Early '07 Preview/Highlights
By Eric Peters
for immediate release

New car season used to follow the calendar year -- with next year's models filtering into showrooms in late fall or early spring. But just as the Christmas shopping season now stretches back as far as early October, more and more of "next year's" new cars and trucks are showing up at dealerships with as much as six months still left in the current calendar year. This isn't a bad thing by any means; after all, you get to drive a "new" car for longer than 12 months -- if you buy an '07 model when it's still late summer 2006.

Here are ten of the latest and greatest -- even if they are here a few months ahead of schedule:

Family sedans

*2007 Saturn Aura -- Like the Sky roadster, the Aura is an all-new model intended to move the Saturn brand into a better neighborhood -- style-wise, fit-and-finish-wise, power-wise and otherwise -- while retaining the traditional Saturn selling points of good value and customer-friendly dealerships.

The first thing you'll notice is it's a pretty big car -- not just compared with previous Saturns, but also compared with other cars in the same "mid-sized" class, including its corporate cousins the Pontiac Gs and Chevy Malibu Maxx. Its interior is substantially more spacious (by three full inches overall) than its sheetmetal cousins -- and the extra legroom should make you think twice if you've been Accord or Camry-minded up till now.

The Aura's available four-panel retractable glass "panorama" sunroof is a dramatic touch -- and something no Japanese sedan (or coupe) currently offers. Seventeen-inch aluminum wheels are standard, too -- as is a very impressive 224-hp 3.5 liter V-6 engine. Eighteen inch rims can be ordered -- as well as an even more powerful 3.6 liter V-6 rated at 252-hp that's basically the same engine used in the luxury-branded Cadillac CTS sedan. OnStar, traction and stability control and side impact/head curtain air bags are also included at no extra charge on every Aura.

But the really big news is the Aura's soon-to-be-here hybrid gas-electric powertrain -- tentatively slated for release in spring/summer 2007. It will be GM's first hybrid passenger car -- and give buyers the prospect of a 40-mpg sport sedan that isn't small. Or built in Japan.

Base model

Engine: 3.5 liter V-6
MPG: 20 city, 29 highway
Horsepower: 224
Base price: $19,945
Available: This fall

* 2007 Pontiac Grand Prix GXP - In the '60s, big Pontiacs with big V-8s like the Catalina and Bonneville ruled the far left lane. Triple deuce (three Rochester two-barrel carburetor) 389s and Super Duty 421s pushed the hawkish beaks of these proud tin Indians effortlessly through traffic -- and gave them a satisfying muscle car rumpety-rump exhaust note at the curb. You'll find the same endearing qualities in the V-8 powered Grand Prix GXP -- Pontiac's first eight-cylinder-equipped sedan in more than 20 years.

Standard equipment in this model is a 5.3 liter V-8 with 303 horsepower feeding into a sport-calibrated 4-speed automatic transmission with both manual and automatic shifting modes. With the traction control turned off, Dale Earnhardt-style smoky burnout launches are just a foot stomp away -- but the main attraction is the car's torquey forward rush from a low-speed roll-on. While that kid in the next lane is running his rice rocket to redline in second, you're steamrolling ahead of him without even trying too hard. If the kid's got something quick, just ease a little deeper into the pedal and let the wonder of cubic inches do its thing. There truly is no replacement for displacement.

Another cool feature that comes with the GXP is heads-up display (HUD). Derived from jet fighter applications, the HUD projects data such as your current speed in the form of a holographic image that appears to float in the air just above the hood and directly in your line of sight. The idea is to keep you informed without your having to take your eye off the road. Adding to the jet fighter ambiance are red-backlit gauges tucked into a hooded central nacelle, with the center stack canted toward the driver -- just like it was in the old Grand Prix SJ of the classic era.

Engine: 5.3 liter V-8
MPG: 18 city, 27 highway
Horsepower: 303
Base price: $28,560
Available: Now

Sporty Cars

*2007 VW Eos -- Folding hardtops aren't new, but only recently have they become relatively inexpensive. And the new Eos is the least expensive of the current crop of under-$30k retractable hardtops on the market, edging out the also-new Pontiac G6 coupe by about $500.

Like the G6, the Eos has an electrically folding top that tucks into the area behind the rear seats -- turning the car into an instant convertible on nice days, but without the downsides of a soft-top convertible -- including vulnerability to thieves and vandals (as well as the elements). But unlike the G6, the retractable hardtop on the Eos has a fixed glass "panorama style" center section, which gives the car an open-air feel even with the top up.

Another area where the Eos has a stronger hand to play is under the hood -- where its available six-speed manual transmission and optional 250 horsepower 3.2 liter V-6 engine make it more of an enthusiasts' car than the automatic-only, significantly less powerful Pontiac G6 -- which tops out at 227-hp when ordered with its optional 3.9 liter V-6. (The standard Eos engine -- a 200-hp 2 liter four-cylinder -- rates about dead even with the G6's standard 201-hp 3.5 liter V-6. But the Pontiac is heavier by almost 500 pounds -- and its engine comes tied to a 4-speed automatic transmission only.)

You'll lose some trunk space, though -- the Eos has just 10.5 cubic feet vs. 12.6 cubic feet for the Pontiac. Still, the Passat-based Eos is a viable four-passenger ride -- unlike most "two-plus-two" coupes and convertibles, whose back seats are typically for groceries and cargo only.

A final Eos selling point is the likely availability of a diesel engine option sometime later next year -- which would give Eos buyers fun in the sun, security in the rain and snow -- and 40-plus miles per gallon, too.

Base model

Engine: 2 liter turbocharged four-cylinder
MPG: 23 city, 32 highway (w/manual)
Horsepower: 200
Base price: $27,990
Available: Now

*2007 Saturn Sky -- Though not an expensive car, the Sky roadster could easily pass for a bigger-bucks exotic -- or at the very least, be parked with confidence next to a Mercedes-Benz SLK or BMW Z4. It's also a viable alternative to comparably priced/powerful/capable roadsters such as the Mazda MX-5 Miata -- the first time that could be said of any American sports cars car without the sayer being suspected of taking large checks from General Motors. The Sky offers a similar driving experience for about the same money but with a much higher "wow" quotient. Miatas are nice cars -- but they are also as common as Keds. No one notices them anymore. In the Sky, you'll get thumbs-ups, questions, praises galore.

Sky shares its basic mechanical underthings with the also appealing Pontiac Solstice -- including its standard 2.4 liter, 177-hp DOHC four-cylinder engine, 5-speed manual transmission and rear-drive chassis/suspension components -- but receives its own unique exterior and interior cosmetics, most notably a striking wide-mouthed front end treatment with swept back, projector-stype headlight assemblies, side scallops that extend from the bottom of the front quarter panels back into the doors, where the sheetmetal flows into provocatively arched rear quarters and a tail capped off by high-definition cat's eye tail-lights. Twin "speed cones" behind the driver and passenger seatbacks further define the Sky's roadster stance. Detail touches such as the twin chrome-finished air vents at either side of the low and wide clamshell hood, the exhaust cutout in the lower rear fascia and one of GM's bar-non best interior layouts in years round off the package.

The Sky comes in one well-equipped trim level, with standard air conditioning, 18x8-inch wheels, power windows and door locks, ABS, keyless entry and a better stereo with a CD player and six speakers -- all of which cost extra at your Pontiac store. Pretty much the only big ticket options on the Sky are a 5-speed automatic transmission, limited slip rear differential, an upgrade audio system and that stunning two-tone leather package

Engine: 2.4 liter four-cylinder
MPG: 26 city, 35 highway (w/manual)
Horsepower: 177
Base price: $23,595
Available: Now

I. Trucks/SUVS

*2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser -- From its two-tone exterior/iinterior treatments, roof rack cage and backward-opening "suicide" doors to its classic-era FJ-inspired shapes and elemental simplicity, this is retro done right.

The all-new FJ embodies much of the gung-ho (and go-anywhere) spirit of the original FJ LandCruiser Toyota brought out in 1967 to go up against domestic rough boys like the old (and pre-OJ) Ford Bronco Jeep CJ and International Scout. Like its ancestor, the FJ is built for serious duty -- and for people who know how to use a two-speed transfer case.

It rides on a shortened and narrowed version of the fully boxed steel ladder frame used in the Toyota 4-Runner mid-sized SUV. The engineers shaved about 5.3 inches off the overall length (183.9 for the FJ vs. 189.2 for the 4-Runner) and trims a bit more than half an inch off the width (74.6 inches for the FJ vs. 75.2 for the 4-Runner). The FJ's more compact overall dimensions give it extra wiggle room in tight squeeze situations -- such as getting past a couple of big oaks on either side of a narrow path. The stubbier shape also results in angles of approach (34 degrees vs. the 4-Runner's 30 degrees) and departure (30 degrees vs. 24 for the 4-Runner) better suitable for off-pavement work. You'll be less likely to tear off the rear bumper coming down a steep grade -- or plow your nose into the dirt trying to make it up one.

There are also front and rear tow hooks you can use to winch yourself out of a mud pit, full underbody skid plates to protect the vitals (oil pan, transmission/transfer case and fuel tank) from rocks, heavy-duty six-lug hubs and a real-deal 4x4 system with High and Low ranges tied into a heavy-duty 8-inch solid rear axle and locking Torsen center differential. (Base 2WD models have a limited slip rear axle.)

The FJ also offers a clutch start cancel feature that lets you use the starter motor to "bump" the vehicle forward -- and keeps the truck from rolling backwards if you stall the engine and need to re-start on a steep incline. You've got 9.6 inches of ground clearance to work with, too.

Even the seats are water-repellent.

Underhood, the FJ packs a standard 239-hp 4-liter V-6 and can accelerate to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds -- respectable performance for a sporty sedan -- and absolutely excellent performance for a 4x4 SUV.

Engine: 4 liter V-6
MPG: 19 city, 22 highway (w/auto)
Horsepower: 239
Base price: $21,710
Available: Now