This year's batch of new cars represents a mix of excitement and practicality, as well as a growing collection of hybrid vehicles. Here are 10 standouts that are most likely to turn heads on the highway.
Take all the attributes of the regular Mini - conversation-starting looks, solid build, great economy - then make the top go down. For sun seekers looking for grins and attention, what could be more fun? The top has a half-open "targa" position for those sunny, crisp fall days. The back seat loses a lot of space to the folding top, but the Mini was never much more than a two-seater anyway. The convertible is available as a basic Mini or a high-performance S model. If you don't mind the tight space, you'll get a lot of smiles for the money.
$20,950 27/35 m.p.g. city/highway
Soccer moms waited a long time for an Odyssey makeover. The old model lasted seven years and put many buyers on waiting lists. But the Toyota Sienna upstaged Honda last year with its back seat that folds away in two sections, side-curtain air bags, and roll-down side windows. The new Odyssey offers that and more. A new engine generates more power and better fuel economy - three of its six cylinders shut down when not needed. Unfortunately, Honda did not offer the fold-away second-row seats or all-wheel-drive found in other minivans.
$25,510 20/28 m.p.g.
Since its inception in 1953, the Corvette has been an American icon, bred to compete with the exotic sports cars of Europe. And new versions of this racer don't come out often. Not surprisingly, the debut of this sixth-generation model has the automotive world atwitter. The latest design, informally called the C6 (for sixth-generation Corvette), is smaller and more powerful than the C5. With better handling and a stiffer body structure, the new model is a precision scalpel compared with the former version, which was more like a brute dagger.
$44,245 18/28 m.p.g.
General Motors calls it a "mild-hybrid" and environmentalists don't know whether to laugh or cry. Unlike other hybrids, the electric motor in the Sierra contributes nothing to the truck's motion. But it does serve as a generator when the truck is parked. It's the ultimate tailgating machine, providing juice to four standard household outlets (two in the bed, two in the cab) to run power tools, electric grills, refrigerators, and so on. Like other hybrids, the Sierra's engine shuts down at stoplights, allowing it to gain about 2 miles per gallon on the EPA city mileage rating. The electric motor seamlessly restarts the gasoline V8 as soon as the driver releases the brake. If it doesn't merit the "hybrid" badge, the Sierra shows that no new car should idle anymore. GM promises to install a full hybrid system into these trucks next year, boosting fuel economy by 15 to 20 percent.
$38,185 18/21 m.p.g.
Welcome to the first luxury-car hybrid. Due in February, the 400h is the top-of-the-line version of Lexus's popular RX330 SUV, with seating for five, a generous cargo hold, beautiful leather and wood interior, and every electronic aid imaginable. This expansion of the Toyota Motor Assist hybrid system gives the 400h 270 horsepower with all-wheel-drive. Mileage ratings have yet to be announced, but figure around 30 miles per gallon. Expect the price to be around $50,000.
Price and mileage unavailable
If you want to be noticed on the road, look no further. The Magnum, a more practical and tougher-looking sibling of the Chrysler 300C, is a cross between an American muscle car and an SUV. With its long, low, wide body, it's more fuel efficient than most SUVs. The Magnum offers three engines - two powerful V6s and a thumping V8 - to drive the rear wheels. The "Hemi" V8 saves on gas with technology that allows the engine to run on four cylinders on the highway.
$21,870 21/28 m.p.g.
Here's a sports car that achieves Ferrari levels of performance at about a quarter of the price and without guzzling massive amounts of gasoline. Despite its meager 189-horsepower four-cylinder engine, the Elise flies down the road. Reason: Lotus pared down the car's weight to 1,900 pounds. The two-seater is indeed minimalist, with exposed aluminum floorboards and a removable folding top that doesn't stow in the car. The vehicle has a raucous roar and rowdy reflexes. But drivers experience steering that responds almost as an extension of their thought rather than their hands.
$40,780 23/27 m.p.g.
In the year of the hybrid, the new Accord entrant stands at the front of the line in terms of performance. The hybrid can only be found in Honda's top-of-the-line Accord EX V6. As a result, you get leather seats, sunroof, and all the comforts found in a luxury midsize sedan. The Hybrid has 255 horsepower, 15 more than its gas-engine equivalent. It also comes with an electric air conditioner to keep you cool when the engine shuts off at stoplights. Based on driving conditions, three cylinders will shut down to save even more gas. Like most hybrids, the main drawback is price. When it hits showrooms in December, the Accord Hybrid is expected to cost about $30,000, at least $3,000 more than a similar gasoline model.
price unavailable 30/37 m.p.g.
Finally, Ford builds a crossover "sportwagon" - don't call it a station wagon, the company says - for the masses. While its 203-horsepower V6 struggles to tug its weight, the Freestyle's continuously variable transmission makes the most of the available power and maximizes fuel economy. Front-wheel drive is standard and all-wheel drive is available. With three rows of seats, the Freestyle seats seven - one more than the equally underpowered Chrysler Pacifica - but don't expect to have room left over for luggage.
$24,495 20/27 m.p.g.
Chrysler minivans may no longer be at the top of the heap, but they still lead the way in introducing new features. The latest innovation: All back seats fold flat and stow easily into wells in the floor. The second-row floor well also serves as storage space when the seats are up. The downside is Chrysler had to eliminate the all-wheel-drive option for the Town & Country to make room for the floor wells. Still, this Chrysler is plenty nice to drive, and rivals will find they may need to emulate the "Stow 'n' Go" seats.
$20,520 19/26 m.p.g.