1997 Black Enterprise auto guide.

Author:Koblenz, Jay
Position:Buyers Guide
 
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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...

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