Auto Trends of 2006
Americans target crossover SUVs and luxury rides as the way to drive.
Just look at the new vehicles showcased at the year's auto shows.
No fewer than a dozen new SUVs—the majority of them carrying the "crossover" SUV label—and at least six new luxury cars made big debuts at the New York Auto Show, which is considered the last of the major U.S. auto shows of the 2006 season.
Some models, like the 2007 Mitsubishi Outlander coming to showrooms this fall, are major redesigns of current models. Others, like the Acura RDX, also due at dealerships in a few months, are new to the SUV scene.
(Take a look at what's coming soon in our 2007 Model Year Preview)
SUV Offerings Rising to 80
By our count, these developments will give consumers an unprecedented 80 nameplates for SUVs and SUV-like vehicles to choose from by the end of calendar 2006.
The reason for all the activity: Many Americans still love the high ride height, versatile seating and cargo areas and available all-wheel drive that these vehicles provide.
New Luxury Models Piling On
Meanwhile, the growth in luxury car models, now totaling 65 nameplates, stems from sheer demographic trends.
According to auto industry research, the large baby boomer population is inheriting wealth from family members, wrapping up their child-rearing duties and looking for rewards.
Thus, it's not surprising that luxury brand Lexus hopes to attract more of them to its new LS 460 sedan and its hybrid counterpart, the LS 600h L. Both were at the 2006 New York show for the first time.
What's a Crossover?
Crossovers are popping up everywhere in the auto business—from the Mazda CX-7 to the Saturn Outlook. But people generally call these vehicles SUVs because that's what they mostly look like.
What's the difference? Basically, under all that SUV-looking sheet metal, crossovers ride on platforms that are from cars, while "real" SUVs like the Cadillac Escalade and Nissan Pathfinder have truck-based underpinnings.
The rugged SUVs, typically heavier than comparable counterparts, are equipped to go off-road in difficult terrain. Generally speaking, crossovers are not. Truck-based SUVs also can typically tow more than crossovers can.
As an example, Mazda's new CX-7, which goes on sale this summer as a 2007 model, can tow only 2,000 pounds. Its foundation is the platform of the Mazda6 sedan, but you sure wouldn't know it by looking at the five-door, taller-riding CX-7 with mild SUV styling.
Note that the Mazda6 platform—with substantial modifications—also is in new Ford Motor Co. crossover vehicles coming out soon. The 2007 Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX, expected in showrooms this fall, feature car-like rides and available all-wheel drive.
Ford officials have said they expect sales of crossovers to top those of traditional SUVs, possibly as early as this year.
Crossovers can offer better on-road ride and handling and fuel savings than traditional SUVs. Crossovers also don't usually require a very large step up for passengers to get inside and these days offer many of the safety features that cars have.
An interesting side note to all this is how the onslaught of new SUVs and crossovers is affecting minivans. It appears that the new entrants are attracting families away from the family-friendly minivans. And this helps explain why some SUVs and crossovers now offer three rows of seats.
The 2007 Outlander will be the first Mitsubishi SUV in the United States with third-row seating for a total of seven passengers. The new Outlander is bigger than the current model and comes with a 220-horsepower 3.0-liter V6.
And you guessed it: The new Outlander rides on a platform that will be the basis for Mitsubishi's next-generation Lancer car.
Mazda's CX-7—with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price of $23,750 at introduction—will be one of the few crossover SUVs with a turbocharged 4-cylinder gasoline engine. It produces as much horsepower as some V6s—244—and will carry a fuel economy rating as high as 19 miles a gallon in the city and 24 mpg on the highway.
Luxury Cars Abound
Luxury never goes out of fashion. And today, more Americans than ever can afford luxury cars. So it's no wonder that the year's auto shows set the stage for several luxury car unveilings.
The Bentley Continental GTC Convertible debuted as a 2007 model that will have a 552-horsepower 6.0-liter twin-turbo 12-cylinder engine, head-turning style and a lofty price tag. The Bentley Continental GTC convertible is deemed fastest open-top 4-seat automobile in the world.
Infiniti unveiled its second-generation G sedan, a sleeker, more powerful four door than the current model. The interior is redone and has white and violet-colored illumination. (Violet is the color used by the Japanese for royalty.) And would you believe there's a steering wheel with leather that's hand-stitched right where a driver's hands are supposed to rest? This hand-stitching takes two hours. Under the hood, the G's award-winning V6 is heavily revised and now produces more than 300 horsepower. Look for the 2007 Infiniti G in showrooms by fall.
Volvo unveiled its next S80 flagship sedan to U.S. customers at spring auto shows. The styling is more rounded up front, and there's plenty of safety equipment all around in this five-passenger car. Volvo officials describe the 2007 S80, due in U.S. showrooms before the end of the year, as "Scandinavian luxury."
Even Chrysler got a bit more luxury-like with its showing of a 2007 300 sedan with an extra 6 inches of wheelbase. The generously sized and stylish Chrysler 300 LWB has 46 inches of legroom in the back seat. This is more than the 42.5 inches in the back seat of Cadillac's biggest car, the DTS.
Mercedes-Benz this spring showed its 2007 E-Class for U.S. customers. Besides a more aggressive appearance on the outside, the new E-Class adds an impressive safety feature called the Presafe as standard equipment. Mercedes' Presafe is a system that automatically readies the brakes and seat belts for a crash impact and also helps to position front-seat passengers optimally. All these features will come on all new E-Class models for the first time.
In addition, a new diesel engine in the new E320 is a cleaner design called BLUETEC, and the E-Class gasoline engines are improved, too. The top E-Class gasoline engine becomes a 5.5-liter V8 capable of generating 382 horsepower, and a low-volume, E63 AMG model has a 507-horsepower engine that's the most powerful ever in a production E-Class.
Meantime, Lexus showed the world's first full-hybrid car with a V8. The 2008 LS 600h L is based on the Lexus flagship LS sedan and offers more than 430 horsepower from its 5.0-liter V8 mated to electric motor.
The gasoline-only, 2007 LS 460 that's due this October already has some 380 horsepower, up from the 278 that's in the current, 2006 LS 430 car.
Note that final pricing for all the new models will be announced closer to the vehicle introduction dates.
Ann Job is a freelance automotive writer.
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