The New Cars of 1997

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

This will be a good year for car buyers.

Dream-car factories are cranking out stunning new models, and many more-ordinary cars have gotten better.

*Prices, after spiraling ever-higher for 15 years, are leveling off - in a few cases dropping: Lincoln has cut $4,000 off the price of its Continental and Mark VIII. Toyota, GM, and Audi offer new lower-priced models.

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*General Motors is striking back at rivals with impressive new minivans and mid-size sedans. Also, following Ford's lead, GM is adding a third door to ease entry to the back seat of its extended-cab pickups.

*Three new electric vehicles debut in the California market.

*In sports cars, the trend is toward retro styles as companies with a long sports-car heritage go back to their roots.

This year's large crop of new vehicles is partly the result of carmakers' efforts to shorten design-to-production cycles. The following pages present highlights of new cars and light trucks that have been significantly redesigned or have significant engine or drivetrain changes for 1997.

Sports cars

Jaguar XK8

The first all-new Jaguar in more than 10 years comes as a voluptuous coupe or roadster, and with Jaguar's first V-8 engine in history. The lines are meant to evoke Jaguar's much-loved E-type of the 1960s, which still appears on posters in the homes of car aficionados everywhere. The XK8 replaces the XJ-S, and will sell for around $75,000.

Porsche Boxster

Though the long-awaited Boxster, the first all-new model from Porsche in 18 years - and the first one purists will consider a 'real' Porsche in 30 years - will debut in January, you can't buy one. The first year's production is already sold out. But now's the time to put down your $40,000-plus to get in line for a '98. The mid-engine two-seat convertible draws on the basic theme of the mid-'50s Porsche 550 Spyder (the one James Dean drove) and uses a smaller 2.5-liter, water-cooled version of the famous Porsche 911 six-cylinder engine. For those who can afford it, it's worth waiting in line for this instant classic.

Mercedes-Benz SLK 230

Kompressor

In January, Mercedes will roll out its small SLK roadster, meant to appeal to younger, less-affluent, fun-seeking buyers. The SLK will list for about $40,000 and have a steel top that folds electrically and stows in the trunk. The car is reminiscent of a 1950s Mercedes roadster (the 190 SL; Nieman-Marcus will offer them as a pair in its Christmas catalog this year). Its supercharged engine recalls the enormous supercharged Mercedes of the '30s.

Plymouth Prowler

The Plymouth Prowler is 1997's most outrageous new car - an effort by Chrysler to put some pizazz back into its Plymouth brand. The car looks like a 1930s antique restored to a work of art. It's not. It's a thoroughly modern, if spartan, status symbol. The two-seat roadster's color palette consists of candy-grape paint with a gray leather interior and grape dashboard. Though the bathtub of a car looks like a hot rod, it doesn't sound like one, with the 3.3-liter V-6 engine and automatic transmission of the Eagle Vision sedan.

All 3,000 '97 Prowlers are already spoken for.

Chevrolet Corvette

The first all-new Corvette in 13 years is expected to hit showrooms in the spring. Details so far are sketchy, as Chevrolet has been striving to keep the car under wraps until January.

Ferrari 550 Maranello

Ferrari is going back to its roots with this new front-engine V-12 sports car. It's not as low and racy as most recent Ferraris, but captures the spirit of Ferrari's more comfortable long-distance tourers of the 1960s.

BMW Z5

Probably a 1998 model, the Z5 is a coupe based on this year's Z3 roadster. No details have been released.

Sporty coupes/convertibles

Mercedes-Benz CLK

In the spring, Mercedes will introduce its new small coupe, the CLK, based on the company's small-car "C-class" platform. The car will adopt the look, including the stylish new four-headlight front end, of the mid-size "E-class." Expect a small, four-seat CLK convertible next fall.

Hyundai Tiburon

Korean upstart Hyundai enters the affordable front-wheel-drive sporty coupe market with a splash. The Tiburon is a funky-styled two-door hatchback coupe for under $20,000, in much the same vein as the original Datsun 240Z in 1970. And it's a ball to drive.

Honda Prelude

The last-generation Prelude - a Japanese Trans-Am wanna-be - didn't sell. So Honda has gone back to the Prelude's roots for '97. The car is a more conservative two-door notchback with a more realistic rear seat. It sports the same small-but-powerful 196-horsepower four-cylinder V-TEC engine as its predecessor and an optional new transaxle that can deliver extra power to the outside cornering wheel.

Volvo C70

Next June, Volvo will introduce a new four-seat coupe as a 1998 model. It's front-wheel drive for practical-minded buyers, but tries to lure sporty-car people to the brand. A convertible version will follow.

Toyota Paseo convertible

Looking for a cheap, fun convertible? The new Paseo ragtop may fill the bill. The convertible keeps the Paseo coupe's full-size back seat and has a fully insulated, manually operated convertible top with a glass rear window that comes with electric defrost. Prices start at $16,728.

Saturn SC1/SC2

The new Saturn coupes are slightly larger and much better-looking than before. More important, they're also quieter. Prices range from $12,895 to $20,220.

Economy cars

Ford Escort

The new Escort has a revised, slightly rounder, and more unified exterior, slightly firmer suspension for better handling, and a modified engine that produces 25 percent more power than before. The '97 also meets California's strict Low Emission Vehicle standards.

Mitsubishi Mirage

The entry-level Mirage is also new from the ground up. It's available as a two-door coupe or four-door sedan, each in two trim levels. The LSs get more power in addition to more creature comforts. The well-equipped LS coupe seems a bargain in this class at around $15,500.

Small cars

Audi A4 1.8T

Audi's new base model for 1997 will slide in $4,440 below last year's A4 price leader. It's still a compact A4 sedan, but with a smaller four-cylinder turbocharged 1.8-liter engine. Prices for the A4 1.8T start at $22,990, and the all-wheel-drive quattro option is available for an extra $1,600.

Mid-size cars

Chevrolet Malibu

Malibu is a new model for Chevrolet with an old name. It is Chevy's version of GM's new mid-size sedan. (The others are the Pontiac Grand Prix, the Oldsmobile Intrigue, and the Buick Century.) The Malibu is slightly smaller than Chevrolet's Lumina, which competes directly with the Ford Taurus.

Pontiac Grand Prix

The sportiest of the new mid-size GM sedans, the Grand Prix has a less-formal, more coupe-like roofline. And unlike the other three models in this quadruplet, the Grand Prix is available as a coupe as well as a four-door sedan. The typical Pontiac "boy-racer" bodywork is more subtle now, and the car is more stylish. The base 3.1-liter V-6 engine provides 160 horsepower. The mid-level GT upgrades that to a 195 horsepower 3.8-liter V-6. The GTP is the real hot rod, with a 240-horsepower supercharged version of the latter engine under the hood.

Oldsmobile Intrigue

The Intrigue replaces last year's Ciera, and Oldsmobile marketers hope it will appeal to younger Honda Accord and Toyota Camry buyers. The Intrigue is a far more modern car, with better controls and a better handling. Meanwhile, Oldsmobile's Cutlass Supreme gets updated next year.

Buick Century

Similar to Oldsmobile Intrigue and Chevrolet Malibu. The V-6 engine is standard.

Buick Regal

A new Regal is expected to be introduced in the spring as a '97 model. No details are available yet.

Cadillac Catera

Catera is Cadillac's latest attempt at an entry-level car, but it's not a clone of the new mid-size cars from GM's lower divisions. The $35,000 sedan is based on the Opel Omega, made by GM's German subsidiary. The Catera's 200-horsepower V-6 engine drives the rear wheels. The car handles sure-footedly and is a snappy performer, but the interior appointments seem cheap and plasticky for a Cadillac.

Toyota Camry

When it comes to comfortable, economical, reliable transportation, the new "decontented" (simplified) Camry beats even its forebears with a price $400 lower than the '96s (the new ones range from $16,758 to $24,018). It's quieter, lighter, more powerful, and more formal-looking than its predecessor. Coupe and station-wagon models have been dropped; only the four-door sedan is available.

Lexus ES300

The popular ES300, billed as an "entry-luxury" sedan, is all new for '97. The car is ever so slightly larger than the previous model and aims to give a more sporty feel while maintaining the smoothness and quiet for which Toyota's Lexus division is known. A new adaptive suspension system improves both ride and handling. Starting at just over $30,000, the ES300 should be as popular as ever.

Luxury cars

Audi A8

Audi's entry into the V-8-powered luxury-sedan market. What sets the A8 apart is its lightweight all-aluminum body as well as standard front-wheel-drive and the availability of Audi's signature all-wheel-drive. But the extra features come at an added expense compared with its competition: $56,900 for the "base" two-wheel-drive model and $64,500 for the all-wheel-drive model with its larger V-8.

Infinity Q45

The new Q-ship in Nissan's Infinity line takes on a more luxurious, less sporty image to compete with offerings from Lexus and Honda's Acura unit. But it still packs more performance than these competitors.

Mitsubishi Diamante

The redesigned Diamante is slightly larger, significantly more powerful, and lighter than its predecessor. Mitsubishi has adopted more conservative styling to go after buyers of the Toyota Camry and Nissan Maxima, as well as mid-level Acura and Lexus models.

Buick Park Avenue

The Park Ave. and Park Ave. Ultra are completely redesigned for '97. The styling is elegant and reminiscent of Jaguar sedans - only larger. But the Park Ave. doesn't feel large to drive. Handling is crisp, and the car is plenty powerful. The price is $29,995 for the base Park Ave. and $34,995 for the very powerful Ultra.

Bentley Continental T

Bentley's new flagship, the Continental T, is a four-passenger coupe on a Bentley scale: It's far larger, taller, and more imposing than anything built by Mercedes-Benz or even Lincoln. The wool carpet has inch-high pile, and the leather is softer than any living-room sofa. And with a 400-horsepower turbocharged V-8 engine, this hand-built coupe is fast. All this for less than $325,000!

Oldsmobile

Regency

A new name for the Olds 98.

Station wagons

Subaru Impreza

Outback Sport

Subaru takes the "sport-utility wagon" idea behind its hot-selling Legacy Outback and applies it to the smaller Impreza wagon.

Volvo 850

Volvo is also jumping into the "sport-utility wagon" fray in June with a new all-wheel-drive variant. The new wagon will also be a 1998 model.

Minivans

Chevrolet Venture

GM also redesigned its front-wheel-drive minivans for '97 to compete with the enormously popular Chrysler products. While the last-generation "ant-eater" Lumina APV couldn't be missed in a crowd, the new Venture is much more mainstream. The hood isn't so long, and better visibility out the front should make the vehicle much easier to park. Interior room is much greater and seating arrangements more versatile. And like the Chrysler, the Venture offers an optional second sliding door on the left side. All three new General Motors minivans come in short and long versions.

Pontiac Trans Sport

The redesigned Trans Sport is a sister to the Chevrolet Venture. The main difference is the Montana option package, which makes the car look like a minivan version of the Subaru Outback. The Trans-Sport Montana has bigger tires, stiffer suspension for better handling, automatic load-leveling, and gray fiberglass bumpers and lower bodyside panels. While the Montana proved surprisingly easy to drive quickly around a track, the softer standard suspension seems more suitable for most minivan applications. The Trans Sport has a user-friendly layout, plenty of storage nooks, and the only electrically operated sliding door on the market.

Oldsmobile Silhouette

Similar to the Chevrolet Venture and Pontiac Trans Sport.

Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge

Chrysler stays a jump ahead with the reintroduction of all-wheel-drive as an option on its '97 minivans.

Full-size vans

GMC Savana

GM last redesigned its full-size vans 25 years ago. Every model since then has been a slightly updated version of that van - until now. The new Savana is larger, roomier, more aerodynamic, and has a much more ergonomic interior than any previous GM van. It is based on the full-size GM C/K pickup line, which has been around since 1988.

Chevy Van/Chevy Express

Cargo and passenger versions of GM's new full-size van. Same as GMC Savana.

Ford Econoline/Club Wagon

The Econoline and its variants - the Club Wagon passenger van and "chassis-cab" RV platform - get a new 6.8-liter V-10 version of Ford's new modular overhead-camshaft engines. The V-10 will make its way into Ford's new one-ton pickup next year.

Small Sport-Utilities

Honda CR-V

Honda's long-awaited entry into the emerging subcompact sport-utility market is scheduled to debut in January. The Civic-based CR-V is slightly longer and lower than its competition from Toyota, the RAV4, and has a tad more room inside. In Japan it outsells the RAV4 by a 3 to 1 margin, and its performance could be similar here. It also has some nifty touches, such as a fold-away picnic table in the back.

Mid-size Sport-Utilities

Mercedes-Benz AAV

Mercedes jumps into the sport-utility fray with its AAV or All Activity Vehicle next spring. At around $35,000, the AAV is planned to compete with the upscale Ford Explorer Limited and Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited.

Ford Explorer

To keep up with archrival Chevrolet's 195-horsepower Blazer, the Explorer gets a new 205-horsepower V-6 engine this year. The new Explorer feels a lot sprightlier than last year's 160-HP version. The new engine gets better fuel mileage - by one mile per gallon - with a new five-speed automatic transmission, the first in a sport-utility. These gains, plus the availability of switchable full-time and part-time four-wheel-drive, finally make the Explorer a vehicle that does everything right.

Mercury Mountaineer

Mercury's new version of the popular Ford Explorer comes exclusively with a V-8 engine and full-time all-wheel-drive.

Infinity QX4

Nissan's luxury division will pick up a version of the Pathfinder sport-utility vehicle replete with leather seats and all the luxo-goodies. Unlike the Pathfinder, the QX4 will also feature a full-time all-wheel-drive system for buyers who are more likely to appreciate the vehicle's sure-footedness in bad weather than to miss the Pathfinder's off-road capabilities.

Mitsubishi Montero Sport

Due out in the spring is an all-new, smaller sport-utility from Mitsubishi that will compete with the Toyota 4Runner and Nissan Pathfinder. The Montero Sport is more spacious inside than either of those rivals but slightly smaller outside. With somewhat simpler underpinnings, it could undercut Toyota's and Nissan's prices by a couple thousand dollars.

Large Sport-Utilities

Ford Expedition

The vast Expedition is an all-new vehicle, slightly larger than GM's rival Chevy Tahoe and a foot and a half shorter than Chevy's behemoth Suburban. Think of it as an Explorer scaled up 25 percent. The Expedition is available with seating for nine, with two- or four-wheel-drive, and in a variety of plush levels. In any case, it's powered by one of two V-8 engines and gets 13 to 17 miles per gallon. Prices run between $30,000 and $40,000.

Lincoln Navigator

This is Lincoln's leather-clad version of Ford's new Expedition - with more bells and whistles than a toy store at Christmas - is expected to debut in the spring as a '97 or '98 model.

Mitsubishi Montero

The Montero is the same old sport-utility truck, with a bigger, 3.5-liter engine. It's still not nearly as large as the Expedition, but it costs about the same - $30,000 to $40,000.

Pickup trucks

Ford F-250

The 3/4-ton pickup adopts aerodynamic styling and carlike features of the '97 F-150 that came out last January.

Dodge Dakota

With the completely revamped '97 Dakota pickup, Dodge has extended the Ram Tough semi-truck image to its mid-size Dakota. The cab has more room than before, and the controls are more modern. Otherwise, drivetrains and overall feel are about the same.

Exotic cars

Lamborghini Diablo VT

An open-air version of Lamborghini's top-of-the-line $250,000 two-seater, this Diablo adds all-wheel-drive.

Lotus Esprit V-8

Lotus's only model for the US, the Esprit, gets a new twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V-8 engine to replace the old turbo 2.2-liter four-cylinder. The estimated price is $85,000.

Vector M12

The exotic American supercar debuts anew with a V-12 engine made by Lamborghini. Cost: $184,000 by one report.

Electric cars

GM EV-1

The first modern electric-powered vehicle for the masses went on sale this fall in parts of Arizona and Southern California. The tiny two-seaters can only be leased, to protect consumers from potential devastating depreciation. (Consumers wouldn't buy them otherwise.) The price is about $30,000, though state tax incentives and GM subsidies will bring that down to around $25,000. The car can travel 70 to 80 miles between 3-1/2-hour recharges.

Honda EV

Honda is jumping into the electric vehicle fray with its unoriginally named EV. The first modern four-seat electric is scheduled to go on the market for between $25,000 and $30,000 in December in some California cities.

Toyota RAV4 electric

Toyota has converted its tiny two-door RAV4 sport-utility to electric power for the California electric-vehicle market. The gasoline-powered RAV4 will still be available.

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