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Timely SUVs drive into view

Buried under six tons of mud, the all-new 2007 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited was introduced at the New York International Auto Show Wednesday. A fire truck roared in with sirens blaring, followed by a team of firefighters blasting mud off the first-ever four-door Wrangler.

By Mark Lennihan, AP


By James R. Healey, Sharon Silke Carty and Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY
NEW YORK — In a happy accident of timing, automakers are unveiling an array of SUVs designed for improved fuel economy just as the SUV-loving USA is being whacked with high fuel prices.
Beyond that, the SUVs on display at the auto show are significant as representatives of the next step in the evolution of sport utilities. They move even further from the appearance and rugged capabilities of traditional truck-style SUVs.

"A whole new breed — what I call 'capable cars,' " says auto consultant Dan Gorrell at Strategic Vision. "They're not true off-roaders. They're tall cars, so they are more useful, and they have the advantages of all-wheel or four-wheel drive for (bad) weather," he says. "People are seeing they don't need a (Ford) Explorer or other traditional truck-based SUV."

Explorer sales the first three months this year were down 25.4% from the same period a year ago, according to Autodata, despite a redesign of the SUV.

Ford has said it doesn't expect Explorer to hold its title as best-selling SUV as buyers switch to more refined and now more graceful-looking and sporty-driving crossover SUVs. Though Explorer barely retained the No. 1 SUV spot the first three months, it was outsold by the likes of Ford's about-to-be-discontinued Taurus sedan.

Acura and Mazda showed icons of the new-generation crossover SUVs. Not only do they look like cars, they offer high-performance engines and crisp handling. Even the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited unveiled here — inarguably a true off-road SUV — has been made more habitable. It's longer and roomier than the conventional Wrangler and has, for the first time, four doors.

A look at those and others unveiled here:

Acura

Acura RDX: This is the first showing of the production version of the 2007 compact SUV from Honda's luxury brand. The marquee feature is the turbocharged four-cylinder engine.

It's the first Honda turbo engine sold in the USA. It's rated 240 horsepower and 260 pounds-feet of torque, easily matching Honda and Acura V-6 engines sold in the USA. Acura forecasts a fuel-economy rating of 19 miles per gallon in town, 24 on the highway.

It's also a tech showpiece. For example, the all-wheel drive is a version of the SH (for Super-Handling) system from the Acura RL flagship luxury sedan. It comes into play during vigorous cornering to keep the car aimed right and applying full power, as well as providing extra traction for slick roads. Real-time traffic reporting in major metropolitan areas also is cribbed from the RL.

RDX, on sale this summer, will be priced $30,000 to $37,000.

It will be built at Honda's Marysville, Ohio, factory on the same line as the Acura TL sport sedan.

Acura MDX: It's billed as a concept vehicle, but it's a close harbinger of the 2007 version of the brand's popular MDX midsize crossover-utility vehicle.

The front is blunter, the wheel wells bulge more, and the stance is wider than the current version. Acura says it's supposed to somewhat resemble a fast, fancy yacht.

All-wheel drive, real-time traffic reports and a high-end audio system are similar to those features in the Acura RL, the brand's high-tech flagship sedan.

Honda was parsimonious with details. The '07 MDX will have a V-6, as the current model does, but Acura would not give details on the engine or disclose other specifics about the vehicle.

Those will come nearer the fall on-sale date, the company said.

Mazda

Mazda CX-9: The CX-9 looks like an enlarged version of the CX-7, also on display here and shown at other shows earlier this year.

But Mazda has taken pains — a special announcement sent to journalists, for instance — to insist that the CX-9 is not a big 7, nor is the 7 a small. The 9 uses "all-new platform architecture," the company says. It will not be on sale until early next year.

The CX-9 has three rows of seats, accommodating seven passengers. Drivetrain is to be a new 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission. Front- and all-wheel-drive versions will be available. Standard safety features will include anti-skid and anti-rollover systems.

Mazda says it will provide prices and more details closer to the on-sale date.

Mazda CX-7: The five-passenger, compact crossover sport-utility is to go on sale this spring as a 2007 model. Power is from a 2.3-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder rated 244 horsepower and 258 pounds-feet of torque. Mazda forecasts a fuel-economy rating of 23 mpg in combined city-highway driving.

The curvy styling is intended to make you think of an SUV executed as a sports car.

Anti-skid and traction-control systems are standard. Front- and all-wheel-drive versions will be available.

Starting price is about $25,000 and the 7 probably will be popular enough at first that you'll likely pay the full window-sticker price, according to online car-shopping site KBB.com.

Jeep

Jeep Patriot: Patriot looks like a smaller version of the Grand Cherokee and will cost about $17,000 less. Jeep hasn't released the price yet, but says it will be less than the $15,985 Jeep Compass.

Patriot takes its design cues from Cherokee, the recently departed iconic Jeep. It will be available in two-wheel drive, four-wheel drive and a trail-rated version that is capable of going off-road.

While critics argue that Patriot will water down the brand, the automaker says the small SUV will lure customers who haven't been able to afford a Jeep.

"We feel there is a marketplace for people that have been interested in Jeep but haven't made it in" to the showroom, says Frank Klegon, executive vice president of product development for Chrysler Group. "It's an expansion of Jeep, bringing in customers that may not have looked at us before."

The Patriot comes with a 2.4-liter engine that produces 172 horsepower.

Jeep Wrangler four-door: In an attempt to broaden the market base for the traditional Wrangler, the two-door SUV that looks more comfortable on the beach than on the road, Jeep is rolling out a four-door version.

It's aimed at buyers who need a fully functional back seat. "We wanted more room in the back seat so we could attract younger families," Klegon says. But he acknowledges that the four-door version might end up cannibalizing sales from Jeep Liberty, which is also aimed at families.

It comes with a 205-horsepower V-6 engine and seats five people, and the automaker claims it has more cargo space than the 2006 Hummer H3, 2006 Nissan Xterra and 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser.

For parents who feel a little iffy about putting Junior in an SUV equipped with roll bars and a soft top, Jeep offers a hard-top version and makes electronic stability control and electronic roll mitigation standard equipment.

The price has not yet been announced.

Mitsubishi

Mitsubishi Outlander: The compact SUV is completely made over for 2007. You can think of it as a Mitsubishi Lancer sports sedan done as an SUV, because it is built atop the platform to be used for the next-generation Lancer and super high-performance Lancer Evo.

Not in showrooms until November, the '07 Outlander gets a power boost from a standard 3-liter V-6 engine rated 220 horsepower and 204 pounds-feet of torque, which is teamed with a six-speed automatic transmission. Starting price will be about $23,000, Mitsubishi says.

Premium options include navigation system and Rockford Fosgate stereo. The California-market model will be rated a PZEV vehicle, for partial zero-emission vehicle. In other words, it is nearly pollution free. A ZEV would be an electric car that has no tailpipe emissions.

Front- and all-wheel-drive models will be offered.

Suzuki

Suzuki XL7: The biggest — and expected to be most expensive — Suzuki ever is the seven-passenger XL7, built on a stretched-out chassis it shares with Chevrolet Equinox.

Fuel economy should be about 23 miles per gallon highway, which would be slightly better than the less-powerful V-6 in the previous version.

It's due in showrooms late in the year, ranging from $23,000 to $29,000 with front- and all-wheel-drive versions.

Suzuki SX4: So carlike it's a car, although Suzuki labels it a sport-compact crossover, a description that hits all the hot buttons. Sport compacts are the small, front-drive cars favored by youthful, urban hot-rodders. On the other hand, Suzuki also boldly calls it a hatchback, a term that has negative connotations in the USA, where it implies a cheap small car.

SX4 goes on sale the third quarter as an '07 model, priced $15,000 to $18,000. The powerplant is a 2-liter, four-cylinder rated 143 horsepower, 136 pounds-feet of torque.

All-wheel drive is standard. Suzuki calls it a three-mode system. The driver can select front-wheel drive, all-wheel-drive automatic or all-wheel-drive lock. In lock mode, 30% to 50% of the power is sent to the rear wheels. In auto mode, the system shifts power among the wheels for best traction and handling, up to a 50/50 split between front and rear. The lock mode is meant for lower speeds and challenging conditions. It shifts to all-wheel-drive automatic at 36 mph.

Suzuki predicts a fuel-economy rating of 24 mpg in the city, 30 mpg on the highway.
 
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