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.
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.
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 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...