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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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...