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LONG AND SNAPPY

Base prices start at $42,290. 

Mileage ranges from 18 MPG city to 28 MPG highway.

What it is: The latest version of the large crossover from Honda’s luxury division.

What’s worth knowing: Acura has struggled to attain the premium reputation of competitors such as Lexus as Mercedes, partly because of inconsistent marketing and partly because of cost-conscious shortcuts such as the lack of a genuine rear-wheel drive platform. The MDX is an exception. Among large crossovers, it has been a perennial favorite of car buffs, and the redesigned 2014 model continues the love affair.

Who it’s for: With three rows accommodating 7 passengers standard on all trim lines, the MDX is a glorified familymobile. But it’s also muscular and refined, for discerning (and well-heeled) parents who wouldn’t be caught dead driving a minivan.

What’s good: The MDX has a surprisingly nimble feel, given its heft, with swept styling to match. It also features several clever innovations inside that show the engineers were sweating the small stuff. The second-row seats, for instance, spring forward for access to the third row at the single touch of a button, as if they operate on hydraulics. The optional overhead video system includes a remote that snaps into an overhead compartment, so as not to get lost or trampled. Nearly every corner of the vehicle demonstrates this sort of thoughtfulness.

What’s bad: The price, especially if you add a few option packages, which can easily push the cost over $50,000. Drivers will also notice the MDX’s considerable size when maneuvering in parking lots or other tight spaces.

How it stacks up: The MDX has the same 7-row capacity as the new Infiniti FX, which gives it an edge over the otherwise excellent Lexus RX, which only fits 5. And it’s a less pricey than competing crossovers from Audi, BMW and Mercedes.

What to do if you want one: The MDX feels like a car you won’t get tired of—even once the kids go off to school. Splurge accordingly.

Rick’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Check out his writing for Yahoo! Finance and follow him on Twitter. 

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BORING NO MORE

Base prices start at $25,255. 

Mileage ranges from 22 MPG city to 34 MPG highway.

What it is: A genuine sports coupe from Toyota’s low-priced “youth” division.

What’s worth knowing: If you think the Scion brand could use some excitement, parent company Toyota agrees with you. Thus the FR-S, a new addition to the small club of track-worthy racers for less than $30,000. Toyota developed the car in conjunction with Subaru, which sells it as the BRZ.

Who it’s for: Young hot-shots who crave pavement and don’t care about the many tradeoffs imposed by a sports coupe.

What’s good: With rear-wheel drive and other performance technology, the FR-S delivers the buzz that Scion is after. It’s not a rocket, in the manner of a muscle car, but a crisp all-around grinmaker that devours curves and holds its own on straightaways.

What’s bad: The two-person “rear seat” barely holds a couple of backpacks. There’s no comfort mode to relieve the harsh road feel that clatters up through the steering wheel. The trunk is puny. In other words, all the usual drawbacks of a car built for fun, not practicality.

Notable features: A zesty 200-horsepower four-cylinder engine that generates a lot of juice for a relatively small car; short-throw 6-speed manual transmission on base model, which amplifies the car’s responsive feel.

How it stacks up: The FR-S, like its sibling the BRZ, is a top competitor among affordable sports cars. The Mazda Miata, while smaller, is a bit more refined. The Volkswagen GTI and Mazdaspeed 3 are roomier. The Nissan 370Z is a higher-caliber performer, but also more expensive. The Hyundai Veloster is cheaper, but not nearly as powerful.

What to do if you want one: Beware intoxication. Anybody who loves sporty motoring will appreciate the FR-S. Just make sure you can live with its impractical downsides. 

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PRECOCIOUS UPSTART

Base prices range from $33,095 to $46,695.

Mileage ranges from 19 MPG city to 33 MPG highway.

What it is: General Motors’ latest effort to match the best German sports sedans.

What’s worth knowing: Cadillac is GM’s highest-rated division in J.D. Power quality surveys, which has aided a revival of the luxury brand. With the ATS—the cheapest Cadillac—GM set out to meet or beat every driving characteristic of the BMW 3 series, regarded by many as the gold standard for sports sedans.

Who it’s for: Road warriors who prefer Cadillac’s angular styling over sleeker European designs.

What’s good: Critics are mixed on whether the ATS beats the 3 series on the track, but even if it doesn’t, it’s a blast to drive on the byways most normal drivers cruise. The ATS corners like a cat, while three engine choices offer acceleration ranging from quick to blistering. The interior is classy without being showy. Available all-wheel drive adds to terrific traction.

What’s bad: The back seat and trunk are tight, although you don’t buy a car like this for its storage space. The optional CUE touch-screen system, meant to emulate an iPad, can seem a bit balky until you get used to it.

How it stacks up: For performance, the ATS is at the top of its class. The 3 series, of course, has a stronger pedigree, and some buyers may find competitors such as the Audi A4, Mercedes C Class, Infiniti G class and Lexus IS to be more refined.

What to do if you want one: Go with your first impression. If you fall in love with the ATS the first time to drive it, you’ll probably stay in love.

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TREASURE AT THE BOTTOM

Base prices range from $30,800 to $38,600.

Mileage ranges from 18 MPG city to 34 MPG highway.

What it is: BMW’s smallest crossover, undercutting the X3 (which used to be the smallest).

What’s worth knowing: Like other luxury automakers, BMW is expanding down the price chain in order to capture younger buyers moving up. The X1 has the lowest starting price of any BMW sold in the United States.

Who it’s for: Brand-conscious motorists who want the practicality of a crossover and don’t need a spacious rear seat or cargo hold.

What’s good: The X1 is BMW’s most nimble crossover, with a base model that’s lighter, shorter and quicker than the comparable X3 variant. It’s a taut performer that delivers plenty of grins. And the upscale interior contains many touches found in pricier BMWs.

What’s bad: As with most BMWs, desired options come in costly packages that can push the price up quickly.

How it stacks up: With a starting price that’s lower than that of the Infiniti EX, Audi Q5 or Acura RDX, the X1 is compelling choice for buyers who don’t mind the small package. You might get more for your money, however, with a loaded Ford Escape, Mazda CX-5 or Toyota RAV4.

What to do if you want one: Make sure you won’t outgrow it any time soon, because you’ll enjoy driving the X1 for a long time.

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IT’S FUN BEING GREEN

Base prices range from to $24,995 to $31,180.

Mileage ranges from 42 MPG city to 48 MPG highway/

What it is: A hybrid you’re not supposed to notice.

What’s worth knowing: The big German automaker Volkswagen is pressing hard to gain U.S. market share, and part of its strategy is rolling out models in every conceivable category. The Jetta lineup alone includes more than 20 variants.

Who it’s for: Mileage mavens with an occasional lust for speed.

What’s good: VW boasts that the Jetta hybrid doesn’t drive like a hybrid, which is true. Most hybrids are dull on the road, but the Jetta is quick and fun, thanks to a turbocharged 170-horsepower four-cylinder engine and other motoring bits. Like all Jettas, it’s pragmatic and user-friendly, with simplified controls and an upscale feel for the price. Mileage is lower than for some hybrids but still terrific.

What’s bad: Bland styling. Lost trunk space, due to the large battery pack, which is a typical tradeoff with hybrids. The Jetta hybrid is also pricey compared with gas models, running about $8,000 more for each trim line.

How it stacks up: The Jetta hybrid is more fun (and more expensive) than the Toyota Prius, its closest competitor. It also occupies a niche between compacts such as the Ford Focus and Hyundia Elantra and mid-sized sedans such as the Nissan Altima or Honda Accord. But there are a lot of strong models in the Jetta’s price range and it pays to shop around.

What to do if you want one: For most ordinary drivers, it will take years for the extra cost of the Jetta’s hybrid technology to pay for itself through higher mileage, so run the numbers. If you simply want to cut down on gas consumption while having some fun, the Jetta hybrid will get the job done.

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A MINIVAN FOR CAMPING TRIPS

Base prices range from to $28,650 to $34,850.

Mileage ranges from 19 MPG city to 26 MPG highway.

What it is: A famlified “SUV” from Japan’s No. 3 automaker.

What’s worth knowing: SUVs have morphed into “crossovers” during the last several years, offering more minivan-style interior comforts while dialing back on the rugged features that few buyers took advantage of anyway. The trick is retaining the rugged image, to conceal the pampering taking place within.

Who it’s for: Families who consider themselves active, sporting and too cool for a minivan.

What’s good: The Pathfinder offers spacious, seven-passenger seating and an upscale interior in a brawny-looking package. The optional four-wheel drive is more capable than the all-wheel drive systems found on other crossovers, allowing for modest off-roading, if that’s your style. Second-row seats that slide forward and back and recline allow various seating options for big and small passengers. With numerous cupholders and other small appurtenances, the Pathfinder was meant to transport kids.

What’s bad: The third row is tight, although that’s a reasonable tradeoff for a fairly nimble hauler. Nissan boasts about fuel economy as high as 26 MPG on the highway, but my mileage in all-around driving was a discouraging 17 MPG in the four-wheel-drive model, which is considerably less than the stated combined average of 21.

How it stacks up: The Pathfinder is a strong combo of space, maneuverability and comfort, although there are many other good models in this segment. The forthcoming 2014 Toyota Highlander is likely to be a top competitor. The Dodge Durango, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Explorer aim to make a similarly bold statement, with different design cues. The Hyundai Santa Fe offers more for the money. The Honda Pilot is a more traditional-looking boxy SUV. And the Chevrolet Traverse (along with its cousins the GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave) is a popular middlebrow design.

What to do if you want one: First make sure you need all that space, since the Pathfinder isn’t cheap and gas costs will add up. If you do need a three-row crossover, bundle the kids in on a test drive and go with one that makes everybody feel comfortable inside.

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A FRISKY NEWCOMER

Base prices range from $15,995 to $24,995. 

Mileage ranges from 24 MPG city to 39 MPG highway.

What it is: The first interesting compact from Dodge in eons.

What’s worth knowing: Dodge, a division of Chrysler, has been desperate for compelling new products since Chrysler joined forces with Fiat and emerged from bankruptcy in 2009. The Dart—derived from a Fiat popular in Europe, and assembled in Illinois—brings some needed verve to the lower end of Dodge’s lineup. 

Who it’s for: Compact buyers who enjoy some zip in their wheels.

What’s good: It’s no BMW, but the Dart will perk you up on routine errands. Steering is crisp, aided by the car’s bantamweight agility, and three engines choices offer an incremental boost in power without giving up too much mileage. To emphasize the car’s sportiness, each trim line comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission, with an automatic available for an extra $1,100. An optional 8.4-inch touch-screen display offers an intuitive way to control the audio and climate systems and other settings. Aggressive styling turns heads on the street.    

What’s bad: The cabin is bland and basic controls have a budget feel. And don’t confuse the  Dart with an economy car; with desirable options it can easily approach $25,000.

How it stacks up: The Dart has the same athletic appeal as popular compacts such as the Mazda 3 and the Ford Focus. The Chevy Cruze and Volkswagen Golf may strike some buyers as a bit more refined. The Hyundai Elantra may offer more car for the money.

What to do if you want one: On a test drive, push the car hard and don’t be afraid to rev the engine—that’s how the Dart wants to be driven.

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THE TECHNOCRAT

Base prices range from $34,320 to $39,420.

Mileage ranges from 19 MPG city to 28 MPG highway.

What it is: Acura’s entry-level crossover, and the little brother to the more highly acclaimed MDX.

What’s worth knowing: Honda’s luxury division, Acura, has been struggling to carve out a clear identity that sets it apart from BMW, Lexus, Infiniti and other upscale automakers. The RDX has been redesigned for the 2013 model year, but it’s not likely to sharpen Acura’s image much.

Who it’s for: Orderly folks who appreciate a highly proficient automobile.

What’s good: The RDX is a cleanly designed crossover that does nearly everything right. It’s an agile road performer with ample space for five, a pleasing luxury feel, and a nice set of standard features including a five-inch display screen for the audio, climate and other systems. The tech package loads it up with a bevy of voice-activated features, a built-in hard drive for storing music and other nifty gizmos. The powerful V-6 engine averages a respectable 22 MPG.

What’s bad: Soulfulness isn’t usually listed on a car’s window sticker, but if it were, you wouldn’t find it among the RDX’s features. Somehow, this terrific automobile just feels less thrilling than you’d expect, given its strong components and Acura’s engineering acumen. Even the swept styling, while modern, feels uninspiring.

How it stacks up: The RDX is a good buy compared to other luxury compact crossovers, but the BMW X3 and Audi Q5 are sportier. The Land Rover Evoque has more exotic styling. The Lexus RX, while a bit larger, is the epitome of luxury for less than $50,000. Or, you could get a loaded version of a cheaper crossover, such as the Ford Escape or Mazda CX-5, and come close to the overall package offered by the RDX.

What to do if you want one: Play with all the bells and whistles, but most of all, find some challenging roads for your test drive and gauge whether the RDX moves you.

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BETTER THAN ITS BIG BROTHER?

Base prices range from $35,350 to $41,400.

Mileage ranges from 18 MPG city to 31 MPG highway.

What it is: Mercedes’ entry-level passenger car, at least until the smaller A class arrives from Europe, perhaps in 2013.

What’s worth knowing: The C Class is Mercedes’ way of luring up-and-comers into the family, and prior versions offered a bit of a rough welcome. But the current model, with some improvement for 2012, is a much more fitting introduction to the refinements found throughout Mercedes’ lineup.

Who it’s for: Genteel drivers who appreciate Teutonic reserve and don’t need to squeal around every corner to get their jollies.

What’s good: The C Class offers dynamic handling and luxury appointments without a lot of unneeded flash. The cabin is luxurious but not showy or overcomplicated. Pinpoint steering and a light feel on curves show the engineers built in just enough sportiness to compliment a comfortable ride. The C Class comes close to violating a cardinal rule of automotive marketing: Don’t build a car that’s more appealing than the one above it in the pricing hierarchy. If you drove the C Class and the E Class back-to-back, you might favor the C, which undercuts the E by at least $15,000.

What’s bad: One reason you wouldn’t choose the C Class over the E Class is space. The rear seat, in particular, is tight. There’s also a shortage of storage nooks in the front, which can leave your cell phone and your coffee cup competing for space in the beverage holder. Also, premium fuel is required.

How it stacks up: The C Class is a strong all-around value compared to other entry-luxury models. The BMW 3 series remains the road king in this class, thanks to its longstanding emphasis on performance. The Cadillac CTS is the brash show-off in the class. The Acura TL and Audi A4 have many fans, but standard front-wheel drive turns off true driving enthusiasts.

What to do if you want one: At the dealership, drive the C Class and E Class both. You’ll appreciate the nimbleness that comes with the C’s smaller size and lighter weight.

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THE JOY OF HAULING

Base prices range from $20,695 to $27,045.

Mileage ranges from 25 MPG city to 35 MPG highway.

What it is: The poor man’s BMW X3.

What’s worth knowing: Mazda is a niche carmaker in the U.S. market, offering an innovative lineup of sporty and affordable vehicles. The CX-5 is a new compact crossover meant to capitalize on one of the fastest-growing segments in the industry.

Who it’s for: Small families, active thirtysomethings and anybody who enjoys a bit of verve while running errands.

What’s good: The CX-5 hits the sweet spot between fun and practicality. It’s nimble and grounded on curves, with peppy acceleration. It’s also a capable hauler, with a right-height rear deck and enough space for bulky items with the rear seats folded down. Mazda completes the have-it-all package with a new “SkyActiv” powertrain that manages surprisingly good mileage.

What’s bad: The interior is a bit bland, one of the tradeoffs that helps keep the price down. Also, the six-speed manual transmission is only available on the entry trim line, which may disappoint some driving enthusiasts.

How it stacks up: The CX-5 stands out for its joyous efficiency, but there are other choice vehicles in this crowded segment. The Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain are more rugged-looking, with a bit more rear legroom. The Honda CR-V has more technology and family-friendly features, such as reclining rear seats. The Toyota RAV4 and Kia Sorento have a third-row seat option, and the RAV4 has an optional V-6 engine that may make it the fastest model in its class.

What to do if you want one: Hit some twisty roads on your test drive, to give the CX-5 a chance to shine.