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(From top) GMC Envoy XUV, Ford Escape Hybrid, Volkswagen Touareg, Nissan Quest

Gone are the days when tinkering under the hood made new-car ownership fun. Because of the complexity within today’s automobiles, we do most of our tinkering on the outside: specialty tires, performance-enhancing add-ons, slamming electronics. Automakers, meanwhile, feed this hunger with vehicles that continue to set new standards for versatility: We may not change our oil as much anymore, but we can alter our suspension settings for off-road boulder hopping. And this trend shows no signs of ebbing, as the first generation of purpose-built crossover vehicles enters production over the next few years. This month, we focus on the car owner’s next options, from the hottest, most versatile vehicles on the horizon to the latest tech in the aftermarket.

SNEAK PEEK: NEW TECH CHOICES AHEAD

Sure, there are a lot of great vehicles coming out for 2003, but here are four reasons to wait. These model-year 2004 vehicles show even more technological promise, setting new standards for versatility. Each will hit dealerships by next summer; pricing hasn’t been set.

1. GMC Envoy XUV

The Envoy comes late to the pickup-SUV party, but it brings a more attractive date. Not only does the
vehicle feature a folding midgate, la Chevy Avalanche, Cadillac EXT, and Subaru Baja, but its entire rear roof peels away to convert to a pickup. Once the top is open, the power midgate seals the passengers from the bed.

2. Ford Escape Hybrid

Ford enters the gas-electric fray with the first hybrid SUV, a tweaked version of its popular Escape.
And it’s not just designed to improve fuel economy: The electric motor assist kicks in during hard acceleration, giving the four-cylinder engine the performance of a V6. And at 25 mpg on the highway, fuel economy isn’t too shabby either.

3. Volkswagen Touareg

Aiming to set new marks for off-road ruggedness and on-road manners, Volkswagen’s first sport-utility-a distant cousin to the equally new Porsche Cayenne-will offer a choice of V6 or V8 engine (and eventually a 12-cylinder and maybe a diesel) along with permanent four-wheel drive and electronically controlled shock absorbers. Its optional air suspension enhances its
off-road prowess.

4. Nissan Quest

Bent on exploding the staid image of the consummate people-moving vehicle, Nissan’s next-gen Quest (concept shown) could be the first in a category it’ll invent: the sport minivan. Rakish styling disguises the Quest’s inherent practicality and a creamy-smooth V6 provides the performance to match.

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