it’s also polarizing. As many people told us it was “hideous” as said it was “sweet!” And the latter were exclusively geeky dudes.

The Verdict: Who knew that being carbon conscious could be this much fun?

Filed To: Cars