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8 most anticipated vehicles of 2004

They're the motoring equivalent of the summer movie blockbuster.

They're mostly big and splashy, full of the fancy frills and thrills that make them the high-tech auto version of the latest Spielberg epic.

They are the cars, trucks, vans and SUVs that almost everyone wants to see and be seen in -- the most anticipated new vehicles of 2004.

The prices, styles and features vary enormously on this hot new bunch. At least one new vehicle carries a price tag of $75,000. But many others can be snapped up for less than half that amount. All will be in dealers' showrooms by the time you read this. So drum roll, please, as we count down the most anticipated vehicles of 2004.

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Nissan Titan
Auto buffs are keeping close eyes on this vehicle because it's Nissan's first full-size pickup truck. With a 300-horsepower, V-8 engine, it's the largest Japanese-brand pickup truck ever made. Mike Quincy, automotive content specialist for Consumer Reports Auto Test, says, "Ford, GM and Chrysler so far have owned the full-size pickup truck market. This is the first real competition from a foreign manufacturer."

The Titan, which will be available only with an extended or four-door cab and five-speed automatic transmission, will cost between $23,800 and $33,600.

Cadillac XLR
If you're in the market for a $75,000 convertible, this puppy is for you. It's Caddy's first attempt at a premium sports car since the Allante debuted in 1987. The XLR is powered by a 4.6-liter, Northstar V-8 engine, and has a retractable hardtop that folds away in less than 30 seconds at the touch of a button. As you would expect from such an expensive vehicle, the XLR offers as standard equipment every option and feature known to GM, including heated and cooled seats; built-in Bose speakers; a touch-screen activated DVD/navigation system with a 6.5-inch color screen; voice-activated Onstar system; satellite radio and a "heads up" display system which shows things like speed, turn signals and cruise control status on the windshield.

"It's certainly one of the most anticipated cars out there," says Steven Cole Smith, automotive editor for The Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel. "The question is whether anybody is interested in a $75,000 sports car."

BMW 5-series
BMW's new 5-series is the revered automaker's fifth generation of the midsize cars that are the bread and butter of the Bavarian firm's lineup. Brand-new from the ground up, these sedans represent perhaps the greatest leap forward in technology for the 5-series since the model first hit the market seven years ago.

With a starting price of $39,500 for the entry level 525i model with its 2.5-liter, inline six-cylinder engine, the new 5-series includes the midlevel 530i at $44,300 and the top-of-the-line 545i, which comes with a new 4.4-liter, V-8 engine that packs a walloping 325 horsepower.

Slightly larger with roomier interiors and trunks, the new 5-series sedans also come with technology that isn't available even on the 7-series, BMW's most expensive line of sedans. Among the innovations being introduced on the 5-series is what BMW calls "active steering," which varies the steering ratio on the basis of vehicle speed and other driving conditions. It's designed to reduce the steering effort required in parking maneuvers, U-turns and sharp, low-speed cornering.

"It's a very important car for BMW," says Quincy. "There's a lot of pressure riding on the company to make their new 5-series as good as the 2001 model, which was the best car we had ever tested."

So why did BMW update something that seemed so perfect? "The best companies are always looking at how they can stay on the cutting edge," says Quincy.

Cadillac SRX
Motoring enthusiasts are waiting with bated breath for this, the first luxury-car-based SUV from General Motors. "Car-based SUVs are quieter, more comfortable and get better fuel economy than other types of SUVs," says Quincy. Cadillac's first luxury SUV, the pricier Escalade, is a truck-based vehicle and ranges in price from $52,000 to $58,000. The SRX, priced at $37,000 to $48,000, will compete in the heart of the luxury SUV market against such popular models as the Ford Excursion and Chevy's Suburban and Tahoe.

The SRX has a powerful V-8 engine, a sporty handling package, quick acceleration and a third row of seats, permitting comfortable seating for seven or eight people.

Volkswagen Touareg
It's no accident it's got a different name -- the folks at Volkswagen wanted it to stand out. And they're getting their wish. The Touareg -- the first SUV-like vehicle from VW -- is winning kudos from critics.

"It's a much better vehicle than anybody was expecting," says Smith. "For a little over $35,000, it's a great value, good looking and offers a great off-road experience, where unfortunately, only a few will ever venture." Quincy agrees. "It's very luxurious and has a world-class interior," he says.

The Touareg is currently available as a 3.2-liter V-6 or a 4.2-liter V-8, both with six-speed transmissions. Oh yes, the pronunciation: The Touareg is named after a nomadic tribe from the Sahara and it's most commonly pronounced TOOR-egg, but we've also heard variations that sound like Ter-egg, Twor-regg, Twahr-reg, Too-reg and even Twah-ray. Suit yourself.

Nissan Quest
The stylish, new Quest minivan continues the company's design renaissance. "It proves that the people at Nissan are risk-takers," says Quincy.

With a 3.5-liter, 240-horsepower V-6 engine, the Quest offers expansive interior room and advanced features like DVD entertainment all wrapped in a slick outer shell. Although it will be built in Mississippi, the new Quest heats up the minivan wars among the Big Three Japanese automakers, adds Smith. "It's aimed directly at the Toyota Sienna, which is aimed at the Honda Odyssey, which remains minivan king."

Pontiac GTO
Think you've seen this one before? Well, you have. Pontiac is returning to its glory days of yesteryear with this new version of the famous GTO models. With its V-8, 350-horsepower engine, this car screams power.

Actually, the big new GTO is an American version of the Holden Monaro from Australia. Earlier this year, General Motors and its Australian subsidiary, Holden, completed an agreement to return the legendary Pontiac GTO to U.S. highways in late 2003 as a 2004 model. Besides speed and power, the rear-wheel drive coupe will have lots of exciting features including 17-inch alloy wheels, 2+2 bucket seating and a premium sound system.

Kia Amanti
Kia says the Amanti -- which looks like the Mercedes-Benz E class -- will compete in the same hot market as the Toyota Avalon, Chrysler Concorde and Buick LeSabre. Kia believes it can attract buyers with features such as a 270-watt Infinity sound system and a bevy of safety devices. Traction control, electronic stability control and eight airbags are all standard on the new Amanti. And if that's not enough, the firm hopes buyers will continue to be enticed by the Kia's 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty.

Prakash Gandhi is a freelance writer based in Florida.

-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2003

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