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1999 Spring Auto Guide.

Our picks of the best vehicles this season

Audi TT

1998 PROVED TO BE ONE OF THE BEST AND MOST profitable years the auto industry has ever had, and nearly manufacturer ix healthy and happy. There are a few exceptions, however. Of the Japanese automakers, Nissan and Mitsubishi are fiscally troubled. In Korea, all brands are struggling although Hyundai purchased the assets of bankrupt Kia. But all U.S. and European brands are as hearty as ever.

To consumers, this means there's money to fuel further development, so cars will remain interesting and functional. But it also means limited bargains out there. For the first time ever, trucks now account for more than half the vehicle sales in America. With the public still clamoring for SUVs, the bargains continue to be found elsewhere. There are too many factories building too many passenger cars, so those are the vehicles where the best deals are to be made. Look toward the future for an over-abundance of fashionable SUVs. History has proven the tendency of this industry to keep jumping oil a bandwagon until it's overloaded. It's just a matter of meeting the demand--then exceeding it.

Those in the market for sporty cars, both luxury and economy sedans and just plain family cars will discover a renaissance of quality and value. And the first anti-SUV movement has begun with, of all things, station wagons. There's a new breed of sporty European wagons out there that offer all the luxury of a top SUV, but with far better performance and luxury.

AUDI TT WWW.AUDI.COM

Coming soon is another sports car in the $40,000 arena, giving buyers in this segment an array of very tough choices. The TT Coupe (a roadster arrives later) is among the most elegantly designed vehicles in the class. It's the only one to offer Audi's wonderful Quattro AWD system and--among serious sports car--one of very few to offer both a back seat suitable for children and decent cargo capacity.

Inside, windows are narrow and accommodations a bit tight, making entry and exit a challenge for larger and less limber folks. Controls are rather unusual yet pleasant to touch and easily deciphered, then put to use. Perhaps most striking is how well finished the entire car is, from the inside of the engine compartment to the rear hatch. Materials and shapes make this a true designer's delight. Specifications for the tiny 1.8-liter turbo-charged engine are quite deceptive: the TI' accelerates strongly with a moderately ferocious growl. This 180-horsepower 4-cylinder propels with panache. The ride is firm like a sports car, but short of punishing. Handling is wonderfully nimble and the car feels tighter than a Lycra glove.

BUICK LESABRE WWW.BUICK.COM

The LeSabre's status as the best-selling full-size car in America looks to be quite safe in the immediate future. Sibling Oldsmobile Eighty Eight is gone and there are fewer competitors than ever. So when Buick decided to give the car a complete make-over for 2000, it changed only enough to keep LeSabre owners happy. Styling, interior room and even the drivetrain won't be much different.

But that's not to say improvements won't be noticed. A new platform is said to be much more rigid. Side airbags are an important addition to these safety-conscious buyers. The interior gets a badly needed update with larger and more modern-looking gauges. There is a trunk passthrough for longer objects, but it cannot be locked, leaving a bit of a lapse in security for small objects in the trunk. The rugged 3.8-liter V-6 produces a smooth and pleasant 200 horsepower.

Pricing will change little from 1999, ranging from around $23,000 to about $30,000. The idea is an affordable way to provide 6-passenger comfort and extra luxury without breaking the bank.

BMW M WWW.BMW.COM

Styling is quite controversial for this small hatchback. It looks something like a cut-off economy car, but with big fender flares and huge tires. The front end is quite familiar as the same one is found on BMW's Z3 roadster. Essentially, this is a hardtop version of the M Roadster. It has the same powerful 240-horsepower, 3.2-liter 6-cylinder engine. By adding a roof, the company is able to more than double torsional rigidity to further enhance handling prowess.

Why build an oddly styled small hatchback that can seat only two? BMW is making a statement here: they want to continue to endear themselves to the hardcore motoring enthusiast. An interior with tight-fitting bucket seats and chrome-surrounded instruments harkens to an era of purity in sports cars. Although this is a car that may have limited appeal, that special cadre will find this $41,800 mighty mite of a car to be the ultimate of a genre. In fact, this could just be the most fun, street-legal, passenger car you can buy.

CHEVROLET SILVERADO PICKUP WWW.CHEVROLET.COM

It has been more than a decade since Chevrolet gave its full-size pickup truck a major revision. Although rivals Dodge and Ford did the same earlier this decade (1994 and 1997 respectively), Chevrolet took a far more conservative route when it came to styling. Instead of the more modern-looking Ford or aggressive Dodge, Chevrolet kept its straightforward and a bit pedestrian styling. It's worth noting that this vehicle serves as the platform for GM's SUVs, from the Suburban to the Cadillac Escalade. Those vehicles will be adopting this new platform during the next two years.

A more rigid frame provides much improved ride and handling. All-new engines are a bit smaller, but retain most of the torque with increased horsepower. The truck itself is larger with more room inside the cab. Unfortunately, passenger-side foot room is severely compromised by ventilation ducting that seems ill-placed. Prices begin at $19,758, but can grow to nearly $40,000, an unfathomable sum for a pickup truck a few years ago.

FORD MUSTANG WWW.FORDVEHICLES.COM

With an ancient platform that dates to the 1970s, the Mustang remains the most popular car of its kind. For 1999, it gets another notable update that puts some creases in the sheet metal for a smart new look. Following Ford's "new edge" theme that began with the Mercury Cougar, the Mustang gains a more racy demeanor.

Appearances are backed up beneath the hood. The base q-6 engine gains 40 badly needed horsepower. Now with 190 ponies, even the lowliest Mustang at $16,995 has enough muscle to move you quickly. By the time you reach the $31,995 Cobra Convertible, you'll have a 316-horsepower V-8. Of course, plenty of buyers will settle somewhere in between for a 302-horsepower Mustang GT.

A new feature for this rear-drive sports car is traction control that makes it at least somewhat possible to tame its manners in foul weather. But don't expect this beast to act as dignified as any number of import competitors: this is a more raucous car that appeals to more basic instincts.

INFINITI Q45 WWW.INFINITI-USA.COM

The flagship sedan at Nissan's flagship division received a mild facelift for 1999. On the outside, there are some changes to the grille and head and tail lamps, inside, the most noticeable item is the new analog clock. There are several functional changes, such as the driver selectable suspension setting, one-touch open moonroof and power rear sunshade.

What hasn't changed is the comfort and power of this sedan. Unlike the first-generation Q45, the current edition, which arrived in 1997, is considerably more conservative. The engine is also a bit smaller at 4.1 liter, although the V-8 still produces an ample 266 horsepower. Starting at $48,695, this is among the more competitively priced premium luxury imports. Standard equipment is quite plentiful, making the option list short. Ride quality is aimed more at quiet comfort than cornering thrills, but the Q45t (for "touring") adds another $1,700 to the price while giving the driver a more performance-oriented suspension and meatier 17-inch tires.

HYUNDAI SONATA WWW.HYUNDAI.COM

Working to overcome its past mistakes, Hyundai is taking steps to earn back the trust and business of the American car-buying public. The first step is to establish the best warranty in the industry. Most of the car is covered for 5 years or 60,000 miles (some parts, such as air conditioning refrigerant, spark plugs and paint have shorter coverage). The powertrain is warranted to the original owner for 10 years or 100,000 miles.

While the warranty covers all Hyundais, the Sonata is all-new. As before, it comes with a choice of 4 or 6 cylinders, with a smaller but smoother q-6. Initial impressions are quite good for a car that starts out at $15,434 and can reach to around $23,000. It's about the same size as a Toyota Camry. The suspension feels rather soft and pliant, but still manages to provide surprisingly good grip and road feel. The 170-horsepower V-6 isn't the most potent, but does a refined job. At 2.4 liters, the 149-horsepower 4-cylinder isn't that much smaller or less powerful, but just lacks the smoothness of the six.

From nice pull-out door handles to lockable split-folding seatbacks, the Sonata gets nearly all the details right.

LAND ROVER DISCOVERY WWW.LANDROVER.COM

With 85% new parts, Land Rover is calling this the Series II. The vehicle is nearly four inches wider and more than a half-foot longer than before, yet lower in height. The biggest improvement is in passenger space. The Discovery is also going more high-tech with a number of new features. Starting off are electronic controls to assist traction and handling. Active Cornering Enhancement is a complicated new option designed to reduce body roll during cornering. Beyond ABS is Electronic Brake Distribution that varies braking between front and rear axles as needed. Four-wheel traction control prevents wheelspin at speeds up to 62 mph. Finally, Hill Descent Control can be used in low range to automatically apply the brakes for going down very steep hills.

Still unchanged is Discovery's compact SUV form with room for five, plus jump seats for two children in the back--a sophisticated 4WD system that's adept at off-road travel. With a price tag ranging from $34,775 to $44,000, the only truly unfortunate aspect is the ancient V-8 engine that puts out a sub-par 188 horsepower from its 4.0 liters.

MERCEDES-BENZ E55 WWW.MERCEDES-BENZ.COM

Subtle power is the theme with the E55. Take a standard issue E-Class sedan, pump it up with a 5.5-liter 349-horsepower V-8, toss in monster 18-inch tires and a beefed up double-wishbone suspension and you have the makings of a true super car. Capable of reaching 60 mph in less than five and a half seconds, this is one $69,100 vehicle where you get your money's worth.

Courtesy of German car-tuning company AMG, this is the fastest 4-door you can buy (at least until BMW's new M5 arrives). It will provide all the performance and thrills of some rather spectacular sports cars costing as much or more.

Inside, the main differences are sporty seats to hold you in place, some more flashy graphics and a huge grin on the driver's face. Wide tires and electronic stability program tame the car's behavior for more mundane chores. A five-speed automatic transmission always finds the right gear. Perhaps the most endearing feature of the E55 is that it's content to drive peacefully every day to work or the grocery store. That is until a Corvette or Ferrari pulls up alongside, then that driver's grin turns smug.

NISSAN PATHFINDER WWW.NISSAN-USA.COM

Soon, Nissan will be offering an array of new SUVs. Although the new models are based on the Frontier pickup truck, the Pathfinder will continue as the flagship of the truck line (with additional luxury, it's also sold as the Infiniti QX4). As a mid-year model change--Nissan calls this a 99.5 model--the Pathfinder receives a number of updates. These include new sheet metal up front, a new grille and a mild boost in horsepower.

Net result is the Pathfinder is still a unibody vehicle rather than being built on a truck frame. This helps improve the ride on the road. The 3.3-liter V-6 engine produces a mild 170 horsepower, although low-rpm torque is strong enough for reasonable acceleration in town. Available in either rear- or part-time 4WD, this is among a shrinking number of SUVs unavailable with a full-time 4WD system.

Prices begin at a rather lofty $24,669 and can reach into the mid-$30,000 arena. Ride and handling are above average for this category and the interior is a quiet and pleasant place for travel.

MERCURY VILLAGER WWW.MERCURYVEHICLES.COM

The original Villager was a pleasant minivan that was quickly outmoded as competitors soon began offering more power and four doors. For 1999, Mercury catches up. It's also a larger and more comfortable minivan this time around. It gains nearly five inches in length and becomes an inch wider.

As before, the Villager is a joint venture with Nissan, which supplies many of the parts, including the drivetrain. It's built in Ohio along with near-twin, the Nissan Quest.

The new engine is a 3.3-liter V-6 that was first seen in the Nissan Pathfinder. It puts out a reasonable 170 horsepower, but with plenty of power available at low engine speeds for good acceleration in traffic. When equipped with optional 16-inch tires, the Villager is a bit more sporty than most minivans and the ride remains quiet and controlled. There are a number of clever features, including a rear package shelf for two levels of cargo. There are plenty of nooks and crannies for storage and you can have a power sliding door on both sides. Starting at $22,995, prices can approach $30,000 when all the options are added.

OLDSMOBILE SILHOUETTE WWW.OLDSMOBILE.COM

If you're looking for a way to take the family out to a show, yet you have a long way to go, Oldsmobile offers you a way to do both at the same time. The Premier Edition of the Silhouette gives you a fully loaded minivan with one extra feature: a built-in entertainment system. A small color LCD video screen flips down from the roof just aft of the front seats. There's a VCR in the center console. The audio system can either play through the speaker system or only through the headphone jacks in back. Headphones are included and front seat occupants can even listen to a different audio program simultaneously.

The only thing missing is a popcorn popper. Long distance travel with the kids will never be the same. For now, the entertainment system is available only in the top model. That means while a base Silhouette is reasonably well equipped for $24,990, the Premier Edition lists at $31,580, plus options. But then, how many movie theaters have leather-trimmed bucket seats, a load-leveling suspension, aluminum wheels, traction control and a 180-horsepower q-6 engine?

PLYMOUTH NEON WWW.PLYMOUTHCARS.COM

When the Neon arrived for 1994, it was among few small cars, at the time, that really showed some style. The large engine, for a car this small, also meant it was peppy and fun to drive. Unfortunately, reliability problems have long plagued the Neon, keeping it off many consumer "best-buy" lists. Now the company is trying again. They're keeping the cute and rounded styling, but with a bit more edge. The car itself has grown larger for more interior room and a bigger trunk. The huge trunk even expands with the split-folding rear seats, although you can't lock them, leaving security no better than in a hatchback.

Gone is the 2-door coupe version. Also gone is the more powerful DOHC engine. However, the standard SOHC still provides 132 horsepower and enough torque to keep this among the front-runners for cars in this segment. That price begins at $12,890, although it will quickly escalate until somewhere in the mid to high teens when fully equipped. Styling is quite similar to the original, enough not to be noticed by people who don't pay attention to this car. A host of changes from the full-frame door to the stiffer body are aimed at improving this car.

SATURN COUPE WWW.SATURN.COM

Coupe sales, particularly at the lower end of the market where Saturn resides, have been suffering in recent years. Several brands have dropped 2-door name plates as sales dwindled. Saturn, with only one car to its brand name, is more reticent about leaving the market. Instead of deleting the coupe, it's adding a new twist. Following the success of adding extra doors to extended cab pickups, Saturn has done the same thing with its coupe. Just behind the driver's door is a small, forward-opening rear door.

The novelty of a 3-door coupe has met with initial sales success, but it remains a question for the long term. It makes loading cargo into the rear more convenient, but takes away a bit of passenger hip room. While it makes it more convenient to install a baby seat, it forces you to do so on the street side, creating a more hazardous condition. Eventually, we could see a 4-door coupe, which may simply have people reconsidering a sporty sedan. Meanwhile, Saturn Coupes range from $12,385 to nearly $20,000.

SAAB 9-5 WAGON WWW.SAAB.COM

From the driver's seat, it's literally quite easy to forget this is a station wagon. More than any other wagon, the Saab 9-5 completely duplicates the driving feel and dynamics of the sedan. This is true whether you enjoy the comfort on an open highway or the sporty suspension through a twisting mountain road. Both the turbo-charged 170-horsepower 4-cylinder and 200-horsepower V-6 engines provide ample thrust and the availability of a manual transmission (with the 4-cylinder) means you can have some real fun, an unusual benefit for a wagon.

Most people buy wagons to haul goods, but the Saab 9-5 does it with grace and aplomb. A pull-out cargo floor extends to the rear to make loading easier. A system of cargo tie-downs is strong enough to lift the car.

Safety is attended to in so many ways, from the unique whiplash-resistant head restraints to the head/thorax side airbags, this is one confident way to travel. Wagon prices aren't set, but should be about $1,000 or so more than the $30,545 starting price of the sedan, ranging into the high $30,000 territory.

VOLKSWAGEN JETTA WWW.VW.COM

Volkswagen is on a roll these days, enjoying the sort of success and acclaim it hasn't seen in decades. For 1999, we have received a new Jetta, the best-selling VW in America. This small sedan still retains a slightly improved version of the stalwart, yet mild 115-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. Yet it proves more peppy than the numbers indicate. You also get a choice of a super-thrifty turbo diesel (42 mpg city) or a really fun 174-horsepower V-6.

Despite styling that's quite similar to the previous generation, the Jetta is nearly all new. It's a bit more roomy, considerably more quiet and retains all the fun while gaining practical and luxury features. The interior is cheerful and fresh, with materials that are pleasant to view and touch. At its most basic, a $15,345 Jetta seems like a really pleasant economy car and includes an alarm, central locking and a tilt steering wheel. By the time you get to the $21,955 GLX model, the Jetta is a small luxury sport sedan. Although rivals tend to have a bit more room, the Jetta is easily among the most fun you can have in a sedan at this price level.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:automobiles
Author:Koblenz, Jay
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Evaluation
Date:Apr 1, 1999
Words:3290
Previous Article:GOING THE DISTANCE.
Next Article:Think BIG!
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