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Changing Gears

What will prove to be the new season's most popular new vehicles: off-beat trucks or sporty compacts?

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For 2002, the North American automotive scene faces more turbulent prospects than any other model year within living memory. Uncertainties -- in war, in the economy, even in our civic responsibilities -- are changing the very notions of what it means to own and operate a vehicle. From the perspective of mid-summer, when the first new models began to appear, 2002 was destined the become the year of the off-beat truck: the Chevy Avalanche, Buick Rendezvous, Isuzu Axiom and Jeep Liberty all represent rather extravagant tweaks of the traditional truck concept in an attempt to develop a single vehicle that offers the most usefulness to the most people.

Suddenly in September, everything changed. It may well turn out that big trucks, like Dodge's gargantuan Ram Quad Cab, will become even bigger guilty pleasures. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings is a bevy of exciting, much smaller cars that, formerly, many Americans may simply have overlooked. Indeed, although they represent something of a novelty in the U.S., sporty compacts like Subaru's powerful WRX; Mazda's hip, flirty Protegé5; and even the over-poseur Lancer from Mitsubishi try to combine affordability with fun and more than a bit of functionality. At the luxury end of the market, sedans like Acura's 3.5RL are trying to offer more for less; while on the performance side, manufacturers are packing maximum exhilaration into smaller, less flamboyant packages like Mercedes-Benz's C32 sport sedan.

According to the quirks of the automotive industry, 2002 is already well underway, and so far, trucks are in the ascendant. Before it's all over, however, don't be surprised if some nasty turns hinder the way forward for the current front-runners, yet provide some unaccustomed advantages to the nimble and the quick.

The following are just a few of the notables of the new season:

· Mazda Protege5 sport wagon. This unusual car looks tiny, but it's a legitimate five-seater with twice the stowage area of a typical compact sedan's trunk. Laudable as well is the P5's combination of four-wheel independent suspension (front and rear struts) with disk brakes all around. Struts aren't especially exotic, but Mazda's engineers have dialed them in to give Protege5 a relatively low ride height, resulting in relatively flatter cornering feel. The P5, in other words, begs to be tossed through the twisties. That's when you discover that powering out of a turn unleashes an invigorating competitiveness in the soul of this car: Its front wheels claw, its precise rack-and-pinion steering (with variable power assist) twitches with delight, and the shifter finds the next gear without ever relinquishing the powerband. At the next corner, strong, confident braking starts the cycle anew.

· From the outset, Mercury Mountaineer has been promoted as the upscale sport/ute for folks whose chief transportation requirement is upward mobility. It has taken a tumble since last year's Firestone tire/roll-over debacle engulfed the Mountaineer -- as well as its nearly identical twin Ford Explorer -- in a public relations inferno. But Mercury's Mountaineer is not in a free-fall; the ropes will hold. As more people become familiar with the changes and improvements to this vehicle, it's fairly certain that the Mountaineer/Explorer duo will climb back into public esteem. The 2002 Mountaineer is both muscular and relatively nimble, and this makes it far more enjoyable to drive around than the vehicles that heretofore represented the only reasonable choices for seven-passenger seating in an SUV. And with its Safety Canopy for the new Mountaineer and Explorer, Ford hopes to offer peace of mind to SUV owners. Whether the public is reassured or put off will have much to do with the success of Mountaineer's steely-eyed determination to reclaim the high ground.

· Dodge Ram Quad Cab 1500. There's an awful lot riding on the new Dodge pickup, and I'm not talking about the Ram's additional 12 percent of payload rating (1,750 lbs.) for its Quad Cab version. Since its debut in 1994, the Ram pickup has become Dodge's fatted calf. Annual sales have grown from 70,000 trucks in 1993 to a peak of 439,000 in 1999, and Ram is now the best-selling vehicle in the Chrysler Group. Ram's flagrant impersonation of an 18-wheeler cab remains sacrosanct, but if the "context" of Ram's big 'n' brawny, workaday personality appears little changed, its "subtext" is significantly altered in many important, albeit invisible, ways. There's rack-and-pinion steering for the first time, for example. Combine this with super-stiff hydroformed frame rails and altered, more compliant torsion-bar suspension for the 4x4 powertrain, and the result is much-improved ride quality and handling on road surfaces both rough and smooth.

· Mercedes-Benz C32 AMG sport sedan. There are 349 horses under the hood of the Mercedes-Benz's all-new C-Class street-fighter for 2002, the C32 AMG sports sedan. It is difficult to heed much of anything beyond the sensation of driving at the edge of the believable in a ground-hugging, terrain-mapping payload delivery system. But the C32 showcases a variety of technologies that are impressive in their own rights, even more elegant in their integration. Anti-lock braking is virtually transparent to the driver at all times. And what ABS and the BrakeAssist system do for braking, the Electronic Stability Program does for cornering. ESP continuously monitors the motion of the vehicle in three-dimensional space and effects subtle manipulations of each wheel's individual speed using brakes and throttle. The Mercedes/AMG C32 defines an edge where two often incompatible worlds meet -- the one of adventuresome performance and the other of familiar comforts.

· Acura 3.5RL NAVI sedan. Is Acura's RL a budget luxury model or a high-end family car? Is this sedan meant to impress others or to entertain its owner? Is it supposed to be comfortable or sporty? The safe answer to each question is "yes," since there's a bit of truth in every option. By the same token, the RL has matured, in 2002, into a car that seems to crave a distinctive identity of its own. At face value, the RL is a roomy, five-passenger sedan with a muscular V6 and a front-wheel-drive powertrain. Inside, the woody, leathery décor belies an impressively high-tech personality: a DVD-based navigational system blankets the entire United States with a single map disk. In terms of amenities, specifications, comfort and gadgets, the RL is quite the value champ. Yet it is still struggling to define itself. To drive the 2002 RL is to sense a passionate performer yearning to express herself -- if only her parents at Acura would give her a chance.

· Subaru Impreza WRX. Unlike a recent spate of poseur cars, the Subaru WRX is but a thinly veiled racecar that's been de-fanged -- only barely -- to meet street-legal standards. Keep in mind that Subaru's WRX is a direct descendant of the company's world rally championship winner. The 2002 WRX sports what can fairly be called hyper-homely styling without wings or fins or curlicues. The moment those 227 horses begin straining at the bit, however, it's all a driver can do to gearshift before redline (7,000 rpm) on the way to zero-to-60 sprints in just over six seconds. The WRX's real mission: ambushing flamboyant rivals with an awkward-looking compact with a "Why me?" grin on its face.

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