2000s roll in: which ones to watch

Every year as shiny new car models roll off assembly lines, hundreds of writers, critics, analysts, and hangers-on roll into this tiny hamlet, home to Pocono International Raceway, to give them a spin.

For one Friday every fall, this track is home to the International Motor Press Association's annual test day, when automakers from around the globe line up their latest wares in the gleaming sunlight (hopefully) along pit road.

Scribes run the gantlet. Clutching their helmets and notepads, they vie for the machines of their choice-scooping up the latest, lining up for the hottest, and occasionally settling for the clumsy or downright lame. Then they get a few seconds to hammer around the twisty infield tarmac and blast down a short section of the high-speed oval at between 100 and 130 miles per hour.

It is not an exercise that can determine which cars are most useful in daily driving, but it is an opportunity to explore and get a feel for a wide variety of cars that the experts may not otherwise sample for months to come.

For hot trends in motoring, check out the stories on the preceding pages. For the most significant, read on.

The vehicles below are not necessarily the best, most fun, most futuristic, or politically correct of the 2000 models. But these 10 stand out for their significance as harbingers of things to come - or occasionally just marketplace coups.

Some we drove. Some weren't available. Others we just couldn't squeeze in to a single day.

This baby is the first of a new generation of four-door pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles with stubby pickup beds. The Nissan scores big by being first of its kind to enter the US market. No surprise. The truck has been sold in Asia for years, so bringing it here was a no-brainer. The back seat holds big kids comfortably or cramped adults for short trips. Nissan's research says buyers rarely use more than the 5 feet of bed length the Crew Cab offers. An accessory bed extender (silver gate in photo) flips out for another 3 feet.

It's the next big thing to park on Rodeo Drive. The Blackwood is the four-door pickup version of the monstrous Navigator sport-utility. The wood-paneled pickup bed is reminiscent of the 1980s Jeep Grand Wagoneer, the original luxury SUV and also a must-have in Beverly Hills in its day. The Blackwood should be the perfect 21st-century replacement for the tony crowd that never tows horses or boats, but wants people to think they do.

This is the truck for people who really do tow horses, boats, or whatnot - or for those who manage summer camps or chain gangs. Based on Ford's line of large Super Duty pickups, the Excursion can carry nine passengers comfortably, with room left over for all their foot lockers. This pachyderm weighs so much it's not subject to any government fuel-economy regulations. That's brought it a lot of flak from newspapers and environmentalists. But Ford plans to sell only 20,000. That many buyers should be easy to find among the backcountry tour guides, summer-camp directors, and work-crew supervisors seeking to replace aging Suburbans. This is no family wagon, but may be just the multi-passenger farm truck that a small slice of the market needs.

If minivans and SUVs were the original crossover vehicles, the next emerging slice of that market is the high-performance SUV. Say what?! Think 342 horsepower (only 3 less than Corvette), 0 to 60 miles per hour in less than seven seconds, and a top speed of over 150 miles per hour. The Mercedes is already the best-handling and safest SUV, if not the most functional. So building the world's fastest SUV was simply a matter of dropping in a high-performance V-8 from its racing AMG division - and slapping on a steep $65,000 price tag. Porsche plans to follow suit with its own off-road quarter horse in 2003. And BMW has all the parts to build its own.

If Mercedes builds the fastest SUV, BMW is about to build the most versatile. The company that pooh-poohed the SUV trend for years and procrastinated selling one, finally built a better mousetrap. The X5 sport utility seats five in comfort with a great view of the road. It's a lot like a Range Rover without the wallow, and costs $10,000 less. Safe, fast, capable, and roomy, with six-cylinder or V-8 engines, it's a perfect suburban shuttle for yuppie soccer moms who can shell out $50,000.

If your budget or tastes are more terrestrial, you'll like Nissan's XTerra. As other SUVs, including Nissan's own Pathfinder have moved up-market past $30,000, the XTerra returns to the cheap, rugged SUV formula that attracted youthful buyers in the first place. There's nothing mini about XTerra except the price. It's a standard mid-size SUV with room for five adults, or two with a double mountain-bike rack in back. And it starts under $18,000. Yeah, it's trucky, but its buyers might be among the few carefree enough to actually venture off road.

From sport-utes to cars with their own sport: The Honda S2000 screams. Honda has always built great performance cars, but has a reputation for staid reliability. Well, stand up and take notice: This is a racing company, and this car uses the full extent of the company's racing know-how. The engine revs to 9,000 r.p.m. - motorcycle territory. The $30,000 roadster will blow the doors of a Porsche Boxster costing $10,000 more. This rear-wheel-drive roadster follows the lead of the Mazda Miata, only its heart beats faster.

If all these vehicles sound pretty decadent and wasteful, the Honda Insight stands up for social responsibility. The first gasoline-electric hybrid to hit the market this fall, this tiny two-seater gets 70 miles per gallon. (Honda officials claim 90 m.p.g. when driven gingerly.) The price, under $20,000 should win market approval.

Honda's Insight may be the first electric hybrid to hit the market, but Toyota's Prius also deserves a closer look. Unlike the Insight, the Prius seats four comfortably. More important, it doesn't pollute at all in traffic jams when the gasoline engine shuts off. It gets 67 miles per gallon in regular driving. It should work as a second commuter car for families.

And if all of this still sounds way out, the Focus may be the greatest all-American car since the Beach Boys' woody. The first of a new generation of tall-small cars, it boasts more room than big-brother Contour and almost as much as Taurus. The engine is smooth, if a little slow. Best of all is the price: $12,540 base, and $15,580 fully loaded. That undercuts the next-lowest car that qualifies as decent transportation today by about $2,000.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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