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1997 Black Enterprise auto guide.

With three boom years them, automakers are enjoying the fruits of their labor. With enough money in the vault to finance projects properly, most companies now bring out products when they are ready, rather than forcing production before quality is intact. For the consumer that means you may have to wait a bit longer to buy that brand new vehicle, but it also means you're more likely to have fewer problems with it.

One area where much of the profits are coming from is trucks. That includes full-size pickups, minivans and nearly all sport-utility vehicles. Americans are still buying them in droves and there's no sign of a let-up. That enables manufacturers to maintain profit margins, while consumers pay a bit more to remain style conscious. With more varieties coming onto the market all the time, at least buyers are getting more and better choices.

Another area where there is a sudden influx of new choices is with sporty roadsters. Since 1990, Mazda's Miata has had this segment pretty much to itself. Although the newcomers are priced considerably higher, they have a lot to offer customers seeking something fun to drive. Recently BMW signed in with the Z3 and now Mercedes-Benz is offering the SLK230. At a higher price level, Jaguar is offering its first new open sports car in more than 20 years.

But 1997 looks like a vintage year in most categories, with new luxury sedans, family vehicles, economy cars and minivans all joining in. And for the most part, competition and technology are uniting to keep sticker shock to a minimum.

INFINITY Q45

Only the name remains unchanged for Infiniti's flagship sedan model. The old Q45 is gone, replaced by a new model that shares the same platform as the Japanese domestic Cima sedan. It has a smaller engine, 4.1 versus 4.5 liters. Horsepower is slightly reduced tO 26G from 278, although weight is down by more than 200 pounds to help improve acceleration. The new Q45 is a somewhat smaller car, shorter and narrower than before. It's also a less luxurious car, so prices are expected to go down from the 1996 starting point of $47,900. With improved fuel economy, the new Qno longer requires the $1,000 gas gazzler tax.

With conservative styling, more imitative of German brands than before, the Q's avant-garde era is over. Much of the luxury, however, remains. Traction control is now standard on all models for the first time, and other accouterments include leather and wood-grain trim, a HomeLink transmitter, 200-watt eight-speaker Bose audio system and 10-way power front seats. The only option is heated front seats, something that is standard on the 04St. which also gets a sportier suspension, rear spoiler and trunk-mounted CD changer.

ACURA RL

Having replaced the Legend as Acura's top sedan, the RL offers a high degree of comfort and sophistication. It carries on with the same size, shape and space, but gains more power and higher levels of luxury. Standard equipment includes plenty of leather, climate control, keyless entry system and a power tilt/telescopic steering wheel with memory.

Although its starting price of $41,000 competes against V-8 powered rivals, Acura makes do with a gutsy 3.5-liter V-6. Power goes to the front wheels through a four-speed automatic. While its 210-horsepower peak is not extravagant, the RL's engine provides good power and sophisticated suspension adheres well to the road.

By adding the $3,000 Premium Package, you get traction control, heated front seats, outside mirrors, burl walnut trim and a Bose audio system with a trunk-mounted six-disc CD changer. Another couple thousand gives YOU a navigation system that will expertly guide you to nearly any destination. Similar to Oldsmobile's Guidestar, Acura's is the first Global Positioning System incorporated into the dash.

AUDI A8

Although all Audi sedans share the "A" designation, in this case the letter stands for "aluminum." Except for glass, leather, wood and some interior plastic, virtually the entire car is built from the strong, lightweight metal. A unique space-frame design provides a fabulously sturdy structure. Adding to the vault-like ambiance of safety is the first application of six airbags: two up front and two seat-mounted side impact airbags for both front and back rows. A computer stops airbag deployment altogether when a seat is unoccupied.

Luxury accouterments are extravagant, leaving a brief option list to include such amenities as a heated steering wheel, front and rear seats. A computer-controlled five-speed automatic transmission is coupled to a road-gobbling V-8 engine. For around $57,000, a 3.7-liter powerplant sends 230 deliciously smooth horsepower to the front wheels. About $8,000 more gives you the ultimate foul-weather sedan. This includes a 4.2-liter powerplant that feeds 300 horsepower to all four wheels via Audi's highly acclaimed Quattro system. This model provides better onroad traction than nearly any sport-utility, yet with comfort.

CADILLAC CATERA

Cadillac is introducing its first all-new nameplate since the ill-fated Allante. And like that failed experiment, this new car is intended to attract a new set of buyers who normally wouldn't consider the Cadillac brand.

The Catera is a restyled version of the Opel Omega. It is a rear-wheel-drive sedan about the size of a Toyota Camry. A 3.0-liter V-6 puts out 200 horsepower, a more than adequate amount for a car this size. This engine will be mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. Unlike most European rivals, there will be no manual transmission available, keeping it out of the sport sedan ranks. Underneath, the suspension is also less sophisticated than many direct competitors'.

Cadillac offers traction control on all its cars, including Catera. Priced around $30,000, this smaller sedan will be the least expensive Cadillac. It will receive the luxury treatment, with standard climate control and power accessories. Further refinements, such as leather and heated seats, will be on the options List.

LEXUS ES300

All-new since its appearance in 1992, the ES300 is a bit longer with more leg room. Styling is less rounded, with some crease to the edges this time. It retains the same smooth-running 3.0-liter V-6 engine, with a slight bump in horsepower up to 200. A four-speed electronically-controlled automatic transmission is included.

Standard equipment includes real wood trim on all four doors, a brighter instrument panel and a memory power driver's seat. A new option is an in-dash six-CD changer, a far more convenient location than the trunk-mounted competition's.

The price for the 1997 model is $29,900 (reduced $2,500 from the 1996 edition). Standard equipment will include automatic climate control, power windows and door locks and a remote keyless entry system. Options include leather upholstery and power moonroof

Lexus has departed a bit from the sporty image of the ES300, aiming more towards the luxury end of the scale. As such, expect to find a quiet and comfortable ride rather than lithe handling and sports car prowess.

LINCOLN MARK VIII

With luxury coupe sales at an ebb in general, Lincoln is trying to attract more attention to the Mark VIII. A facelift gives the car a new front-end appearance, with a raised hood and more upright grille. High-intensity discharge headlamps and new rear end styling also enhance the new look. New functions include outside mirrors with ground illumination and a reverse tilt-down feature to help the driver see the curb when backing up. A new exhaust system for the LSC trim level increases horsepower by 10, totaling 290. Inside, a power tilt/telescoping steering is a new feature and is part of the memory system.

The door trim panel gets burl walnut and leather trim. Dual cup holders and a passenger-side grab handle are also added. New options include standard all-speed traction control, variable temperature heated seats, in-dash CD player and portable/convertible cellular phone. The optional moonroof now includes a one-touch open feature.

For a base price of $37,950 (reduced $2,370 from 1996), the Mark VIII remains a comfy two-door capable of rousing performance.

BMW 5 SERIES

These are the only real sports sedans left in the midsize luxury market. No others even bother to offer a manual transmission. Yet BMW prospers, albeit a bit softer and more luxurious than before. The 528i offers a smooth 190-horsepower 2.8-liter inline-6 with five speeds or four, manual or automatic. The 540i gives you a choice of a five-speed automatic or six-speed manual coupled to its robust 282-horsepower 4.4-liter V-8.

In an unusual move, BMW offers two steering systems: recirculating ball in the V-8 car and rack-and-pinion in the 528i. A "more luxurious" feel for the V-8 model, says the company. Luxury equipment is complete, with a keyless remote that can open or close the windows and sunroof, and micro-filter ventilation to keep out dust. Prices begin at $38,470 and move to $58,270 when including all options and the V-8's gas guzzler tax (manual transmission only). Options include a heated steering wheel and incredibly comfortable articulating seats.

Except for an extraordinarily confusing array of buttons on the dashboard, the 5 Series is a delightful place for a driver to conduct business. When it comes to handling and performance, this is a car with no rivals.

ACURA CL

With the demise of the Legend two-door, the company was in need of a coupe model. With all but the Integra hatchback offered only as four-door sedans, Acura decided to adopt a model from Honda. Take one Accord coupe, make some modifications to the sheet metal and interior, add a few Acura luxury touches, and present the 2.2 CL. Although styling is somewhat eccentric, particularly the rear view, such heritage assures the CL of having relatively generous interior room plus a comfortable ride, at the expense of sporty driving characteristics. However, large 16Anch tires help bring improved handling.

For $22,545-$24,395, you get a 145-horsepower four-cylinder, 2.2-liter engine and a choice of a manual or automatic transmission. This fall, Acura will also add an optional 3.0-liter V-6 automatic transmission with nearly 200 horsepower for around $4,000 more.

Standard equipment includes automatic air conditioning, keyless remote entry system, power accouterments and a six-speaker stereo with CD player.

FORD TAURUS SHO

When Ford released the second generation Taurus last fall, one model was missing from the line-up, the sporty SHO. Now it has returned with more power and equipment than before.

In the $26,480 SHO model, standard equipment levels go beyond other Taurus models. Foremost is the first V-8 engine available in a Taurus. This 3.4-liter powerplant is built in Japan by Yamaha to produce a smooth-flowing 225 horsepower. Although the first SHO models were available only with manual transmission, the 1997 edition comes only with a four-speed automatic.

To distinguish the SHO from other Tauruses, it wears a unique front fascia, rear decklid spoiler, a flared rocker panel, chrome exhaust tips and chrome-plated wheels with larger tires. Equipment includes four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, front bucket seats and speed-sensitive power steering. A short option list includes automatic climate control, leather seating, upgraded audio system and keyless remote entry. Although the newest generation SHO has lost a bit of its sporty appeal, the luxury quotient is increased.

GENERAL MOTORS EV1

If you live in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix or Tucson, you're going to see an entirely new type of car. At selected Saeurn dealers in Southern California and Arizona only, GM is putting the EV1 on sale. This is the first modern purpose-built electric car available to the public (as opposed to a traditional car converted to run on electricity). It is also the first car branded as a General Motors car, rather than a divisional name tag.

The EV1 is a two-passenger commuter car with features that include dual airbags, anti-lock brakes, CD player, air conditioning and cruise control. You won't actually be able to buy one: It will be available only for lease. Based on a price around $35,000, it's still too low for GM to profit on this technology. Lessees will also have to live with inconvenience compared to gas engine cars. GM claims a maximum driving range of about 90 miles, with GO miles more likely in stop-and-go commuting. Approximately three hours are required for a recharge from a special 220volt charging unit, or 15 hours from 110-volt household current. With 137 horsepower, acceleration will actually be rather quick, smooth and quiet. Just don't get caught far from an electric outlet; and have plenty of time to spare when you get there.

VOLVO 850

The 850 will get a facelift and even an all-wheel-drive on 1998 I models released for sale in the first quarter of'97. Meanwhile, Volvo is adding motivation under the hood of the 850 for 1997. Although the base model retains the 168-horsepower version of the five-cylinder engine, the GLT model gets a "light pressure" turbocharged version. This brings power up to 190 horsepower and reaches peak torque at low speeds to improve drivability. This model gets no "turbo" badging, which is left to the 222-horsepower model. If that's still not enough, the 850 R model receives a 240-horsepower version of this engine. That model will get the full sport treatment, including huge super low-profile 17-inch tires and a firm suspension.

Despite all the emphasis on performance editions, the 850 remains a stout family sedan and wagon. Included are side airbags and antilock brakes, along with plenty of other safety features. The wagon is a particular delight for the practical-minded with such features as a rear seatback that can fold completely flat. Look for prices from around $35,000 to more than $45,000 for a luxury-laden 850 R.

MITSUBISHI DIAMANTE

After taking a year off, the Diamante is back and all new for 1997. This time it's a sedan only, no wagon model. But like its wagon predecessor, it will be the only car sold in the United States that is built in Australia.

Compared to the previous sedan, the Diamante is more space efficient. It's close to the same size, a bit longer, but with increased passenger and cargo room. The engine is larger, now a 3.5-liter V-G producing a commendable 210 horsepower and plenty of torque. The automatic transmission is computer-controlled, sensing the driver's style. It will downshift on hills and into corners, always seeming to put the car in the right gear. Acceleration is always swift and silent.

A sophisticated suspension provides a cushioned ride, yet plants the tires to the ground for good handling. Two trim levels are offered. The ES begins with modest equipment for a luxury car, lacking power seats and anti-lock brakes. The starting price is around $26,000. For $29,900, the LS will add wood-grain accents and leather upholstery and the options list will still keep the price below $35,000.

PONTIAC GRAND PRIX

Starting out on an all-new platform, the 1997 Grand Prix has become a far better contender in the midsize segment. Unlike most others, Pontiac gives you a choice of coupe or sedan, both sharing the same swoopy, but no longer garish styling.

In the base SE sedan, you start with a modest 3.1-liter V-6. The GT coupe and sedan gain a large boost in power with the standard 195horsepower 3.8-liter V-6, a particularly smooth and fuel-efficient powerplant. If that's still not enough, you can add the GTP package that includes a supercharged version of the 3.8, which pumps out 240 wild ponies. All models begin with anti-lock brakes plus power windows, mirrors and door locks.

The Grand Prix still works quite well as a comfortable family transport. There is ample space for five adults and a generous trunk. The automatic transmission is set up to shift a bit more abruptly than some, a result of aiming at a more sporting crowd. For a starting price of $18,579, that reaches to around $25,000 when you add the full complement of options.

BUICK CENTURY

Buick is three years ahead, ushering in a new Century for 1997. The replacement is a larger car than its predecessor, with four more inches added to the wheelbase. It is also nearly five inches longer overall, four inches wider and more than two inches taller. Net result is more room for passengers and cargo. In fact, the Century is now larger than the Regal, at least until the new Regal arrives in a few months.

Styling is also more in line with other Buicks. The oval grille and wrap-around headlamps look the part of a car that's a member of the Park Avenue family. There are two versions, the Custom and the Limited. The only engine is the same 3.1-liter V-6 that was optional in the past. With 160 horsepower pushing around a heavier car, the Century is not exactly quick.

This remains a family sedan with full six-passenger seating. Standard equipment includes air conditioning, power windows, tilt steering wheel, remote outside mirrors, ABS brakes and AM/FM radio. Base pricing should be upwards from $17,000.

CHEVROLET MALIBU

Chevrolet is bringing back an old nameplate and applying it to a brand new car. Essentially replacing the discontinued Corsica, this is a compact with near-midsize interior room. Its wheelbase is stretched for more interior room and a better ride.

This is the first modern car from Chevrolet with an international design. Although the interior is reminiscent of other Chevy products, this is the new Chevrolet, where ergonomics are exemplary and styling is modern.

The standard four-cylinder is the same dual overhead cam 2.4 liter unit that powers the Cavalier Z24 with 150 horsepower. Those who are looking for a little more power will be able to equip the Malibu with a 3.1-liter V-6. Either way, the only transmission is a four-speed automatic. Other standard equipment includes dual front airbags, shoulder height adjustable seatbelts, air conditioning, PassLock anti-theft system, tilt steering wheel and four-wheel independent suspension. Prices will start around $17,000 for 1997 models.

A mid industry reports that Toyota has dramatically cut the costs of building the Camry, the end result is a bit larger and more powerful car. The station wagon and coupe models have been dropped and although the sedan is slightly longer, wider and taller, interior measurements change lithe. A significant increase in wheelbase smoothes the ride. Overall, this remains the consummate family sedan with an unrivaled track record for quality. There are numerous convenience features, a well designed dashboard and excellent outward visibility.

The drivetrain is essentially a carry-over with a choice of a 133-horsepower (130 in California) 2.2-liter four-cylinder or 194-horsepower 3.0liter V-6. For the first time, a five-speed manual is available with the V-6, but only in the lowest trim level. Also available is a four-speed automatic. Standard features include auto-off headlamps, split fold-down lockable rear seatbacks, center console, remote trunk and fuel door releases and a full-size spare tire. V-6 models also get four-wheel-disc brakes and larger wheels and tires. Prices have come down slightly from 1996, ranging from $16,398 to the mid-$20,000s.

TOYOTA CAMRY

NISSAN MAXIMA

A facelift is designed to revive interest in Nissan's premium sedan. There is a new grille, headlights, tail lights, bumpers and trunk lid. The SE model gets new 16-inch wheels, while the GLE also gets new wheels, and the GXE gets new wheel covers. A programmable garage door opener becomes standard on the GLE and optional on the SE. With Maxima, Nissan is competing in the hotly contested "near luxury" midsize category. With a pleasantly powerful 190horsepower V-6 driving the front wheels, the Maxima comes in three different personalities. The SE is the sporty model and among the few cars still with a manual transmission. The ride quality is a bit stiff, but the result is quite good handling characteristics. In either the GXE or GLE, cornering ability and sporty attitude is sacrificed for a much more plush ride. The luxury GLE comes only with the four-speed automatic that's optional on the other two.

Prices for 1997 begin at $21,499 and reach nearly $30,000 with all options.

OLDSMOBILE CUTLASS

OIdsmobile keeps changing the rules of what a Cutlass is. The Cutlass Supreme is different than the Cutlass and the former will actually be replaced by a new car, called the Intrigue, during 1997. Meanwhile, this Cutlass is all new and takes the place of the Ciera in the Oldsmobile line-up.

It shares its platform with the new Chevrolet Malibu. As such, it's a compact car with generous interior room. It comes with a standard 155-horsepower V-6 engine.

As a replacement for the aging (15 years since the last redesign) Ciera, the Cutlass is a thoroughly modern and efficient family sedan. The wheelbase is longer than that of the Ciera to provide more interior room and a better ride. It's also a bit taller, but most ocher dimensions are quite similar. There is one other dramatic improvement: dual airbags and shoulder height adjustable seatbelts instead of door-mounted passive belts. Prices should start somewhere around $17,00-$18,000.

Last year, Saturn restyled its sedan and wagon, leaving the coupe unchanged. Now the coupe joins the family, becoming more like its siblings than ever. It gets the same longer wheelbase, although it does retain a bit more of the old look, and exposed headlights rather than pop-ups.

Additional insulation is aimed at reducing noise levels, a problem that Saturn has been chasing since its inception. It still has a distance to go. Inside, changes are just as significant. The longer wheelbase allows for improved interior room and there is a "seatbelt presenter" that makes it easier to get buckled in. Retained is the same "modular" dash panel that seems somewhat crudely built with various pieces that have a tacked-on appearance. There are quirks, such as with the optional traction control (included with anti-lock brakes for a bargain $695), and the indicator light stays on in the "normal" position, a deviation from standard industry practice.

For a base price of $12,895 with a range to $18,705 with all the options, Saturn Coupe prices seem reasonable. However, since the dealers don't discount, the car might fairly be compared to others with a higher list price.

SATURN COUPE

HYUNDAI ELANTRA

To improve its quality reputation, Hyundai is in the midst of revamping its line-up with improved vehicles. A new Elantra arrived recently in a choice of sedan or a new, rather sporty looking station wagon. Exterior styling gives the car a fresh appearance without going to extremes. Inside, good design continues with large rotary knobs for heat, ventilation and air conditioning.

Two models are available, Elantra and Elantra GLS, both sharing the same peppy four-cylinder engine. It can be coupled to either a five-speed manual or four-speed electronically-controlled automatic transmission. Standard equipment includes digital clock, rear window defroster, door map pockets and tilt steering column. GLS models get AM/FM/cassette with four speakers, center armrest, power door locks and outside mirrors. GLS models also have a split-folding rear seat, although it cannot be locked, compromising security. Prices start at $10,899 and can top out above $16,000.

MERCURY TRACER

With a new generation on the market, the Tracer (and its twin, the Ford Escort) has lost the dubious distinction of being the last vehicle left on the market to be equipped with motorized seatbelts. Tracer joins the modern automotive era with dual airbags, shoulder height adjustable three-point front seatbelts and an overall improvement in refinement.

Still an affordable sedan or wagon, the Tracer gains in standard horsepower and equipment levels. Starting out at $11,560 and remaining below $15,000 when very well equipped, the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine puts out 110 horsepower that keeps it competitive.

There are two trim levels, GS and LS. The wagon comes only in LS trim. Standard equipment includes AM/FM stereo, digital clock, dual outside mirrors and a fold-down rear seat. The LS model adds full carpeting, better sound insulation, tachometer and a split fold-down rear seat. Options include air conditioning, anti-lock brakes and an integrated child seat.

Mitsubishi is getting more serious about the small car segment with a new Mirage. A sedan returns to the retail line-up for 1997. A coupe model remains, sportier than before. Styling on the coupe and sedan is quite different, the two sharing no sheet metal except the trunk lid.

Both are offered in either DE or LS trim level. Standard equipment levels include shoulder-height adjustable front seatbelts, door map pockets, center console with storage and rear window defroster. Optional on the sedan and standard on the LS coupe are split folding rear seats. However, they cannot be locked, compromising the security of the trunk.

DE models are powered by a modest 92-horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder. LS models get a fairly potent 113-horsepower 1.8-liter engine. Either can be equipped with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. Priced from about $11,000 to $1G,000, the Mirage offers reasonable interior room and decent ride quality. A particularly sophisticated four-wheel independent suspension gives the Mirage surprisingly good handling. The coupe in particular is capable of the kind of sporting performance usually found in more expensive alternatives.

MITSUBISHI MIRAGE LS

VOLKSWAGEN PASSAT TDI

For many car buyers, the Passat is something of an enigma. It's a luxury sedan or wagon built by Volkswagen. And while the Passat finds complete acceptance as a luxury car in Europe, VW must offer the Passat at bargain prices to find an American audience. Starting out around $19,000, this is a car equipped to the hilt with fourwheel-disc brakes, premium CD stereo, power windows, lockable split fold-down rear seats and tilt steering wheel. The short option list includes anti-lock brakes, leather upholstery, power moonroof and an automatic transmission.

The latest iteration, however, isn't available with the automatic. The TDI's terminology stands for Turbo-diesel Direct Injection. This is a 90-horsepower engine with plenty of torque. It can keep up with traffic while attaining fuel economy in the mid-40 mpg range. It's not so tough finding diesel fuel when you can go 830 miles between fill-ups. Yet it still drives like a refined European thoroughbred with the kind of room and comfort tall adults will enjoy.

SUBARU IMPREZA OUTBACK SPORT

After years of soughing it out, Subaru found success when it introduced its Legacy Outback. Now the company is prying open this niche by adding the "Outback" name to its compact Impreza. The Impreza Outback Sport is a matter of taking a well-equipped Impreza all-wheel-drive wagon, putting a bigger engine under the hood and adding some styling features.

With a new grille, bumper and spoiler, plus a tougher looking interior woven fabric, the Outback Sport looks the part of a capable, if small, wagon. Under the hood is 137-horsepower worth of 2.2-liter horizontally opposed engine, with four-wheel independent suspension and a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system.

Standard features include everything from power windows and locks to air conditioning and an 80-watt stereo. Prices begin in the $18,000 range and the only options are automatic transmission, alloy wheels, cruise control, a rear spoiler and CD player. At the budget end of the Impreza line is the Brighton Coupe, still with all-wheel drive, starting out near $14,000.

Although the Lumina Minivan is gone, few will miss it. In its place is an all-new vehicle renamed Venture. This time, Chevrolet goes from Abeing a minor player to a "must see" among minivan purchasers. It starts off with a solid performing 3.4-liter V-6 sending power to the front wheels via the most refined automatic transmission in vandom. You can get it with dual sliding doors and, unique to General Motors, a righthand powered sliding door. Touch a button on the overhead, by the door or on the keyless remote entry fob and the door magically opens and closes. It's a feature which, once you try, you won't want to be without. Prices haven't been announced yet for 1997. While the width is slightly more narrow than competing vehicles, interior passenger space suffers little.

Ride and handling is where the Venture really excels. You can stuff it full of people and still glide gently over some rather rough road surfaces. You'll be pleasantly surprised by the "I see the bumps, but I just don't feel them" syndrome. And while cornering ability may not rival a good sedan, no minivan does better.

CHEVROLET VENTURE MINIVAN

SUBARU LEGACY OUTBACK

In a clever marketing move, Subaru has taken its Legacy station wagon, made a few minor changes, and dubbed it a "sport-utility wagon." The result is a sales success for the company, yet it also has the serendipitous effect of being a more sensible purchase for many people who might otherwise substitute a more truck-like vehicle. The Outback follows fashion but, because it is more car than truck it is more comfortable, easier to drive and has better road manners. With a well-equipped price of $22,990, it also costs less. Those who want serious luxury can find the new-for-'97 Outback Limited. At $24,690, this includes leather and heated seats.

The Outback may not be up to the most serious off-road excursions. But unless you plan to attack really tough terrain, there is enough ground clearance and skid plates to protect the underbody. The best part is Subaru's full-time all-wheel-drive system. There's no low-range for steep, rocky slopes, but it does a great job of sending power to where traction is best. For slippery pavement and dirt roads, this is a much better setup than most 4WD systems.

GMC JIMMY

GMC's compact sport-utility vehicle (a twin to Chevy's Blazer) gains a new optional litigate/liftglass on four-door models. It permits opening just the glass without having to raise the entire liftgate. Another addition for those who choose the full-time all-wheel-drive four-door model are the four-wheel-disc brakes.

There is also a new item on the option list: Jimmy joins the parade of vehicles now offering a HomeLink universal transmitter built into the overhead console. Also available overhead is a new optional power sunroof.

The Jimmy is available in two- or four-door models in either standard rear-wheel drive, part-time four-wheel drive or, four-door only, with all-wheel drive. They can be equipped modestly or luxuriously, depending upon whether your budget is nearer to the $21,154 base price or reaches closer to $30,000.

All models get a powerful 4.3-liter V-6 engine. A five-speed manual is available in two-door models, with a four-speed automatic optional with two doors and standard with four. Luxury-oriented urbanites might prefer a leather-lined SLT.

Tired of letting Chevrolet have all the marbles, Ford is entering the fray with a full-size four-door sport-utility vehicle. Its size is half-way between Chevy's Tahoe and Suburban and styling is quite similar to Ford's own top selling Explorer.

From the front seats forward, the Expedition is very similar to Ford's new F-150 pickup, with the same car-like dashboard chat includes dual front airbags, rounded aerodynamic sheet metal and a new independent front suspension. Unlike the pickup, it gets a more car-like and sophisticated rear suspension. The result is a very refined ride quality and handling about as good as a 5,000-pound truck can get. The interior is plush and a third row seat is available for eight- or nine-passenger seating.

Under the hood is a choice of a 4.6- or 5.4-liter overhead cam V-8, coupled to a four-speed automatic transmission. You also have a choice of rear-drive or Ford's sophisticated Control Trac four-wheel-drive system. Control Trac can be used effectively on or off the road and performs admirably in either. Prices start at $27,910 for a well-equipped 2WD XLT model and a luxurious Eddie Bauer 4x4 is $34,515.

FORD EXPEDITION

JEEP WRANGLER

If you fell asleep in 1944 and just woke up, you'd still recognize the new 1997 Wrangler as an honest-to-goodness Jeep. This is the one with enough authentic heritage to survive on looks alone. Yet it also gives you the most off-road capability of anything in its class. The four-wheel-drive system isn't sophisticated enough to use on pavement, but it still tackles the tough stuff.

Yet the rest of the vehicle has been softened up tO make this a more pleasant vehicle for everyday driving. A new suspension system provides an affable ride and also manages to corner adroidy. There is less wind noise and the interior now looks like a modern vehicle rather than a refugee from decades past.

Acceleration is still moderate, whether you choose the 120-horsepower four-cylinder or 181-horsepower inline-six. You get a choice of a manual or automatic transmission. The automatic has three speeds on both the four- and six-cylinder engines. Both are available as five-speed manual transmissions. Prices begin at $13,495, but can quickly reach above $20,000 when you get all the options.

OLDSMOBILE SILHOUETTE

While Chevrolet is ditching the old name for its all-new minivan, Oldsmobile is keeping the Silhouette moniker. But this sibling to the Venture is completely new. It has the same basic mechanical features, sharing that smooch automatic transmission, 180-horsepower V-6 and remarkably compliant suspension. It also gets the option of dual sliding doors. Oldsmobile will go Chevy one better in terms of both standard and optional features, at a commensurably higher price. Look to start in the low-$20,000s, but remain below $30,000 with a leacher enhanced luxo-tourer.

Standard equipment indudes air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, cruise control, programmable automatic door locks, anti-lock brakes, fog lamps, roof rack and power windows. A GL model adds remote keyless entry, power sliding door, power front seats and an overhead console with a trip computer. The top GLS modd gets a touring suspension package, rear air conditioner, traction control, alloy wheels and rear radio controls. A variety of seating configurations adds convenience and are easier to remove and fold than the competitions'.

It has taken more than two decades to replace the XJS but the XK8 does double duty. It not only replaces its predecessor with a more modern sports car, but also harkens back to a more voluptuous era of Jaguar design and performance. Available as coupe ($65,480) or convertible ($70,480) the XK8 is a stunning automobile, capable of coddling its occupants while maintaining very rapid progress over nearly any roadway. It can be a poseur driven in stately elegance or a thoroughbred charging aggressively through sinuous passageways.

Seeing to the performance aspect is Jaguar's first V-8 engine. This 4.0-liter powerplant produces a generous 290 horsepower through a marvelously refined five-speed automatic transmission. The four-wheel independent wishbone suspension would feel at home on the racetrack. Seventeen-inch low-profile tires hold a tenacious grip, yet never seem to add extra harshness or noise to the passenger compartment. There's no shortage of modern technology. Of course, occupants are treated to scads of polished wood and supple leather. The convertible's fully automatic top keeps wind noise at bay and the structure is drum tight. But the best part may simply be the view of this majestically crafted automotive artwork.

JAGUAR XK8

BMW M3

After arriving as a coupe last year, BMW is bringing out a sedan version of the quickest and most nimble of the 3-Series cars. With a 240-horsepower 3.2-liter inline-six cylinder engine, the M3 is a real powerhouse of a compact car. It will be available with either a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. The coupe also returns but only with a manual.

With prices starting at just under $40,000, the M3 offers modest interior room. Styling differs from other 3-Series cars by having ultra low-profile 17-inch tires and a deep front spoiler and side skirts. The engine pulls well enough at low rpm, then improves as the revs climb.

All this power is well controlled by one of the most solid chassis and sophisticated suspension designs on the market. Traction control tames the rear wheels on slippery roads and leather seats wrap front passengers securely. Handling is remarkably tight, although you pay a price in ride comfort. A luxury package option adds wood trim and a few more comfort items.

HYUNDAI TIBURON

A new offering at Hyundai is an attractive sporty coupe. Aggressive fender blisters, a low, sloping hood line and oversized and elliptical projector headlights set the Tiburon apart. The good looks are set on a platform that shows evidence of refinement.

An example of thoughtful design are the door handles. Rather than the typical flat handle that must be lifted up from beneath, the Tiburon has a hand grip that can be pulled out from above or below, using either hand.

Tiburon shares many of its underpinnings with the recently introduced Elantra sedan. The base engine is the same 1.8-liter four-cylinder, providing sprightly acceleration. Those who want more pep can opt for the FX model with a 140-horsepower 2.0-liter powerplant. Either choice is available with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. FX models also gain four-wheel-disc brakes and alloy wheels, along with a number of creature comforts and expanded option list. Expect prices to begin around $13,000 and climb to about $18,000 with all the options.

Looking for all the world like a home-built hot rod, the Prowler was actually created from the Chrvsler Darts bin. It shares many parts with other Chrysler vehicles such as the Neon and the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Yet it only holds two people in dose proximity. And if you need a trunk, Plymouth will sell you one that hitches to the back. Yes, a purple trailer to match the Prowler's only color choice.

With a hoopla of publicity years ahead of actual production (scheduled for the first quarter of '97) Chrysler is hoping the Prowler will attract some attention to its drab Plymouth division. With only 3,000 of these hot rods (priced in the mid-$30,000 range) sdleduled for rhis debut model year, Prowlers will go fast. Under the hood, Prowler gets a 3.5-liter V-6 with an output in the 215-horsepower range. It will be coupled to the AutoStick transmission that functions chiefiy as an automatic, but can be shifted up and down with the push of a lever. The funky dashboard has white-faced instruments, with the speedometer in the center of the car and the tachometer mounted in a pod above the steering wheel. Of all the roadsters hitting the market this year, Prowler will certainly be the least practical, but among the more interesting.

PLYMOUTH PROWLER

MERCEDES-BENZ SLK 230

It has been tried before, but never with so much success. The SLK230 is the first hardtop convertible that actually looks, feels and drives like a true coupe. But a press of a button and 25 seconds later it transforms into an open roadster. That might seem enough to ask of a $40,000 Mercedes-Benz. But there's more.

The supercharged four-cylinder engine pumps OUt 191 horsepower in such a linear fashion, the five-speed automatic transmission never has trouble choosing the correct gear. This elegant thrust is well mastered by a robust chassis and precise suspension design.

Then there is the curvaceous styling. Although just 157 inches long, the interior provides ample room for two well pampered occupants. But the driver gets the best of this lot. The SLK is happy roaming the countryside, looking for places to play. The top is secure, traction control prevents the rear wheels from spinning and anti-lock brakes help assure safe stops. An integrated roll bar and door-mounted side airbags add a further element of crash protection. This is a rare car that brings such practical elements to so much fun.

MITSUBISHI ECLIPSE SPYDER

ALready one of the best selling cars in its class, the Eclipse is Mitsubishi's best seller. Looking for more of a good dining, the company recendy added a convertible; this does wonders to improve structural rigidity, resulting in a more solid and able car with a better fitting top.

In base GS form, the Spyder starts out around $20,000 with equipment suHh as AM/FM stereo, digital dock, tilt steering wined, aluminum wheels and power windows. Thrust is supplied by a 141horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. For around $25,000, you can move up to the GS-T. This adds a rousing 210-horsepower 2.0liter turbocharged engine, along with such conveniences as leacher seats, air conditioning, HomeLink transmitter, keyless remote entry and premium audio system with CD player. Either model comes with a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.

The top is powered and includes a glass rear window. Excellent aerodynamic attributes help minimize noise levels.
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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Author:Koblenz, Jay
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Buyers Guide
Date:Nov 1, 1996
Words:6775
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