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Newest of the new for 2004

The names are elegant and exotic. The bodies sleek and sophisticated. Some are fast and furious, others plain, petite and practical.

No, we're not talking fashion models on the runways of Milan or Paris. These are the truly new vehicles of 2004 -- the introductory models of cars, trucks, vans and SUVs that didn't exist in model year 2003.

The size, shape, price and performance vary in this, the Class of '04.

Here's the newest of the new you'll soon be noticing, starting with models not yet in dealer showrooms.

Cadillac XLR

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Brand-spanking new
The long-awaited debut of the Cadillac XLR has plenty of tongues wagging, while others simply drool. The top-of-the-line luxury roadster is one of the 8 most anticipated vehicles of 2004. The XLR is priced at $76,200, but that includes just about every option known to GM and positions the jaw-dropping beauty right smack between the Lexus SC430 and the Jaguar XK8, and it's still considerably less than the Mercedes SL500.

Muscle-car aficionados are equally anxious to get their mitts on the new Pontiac GTO, a big V-8 powered performance coupe that is an American version of the Holden Monaro from Australia. With the death of the Firebird, the "We Build Excitement" brand found itself short on exciting products and turned to Holden.

Pontiac GTO

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Steven Cole Smith, automotive editor for The Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel, says, "The GTO name brand still has some cachet. With 350 horsepower, the return of the GTO after 30 years may make some Firebird fans forgive the company for killing off their favorite car."

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Staying with the retro theme, the Chevrolet SSR will also arrive shortly, looking like a hot-rod 1953 Chevrolet pickup, but built more like a Trailblazer. Chevy figures the average customer will be male and well over 40 -- old enough to afford the list price of $41,995.

Chevrolet SSR

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Other GM divisions are also parading their latest and greatest. Buick is getting a new SUV, the 2004 Rainier with the distinctive Buick grille and a gutsy 290-horsepower, 5.3-liter V-8 in even a short wheelbase model.

Expected on the market in January are the Suzuki Verona and Suzuki Forenza, both 4-door sedans, courtesy of Daewoo and General Motors, which is Suzuki's part owner. Also from Korea and Daewoo is the Aveo, Chevy's re-entry into the low-priced subcompact market. The four-door sedan or five-door hatchback can be snapped up for a mere $9,900 base price.

General Motors is also introducing a new small pickup as the GMC Canyon/Chevrolet Colorado. Bigger than the antiquated S-10 line that will be phased out, power will come from inline four and five-cylinder engines, based on the 4.2-liter inline six-cylinder used in the Chevy Trailblazer and GMC Envoy. Speaking of which, GMC is also introducing the Envoy XUV, an Envoy with a retractable hard roof over the rear cargo area that lets it double as a pickup truck.

Ford, meanwhile, is rolling out a new minivan called the Freestar which replaces the Windstar. With a lot of the latest safety features and two V-6 choices, the new van will sell for between $24,000 and $33,000. But the Freestar won't be stealing all the limelight at blue oval headquarters. Ford's Mercury division is introducing a version of the Freestar minivan called the Monterey, a name that's rich in tradition for the company. It's part of a major drive by Mercury to show there's still a lot of life left in the brand. The Monterey is Mercury's first long wheelbase van. It's fairly luxurious inside with fold-into-floor third-row seating and an available premium audio/DVD system.

But don't think for a moment that the American big guns are the only ones firing on all cylinders when it comes to introducing new cars.

Toyota Scion xA

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Toyota is producing a new line of cars called the Scion (SIGH-on) aimed at a younger market. It will come in two models, the xA, which is a 4-door sporty coupe/hatchback, and a boxy van called the xB. Both are powered by 4-cylinder, 108-horsepower engines. Toyota says they defy categorization, which could be good or bad.

The big news at Kia is the 2004 Amanti, the company's largest car. Resembling a recent Mercedes-Benz model, the Amanti will have a V-6 engine with an automatic transmission. Kia says the Amanti will go head-to-head with the likes of the Toyota Avalon, Buick LeSabre and Chrysler Concorde, and believes the Amanti's distinctive styling will be well received in a market not generally known for eye appeal.

Volkswagen has been busy too, marketing its new SUV, the Touareg (TOOR-egg). With a starting price of about $35,000, the new SUV is available with either a 3.2-liter V-6 or a 4.2-liter V-8. A V-10 diesel will come later. Full-time, four-wheel drive with low and high range gearing is standard.

It's also going to a big year for Nissan, which has three major new vehicles for the motoring public. The company is introducing a full-size SUV this fall called the Pathfinder Armada, and as its name implies, it's big -- longer than a Ford Expedition or a Toyota Sequoia, and much longer than a Chevy Tahoe. The Armada is not a re-jiggered Pathfinder. In fact, it's two feet longer and more than half a foot wider. Available in all-wheel drive, the Armada's three rows of seats are protected with side curtain airbags.

The Armada is actually based on another newcomer from Nissan, the Titan. Accurately named, the Titan is Nissan's first entry into the full-size truck category and it's all about size and power. It has a 5.6-liter, 300-horsepower engine and a towing capacity of up to 9,400 pounds.

The Titan and the Armada will be built in a new plant in Mississippi, where the all-new Nissan Quest will also be manufactured. Based on the popular Nissan Altima platform, the Quest has an arched roofline and sporty front end that makes it look pretty cool for a minivan. The new Quest is larger than a previous version in almost every way. The interior boasts fold-flat second- and third-row seats.

Early releases
Some so-called "new" cars have already been released to the showrooms and you may have seen them on the streets.

Crossfire

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Chrysler has already put out its eye-catching Crossfire, a sleek two-door, two-seat sport coupe notable as Chrysler's first use of a Mercedes-Benz engine and transmission. With a long hood and a short back, this is a very slick head-turner. Chrysler has also been selling the Pacifica, an innovative alternative to a minivan and a station wagon that essentially combines the two. The Pacifica holds six people in three rows of two seats. It's powered by Chrysler's corporate 3.5-liter, 250-horsepower V-6 and comes in front-wheel or all-wheel drive.

Staying with the sports theme, Mazda is selling a new sports coupe called the RX-8. To celebrate, Mazda has brought back its beloved rotary engine that powered every RX-7 from introduction in 1979 to its death in 1995. The 1.3-liter engine has 250 horsepower.

Nissan, meanwhile, already has introduced the Murano, the company's first car-like SUV that crosses over from station wagon to sport utility. The Murano is built more for sport than utility, but it still works well as a five-passenger SUV. It is available in front- or all-wheel drive.

Coming attractions
Looking further ahead, some manufacturers have big plans for next year and beyond. Chrysler plans to unveil a convertible version of the PTcruiser, turning the four-door sedan into a two-door. The company also will introduce the big bold 300C, a sedan that's a salute to the distinctive sedans from the 1950s with a prominent grille, and a powerful V-8 engine. Dodge will get a wagon version called the Magnum. "It's a throwback to the muscle cars of the '60s and '70s," says Roger Hart, managing editor of AutoWeek magazine in Detroit. "It's a performance car packaged into a wagon." Available in rear-wheel and all-wheel drive, the Magnum will be powered with the Dodge Hemi engine.

"It could single-handedly bring the uncool family station wagon into the spotlight," says Smith.

Another vehicle that won't be available for a while is the long-awaited Ford Escape Hybrid, which gives the little SUV a combination gasoline/electric powertrain, like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight and Civic hybrids. With hybrids, a small gas engine helps charge the onboard batteries, so the vehicle never has to be plugged in to an electrical outlet. Performance should be comparable to the current four-cylinder Escape, but with a substantial improvement in fuel mileage. It will go on sale sometime in 2004.

On the luxury front, those with tons of spare cash are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the new Mercedes-Benz SLR. Built in partnership with McLaren, the race-car company, this is the kind of car for the ultra-hip and sophisticated. And those craving speed. The supercharged V-8 engine will have somewhere between 557 and 600 horsepower.

Coming soon from BMW is a 6-Series coupe, the first time the company has built a 6-Series since the original, which debuted in 1977 and died in 1989. It will come to the United States in the spring as the 645Ci, powered by a 4.4-liter, 325-horsepower V-8 with a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. It will be followed in a year or two by a convertible.

Prakash Gandhi is a freelance writer based in Florida.

-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2003

2004 Car Guide
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