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1997 Black Enterprise auto guide.

The latest in cars and auto trends for the new model year

While the truck theme--particularly the sport-utility arena--continues to expand, there is another automotive segment on the growth trend. Sports cars, which have been on the wane throughout the 1990s, are returning. Although the Japanese have largely abandoned this market (witness the recent demise of the 300ZX, RX-7 and MR2) the European and domestic brands are coming out with new and quite fascinating merchandise. High performance enthusiasts will have a banner 1997.

Meanwhile, imports are making greater inroads by offering more for the money. Domestic brands have failed to take advantage of the rapid escalation of Japanese car pricing in the early part of the decade, matching price increase for price increase. Since 1996 and thus far this year, the yen has continued to decline relative to the dollar. While the Japanese have held the line--and sometimes even lowered prices recently--the domestics have raised them significantly. This quest for quick profits results in reduced market share, potentially sacrificing long-term rewards. Asian automakers are beginning to regain the position as value leaders. European brands are also benefiting from currency fluctuations and domestic brand shortsightedness, and are offering more value to American customers.

The 1997 Black Enterprise Auto Guide

AUDI A4

Already a contender for being the most attractive sedan in its class, Audi's A4 became an even better value for 1997. Although it's still available with the 2.8-liter V6 engine, the new 1.8-liter engine provides a better driving experience while reducing the base price by a whopping $4,440. All you lose is a center armrest (get your dealer to install one for a modest fee) and the wood trim, replaced by a high-tech graphite look. Acceleration to 60 mph is slower by a mere 0.1 second (automatic) or .02 seconds (manual), but the seat-of-the-pants feeling actually seems quicker.

For $23,490, you still get a seriously fun-to-drive sedan with automatic climate control, power everything and anti-lock brakes. You can add a sport package with bigger tires for $1,000. But the most useful item is the $1,600 Quattro option, among the world's most sophisticated all-wheel-drive systems. The new powerplant is the first five-valve-per-cylinder production engine in the U.S. Its turbocharged and produces 150 horsepower and plenty of torque beginning at a low 1750 rpm. The A4 steps out smartly with the computerized five-speed automatic transmission ($975), or gives the driver even finer control with the five-speed manual. Powerful brakes and a sophisticated independent suspension provide delightful cornering, while ride quality is just slightly on the firm side. It all makes for a performance/luxury bargain.

INFINITI QX4

With sport-utility vehicles continuing to earn record profits at the high end of the automotive spectrum, Infiniti decided to join the growing ranks of luxury brands offering a truck. By taking Nissan Division's Pathfinder and adding a few styling elements, a more grandiose interior treatment and a more sophisticated 4WD or "All Mode" system, the QX4 was born.

For $36,045, the QX4 comes loaded with an automatic climate control, a Bose audio system with CD player, leather power seats and an alarm. The only options are heated seats, a power moonroof and a limited slip differential. You could equal most of the luxury items with a Pathfinder LE and save $2,776, but you still wouldn't get the more sophisticated 4WD system. This can be left in four-wheel drive during changing weather conditions, or put into rear drive for fuel savings. There is also a low range for extreme conditions.

The interior is beautifully well done and, if you weren't sitting up so high, you'd think you were in a luxury sedan. There is plenty of room for five well-coddled adults. The 168-horsepower 3.3-liter V6 struggles a bit to move more than two tons of truck around, but the suspension keeps the ride pleasant. And the leather-lined interior is quiet enough to take good advantage of the superb audio system.

BUICK REGAL

A new Regal is on the market as a 1997-1/2 model. This is a new platform shared with Pontiac's new Grand Prix, which went on sale last fall. While the Pontiac is available in two or four doors, the Regal comes only as a sedan.

Like the Pontiac, the Regal is offered with a choice of two drivetrains. The base engine is a rather robust 3.8-liter V6 that pumps out 195 horsepower. Yet it still manages 19 mpg city and 30 mpg highway, efficient numbers for a midsize sedan.

If that's not enough, however, the GS model adds a supercharger to this powerplant, pumping the horsepower up to 240, enough for dramatic thrust. Thus far, the Regal remains untested, but should share all the vigor and ample interior of the Grand Prix. At a starting price of $21,095, Buick wants $2,516 more for its version; add the supercharger and the price begins at $23,495.

In typical Buick fashion, expect things to be less sporty than the Pontiac. The Grand Prix already has a comfortable ride and the Regal should take that a step further by softening things up some more.

BMW Z3 2.8

BMW's Z3 is one of the most stunning cars introduced in the 1990s. It has serious character and aggressive styling that lets you know it's a real sports car. But when it first arrived last year, it was more of a gelding than a stallion, with its quite modest four-cylinder engine. In the stoplight races, it was all too frequently defeated by economy sedans.

For 1997, BMW is backing up the promise of the Z3's styling with more muscle under the hood. A 2.8-liter inline six-cylinder engine will move the horsepower quotient from 138 to a more substantial 189. To help get the extra power to the ground, you also get a wider track and larger, 16-inch tires.

Prices also increase substantially. While a four-cylinder model begins at $29,570, adding the six-cylinder will bring the tab up to $36,470. This also includes leather upholstery, a $ 1,150 option on the base car.

In essence, the Z3 is a fun, two-passenger sports car. The manual top goes up and down easily and these are a few creature comforts. But this is about driving fun and the extra power simply amplifies that experience. Tires grip the road for cornering thrills and beefy brakes keep things under control. For this price, you can find cars that go faster or provide better comfort, but this remains a uniquely capable automobile that exists for fun and always gets that job done.

CHEVROLET CORVETTE

Fulfilling its promise of high performance in a more affable package, an all-new Corvette is making its presence felt. More power and better handling may seem like overkill in a car reputed for its overbearing road presence. But a higher performance level is now more benign, allowing drivers other than trained professionals to take advantage of the Corvette's prowess. Handling is forgiving and throttle response more graceful than before.

Inside, the excessive, ostentatious and patently ugly dashboard has given way to an ergonomic and attractive panel. Entry and exit is no longer a broad jump, but a mild step. A new suspension and stiffer chassis provide more sedate ride, while still enabling newly developed Goodyear F1 tires to grip the pavement like barnacles on a ship's hull. And these tires can survive 200 careful miles without air, negating the need for a spare.

At $38,060, the Corvette is in a performance and sophistication league with cars double the price. The only disappointment is chat, unlike each prior generation of Corvette, the car has completely lost its leadership in artistic design. Albeit attractive, the shape is simply a rehash of the previous car, a form cast by committee rather than a gifted artisan. But step on the electronic throttle and you are whisked forward so quickly even this unfortunate lapse can be forgiven.

FORD EXPLORER

Growing weary of having even low-budget economy cars fly past, Ford has finally given the Explorer an engine worthy of the rest of the vehicle. They did put in a V8 as an option last year, but that was merely a stopgap widh a capable worth 4WD system. The V8 is still the top choice for those wishing to tow heavy loads, but a new V6 is more fuel-efficient, nearly as quick and more pleasant to drive for most potential owners. You still get the old V6 with its meager 160 horsepower when choosing a five-speed manual. However, most buyers choose the automatic, which now becomes a smoother five-speed unit. This is coupled to an overhead cam 205-horsepower powerplant, a mere five horsepower fewer than the heavier V8.

The extra power is available in either rear drive or an updated version of Ford's ControlTrac system. This gives you a computer-controlled four-wheel-drive system that sends power to the wheels with the best traction. A low range provides extra torque for extreme (usually off-road) conditions.

Explorer prices start at $20,610, but move quickly to the high $30,000 range for a completely loaded limited edition. In any form, the Explorer remains the most comfortable and roomy sport-utility vehicle in its class and the new engine now puts it among the best performing, completing a well-rounded package.

MAZDA MPV ALL-SPORT

Sport-utility vehicles are hot right now, but Mazda has been caught without one. However, they managed to find something more than close enough already in the stable. Mazda's MPV minivan is already available widh one of the toughest 4WD systems in a minivan. By adding some visual touches, including eyebrow fender flares, a more aggressive grille, luggage rack, alloy wheels and rear bumper guards, the MPV looks appropriate in the sport-utility role.

The rear-drive LX starts off at $23,575 and gains the All-Sport Package for another $880. But the 4WD models already include the package, beginning at $27,375 and reaching a bit over $30,000 with all the options. This is one of two vans on the market with four swing-out doors and windows that roll all the way down. And the MPV is the only one available widh 4WD. That 4WD system is part time, requiring just the push of a button to shift power to all four wheels. Another button can lock the center differential for really slippery work, something you don't get on other minivans.

The smooth-running 155-horsepower V6 provides adequate power through a four-speed automatic transmission. Handling is toward the top end of the minivan spectrum and quality is first rate. It will tow more than 4,000 pounds and carry up to eight people, although two rows of adults and one row of children are all that can be comfortable.

HONDA CR-V

Honda is joining the fray by offering its first sport-utility vehicle. (It already sells the Passport, but that's actually a substandard truck built by Isuzu.) Although the CR-V is based on the subcompact Civic, you couldn't really tell by looking at it. For one thing, it's much larger. Passenger, room is greater than a Jeep Cherokee, for example.

In typical Honda fashion, there are no options. For $19,695, all CR-Vs are quite well-equipped with such features as air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette stereo, power windows/door locks/mirrors, cruise control, tilt steering, split/folding rear seat and a Micron Air Filtration system. A second model is priced $ 1,000 higher and adds anti-lock brakes and alloy wheels. A peppy 2.0-liter engine provides good power over a wide range via a four-speed automatic transmission. A full-time all-wheel-drive system normally sends power to the front wheels, but diverts energy instantly to the rear if any slipping is detected. A comfortable, quiet ride and good handling make the CR-V very competitive.

Because it's based on a car, you don't get low-range gearing for serious off-road clambering. But with more than eight inches of ground clearance, the CR-V can handle some of the nastiest dirt roads and worst weather. And when the sun comes out, Honda even includes an integrated picnic table.

DODGE DAKOTA

Dodge has had a tough time figuring the compact truck market. At first, it called the Dakota a "midsize," making it a class of one. Since few people understood the concept, it has reverted to calling it the largest of the compact trucks.

With a starting price of $13,235, the price seems small enough. But with popular options, this bare-bones price easily escalates into the mid-$20,000 range, putting the Dakota up against full-size pickups.

Styling is new for 1997, taking many of its character lines from its full-size sibling, the Ram truck. Dakota is the only pickup available with a choice of four-, six- and eight-cylinder engines. Although the Dakota has suffered from a reputation for poor quality, it does have the advantage of versatility.

Dakota is available in regular- and long-bed models, plus a Club Cab model. The option list literally runs on for pages, making the choice more than a bit confusing. Underneath the sheet metal, this remains a basic work truck--so don't expect sophisticated ride and handling.

MAZDA MILLENIA

Mazda has made some mild improvements to its successful Millenia. Outward appearance changes a bit with a new headlight and, on base and L models, new wheels. Inside, there is a new console. A new audio system that includes a CD player provides simpler, more useful ergonomics, eliminating that excessively oversized volume knob of before.

What didn't change is an affordable luxury sedan that offers refined ride and handling, elegant, understated styling and a smooth drivetrain. Starting at $29,445, the base model has a very smooth and efficient 170-horsepower 2.5-liter V6 sending power to the front wheels through a smooth-shifting four-speed automatic. Although not the fastest, few rivals can match the refinement of this engine and the athletic ability of the Millenia's suspension.

Upgrading to the L model will cost $4,000 and add leather, keyless remote entry, power moonroof and larger wheels and tires. The performance version is the S, with its 210-horsepower Miller cycle engine topping the line at $37,045. This adds a supercharger-like boost to a small, 2.3-liter V6 without creating extra noise or fuel consumption. The S also gets a traction control system for better foul weather grip and a Bose audio system for splendid audio quality.

OLDSMOBILE BRAVADA

In many ways, Oldsmobile's Bravada resembles its siblings at Chevrolet and GMC Truck, the Blazer and Jimmy, respectively. And while the other two can be equipped similarly, the Bravada makes it simpler for the consumer to choose a fully equipped four-door sport-utility vehicle.

There is just one model of the Bravada. For $30,800, it comes with virtually everything. Items like air conditioning, power everything, remote entry, leather upholstery, alloy wheels, fog lights and luggage rack all come standard. There are just a handful of options, including a CD player, heavy-duty towing package and a power moonroof. If you prefer, you can switch to cloth upholstery.

For $2,400, this is one of two cars available where the dealer can install Oldsmobile's Guidestar system. (Oldsmobile's Eighty Eight is the other.) This is a unique system that includes a satellite navigation system and monitor to show a map and provide directions to a specific address. It will even find the nearest restaurant, gas station, museum or golf course, among other interesting sites. Maps are available for every major urban area and all major highways in the U.S. It's a technology that we'll be seeing more of, and is remarkably useful.

Other features include a full-time all-wheel-drive system, large 4.3-liter V6 engine and smooth automatic transmission. There's no low range for extreme off-road use, but the Bravada provides pleasant comfort on pavement or rough dirt roads.

PORSCHE BOXSTER

Porsche is the third German car company to bring out a new roadster within a 12-month period. When comparably equipped, it's priced a bit higher than BMW's Z3 2.8 and Mercedes-Benz's SLK230. The Boxster portends to be the sportiest of this new trio. It starts out at $40,725, with a quick jump to $43,875 if you want Porsche's Tiptronic transmission.

Under its skin, the Boxster has many chassis and suspension components from the previous generation Porsche 911. Clever use of such readily available components from Porsche's parts bin result in tremendous savings, making this the cheapest Porsche by a wide margin. The engine is a smaller displacement version of traditional opposed six cylinder engine now found in all Porsche cars. The soft top is power-operated. Those who want more weather protection will be able to purchase a bolt-on hard top.

With more than 200 horsepower pushing around a small two-passenger car, the Boxster should be rather quick. The sacrifice will be in comfort, something you'll find a bit more of in the BMW, Mercedes and even Mazda Miata alternatives.

OLDSMOBILE INTRIGUE

Oldsmobile will be introducing its first 1998 model, the Intrigue, this spring. This is a roomy midsize car with some remarkable abilities in terms of overall performance, comfort and luxury. Designed to fit the $20,000-$25,000 segment, this is a front-drive, four-door sedan. The 3.8-liter engine pumps out a healthy 195 horsepower. Later models will get a more powerful overhead cam engine, but this V6 already has a track record for reliability and economy.

There will be two trim levels--base and GL--with relatively few options. Standard equipment includes four-wheel-disc anti-lock brakes, traction control, power windows/locks, tilt steering, air conditioning and alloy wheels. The large trunk can be expanded with folding seats, but the unfortunate lack of a locking device seriously compromises trunk security.

Intrigue has considerably more passenger room than such rivals as Toyota Camry or Nissan Maxima. And while it offers equal levels of ride comfort and quiet, the stout engine and sophisticated independent suspension make it more fun to drive.

This car is a sibling to Pontiac's recently renewed Grand Prix, but it's aimed at a more import-oriented audience. With comfortable seats and well-designed interior, the Intrigue is going to please a lot of owners for many miles.

TOYOTA 4RUNNER

In February, Toyota brought its new 4Runner into the popular sport-utility market. With domestic brands raising prices with seeming wanton abandon, what was once an expensive import is starting to look like it offers some real value. With prices for the base model four-cylinder rear-drive starting at $20,308 and a loaded 4WD V6 Limited hitting $34,158, the 4Runner isn't cheap. But this remains a truck with an unmatched reputation for durability and the ability to tackle the toughest terrain and curving pavement with surprising finesse.

With a 150-horsepower 2.7-liter four-cylinder, base models accelerate acceptably well with a manual and somewhat slowly with the automatic. However, the limited edition's 183-horsepower 3.4-liter V6 has the kind of torque common to larger V8 engines and it's also among the smoothest and most fuel efficient in the class. A double wishbone front suspension handles the road in sporty fashion, although the non-independent rear reminds you this is, after all, a truck. Add the parttime 4WD system and that liability becomes a strength when trampling over boulders and sloshing through mud. The interior is functional and attractive. You don't get much at the lower prices, but there is plenty of luxury available for those on bigger budgets. And with big tires, fender flares, running boards and a chrome bumper, it's one of the most aggressive-looking vehicles on the road.

HONDA PRELUDE

A new Prelude showcases some of Honda's latest technology while fixing a few sins of the last generation. Inside, where the previous model simply demonstrated that Honda doesn't always produce good ergonomics and pleasant styling, the 1997 model returns to the corporate tradition of top-notch appearance and function.

While exterior styling is still a bit mundane, the Division's sportiest coupe brings sophisticated performance to bear. The 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine produces a generous 195 horsepower (five fewer with the automatic transmission) with the company's unique VTEC system. This is an abundant amount from an engine this size and is accomplished without turbocharging or unduly sacrificing low-rpm thrust.

There are two models. For $23,595, the base model is well-equipped with AM/FM/CD stereo, air conditioning, leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel, cruise control, power door locks/windows and alloy wheels. For another $2,500, Honda adds the Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS) that adjusts power to the front wheels, reducing understeer during high-speed cornering maneuvers. There is little difference in normal driving, but a racing enthusiast can earn faster speeds with ATTS.

MITSUBISHI MONTERO SPORT

Although Mitsubishi already has a sport utility vehicle (SUV), it's too expensive and not well suited to the mainstream American market. But don't confuse the all new Montero Sport for the Montero. The latter is the old-fashioned beast while the Sport is completely different, more affordable and a far better companion on American roads.

It's something of a basic SUV, based upon a ladder-frame truck platform in either rear drive or part-time 4WD. Yet the styling is both rugged and modern with a wide look. Inside, the Montero Sport is delightful. Instruments are clear and bright and outward view is good.

The Sport was first offered with a 173-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 engine, starting out in rear-drive form at $22,265. This spring, a somewhat meek 132-horsepower four-cylinder model will arrive at lower prices. A top-of-the line XLS is well equipped at more than $31,000, yet items like anti-lock brakes remain optional.

Handling is refined, challenging twisting roads nearly as well as a tall sedan. Yet the Sport is also fully capable of taking on some rather rugged terrain. The interior remains quiet and comfortable, akin to some of the more expensive competitors. Acceleration is just a smidgen below par, particularly with the automatic transmission, but it's rare to get caught too short on power.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, 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:Apr 1, 1997
Words:3661
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