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1996 Black Enterprise auto guide: an update on the hottest new models for '96.

Product diversity is the current trend in the automotive industry. To survive, each brand offers a wider array of products to get you, the consumer, into that dealership--whether you're seeking a sports car, family sedan or sports-utility truck.

But automotive development is becoming increasingly expensive. Not all manufacturers have the financial resources to develop every type of vehicle made. So, to provide such variety within a brand, there's an increasing amount of "horse trading" or sharing going on between divisions and manufacturers.

For example, sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) are hot because they make a lifestyle statement. Honda's Acura luxury division, caught without a product in that segment, buys them from Isuzu and puts on its own name badge. Staying within the parent company, Ford builds one for Mercury, and Toyota has supplied Lexus with its new SUV.

One effect of this sharing is you see virtually the same vehicle at varying prices at different dealerships. You pay extra for the luxury nameplate, but get a vehicle that's little or no different from a lower-priced brand. It can take a shrewd shopper to know what he or she is paying for.

For those who don't want an SUV, there's still some fun to be had out there. BMW offers a new roadster, while Pontiac is beefing up its muscle car. The luxury market is also trying hard to please by offering more value. Almost going against nature, even Mercedes-Benz is lowering prices these days. The average buyer has never had a wider selection of vehicles from which to choose.

ACURA SLX

With the luxury sport-utility market growing by leaps and bounds, Acura decided to jump on the bandwagon. With Honda already selling Isuzu's cheaply built Rodeo as the Passport, Acura decided to take Isuzu's more upscale Trooper and sell it as the SLX. Whether Trooper or SLX, it's the same vehicle, so decide by price and dealership.

Although Isuzu sells a stripped version of the Trooper for under $30,000, the SLX is more akin to the two top models, at $31,570 and $37,990. Acura offers the SLX in just two varieties, at $33,900 or $38,000.

For that price, you get a midsize sport utility wagon with a 190-horsepower V-6 engine, a part-time four-wheel-drive system and an automatic transmission. Luxury equipment includes alloy wheels, power heated mirrors, leather-wrapped tilt wheel and rear window wiper/washer. The high-priced model adds leather upholstery, power moon roof and a limited slip rear differential for better traction.

The net result is a nice ride and plenty of features. Slower and less sporty than domestic competitors, it has, however, the cachet of a luxury nameplate.

MERCEDES-BENZ E420

At Mercedes-Benz, the E-Class has long been the mainstay of the line. The company completely redesigned the car for the 1996 model year. Initially, it's keeping the drivetrain of its E320 intact.

Arriving this spring as a '97 model, the company is bringing V-8 power back to the line. Coupled to that engine is a first at Mercedes, a five-speed electronic automatic transmission, the first electronically controlled transmission the company has offered. Other companies have used electronics to smooth shifts and improve efficiency for many years, so Mercedes is upping the ante by offering one that adapts to your personal driving style.

Other features include dual airbags in front and door-mounted airbags to the side. The 4.2-liter V-8 produces 275 horsepower, enough to outrun a Lexus sedan, and the price tag, at $49,900, is $2,600 below that of the '95 E420.

A new E-Class option is ESP (Electronic Stability Program). This goes beyond traditional traction control by using the vehicle's brakes to maintain stability when accelerating, braking or coasting.

EAGLE VISION

Eagle is bringing to the average car buyer a feature that previously was available only on a few exotic sports cars, such as a Porsche or Acura NSX. Eagle's AutoStick is a four-speed shiftable automatic transmission, which allows the driver to shift manually by ratcheting the transmission shift lever. Push left to go down a gear, push right to move up. Or you can put it in drive, just like a traditional automatic. This may end the argument about whether to buy a convenient family car or spirited sports sedan.

Although the base price of a Vision is just under $20,000, AutoStick is available only on the $23,835 TSi model. While this is the first passenger car with this transmission right now; it will appear in two other Chrysler products later this year.

The Vision is a modern looking car, falling somewhere between mid- and full-size, seating five in comfort. TSi models come well equipped with automatic air conditioning, anti-lock brakes, keyless entry system and a powerful 214-horsepower V-6.

Just as the Vision is a compromise between a roomy family sedan and a sport sedan, the Autostick provides the middle ground for those who really need the convenience of an automatic but would prefer the control of a manual transmission.

BUICK PARK AVENUE

Buick has been showing off the '97 version of its Park Avenue early, which goes on sale this fall. This new model sits on a new platform, largely derived from the Riviera coupe. Despite all the new architecture, however, styling changes relatively little. Buick buyers are among the oldest and most conservative on the market, so the company isn't willing to change things unnecessarily.

Interior design elements do change a bit more than the exterior, but the traditional Buick theme continues. Ergonomics play a bigger role this time, with larger instruments and more accessible buttons. Under the hood, nothing changes at all. The 3800 Series II V-6 is already a stout runner, pumping out 205 horsepower; a supercharged option will continue offering 240 horsepower.

With the on-sale date still many months away, Buick hasn't set pricing for its flagship sedan. With 1996 prices ranging from $28,205 to the mid-$30,000 range, expect a mild increase. The list of standard features will grow with items like dual power seats and remote keyless entry and, for the Ultra, genuine wood trim.

GMC SAVANA VAN

Full-size vans are a market segment that hasn't really been hot since the '70s. Yet as minivans grow larger, the differences are dwindling. For '96, GMC completely revised its full-size van for the first time in 25 years, even giving it a new name. (You can also find the exact same vehicle at your Chevrolet dealer under the name Express Van.)

Minivans have become more comfortable and car-like, which has been GMC's goal for the Savana. It's still based upon a tough, truck platform with a ladder-type frame and separate body. There are two sizes available with differing wheelbases.

Although exterior styling remains similar, with more rounded shapes, the interior is more functional and ergonomic. You can choose from a wide assortment of amenities and get a quiet ride in a roomy vehicle.

Prices for stripped models begin around $18,700 and fully equipped models cost as much as $30,000.

The new construction will also make it a lot easier for custom builders to create a greater diversity of artistic creations on this automotive canvas.

LEXUS LX 450

Just like Acura, Lexus is watching the SUV market soar, and wants in. But unlike Acura, Lexus is part of Toyota which already builds a very suitable luxury SUV. Take the Toyota Land Cruiser and add more standard features and such luxuries as automatic climate control, fake wood, remote entry system, more powerful audio system and a new grille--and voila, you get a Lexus. The LX 450 also has a softer suspension, the same type of leather as the LS 400 sedan and the optional CD changer is in center console.

For $47,500, you get a huge 5,000-pound truck that seats seven with its foldaway third seat. The 212-horsepower, 4.5-liter six-cylinder engine provides enough power to put it somewhere between slow and not so slow. A full-time four-wheel-drive system is both convenient and sophisticated. Of the three options, locking differentials enable the LX 450 to challenge some of the toughest terrain. The other two options are creature comforts: CD changer and power moon roof.

The list of standard features runs to arm's length, and the net result is a seriously tough truck with a soft interior and very steep price tag.

FORD ESCORT

Ford is bringing out a completely revised version of its smallest car, the Escort, as an early '97 model year release. Expected to arrive in dealerships this spring, the new vehicle finally does away with those annoying motorized seatbelts. Adjustable shoulder height manual belts combine with dual airbags to bring safety up to snuff.

Escort will be offered as both a four-door sedan and station wagon. The hatchback model is being abandoned. The new model is nearly 4 inches longer to provide for greater interior room. A new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine raises horsepower to 110 from the previous 90. Styling is rounded with gentle curves, providing a shape somewhere between the new Taurus and Contour.

Prices haven't been set at this writing, but Ford says it will increase prices minimally from the '96 model, which ranges from $11,515 for the base sedan to about $14,000 when fully loaded.

Among the other features of the new model, Ford is touting its low emissions rating, one of the first vehicles to be rated LEV (Low Emissions Vehicle) by California.

JAGUAR XJ SEDAN

Last year, Jaguar gave its sedans a thorough restyling reminiscent of past generations, before there were upstart luxury cars from Japan. Part of this makeover included improvements to ergonomic function and construction quality. Already present were sumptuous features with plentiful wood and chrome.

Not only is Jaguar expanding the appeal of these sedans, it's stretching them by 5 inches. Two of Jaguar's four sedan models now ride on a longer wheelbase: the 4.0-liter, in-line six-cylinder Vanden Plas and the XJ12, powered by a 6.0-liter V-12. The standard 113-inch wheelbase remains for the six-cylinder XJ6 sedan and the supercharged XJR.

The lengthened wheelbase provides rear seat passengers with 4.5 inches of extra leg room, while a slightly crowned roof adds some headroom. A longer wheelbase further improves ride quality, something Jaguar has always provided in abundance. You'll pay extra for the this lavish rear seat area. While the shorter base XJ6 starts at an already steep $56,320, the two longer versions are priced at $64,420 and $79,370, depending upon the number of cylinders.

BMW Z3

BMW is expanding its lineup by taking off-the-shelf components and reshaping them into more interesting designs. The Z3 takes the underpinnings of its 318i coupe and forms them into a classic two-seat roadster. This new droptop is intended to provide exciting looks and nimble handling. With a small 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine, quickness isn't really part of the package. If you want more urgent acceleration, wait a year or so until the six-cylinder version arrives.

Compared to the only other true roadster on the market, Mazda's more affordable Miata, the Z3 is a bit larger with slightly more interior room. Its huge tires will grab the pavement for higher cornering speeds, but the Z3's greater weight slows it down anywhere else. A simple, manual top goes up or down in seconds to form a tight seal.

At a base price of $28,750, it comes with most equipment, including power accessories, airbags and anti-lock brakes. It's as much fun to drive as to look at, and the wide-open cockpit lets you be seen in style.

MERCURY MOUNTAINEER

For the past several years, Mercury dealers have looked over the fence at Ford dealerships, envious of their ability to sell hundreds of thousands of profitable Explorer SUVs. Now the company is finally giving in, offering Mercury dealers their own version of the Explorer.

Unlike the Explorer, which starts with a V-6 and only recently added a V-8 option, the Mountaineer starts and ends with a V-8. The vehicle comes standard as a 4 x 2 but an all-wheel-drive system is available. To distinguish the Mountaineer from an Explorer, it gets a unique grille and badging, and comes with running boards, color-keyed body side moldings and a luggage rack.

Pricing hasn't been announced, but an Explorer with similar equipment is priced well into the high-$20,000 range. Standard features include dual airbags, anti-lock brakes and power accessories. There will be a limited number of options, including leather upholstery and audio upgrades.

Mountaineer will be one of the most comfortable and roomy of the compact SUVs, providing a very car-like ride.

MAZDA MPV

When Mazda introduced the MPV in 1989, it was the first time a Japanese company offered a small van with real car-like ride and handling. For '96, that vehicle is getting its first major update.

Many of the best features remain: The peppy 18-valve V-6 still runs smoothly, the interior is bright and cheerful, rear-drive provides sporty handling and a part-time four-wheel-drive option is available for those who want to face foul weather more fearlessly.

Styling is changed just a bit, with the nose moved out and nearly 8 inches added to overall length. Safety is upgraded with a passenger-side airbag. But most important of all is the new, fourth door, giving the MPV four car-like swing-out doors, making it easy to load people and cargo.

Prices are a bit stiff compared with domestic brands. For $21,465 you get just a base model with relatively little equipment. At $24,655, the ES comes better equipped, while the 4WD version tops out at $27,555.

This is a smaller but a more nimble vehicle than most domestic minivans. Ride comfort is mid-pack, but it's the sporty handling that sets the MPV apart.

OLDSMOBILE ACHIEVA

After receiving an exterior facelift last year, the Achieva received significant interior changes for '96. Among the most important changes is the addition of dual airbags and the elimination of those uncomfortable and risky door-mounted seatbelts. Now the Achieva is in a better place with more clear and concise instrumentation and switches and buttons that fall more readily to hand.

The notorious Quad 4 engine has been upgraded so significantly, it has been given a new name, Twin Cam. It's a bit larger, now at 2.4 versus 2.3 liters, with more power at lower engine speeds and slightly better fuel economy. This engine is also significantly quieter and runs more smoothly. A V-6 is still optional, but now seems less necessary.

At its modest $13,495 starting price, Oldsmobile tosses in such features as air conditioning and anti-lock brakes. If you add an automatic transmission, it now includes a traction control system to make driving easier in slippery conditions. If you add all the options and features, you can push the price up to more than $18,000, but at lower prices, the Achieva provides some sporty fun, room for four and good value for the money.

NISSAN PATHFINDER

For the first time since the Pathfinder was introduced a decade ago, it's getting a complete revision. This time rather than using a pickup truck platform, the company switched to a more passenger-car-like unibody construction. This allowed Nissan to make the Pathfinder larger and roomier without increasing weight.

What did increase is length, by nearly 7 inches, and width by about 2 inches, giving passengers more room. Styling, however, remains little changed, with just a bit more rake to the windshield and some rounding of the corners and edges.

A larger 3.3-liter V-6 engine puts out 168 horsepower, 15 more than before. Standard equipment is upgraded with dual airbags and a more sensible dashboard layout. Nissan gives you a choice of manual or automatic transmissions.

Despite the increase in size, the Pathfinder is smaller inside than such domestic competitors as a Chevy Blazer. Prices start at $22,399 for the XE rear-drive model and move up to around $34,000 for a top-line LE 4x4 with all the trimmings. Either way, the Pathfinder continues to be a rather rugged four-door SUV wagon with a pleasant interior.

TOYOTA PASEO

After coming out with a new Tercel last year, '96 is Paseo's turn. The Paseo is essentially a coupe form of the Tercel. Body style is more sporty and features like high-performance Goodyear tires provide excellent handling characteristics.

Except for the above average road grip, the Paseo is simply a sleekly styled economy car. The 93-horsepower engine provides decent, rather than swift acceleration. Interior room is modest, making the back seat suitable only for punishing passengers.

At a $13,038 starting price, you don't get many features. For under $15,000, however, you can have one with power windows, air conditioning and power door locks. Interior design is a Toyota strength: The Paseo offers unconventional black on white instrumentation, and the dials reverse at night, providing further amusement.

Also new for '96 are dual airbags, the last passenger car at Toyota to receive them. Build quality is excellent and when equipped with a manual transmission, the Paseo is quick enough to be fun. With fuel economy reaching well past 30 mpg, a Paseo isn't a difficult car to afford.

PLYMOUTH BREEZE

After reentering the midsize sedan market first with the Chrysler Cirrus, then the Dodge Stratus, Chrysler is now giving Plymouth a shot at this niche. The Breeze is basically the same vehicle but gets its own grille and a smaller price tag. Starting out at just $14,060, this is a contender for the title of most interior room for the money. Even with all the options--and there aren't many--prices will tap out in the $17,000 range.

What you get for all this is a roomy car powered by a modest four-cylinder engine. While this same engine makes the small Neon a rather quick car, it makes the larger Breeze a bit sluggish, particularly with the optional automatic transmission.

As with its sibling, this is a stylish vehicle with an ergonomically functional and attractive interior. Standard features include dual airbags, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo. Options include power windows and door locks, a sunroof, anti-lock brakes, CD player and more. Included is a somewhat sporty ride and lots of little amenities, like cubbyholes for storage, remote truck release, digital clock and dual visor vanity mirrors.

PONTIAC FIREBIRD

Power is the word at Pontiac when it comes to the '96 Firebird. Even the base model starts out with a new 3.8-liter V-6 with 200 horsepower. That's quite a bit of muscle for a coupe starting at just $15,614. (You could also save a few more bucks by getting Chevy's Camaro, the Firebird's twin under the skin.)

For those who really want to burn rubber, there's now a WS6 RAM Air package available on the Formula and Trans Am models. It takes the 5.7-liter V-8 (285 horsepower for starters) and adds twin hood scoops for a Ram Air boost to provide a thrilling 305-horsepower ride. You'll also get a stiffer suspension and pavement grabbing ultra-low-profile 17-inch high-performance tries. The WS6 package adds $2,995, so by this time you'll have boosted the price into the mid-$20,000 category.

Any way you equip a Firebird, you end up with a vehicle that isn't designed for introverts. This is a sports coupe with a long, purposeful snout, an interior that says style is more important than function and free-flowing performance to match a boisterous disposition.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles
Author:Koblenz, Jay
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Buyers Guide
Date:Apr 1, 1996
Words:3246
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