Part II

*2007 Chevy Avalanche -- Though the changes are subtle, the '07 Chevy Avalanche is essentially an all-new truck. It still has its rough and tumble Tonka toy personality -- and clever mid-gate system, which expands the usable bed space into the interior to accommodate long objects without the need to drop the tailgate and leave them hanging in the breeze. But the questionable Stegosaurus-style plastic body cladding has been retired to the "Aztek Room" deep within a remote GM salt mine in the deserts of New Mexico -- and there are equally salutary improvements to the chassis and driveline as well.

The front suspension now uses coil-over shocks riding in light weight/high-strength aluminum lower control arms. This change reduces unsprung mass by 20 percent -- but what that means to you is a noticeably smoother ride and specifically, less jarring when you hit a pothole. There's also a new rack-and-pinion power steering system designed to deliver more car-like road feel, even at high speeds -- and a tighter turning radius than last year (43 feet vs. 43.3 feet). A revised 5-link rear suspension designed complements the improvements up front -- and the truck's track (the distance between pairs of wheels) has been widened to enhance its stability during cornering and abrupt, emergency maneuvering.

The truck's fully boxed steel frame is also changed -- and GM claims 90 percent increased torsional stiffness in the new front section. The use of hydro-forming (a process for extruding steel parts using water under extremely high pressures to make the frame sections as single units instead of welding pieces together) helps eliminate production variances and tighten up tolerances. That should translate into fewer squeaks and rattles -- especially over the life-cycle of the vehicle since there are fewer bolted-together sections to work loose.

The exterior sheetmetal's also clean sheet, with most of the front-end panels shared with the also-new 2007 Chevy Tahoe -- including the sculpted hood with twin "power domes" and steeply raked "fast" windshield, which gives the truck a better aerodynamic profile. All trim levels receive body-colored front and rear fascias, too.

Other big news is the bump in output of the standard 5.3 liter V-8 to 320-hp, a 25-hp improvement over last year's 295-hp engine. Amazingly, fuel efficiency doesn't suffer even a little -- thanks to Displacement on Demand (DOD) technology, which shuts down four of the V-8's cylinders under light load/part throttle conditions, as when cruising at steady speed on the highway. The EPA hasn't published official numbers yet, but Chevy claims the '07 Avalanche with the 5.3 V-8 is good for 16 city/22 mpgs highway -- a decent improvement over the '06 model's 14 city/19 mpgs highway, especially in view of the substantial uptick in power. Towing and payload capacity also increase slightly to 8,200-lbs. and 1,387-lbs., respectively -- vs. last year's 8,00-lb. towing and 1,337-lb. maxes.

And for those who need more hoofs to stomp the ground with, a 6 liter V-8 with 355 horses -- and 365-lbs.-ft. of torque -- is available optionally.

* Buyer's note: GM"s '07 model 1500-series pick-ups -- the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra -- get the same updated frames, chassis and engines/drivetrains as the new Avalanche.

Engine: 5.3 liter V-8
MPG: 15 city, 2o highway
Horsepower: 320
Base price: $31,790
Available: Now

Crossovers/small wagons

*2007 Dodge Caliber -- This model replaces the Neon as Dodge's entry-level vehicle, but offers some non-entry-level equipment -- including an available all-wheel-drive system, 18-inch rims, iPod hook-up, liftgate-mounted stereo speakers (for tailgating parties) and a unique ChillZone beverage cooler in the glovebox. It comes as either a four-door hatchback or five-door wagon bodystyles -- and with the rear seats folded flat, offers almost 50 cubic feet of cargo space.

The Caliber's wagonish/small SUV layout makes it good for commuting -- or for small families -- as well as carting stuff around. In this way, it's similar to the popular PT Cruiser (and the Chevy HHR) but unlike these two, the Caliber offers a sportier personality as well as the winter weather grip of AWD. It's also got a much lower starting price in the mid $13k range (vs. the PT's base price of $14,485).

In addition to the beverage cooler and other neat touches, you can get a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) in the Caliber -- a feature that's unavailable in the PT and most similarly priced competitors. A CVT offers better mileage potential than a standard automatic, but its chief advantage is the absence of coffee-spilling "shift shock" between upshifts and downshifts. Unlike a standard automatic, a CVT doesn't have a planetary gearset and so doesn't actually "shift" between gears at all. There's just one "infinitely variable" forward speed, which gives the car turbine-like acceleration when you floor it. This transmission is standard when you order either the optional 2 liter (158-hp) or 2.4 liter (172-hp) engines. The Caliber's standard 1.8 liter, 148-hp engine is teamed with a conventional 5-speed manual transmission.

Buyer's note: The Caliber is related to the '07 Jeep Compass and Patriot, which share the same basic chassis underpinnings and drivetrains but have more traditionally "trucky" exterior and interior styling cues.

Engine: 1.8 liter four-cylinder
MPG: 28 city, 32 highway (w/manual)
Horsepower: 148
Base price: $13,425
Available: Now

*2007 Ford Edge -- In a world of $3 per gallon fuel, traditional SUVs (and $75 per tank fill-ups) are becoming harder for average buyers to live with. But no matter how high gas prices may go, many families will still need a vehicle with SUV-like attributes -- including roominess and versatility, decent trailer/towing ability and the ability to handle things like driving on beach sand or a grassy parking lot without automatically getting stuck. And they'll want something with a bit more personality and driving fun than a diaper-duty minivan, too.

This is the role envisioned for so-called "crossover" vehicles like the soon-to-be-here Edge. Like others of its type, the Edge is based on a passenger car chassis and suspension -- so it rides and handles more like a car than a top-heavy truck. And instead of a 15 mpg V-8 and truck-based 4x4 system, the Edge offers either front or all-wheel-drive and is powered by a smaller, more efficient 3.5 liter V-6 teamed to a brand-new six-speed automatic with two overdrive ratios designed to maximize fuel economy. Ford claims this new transmission will provide a 7 percent improvement in overall mileage compared to a typical 4-speed automatic. So far, the Edge is also one of the very few vehicles in its price range to offer a six-speed automatic transmission -- and the only one to offer it as standard equipment.

Another point worth noting about the Edge's powertrain is that its 265-hp V-6 is designed to run on 87 octane regular gas -- a substantial potential savings as compared with other engines in its class/price/power range -- which typically must be fed a steady diet of unleaded premium.

The Edge won't out-pull a Hummer, but its 3,500 lb. trailer rating is not half-bad for a vehicle capable of delivering 30-40 percent better fuel economy than an otherwise equivalent, mid-sized, truck-based SUV. And with the second row seats down, you've got nearly 70 cubic feet of cargo space available for runs to Home Depot or the Garden Center.

Buyer's Note: Those interested in more bells and whistles might want to check out the Edge's corporate cousin, the '07 Mazda CX-7.

Engine: 3.5 liter V-6
MPG: 19 city, 25 highway (est.)
Horsepower: 250
Base price: $22,500 (est.)
Available: This fall

Also on deck -- probably -- but not yet "officially":

* 2007 Chevy HHR SS -- The big update for '07 is a much-anticipated high-performance version of the HHR targeted at sport/enthusiast drivers. Like the hot-shoe GT Cruiser version of the PT Cruiser -- which uses a turbocharged engine similar to the one used in the Dodge Neon SRT-4 -- the high-performance HHR will probably use a version of the supercharged engine used in the Chevy Cobalt SS -- or, alternatively, a turbocharged engine borrowed from the Saturn Ion Red Line. Either way, it should add a new level of excitement to Chevy's alternate take on the PT Cruiser concept.

Engine: Turbocharged 2 liter four cylinder
MPG: 22 city, 28 highway (est.)
Horsepower: 205 (est.)
Base price: $20,500 (est.)
Available: Spring/summer 2007

* 2007 Mini Cooper -- BMW's hugely successful reincarnation of the classic '60s-era British sport compact gets a top-to-bottom refresh, including a longer body, revised suspension system and two updated engines. Reports are that the standard engine will be a 1.6 liter, 120-hp engine (up-rated from the current car's 1.6 liter, 115-hp engine) while the optional engine in the performance-oriented Mini Cooper S will offer 175-hp, or 7 more than the current car's 168-hp. Both engines will be available with six-speed manual or automatic transmissions (an upgrade from the 5-speed manual found in the base model '06 Mini). As with previous Minis, the John Cooper Works performance package will be available as a factory-installed option. Now word yet on the details, but given that the current/'06 Mini Cooper Works produces 207 hp, the new model should up the ante significantly.

Engine: 1.6 liter liter four cylinder
MPG: 28 city, 36 highway (est.)
Horsepower: 120 (est.)
Base price: $18,200 (est.)
Available: Late fall 2006/spring 2007