The dynamic dozen

World events notwithstanding, a new wave of cars is rolling into showrooms for model year 2002. It's hard to cite a theme, except for a wider array of four-cylinder vehicles that trump their predecessors. Call it a half-step year, until 2003 brings a range of new cars built to meet California's zero-emissions mandates.

Meanwhile, automakers have brought out several milestone vehicles that are a great improvement over last year's offerings. The Monitor had a chance to sample the latest cars in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on a closed racetrack and, for SUVs, a muddy ski slope.

Here are a dozen that stood out.

Ford Thunderbird

America's prom queen for 2002, the T-bird comes with a big, rumbling V-8, looks that make heads whip around, and a pillow-soft ride. Make no mistake, this boulevardier is no sports car. Its acceleration and handling lean more toward gentle than crisp. Maybe it's better than a sports car - comfortable for long trips, cozy for two, and dripping with nostalgia. Prices run from $35,000 to $39,000.

Chevrolet Trailblazer

Perhaps the biggest surprise of 2002 is the refinement of GM's three mid-size sport utility vehicles - especially compared to their bumbling Blazer and Jimmy predecessors. The new 270-horsepower inline six-cylinder engine that comes with these SUVs is smooth and powerful. And the steering's silky precision is really impressive. While Chevy's Trailblazer is no beauty, the GMC Envoy is. Bravada will usher out the Oldsmobile era. Prices: $27,000 to $33,000. Look for longer models next spring. If big SUV sales pick up, they could be winners.

Toyota Camry

America's favorite car just got more interesting. Toyota has abandoned bland appliance styling for something sportier. The sedan is greatly improved, with simpler controls, more room, and better handling than previous models. One tester called the Camry "flawless." Despite such accolades, the car still lacks character that would make it stand out on the road. The V-6 and four-cylinder engines carry over, as does the $22,000 to $28,000 price range.

Nissan Altima

If the Camry is angel food cake - practically perfect, but somewhat boring - the Altima is as exotic as chocolate mousse. It has 240 horsepower, razor-sharp reflexes, an enormous back seat, and VW-funky styling with a harder edge. The Altima has been enlarged to take direct aim at the best-selling Camry and Honda Accord, and beats them in almost every way - more power, better road manners, more comfortable interior. Expect prices to range from $20,000 to $26,000.

Jaguar X-type

How do you say entry-level and Jaguar in the same breath? Try this Ford-based competitor of the popular BMW 3-series. It has Jaguar's swoopy lines, plush leather, all-wheel-drive, with a European Ford Contour platform wedged underneath. That's not as bad as it sounds. On the road, the X-type feels silky and smooth, as a Jaguar should. And those time-honored Jaguar reliability gremlins should be exorcised. If auto sales pick up, expect customers to line up around the corner for this $30,000 leaping cat.

Pontiac Vibe

Watch for this sporty wagon-SUV and its cousin, the Toyota Matrix, to appear in showrooms next spring. Both five-doors are aimed at the skateboards-and-baggy-pants crowd. They have plenty of room for gear, four-cylinder fuel economy, and at $17,000 to start, a relatively affordable price. Both are available with front- or all-wheel-drive.

Mercedes Benz C230-coupe

Another entry-level oxymoron, this new two-door starts at just $25,000 - a "cheap" Mercedes. While it's only a four-cylinder - albeit supercharged - the car feels lively and fun. Just don't expect leather and a built-in navigation system for this money. The cloth seats are comfy even in back, and with the Mercedes three-pointed star hood ornament leading the way, this baby Benz oozes success.

Saturn Vue

Saturn's long-awaited addition to the SUV crowd debuts this month. It features standard Saturn dingless plastic body panels, a sturdy unibody platform, and optional all-wheel-drive. The big news is that the vehicle makes General Motors' first continuously variable transmission available to the public. Otherwise, the Vue is simply a competent mini-SUV with four-cylinder or V-6 power. The cargo space is adequate, and the passenger space, comfortable. Prices should start under $20,000.

Mini Cooper

BMW built this spiritual successor to the popular original British Mini. The Mini was the first car to use a modern transverse front engine and front-wheel drive. It was definitely mini - and it happened to be fun. The BMW version, coming in November, is much bigger than the original, but will still be the smallest thing on US roads. And this time, with BMW engineering, the fun is no accident. Neither are the quality materials inside. Expect a base price of about $18,000. The supercharged Mini Cooper S, debuting next spring, will cost about $23,000.

Jeep Liberty

Those who expect this car to redefine the mini-SUV will be disappointed. It has Jeep's traditional rugged good looks and is vastly improved over the Cherokee that defined the segment 18 years ago. But that cozy patriotic feeling you get driving it is only in the name. The Liberty comes across as slightly cruder and rougher than necessary, even for an affordable $18,000. The steering feels odd and uncoordinated. On the plus side, its real off-road ability sets it apart from the cute-ute crowd.

Honda CR-V

This update of the popular mini-SUV adds refinement. While it still has only a four-cylinder engine, the new powerplant is smooth, powerful, and almost silent. It's about two inches bigger all the way around, so rear legroom and cargo space are generous - even vast - for a cute-ute. Styling is unfortunately minivan-esque. The new tailgate threatens to clip you in the head as you unload cargo. Cute controls such as the shift lever and handbrake are perhaps too clever to be functional. Prices, unannounced at press time, should start at about $19,000.

Subaru IMPREZA WRX

This is as close as you can get to a World Cup rally car on the street. The high school students of the past decade who played World Cup rally driving games on their computers can now line up to buy the real thing. The WRX's 220 turbocharged horsepower engine with all-wheel drive flings this lithe econobox around with gusto. While interior materials are cheap, this is not a no-frills racer. Standard features include an in-dash six-CD changer, tape deck, power windows, and cruise control. All that technology comes at a price, which starts at about $23,000.

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