(Part II)


SUVs/wagons/trucks

* 2008 Nissan Pathfinder V-8 (Base price $25,700)

$3 per gallon hasn't much affected the power lust of traditional SUV buyers, so it's not surprising the '08 Nissan Pathfinder can now be ordered with a V-8 engine for the first time 22 years - 12 mpg (city) be damned!

The new engine - all 5.6 liters and 310 horsepower - is shared with the full-size Armada SUV and Titan pick-up. It is plenty athletic in those larger, heaver vehicles - so it really wakes up the smaller, lighter Pathfinder. Always excellent off-road, the '08 Pathfinder is now almost sports car-quick from stoplight to stoplight and during high-speed passing attempts.

Zero to 60 times fall to just under 7 seconds - nearly a full second quicker than a V-6 Pathfinder. Towing capacity has increased by a full 1,000 lbs. to 7,000 lbs.

The obvious downside, of course, is the drop in fuel economy - which slumps to 12 city/18 highway (on a good day, with a light foot) vs. 14 city/20 for the V-6. (These figures are for 4x4 models in both cases; 2WD versions come in slightly better - 15/city/22 for the V-6 2WD Pathfinder, 13 city/18 for the 2WD V-8.)

On the other hand, what is losing 2 mpg or so in order to gain 44 horsepower - and even more important, a solid 100 lbs.-ft. of torque? That is the calculation likely to be performed by prospective Pathfinder buyers comparing the '8 Pathfinder's still-standard 4.0 liter, 266 horsepower V-6 to the newly available 310 horsepower V-8.

Also new for 2008 is an updated interior with revised instrument panel and a larger center stack housing a bigger 7-inch LCD monitor for the rearview camera/driver info system and the optionally available GPS - the latter of which is tied into a new premium audio system with 9.3 GB hard drive for MP3 music storage and playback.

* 2008 Buick Enclave (Base MSRP $32,055)

Sharing platforms with the GMC Acadia and Saturn Outlook, the full-size Enclave crossover wagon is without question the sharpest-looking thing on four wheels to come out of Buick in decades.

Available with seating for up to eight, standard second row captain's chairs, standard 3.6 liter, 275 horsepower V-6, six-speed automatic transmission and 116 cubic feet of cargo space (more than most full-size SUVs) the Enclave is also the best family truckster to hit the streets since the '70s-era Vista Cruiser Olds - only with better build quality and much better gas mileage.

The Enclave's interior is soft and plush and classy, with gentle aquablue backlighting for the gauges, Tiffany analog clock on the center console and handsome wood/leather trim throughout - even on base models. It's GM"s best work in years and comparable in feel and quality to what you'd find in a Lexus but with an American (and traditionally Buick) cast to it. Same with the exterior styling, which flows provocatively like liquid metal from the waterfall grilled backward. It's a handsome ride - and nicely equipped, too.

All models com standard with side-impact air bags, full-row curtain air bags, traction and stability control, second-row captain's chairs (a three-across bench seat is available), 18-inch rims, Xenon High Intensity Discharge (HID) Headlights, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, three-zone climate control, six-speaker premium audio with MP3 player and satellite radio - for less then comparable (and smaller, less roomy) competitors from Lexus, Acura or Volvo that either don't offer these features on base versions of their equivalent models - or charge extra for them.

Front-wheel-drive is standard, with a full-time all-wheel-drive available optionally. You can order up goodies ranging from a navigation system with GM's "turn-by-turn" direction help, back-up camera, surround-sound rear entertainment system and huge Skyscape sunroof with dual panels. Also available is a towing package with lets you pull a trailer up to 4,500 pounds.

If you're in the market for a big-size family cruiser that's a step up from a standard minivan, size-wise and a notch above other crossover wagons on size, comfort and style, give Buick a look.

You'll be pleasantly surprised what they've come up with.

* 2008 Toyota Tundra (Base MSRP $22,300 - estimated)

Up until now, Detroit has not been challenged by import brands when it comes to full-size trucks - even though they've lost ground in just about every other market segment. The Ford-F-series is (and has long been) the best-selling large pick-up; behind it is the Chevy Silverado 1500. The only other import truck that could even qualify as "full-size" is Nissan's Titan - and it has been handicapped by limited body/bed/trim configurations - rendering it no immediate threat to Detroit's absolute dominance of the full-size truck market.

Now Toyota has made it clear it's going for the jugular - with a brand-new Tundra that one-ups everything Detroit has on the field - size-wise, power-wise and features-wise.

For starters, the new Tundra's standard engine - a 236 horsepower 4 liter V-6 - is almost as muscular as the F-trucks's optional 4.6 liter V-8 (248 hp), while its step-up 4.7 liter V-8 (the previous Tundra's biggest engine), at 271-hp, easily outmuscles the F-truck's optional 4.6 liter V-8 and isn't too far off the pace of the F-150's biggest available engine, a 5.4 liter V-8 offering a so-so 300 hp. But the Tundra's got one more round in the clip - a brand-new 5.7 liter V-8 packing a thunderous 381 horses. That's 81 more hp than the F-150's strongest available gas V-8.

The Tundra simply kicks the F-truck in the head when it comes to available power - and acceleration, too. It rushes forward like a muscle truck, while the F-150 feels like it's got a load of cement blocks in the bed, even when it's ordered with the 5.4 engine (and even when the bed is, in fact, empty). The Toyota also beats it on towing and payload - with a 10,800 lb. rating vs. the F-truck's formerly class-leading 10,500 lb. rating. You'll also get a six-speed transmission with the mighty Toyota V-8 - vs. an outdated four-speed automatic in the Ford. Those extra gears allow for tighter spacing between gears, for smoother acceleration - and not-bad fuel economy (given what we're talking about here). EPA gives the Tundra (with the 5.7 V-8 and 2WD) a city/highway rating of 16-20 mpg. That's actually better than the 5.4-equipped 2WD F-150 (EPA rated at 15 mpg city, 19 on the highway) despite the Tundra's having bucket loads more horsepower under its hood.

The new Tundra is also the first Japanese pick-up that matches the Big Three trucks when it comes to available bodystyles and bed length options - offering regular cab, double cab and CrewMax four door cab styles, with five-foot, 6.5 foot and 8-foot bed lengths.

The truck's outsize personality makes it seem bigger than its competitors, too. Only the Ram comes off as similarly aggressive.

But its sheer overkill massiveness may turn out to be the Tundra's only vulnerability. Even a big guy can feel kind of small driving this monster. I took our garbage cans up to the dumpster and felt 12-years-old trying to get them out of the Tundra's bed. The walls are so high, you almost need a step stool to see what's in there; my normally adventurous Black Lab wouldn't even try to leap up onto the tailgate. The interior's so huge that the shifter console is off-center - so the driver can reach it without arm extenders. A pot roast would fit in the center console.

But then again, the absolutely dominating power it offers - from the standard engine all the way to its top dog 5.7 liter thumper - along with the fact that it's the first ever Japanese truck to offer the same panoply of bed and boy configurations, features, etc. as the Detroit-brand stuff - makes it a safe bet that history's about to repeat itself. People who really need trucks - and big power - are about to fall in love.

Luxury/sport

* 2008 Caddy CTS (Base MSRP $32,245)

It began with the Caddy that "zigged."

The Opel-based Catera of the late 1990s may not have been a BMW contender, but it had rear-wheel-drive, a punchy V-6 and unlike virtually every other Cadillac built for the previous 20 years - a pulse. It foreshadowed better things to come.

Like the '08 CTS.

This luxury-sport sedan is the equal of anything in its class from Germany or Japan when it comes to performance, driving dynamics, luxury appointments and technology - with a startlingly distinctive look that's guaranteed not to get lost in the sea of brightly colored jelly beans out there.

The rear-drive,mid-sized CTS comes standard with a 263 horsepower, 3.6 liter V-6 available with either six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Seventeen inch sport wheels, strut tower brace and GM's Stabilitrak electronic stability and traction control system are all standard. Base models also come through with a premium Bose audio system with eight speakers.

Compare that roster of gear with what you get in a base model BMW 3-series: Much smaller, far less potent 3 liter six with only 230 horsepower, 16-inch wheels - for $32,400. That's about $200 bucks more, for a weaker engine, smaller rims and far less curb appeal than the eye-candy Caddy brings to the table. BMWs are without question wonderful driver's cars; but they've also become obnoxiously expensive, underpowered in base model form - and the scalloped/slab-sided/heavy-lidded styling of the current models isn't BMW's best work.

As the model year progresses, Caddy will offer a 304 horsepower direct-injection version of the 3.6 liter V-6 - along with all-wheel-drive and a six-speed automatic with Driver Shift Control. A Bose 5.1 digital surround-sound ultra-premium audio rig with 40 gigabyte hard drive for storing audio files and "Time Shift" feature that can pause and replay live content (from satellite radio, etc.) will be added to the menu as well. Expect a V-8 CTS-V later in '08 or early '09.

Other cool CTS features include an available UltraView oversized sunroof with power sunshade, "turn with the car" Adaptive Forward Lighting, GPS with 3D mapping capability and Sapele wood trim.

Driving the new CTS is not to be missed.

Being seen in it is even better.

Cadillac now has a BMW beater - not just a contender.

* 2008 Chevy Corvette (Base MSRP $45,170)

Here are some facts to ponder about America's sports car: The standard version of the '08 Corvette coupe now outguns the old ZR-1 "king of the hill" Corvette of the late 1980s/early '90s by more than 50 horsepower - 430 vs. 375. And it does it with old school pushrods and two valves per cylinder - vs. the "exotic" DOHC, four-valve engine used in the ZR-1.

It also boasts more than twice the power of most Corvettes built from about 1974 through the mid-late '80s. It is, in brief, fiercer than a crazed wolverine - and faster by far than any Corvette from the 1960s - big blocks, small blocks, fuel-injected. You name it. The '08 will stomp it. Easily. Effortlessly.

It can reach 60 mph in just over 4 seconds - and get to nearly 200 mph on the top end.

And that's the base model.

Now, if the standard 6.2 liter 'Vette doesn't scare you sufficiently, try on the Z06. "Ultra-performance" and "elite" don't quite convey what a 7 liter, 505 horsepower V-8 can accomplish in a 3,200 pound sports car. But Chevy can put it into numbers for you: 0-60 in the mid-high three second range and a top speed that pushes the plastic fantastic beyond what even a nitrous-fueled Hayabusa can manage - and which only a handful of the world's most expensive uber-exotics can hope to keep up with. Those cars - Ferrari F430s, Porsche 911 turbos - also have six figure entry fees.

A Z06, at $70,175 is the K-Mart special of supercars. Nothing in its price range - or within $30k of its price range - stands a chance.

In addition to the infusion of power, 2008 Corvettes also receive interior, suspension and other enhancements - including an optional sport-tuned (read: loud) exhaust for base models that adds another six horsepower (as if you need it). There's a revised dash/instrument panel with higher-rent materials - to deal with previous criticisms on that score - plus tweaks to the steering gear and shifter mechanism on manual-equipped models. Standard coupes can be ordered with either a fixed roof or a removable roof, for a convertible on the cheap. The optional Z51 handling package adds higher-capacity brakes with cross-drilled rotors, more aggressive suspension tuning and shorter gearing for the six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic is a no-cost option on either coupe or convertible, but the mighty Z06 is a manual-only deal.

It's hard to imagine Corvette becoming any more powerful or capable than this - while still being within reach of Average Joes and Janes. Real-deal exotic car performance for about what you'd pay to get a well-equipped Tahoe.

Chevy could probably charge $80k for the base Corvette and people would still line up to buy them.

Better get yours before they get wise!

END