The Dynamic Dozen
Chrysler minivans The world's most popular minivans - the Dodge Caravan, Chrysler Town & Country, and Voyager - get a thorough makeover to try to stay ahead of the competition. The new vans offer 20 more horsepower, power sliding doors that don't bind, plus a power lift gate, and the first removable factory center console that can go between either first- or second-row buckets. It still doesn't have the popular hideaway rear seat because it would have eliminated Chrysler's unique all-wheel-drive option. Instead, the rear seat is split in half to make loading more flexible and lifting easier. The new styling won't win any awards.
With its twin, the Mazda Tribute, this vehicle sums up what's happening in 2001. Taken together, these models represent the pinnacle of development in personal automobiles (so far). They're everything the Ford Explorer should have been when it debuted in 1990 - they have all the space of a mid-size SUV, yet they're quiet and smooth like cars. They've got plenty of horsepower (200) for daily commuting without strain, all-wheel-drive that will carry them home through any weather, and plenty of space for the kids' goalie gear. Bonus: They both start under $20,000.
Chrysler PT Cruiser
Though it's been on the streets since June, this is officially a 2001 model. It's the ultimate crossover vehicle -only smaller. It crosses a European style practical econobox with a US government truck classification and the popularity of the latest fad. It could even come with all-wheel-drive in the future. It's four-cylinder engine is more efficient than that of most mid-size crossovers, it's cheaper, and it's a lot more hip. Look for a two-door panel delivery truck in 2002.
All the world's a camping trip in this SUV-minivan cross. Dealers sell a tent that will wrap around the back while you bed down on an air mattress double bed inside. Take it to the beach, and the center console lifts out and becomes a cooler for drinks to take with you. It even has a real tailgate to fold down for parties. Best of all, it's roomy and fun to drive. There's a great car lurking inside. Alas, that's just where you'll want to stay so you don't have to look at it. What was the designer thinking?
Just as the smarter Escape hits the same showrooms, the Explorer also gets more civilized - and bigger. To compete in the mid-size SUV ranks these days requires seating for seven. So the Explorer adds a third-row seat, along with a smoother independent rear suspension to make it less trucklike, yet more powerful. The 205-horsepower V-6 is standard. The 240-horsepower V-8 from the F150 is optional. On the heels of the controversy surrounding the SUVs' Firestone tires, consumer will be able to choose between a few tire brands when the 2002 model comes out next February.
We've been praising the Prius for a long time, and it's finally in showrooms. For the US market, the gas-electric Prius has smaller batteries with more range. That means more time driving on electricity only, lower emissions, and a bigger trunk. Prices start at $19,995.
The Japanese sumo takes on the icon of European luxury, the Mercedes-Benz SL. This $70,000 four-seater has the precision craftsmanship of a Swiss watch, creamy leather, a folding hardtop, and a heart-throbbing V-8. Should be out just in time for sunny spring drives.
When yuppies want to flaunt what they've got, nothing says it better than this 20-foot-long, four-door pickup set to debut in the spring for about $40,000. It has polished (imitation) mahogany on the bed, four leather captain's chairs, and brushed aluminum inside the hydraulically lifted bed cover. This should replace aging Jeep Wagoneers for the Hamptons set. And if you need to make a bigger statement, it has plenty of power to tow a horse trailer or a Chris Craft boat, since it's based on the workhorse Ford F150 pickup. But isn't it really just a giant sedan?
The perennially best-selling Civic gets bigger and more powerful for 2001. That's a given for small car redesigns these days. Sharper styling makes it look like big-brother Accord. And the EPA considers the new Civic a compact, not a subcompact. Which begs the question: "Is Honda about to revive a back-to-basics tiny economy car?" It could easily import one it builds in Japan. In the meantime, the new Civic gets better mileage than the old one and meets California's toughest pollution standard for gasoline-powered vehicles. It costs about the same as last year - $13,000 -$18,000.
GM races to market in just over 12 months with it's tough-looking new full-size four-door pickup. What sets it apart other than it's get-outta-my-way-or-I'll-crush-you looks is a folding "midgate." The rear-wall window pops out and stows on the lower wall of the cab, which then folds forward to make a 2-seat, long-bed pickup. With a sunroof it also makes for lots of interesting open-air driving configurations. Bins in the side walls provide a little locking cargo space. Prices should start around $30,000.
The bestselling convertible in America gets a new look for 2001. Selling in the $23,000 to $28,000 range, it's edgier in both looks and performance, with a 202-horsepower V-6 available. The Sebring is still the practical year-round convertible it's always been, with front-wheel-drive, a glass rear window, and an insulated top. This could make those trips to the Thrifty car-rental lot in Orlando a lot more fun.
Lexus IS 300
Some people still love sedans. This one is a traditional rear-wheel-drive sports sedan - aimed squarely at the small BMW 3-series so widely coveted by young up-and-comers. And the littlest Lexus is the best imitation yet. It's small enough to be maneuverable and quick, yet big enough for full-size humans in back. For those who like flying down a twisty road with the windows open, there's nothing better.
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