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Horsepower No Longer Rules the Day

Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and the Chrysler Group are launching a rash of new models, and that's generally good news. Trouble is, the lion's share happen to be trucks and SUVs. Now, all you have to do is predict whether the “newness” of these out-of-sync '07s can offset the alarmingly rapid customer shift to more fuel-efficient alternatives and away from the trucks and SUVs that have made you a fortune in the last decade (you have made a fortune, right?).

Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and the Chrysler Group are launching a rash of new models, and that's generally good news. Trouble is, the lion's share happen to be trucks and SUVs.

Now, all you have to do is predict whether the “newness” of these out-of-sync '07s can offset the alarmingly rapid customer shift to more fuel-efficient alternatives and away from the trucks and SUVs that have made you a fortune in the last decade (you have made a fortune, right?).

Here's a look at the domestics:

Ford: Look for Sharp Edges

On-the-ropes Ford couldn't pick a more hapless time to launch its all-new Expedition and its Lincoln Navigator counterpart. To make matters worse, the '07 Expedition/Navigator sport a designed-in extra-largeness to expand into the space vacated by the defunct super-sized Excursion SUV.

And the carryover 5.4L DOHC V-8, nice though it is, will not make a sport sedan — much less an economy car — of these behemoths.

Maybe there's a fit in the boat-towing states, but the rest of you would be wise to take the lot acreage that the dead-before-it-launches Expedition would require and reserve it for Ford's tasty Edge cross/utility vehicle, which appears to be the most on-the-mark thing Ford's shoved out the factory door since the first 4-door Explorer.

Edge and its almost-edgy Lincoln MKX variant go toe-to-toe in the midsize CUV segment, nothing less than the most competitive in the U.S. market. Smartly sized, surprisingly agile and powered by a snorty, all-new 3.5L DOHC V-6, the Edge, if properly priced, will be the vehicle to return hard-core sizzle to your Ford and Lincoln showroom.

Meanwhile, Ford's got a few interesting variants to keep the fires burning under the popular Mustang. The 500-hp, 40-grand Shelby GT500 is a good traffic builder (particularly the convertible), and the Shelby GT pumps up the standard Mustang GT's 300 hp 4.6L SOHC V-8 to an even-horsier 325 hp.

OUR ADVICE: We'll go completely out on the “edge” and say you will not regret ordering all the Edges and MKXs you can get. Front-wheel drivers should be a decent value proposition, and the all-wheel-drive layout will be a great sell in foul-weather regions.

General Motors: Interiors No Longer from Playschool

Over at GM, the story is similar: the franchise fullsize pickups are totally retooled for '07, but will buyers weary of high-cost fuel lap them up with the same fervor they showed for the past decade or more?

GM is trusting they will, but is backing the launch of the GMT900 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra with an ad budget reputedly in shouting distance of a half-billion dollars.

Pickups are pickups, so we don't expect anything radical (at the time of this late September writing, the press hadn't much real exposure to GM new pickups), but judging from the SUV variants and the half-truck, half-SUV Avalanche, interior materials no longer are supplied by Playschool and there will be cushy amenities such as optional navigation systems and a backup camera.

Most of GM's boldly styled new pickups will be fitted with a carryover 5.3L OHV V-8, but extra money will win a new 6L variant dealing out 355 hp.

However if the big-bucks GMT900-based SUVs we've driven are any guide, GM will be saddling you with ambitious pricing in what might charitably be called a dicey environment. Sure, these babies will sell, but there's also little doubt the entire segment could absorb a double-digit sales decline in 2007.

We wouldn't rule out showroom interest in Chevrolet's Korean-built Aveo subcompact, which wears new sheet metal and interior layout.

But if there's a car that's as important as GM's trucks this year, it's got to be the Saturn Aura, the all-new midsizer charged with battling the Japanese-made segment stalwarts, Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

The Aura's mostly good, particularly the XR trim that uses GM's snappy 3.6L DOHC V-6. The styling is cautiously expressive and the interior is miles ahead of anything Saturn's loyal buyers have yet enjoyed. Whether Aura sells may be the litmus test of whether the public is prepared to embrace American cars as equal to the all-conquering Japanese stalwarts.

OUR ADVICE: Be optimistic, but ordering the proper model mix is crucial. If the Aura's appeal doesn't transcend the base of Saturn's notoriously frugal longtime supporters, costlier upper-trim Auras may languish on the back lot.

Chrysler Group: Here Come the Cute Utes

The Chrysler Group is pinning its hopes on its Caliber compact car — launched earlier this year and selling well — and an all-new Sebring midsizer that offers a hazy amalgam of current Chrysler styling cues, upscale options and the company's new 2.4L DOHC 4-cyl. “world” engine, and the tired corporate 2.7L and 3.5L V-6s. Don't expect a showroom stampede.

Meanwhile, Jeep's getting its long-awaited new-product explosion, but the real bomb-blast may be to your bottom line. The girly-man Compass — derived from the Caliber FWD/AWD architecture — is the brand's first front-driver and first venture away from the rugged Rubicon Trail and into cute-ute suburbia.

Also chiseled from the same underpinnings is the traditionally styled Patriot. Like the Compass, FWD is standard, but the Patriot offers the choice of two AWD systems that are likely to be more familiar to Jeep loyalists.

Will these “soft-roaders” lure back some of the volume your Jeep store has painfully ceded to the imports? This may be one of the year's toughest calls.

But Jeep's latest efforts to reconnect with buyers have fallen flat (the 7-seat Commander is a certified flop) and we're not sure the answer is plastering the Jeep grille onto a vehicle with a car platform.

Nonetheless, the Compass and Patriot CUVs at least play in what is going to be one of the market's fastest-growing segments — and that's more than what you had last year, you know.

OUR ADVICE: The wisest play may be the smartly enlarged and revised Wrangler and 4-door Wrangler Unlimited, although at best they're niche sellers. Order some Compasses and Patriots, and hedge with the new diesel-powered Grand Cherokee, provided the bean counters at headquarters don't try to overcharge for the Mercedes-Benz-developed 3L DOHC V-6 turbodiesel with massive torque and 20-mpg-in-the-city potential. It's a fine engine, but for now can't be sold in five states, including a large one called California.

Let's see what the Europeans have to offer:

Audi: Poor Timing Isn't Limited to Detroit

Audi AG is launching its first fullsize CUV, the Q7, and although its body creases are as interesting as it gets in the box-with-4-wheel-drive market, the 6- and 8-cyl. Q7 likely will find sledding as tough as parent Volkswagen AG has found with the Q7's pudgy and pricey Touareg platform-mate.

And the third CUV to share this architecture, Porsche AG's Cayenne, is so dead we hear Porsche is engraving “R.I.P.” under the prancing horse of its corporate crest.

It's hard to imagine Audi's gas-slurping RS4 and S8 — despite the undeniable intoxicating power from their respective direct-injected 4.2L DOHC V-8 and 5.2L DOHC V-10 — being much more than distractions for a brand whose mainstream models seem to be making elusive gains in stature.

VW, by the way, decided to finally launch its Golf hatchback here, only it decided to revive the Rabbit nameplate for the upscale subcompact coming with perfect timing for a newly parsimonious American consumer. Power comes from the fizzy corporate 2.5L inline 5-cyl., but pricing makes it an interesting alternative to the successful Honda Civic and Mazda3.

OUR ADVICE: Stay with Audi's mainstream sedans. The Q7 won't sustain volumes driven by early interest. And VW may have perfectly timed the return of the Rabbit. Take advantage with base models priced to be actually competitive with the Asian small-car big guns.

Mercedes-Benz: More and More Models

At DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes unit, there's the now-common plethora of new models, most of which seem to be increasingly distracting Mercedes from its core model lines. If you're lucky enough to be running a Mercedes store, you've got to be wondering where you're going to find enough land to park a model range that's expanding with staggering regularity.

New for '07 is the huge CL coupe, based on the S-Class flagship architecture. Nobody needs a 2-door car this big, although there's lovely power from the 5.5L DOHC V-8 and hulking twin-turbo V-12.

And like Audi's Q7, Mercedes is late to the party in slapping the 3-pointed star on a 7-passenger variant of its M-Class, the GL-Class. The GL give Mercedes entrée to the 3-row CUV/SUV market, although thanks to $3-a-gallon gasoline, the value of that now is in question.

OUR ADVICE: Mercedes sets a sales record every month, so nothing we say matters much, but for the record, can all these models be a good thing for a brand that once plied on exclusivity?

Volvo: Taking a Serious Run at Its Rivals

Ford's Volvo Cars makes a more serious run at its European midsize rivals with an all-new S80 flagship. There's decent, although far from exotic, power from a new 3.2L inline 6-cyl. mounted sideways, and AWD is an option. Sales start in the spring.

Already on sale is the 4-seat, folding-hardtop C70, a fun but functional convertible that hits the mark for the brand.

OUR ADVICE: The C70 is a pretty sure thing, but volumes are unlikely to fund your kid's Harvard career. Curiously, little attempt was made to move the needle with the S80, so expect nothing more than you did before with this offbeat alternative to an E-Class or Lexus.

On to the Asian entries:

Toyota: Tough Time for Truck Intros

Toyota Motor Corp., may be tearing up the sales charts, but there's got to be a collective holding of the breath as the company prepares to launch its all-new Tundra fullsize pickup at a time when even pickup aficionados appear to be questioning their loyalties.

The '07 Tundra, to be built at an all-new plant near San Antonio, TX as well as Princeton, IN, is for the first time riding on a true fullsize footprint. There will be a 4L V-6 and a 4.7L V-8 and an all-new 5.7L V-8.

Going head-to-head with GM's new fullsizers is tough enough, but trying to convince skeptical buyers amidst a gas-price dilemma means nobody could envy Toyota's task.

To offset the risk, the Camry is all-new and already on sale — moving at a brisk pace, though you likely don't need us to tell you that.

In its Lexus premium channel, the LS 460 flagship is all new and packed with a ridiculous array of techno-features, including an automatic-parking system that will parallel-park the darn thing for you.

OUR ADVICE: Tundra might be a wait-and-see proposition. Buy mid-level trims and watch the tea leaves. Camry is the ultimate no-brainer. Load up on everything Lexus wants to send your way, although the midsize cars remain no real threat to the European establishment.

Nissan: Busy Year, But Playing It Safe

It's also a huge year for Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. Nissan stores are not the beehives of activity they once were, and the company hopes to get things rolling again with three critical new launches: the Altima midsizer, the Sentra economy car and the Versa subcompact.

Versa is already in the market we trust you've seen the light and ordered with gusto. The Sentra hits the ground with an all-new FWD platform and 2L DOHC 4-cyl. coupled to a standard continuously variable transmission that enhances efficiency to the utmost.

Altima, meanwhile, has to hit the ground running against the all-new Camry and Ford's surging Fusion. Nissan's midsizer also gets an all-new platform and a choice of 2.5L DOHC I-4 or 3.5L DOHC V-6 motivation, along with the choice of a 6-speed manual transmission or the CVT Nissan is anxious to proliferate throughout its model range.

For its Infiniti upscale division, there's a new G35 sedan, the model that almost singlehandedly saved your Infiniti franchise.

The new G is a careful evolution, yet looks fresh enough to make a difference. The interior — always the car's weak point — has been convincingly restyled and up-marketed, and a heavy revision for Nissan's Ward's 10 Best Engines perennial 3.5L V-6 turns up the performance wick. Infiniti also has the sense to still offer a manual transmission, a vital symbol in the eternal struggle to prevail against BMW.

OUR ADVICE: We're just not blown away by Nissan's latest sedans. Too conventional. Too ubiquitous. Nissan pulled itself up with risk-taking styling before, but we see none evident for either the Sentra or Altima. You won't be taking a huge risk by stocking up on both, but nor can you expect the new cars to provide outsized returns. The Altima and Sentra may drive great, but the ho-hum sheet metal probably limits their sales performance to exactly the market share you've always had.

Honda: Offbeat Twist for a Japanese Auto Maker

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. is anything but quiet this year, either.

First, there's an all-new CR-V compact CUV that, in an offbeat twist for one of the Japanese Big Three, takes a big step stylistically but is barely changed mechanically.

The '07 CR-V might even be considered risky, given that the substantially curvier styling is a distinct departure from the boxy profile of the previous two generations. And the CR-V is the second-best selling nameplate in a highly competitive segment.

But the serious effort is at Honda's Acura premium unit where there are two new CUVs: the new RDX compact (based on the CR-V platform) and an all-new MDX, the first remake of Acura's successful, sporty 7-seater.

The MDX gets a thrusty new 3.7 DOHC V-6 that pushes out 300 hp. But this leather cocoon now has a chassis that is much more aggressively tuned in an effort to upstage BMW and its soon-to-be-replaced X5.

The RDX's claim to fame is extra refinement and a 2.3L turbocharged variant of the CR-V's 2.4L DOHC 4-cyl. that generates 240 hp. Target? Uh, that would be BMW again, this time the X3.

OUR ADVICE: You could practically open a stand-alone CR-V store, such an easy sell the pesky new '07 model will be. But we'd be more circumspect about the Acura CUVs. The MDX is a well-conceived package with the right levels of handling and performance, but the midsize CUV market could soften in blowback from the crash of midsize SUVs such as the Ford Explorer and Chevrolet Trailblazer, not to mention fallout if gas prices don't remain at the low-$2 level seen at the time of this writing.

Hyundai: Patience and Perseverance Pay

There's still plenty of action at Hyundai Motor America this year, where there's yet another all-new midsize CUV, the re-engineered Santa Fe.

The '07 Santa Fe gets a new optional 3.3L DOHC V-6 in addition to Hyundai's stalwart 2.7L unit, and comely new styling that is at once more mainstream, yet definitely more refined compared with the bulbous outgoing Santa Fe.

Later next year, there will be a 7-seater, the Veracruz, based on the Santa Fe platform.

Hyundai also finally gets in the minivan game with the Entourage, a not-so-veiled rebadging of the Sedona from sister auto maker Kia Motors.

OUR ADVICE: Hyundai is not to be trifled with. If you have a Hyundai store, your patience and perseverance now is being repaid. The Santa Fe is a strong prospect to hike sales vs. the old model. The Veracruz may make inroads as an economical choice for buyers who want three rows in a CUV, but don't have Suburban money. Ditto for the Entourage.

Suzuki: Suddenly in the Fast Lane

Despite almost no marketing to speak of, Suzuki Motor Corp. suddenly is in the fast lane.

For '07, tiny Suzuki has an all-new XL-7 midsize CUV, thanks to partner GM's global compact crossover underpinnings (think Saturn Vue). There are some intriguing styling cues, and the XL-7 also offers GM's “high-feature” 3.6L DOHC V-6 as an option, meaning the new XL-7 can give just about anything in the segment a run for its money.

Suzuki also is offering the quirky SX4, a subcompact hatchback with standard all-wheel drive — a bargain Audi A3, if you will.

OUR ADVICE: What have you got to lose? Suzuki's product line is offbeat and cheap — and interesting. If you've got a Suzuki store and somebody stumbles in, they're there because they want to buy a Suzuki; there's almost no advertising. A “close” doesn't get much easier than that, does it?

TAGS: Dealers Retail
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