High-octane new year


As we look at the new year and sum up the old one, trucks continue to dominate the automotive market. According to a Knight-Ridder report, Americans bought 5.8 million cars through the end of August, but they also bought exactly the same number — 5.8 million — in light trucks, a category that includes SUVs, minivans and pickups. "That’s a vote count close enough to remind you of a Florida election," said the report.

In the 2003 model year, there will be no fewer than a dozen new SUVs, ranging from the Hummer H2 (already a familiar sight) and the Cadillac Escalade ESV to the Volkswagen Touareg and the hotly debated Porsche Cayenne. (Longtime Porsche aficionados just want that one to disappear. "It’s blasphemy," one told me. "Porsches are sports cars.")

It’s certainly not all SUVs for 2003. The major auto shows in Los Angeles and Detroit this month will unveil a whole host of new vehicles. In L.A., such interesting cars as the 2004 Pontiac GTO, Ferrari Enzo (with a name like that, it better be good), Maybach 57, Mazda RX-8 (previewed in Detroit last year) and the aforementioned Touareg will debut. In Detroit, interest centers on the Ford Five Hundred, the Honda Panel-Side Element, the Volkswagen New Beetle convertible, the Chevrolet Cheyenne, the Cadillac Sixteen and many more. Here are a few highlights:

Bentley Continental GT: A venerable and honored name, the 500-horsepower Continental represents the first Bentley since the prewar days to be manufactured separately from Rolls Royce. Bentley is now owned by Volkswagen, which has made a 500-million-pound investment in the marque. If you have to ask the price of this twin-turbocharged behemoth, you can’t afford it!

BMW xActivity: The new SUV concept looks much sportier that its X5 cousin, with an open top. The X3 production car will probably share much of its basic shape.

Ferrari Enzo: Not to be undone by the Continental, the Enzo offers an all-new 6-liter V12 engine developing no less than 660 horsepower. It looks a bit like the F40, with gullwing doors.

General Motors Hy-Wire: GM has previously shown off the Hy-Wire (which is not only a pioneering fuel-cell vehicle, but also offers drive-by-wire innovations), but not in the U.S. Along with DaimlerChrysler, Ford, Honda and Toyota, GM should be taken seriously as a fuel-cell pioneer. The Hy-Wire promises a range of 300 miles, but isn’t likely to do more than about 80 with its current 5,000-pound-per-square-inch fuel tanks.

Maybach 57 and 62: Here are two variations on what will be the limousine for moguls. Mercedes is championing this high-roller project, which offers the busy executive reclining seats with full audio and DVD entertainment. Under Mercedes-Benz’s aegis, it will have very limited distribution. Donald Trump told me he’s interested.

Porsche Cayenne: The Cayenne SUV, first shown in Paris, offers no less than 450 horsepower in its sport version (340 with the stock V-8), reaching 62 miles per hour in 5.6 seconds. It probably will be the fastest SUV on the market, a rather dubious distinction if you think about it. Don’t speed demons prefer sports cars? There’s a big backlash. Here’s a Porsche freak on the ultimatecarpage.com: "Some fool at Porsche must have accidentally put the design plans for this car in the ‘approved’ bin instead of the ‘radioactive crap’ bin."

Suzuki Concept-S: Hmmm, looks a bit like the Mini Cooper S to me. And like the Mini, it has rallying in its blood. It’s very aggressive-looking, a video game on wheels, say some. It has high slab sides, a small greenhouse and loads of performance features, including all-wheel drive. It may or may not come to the U.S.