Lower Prices: The Trick & the Treat
Competition heats up on frills and bills in this year's new cars.
More room and a greater selection for families on a budget. Livingroom comfort you can take anywhere. And more ways to personalize your car and set it off from so many others of the same model.
The 1998 model year for cars brings consumers one of the broadest array of choices ever. Automakers have beefed up their fleets with tantalizing new models and innovations. Better still are some tantalizing new prices, as a tougher marketplace brings pressure to let some of the air out of the sticker.
* Honda dropped prices as much as $2,000 on top models of its much-anticipated new Accord. The most popular versions cost about $1,000 less, and the base models, which cost a little more, come with more amenities.
* Toyota rolled out a much cheaper minivan to replace its slow-selling, high-tech Previa.
* Suzuki hit the pavement with a small station wagon that sports much more equipment for the money than the competition from Korea and the US.
* And Mercedes-Benz unleashed its new luxury SUV with much more advanced technology - plus the hallowed three-pointed star - for no more money than dolled-up Detroit models. Who ever thought Mercedes would match price with Ford?
In the meantime, a few brands are struggling: Chrysler axed its Eagle nameplate after its lineup dropped to two models, both available elsewhere.
And Kia, the industry's latest import, saw its parent company file for bankruptcy in Korea. The brand's two-model product line is likely up for grabs, possibly by Korean manufacturing giant Samsung, which has long eyed the US car market and Kia's American distribution network.
Chevrolet also dropped its Geo import brand, preferring to call the cars simply Chevys.
Here's a look at what's new in the race for American's hearts, wallets, and driveways.
The popular James Bond Z3 two-seater gets the 240-h.p. engine from the hot-rod M3 coupe.
Chevrolet Corvette convertible
The long-awaited soft-top version of the new Corvette debuts this fall. It has a trunk for the first time since 1962, and it eliminates the structure-weakening vibration of the '96 convertible.
Chevrolet's muscle car gets more spinach for '98: a 305-h.p. version of the new Corvette's V-8. A new Ferrari-esque nose cone tips off potential street competitors.
The long-awaited replacement for the most dreamed of sportscar for generations debuts next spring as a 1999 model. It's a modern package, safer and cleaner than the 31-year-old design it replaces, with all the traditional Porsche touches, including the silhouette and the rear-mounted flat-6 engine. And it's faster.
Expect a midyear introduction for the higher-powered Boxster S that should make the little Porsche keep up with the Corvette.
BMW M3 convertible
The hot-rod M3 coupe and sedan get an open-air sibling.
Mercedes introduces a new iteration of its traditionally stunning coupes. The latest one is based on Mercedes's entry-level, mid-size C-class sedan, but has the elegant front-end treatment of last year's new bigger E-class sedan. Prices should start around $40,000, a few less than the E-class sedans.
Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS
To capitalize on its rally success, Subaru introduces its zippy Impreza with its largest engine from the big Outback. The combination goes like a rambunctious kitten climbing the drapes.
Volkswagen New Beetle
Just after the Beetle was surpassed as the bestselling vehicle in history, by Toyota's Corolla, Volkswagen will introduce a new one in the spring. But this is no people's car. The small hatchback is designed to be trendy. The engine sits up front, and it's got front-wheel-drive. The new Bug will cost $1,000 to $2,000 more than the new Golf, on which it's based.
Volvo should introduce a convertible version of its sporty new C70 coupe late this year.
Chevrolet drops the Geo name and adopts the all-new, Toyota-made Chevy Prizm as its own.
Ford Escort ZX2
This new two-door addition to the Escort line-up is Ford's price leader for hip, first-time buyers.
The No. 2 Korean carmaker, with a dealer network spread across most of the US, redesigned its subcompact Sephia sedan. But with bankruptcy actions proceeding against the parent company in Korea, it's anybody's guess how long the new car will last here.
Like many cars, the basic Corolla has grown for '98. It's also grown quieter and more fuel efficient, and, like its twin the Chevy Prizm, has the first available side airbags in a subcompact.
Audi's bread-and-butter small sedan gets a station wagon version this year. The V-6 engine sports more power and is better suited to American driving. The four cylinder continues. Both Audi and Mazda now offer customized appearance packages.
BMW drops the base four-cylinder from all but the 318ti hatchback in favor of a 2.5-liter, six-cylinder. Base prices rise accordingly, to $29,270 for the 323i coupe and $35,270 for the convertible. But the cars come better equipped than last year's. BMW spokesman Andrew Cutler is quick to point out that this year's 323is is cheaper than a comparably equipped 1997 318is. The 328 series keeps the bigger, 2.8-liter six banger.
A replacement for the Corsica, this is Chevy's import fighter. It arrived midyear in '97.
Twin to Chevy's Malibu, the Cutlass hopes to lure entry-level Accord and Camry buyers. GM finally has the tight, nimble import feel.
Based on the Buick Century, the Regal aims at sportier buyers. It has a tauter suspension, more luxury features, an optional supercharged engine, and it sells for $3,000-$5,000 more than the Century.
Chrysler's redesigned, full-size sedan is sleeker, more luxurious, more powerful, and more fuel efficient than its predecessor. It replaces last year's Concorde and the larger LHS.
Like its Chrysler Concorde twin, the Intrepid was redesigned for '98, but it's a less expensive, sportier model.
The all-new Accord grows to a mid-size car for '98 with a distinctly styled coupe and conservative four-door. No more wagon. Some new Accords meet California's tight low and ultra-low emission vehicle standards.
The all-new 626 is roomier and more refined. Mazda bills it as an "anti-Camry" for people who want a solid, dependable mid-size car with more personality.
Nissan stretched its bestselling, mid-size Altima to compete with Honda's Accord and Toyota's Camry. With no V-6 and a price about $3,000 less, it's luxury on a budget.
Olds's version of GM's new mid-size sedan aims at more upscale import buyers. It has a long list of standard amenities and an import feel. At $20,000 to $25,000, the Intrigue should give loaded Camrys and mid-level Acuras a run for their money.
Check out the leather-swathed Limited package, now available on the GT. Also, look for an Outback version of the Legacy sedan later in the year. About 300 have already been sold in New England.
To make up for lackluster sales of its top of the line, Volkswagen is trying a more conservative approach for '98. The new Passat is slightly longer and will have a choice of Audi engines: a turbocharged four-cylinder at first, and a V-6 next spring. A station wagon and a Synchro all-wheel drive model should also bloom in the spring.
After revamping the A4 in '96 and its flagship A8 luxury sedan last year, Audi reintroduced its mid-level A6 sedan in a segment it once dominated. Like all Audis, the A6 gets a Tiptronic, manually shifted automatic transmission along with more power for '98. It offers an industry-first choice of interior design motifs, or "atmospheres."
This new Seville is intended as a world car, not just a luxury car to beat the imports in the US but a challenger on their home turf. Consequently it's slightly smaller with improved handling.
Jaguar XJ8 and XJR
Jaguar's traditional sedans get the company's new V8 from the XK8 sports car, introduced last year. The XJR has a new supercharged version.
Lexus takes aim at the rowdy sports sedan market with its all-new GS. The GS400 gets the company's smooth 300-horsepower V-8 and runs with the likes of BMW's lightning-quick 540i and Mercedes's E420.
The Lexus flagship has a new look to its front end to convey a sportier image.
New front, rear, and interior styling includes a futuristic composite hood and front fenders. The engine also offers more pulling power.
Lincoln Town Car
All new, with more technical sophistication and dramatic new styling. In everything but looks, the Town Car is still as big and traditional as ever.
Mercedes has dropped the six-cylinder SL320 and lowered the price of the V-8 SL500 to $85,000, matching the old SL320's sticker. The $120,000-plus, V-12 SL600 continues.
Under GM's ownership, the company is reaching out to more mainstream buyers with this replacement for the luxury 9000, which should be introduced in the spring. The new car has a trunk rather than a hatchback and a V-6 that luxury buyers consider a minimum.
Mercedes's mid-size sedan, introduced last year, has a new wagon version and gets the all-wheel-drive 4ETS option on both sedans and wagons.
Suzuki Esteem Wagon
The new Esteem Wagon, a variant of the diminutive sedan introduced last year, brings Suzuki into the mainstream, with a long list of creature comforts and a price a notch below other small wagons.
Volvo V70 AWD
Not to be left out of the sport-utility boom, Volvo has added all-wheel-drive to three of its V70 station wagons. The new Cross-Country rides higher and has a slightly more rugged look, la Subaru Outback. The standard light-pressure-turbo wagon and super-quick V70 R also add optional all-wheel-drive.
Sometime this year, the Windstar should be blessed with a second, left-side sliding door, probably as a 1999 model.
With this new Camry-based minivan, Toyota takes a mainstream approach: a V-6 engine up front, front-wheel-drive, optional dual sliding doors, and a variety of seating choices. Compared with the quirky Previa, it should be a runaway hit.
Available for the first time as a 2-door with a soft top over the rear. The same concerns apply as with the Sephia economy car.
After its success with its Outback SUV hybrids, Subaru introduces its own full-fledged, compact sport-utility. Roomier than a RAV4 and quicker than a Honda CR-V, it's a good compromise.
Toyota introduces an even cutsier version of its 2-door RAV4, with a rear convertible top.
Based on the company's mid-size Dakota pickup, the Durango is slightly smaller than behemoth sport-utes such as the Chevy Tahoe and Ford Expedition, but it has more room than mid-size entries such as the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Durango can seat up to eight passengers and tow more than the competition.
Isuzu Rodeo/Honda Passport
A complete redesign makes the Rodeo and its Honda Passport twin bigger and more powerful. A choice of options makes it suitable for suburban routines or for serious off-roading.
Jeep Grand Cherokee
Available with a new larger V-8 in the Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited.
Lexus jumps into the mid-size SUV fray next spring with this luxury entry based on its smaller ES300 sedan. It joins the new, wildly popular Mercedes ML320 in the field.
The long-awaited Mercedes sport-utility vehicle offers full-time all-wheel-drive, impressive off-road performance, excellent on-road handling, and Mercedes panache - all for the price of a dressed-up Jeep Grand Cherokee or Ford Explorer.
A 205-h.p. V-6 replaces the V-8 as the standard engine. The V-8 becomes an option.
A new nose and fenders distinguish '98 Monteros.
GMC Yukon Denali
As this GM division moves upscale, the four-door Yukon Denali is a full-size sport-ute with all the luxury trimmings and a few styling changes to set it apart.
Next spring, look for a new V-8 in Lexus's big SUV, which will probably change its name to something like LX470.
Dodge Ram Quad-Cab
Dodge's full-size Club-Cab pickup with a small seat and storage area in the back of the cab gets a pair of backwards rear doors. For anyone counting, that's one more door than the competition.
Ford Ranger/Mazda B-series
Ford's bestselling small truck and its Mazda twin get a minor facelift, three more inches in the cab for both standard and Supercab models, plus major improvements underneath: a better-handling front suspension, and a stronger frame.
This new pickup is slightly larger than the Hardbody it replaces. A new twin-cam 4-cylinder starts out. A V-6 is due next year.