Your Next Ride

Whether you're struggling to afford your first set of wheels or looking for a luxury-mobile, you'll find it here.

Shakespeare once described the "seven ages" of a person's life. Clearly, he wasn't a car guy. For when it comes to the sheet metal in the driveway, there are actually just five stages of life and, thanks to new technology, each is poised for a dramatic makeover. From more powerful and efficient engines to voice recognition and Web access, automakers are introducing innovations designed to appeal to a variety of tastes. Here's what's coming to a driveway near you, next year and beyond.

Young Man with Attitude
He has poor cash flow but a desire to impress friends.

A first car doesn't have to be fast, but it helps. If only satisfying the yearn for burn (as in rubber) wasn't so darn expensive.

Well, soon it won't have to be. Inspired by the growing West Coast trend of highly modifying import cars, automakers are now introducing a crop of low-cost speed machines with high-tech, high-output engines. These factory-built mini-muscle cars manage to stuff close to 200 horsepower under the hood, while keeping the price just south of 20 grand.

Putting so much power in a small package isn't easy. Street-modified Hondas can pump out 400 or more horsepower when equipped with big turbochargers. But production cars have to meet strict emission and reliability standards. This effort has produced powerplants that rev up to 8,000 rpm. The valve system in Honda's latest engine, for example, which debuted in the 2002 Acura RSX and later will appear in the new Civic Si, takes metallurgy from Honda's Formula One cars.

Ford, meanwhile, is working with Britain's Cosworth Technology to develop a 180-horsepower version of its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine for the 2002 SVT Focus. With a suspension tweaked by Ford's special vehicles team, this sport sedan is at home on the highway or the autocross. Nissan brings back the Sentra SE-R for 2002, with 175 hp and sport-tuned suspension. Even General Motors will enter the fray in 2003, with the Vibe. Its unveiling will coincide with the U.S. intro of the new Mini-the revival of the car that, long ago, made England swing.

Boy, how times have changed.

The Couple Who Have It All
They're reliving their youth; money is no object.

News flash! Older people don't all want to drive boring sedans.

The success of several nostalgic cars-such as the New Beetle-that evoke memories of better (and younger) days is encouraging a host of followers. The new Ford Thunderbird is an example, taking a famous name and redesigning it with all the modern amenities. It features a fully independent suspension and an overhead-cam V8. Likewise, the new Mini, re-engineered by BMW, takes the theme to a far more refined level. This new version is larger, quieter, and much quicker than the bare-bones original.

Of course, with lots of space, a soft ride, and many comfort features, the mainstream full-size sedan won't just disappear. What will, though, is its old-fashioned chassis, as domestic automakers shift to modern rear-wheel-drive chassis with sophisticated, European-inspired suspensions.

And as the baby boomers near 60, technology that offsets the signs of aging is becoming more popular. Older buyers love Cadillac's night-vision system, introduced two years ago. Now, DaimlerChrysler is developing a similar system using infrared technology.

It's something these drivers will want, as new technology brings more power and sporty handling to the Sunday drive.

Mom by Day, Woman 24/7
She wants to ferry kids safely to baseball games and dance lessons, without feeling like she's lost her charms.

Truth be told, the sport-utility vehicle has never lived up to the hype. Why? Consider its conflicting ambitions: the room of a minivan, the drivability of a car, the traction of a snowplow, and the image of a ranch hand. The good news is that the SUV of the future promises improved safety and ride, more room, and even better fuel efficiency-all without messing with the coolness factor.

Even the vehicles that started the SUV craze-the Ford Explorer, Chevy Blazer, and Jeep Cherokee-are undergoing dramatic changes for 2002. The Explorer gets a new independent rear suspension, which greatly improves ride and handling. General Motors, meanwhile, has enlarged its stable of midsize SUVs (which include the GMC Envoy, Olds Bravada, and Chevy Blazer, renamed the Trailblazer), which are now powered by a new line of fuel-efficient powerplants. And Chrysler's Jeep division replaced the popular Cherokee with the Liberty-which is roomier and, thanks to an independent front suspension, drives much better.

The future of these vehicles, however, depends on shedding their truck DNA. Most current SUVs are built on truck platforms, but many future models will be based on cars or even minivans. The end result: a more stable, more spacious, and lighter vehicle-one far more suited for day-to-day use. The 2002 Toyota Highlander is a good example. Like several Japanese models before it, it's built on a car platform (the Camry's).

And in an effort to improve safety, automakers are introducing electronic controls that prevent dangerous skids by applying individual brakes. This stability technology is gravitating from luxury cars to SUVs and vans; the Highlander and Volkswagen's new Eurovan now offer the system. Because SUVs have a high center of gravity, losing control can lead to a rollover. So Ford will add a rollover-protection airbag to the Explorer, which already has optional side airbags. Jeep, meanwhile, now offers a new tire-pressure sensor to monitor stability on the Grand Cherokee. Up to now these devices were only available with run-flat tires.

As midsize SUVs become more car-like, they start looking more like station wagons, which themselves are undergoing a revival, especially in Europe. The newest wagons have high-tech drive systems and lots of space-and rate high on the cool meter too.

Escape Artist
Responsibilities leave little time to play, but he wants to anyway.

Real trucks built for real off-roading . . . an outdated notion? Seems so. But still, a third of big pickups are used in the workplace, and there's a hard-core group of sportsmen among the 5 percent of sport-utility owners who actually take their SUVs off-road.

Real hauling takes real power, and that means fuel economy takes a hit. But help is on the way, in the form of huge gas-mileage improvements-in the neighborhood of 20 percent-within the next five years. Right now, the Big Three are in a dead heat to build hybrid SUVs-trucks that'd use electric power in short boosts to supplement smaller gas engines. Clean diesels, which would likewise improve fuel economy, are also on the drawing board.
In the meantime, General Motors is launching a series of high-tech gas engines, including an inline six-cylinder as powerful as many V8s. The engines, which will appear in the 2002 Chevy Trailblazer, GMC Envoy, and Olds Bravada, also get better fuel efficiency. In addition, next year GM will unveil an engine that closes four cylinders of a V8 under light loads to raise economy. At DaimlerChrysler, the 2002 Dodge Ram gets two new V8s that produce more power from smaller displacements.

And automakers are looking at more than just fuel economy. Ford, for example, has redone the Explorer, adding a fully independent suspension that improves ride and handling. The new Chevrolet Avalanche morphs from a pickup to an SUV (Cadillac's version is called the EXT). And towing will never be the same with GM's Quadrasteer, which turns the rear wheels of big pickups. The system debuts on the GMC Sierra this fall, allowing long-wheelbase trucks to cut turns as tightly as a small car.

Land Rover's new Freelander, meanwhile, incorporates the high ground clearance and wheel travel essential for climbing. Mountain men also are watching Nissan-which plans to introduce a rugged full-size pickup in 2003-and GM's Hummer division, which intends to launch a modest version of the famous military vehicle by 2004.

Until then, the macho truck award goes to DaimlerChrysler's hulking G-Class, a semicommercial SUV coming to the U.S. next spring. It's sure to appeal to the hard-core outdoor guy, but is also intimidating enough to ensure a front-row parking spot at the mall.

Executive on the Go
His car takes the place of an office, and it's just as comfortable and well-wired.

Say goodbye to the days of long, lonely drives-the kind where you rely on the radio and a cup of Joe to keep you awake. In fact, future cars will have so many communications choices, mostly designed for business travelers, that driver distraction becomes more of a concern.

This tech trend is starting-where else?-with luxury cars. One example is the 2002 BMW 745i, which features so many techno-gadgets that the company had to re-engineer the basic driving controls. The gearshift lever looks more like a turn signal, while the center console sports a kind of aluminum mushroom joystick that operates the heating, cooling, and audio systems. It also controls a data screen that's on the instrument panel. It's a radical idea that takes some getting used to, but it does consolidate the usual controls so there are fewer buttons to push. The 745i also has an exotic new powerplant with no actual throttle; this setup significantly improves power and fuel economy.

The road to the wired car has been a long and windy one. The major issue: By the time automakers produce a new model,
the communications technology inside is basically obsolete. (Used-car buyers would end up with an electronic junkyard on the dashboard.) One way to overcome this is to build cars on rolling platforms that can be upgraded at any time. A second is a technology like Bluetooth, the wireless communications protocol that would add capability without more wires. And rather than creating what's essentially a mobile PC, some automakers are looking to develop communications links that operate via the Internet.

And considering the ongoing debate about driver distraction, particularly related to cellphones, voice recognition systems will play a big role in the future. Several vehicles, including a few new Jaguars and the Infiniti Q45, already respond to verbal commands to, say, turn on the radio or the air conditioning.

And there's even a technology in development that monitors your eyes, alerting you if it senses that you're falling asleep. It could be the end of Starbucks.

by Top: Prisma Design Bottom: Mika Grondahl

REMOTE CONTROL DRIVING
With drive-by-wire technology, the car can be operated via remote control. Above, the driver fine-tunes his parking from the sidewalk.
Top: Prisma Design Bottom: Mika Grondahl