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Auto Makers Keep Drive to Create New Models for Public in High Gear


The economy may be slow, but auto makers are pumping out new models with amazing speed.

Key passenger cars unveiled at the New York International Auto Show's media preview last week demonstrate that luxury and performance lead the race to capture consumers' attention--and dollars. A rundown:

Pontiac GTO: General Motors will resurrect its famed muscle car by importing the Monaro coupe made by Holden, the auto maker's Australian subsidiary.

The Monaro--boasting a six-speed manual transmission and a 5.7-liter V-8 engine with about 350 horsepower--"will be a terrific flagship for Pontiac and heir of the GTO," said GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. It also will help fill the gap left by the departure of the Pontiac Firebird and Chevrolet Camaro.

The GTO was America's first muscle car, produced from 1964 to '74. GM will quickly restyle the Monaro as a Pontiac and bring it in line with U.S. safety regulations, with plans to bring about 20,000 a year to the States starting next year.

Ford Five Hundred: This is Ford's bid to appeal to sedan buyers who want the higher seating position and roomier interior of a crossover wagon or sport utility vehicle. Ford is positioning the Five Hundred--named after the old Galaxie 500--between its Taurus mid-size and Crown Victoria full-size sedans.

The Five Hundred will have an "Avalon-sized interior," said Ford division President Jim O'Connor, comparing it with the upscale Toyota sedan.

Mazdaspeed Protege: Mazda is introducing a turbocharged sport version of its compact Protege sedan, the first production model to carry the brand of its old racing program, Mazdaspeed.

The newest Protege will have a 2.0-liter inline-4 engine, enhanced by famed Corvette tuner Callaway Cars to deliver 170 horsepower; performance improvements for its brakes, suspension and clutch; and a 450-watt Kenwood audio system that can play MP3 music files. Expect a Miata version soon.

Infiniti: The latest members of Nissan's luxury market offensive are the Infiniti G35 coupe and M45 sedan. The rear-wheel-drive G35 is based on the popular Nissan Skyline sold in Japan and has a 3.5- liter, 275-horsepower V-6 power plant. It arrives this fall with prices starting at less than $30,000.

The M45 is an understated but powerful sedan, positioned below Infiniti's flagship Q45 but sharing its 4.5-liter, 340-horsepower V-8 engine. Its design is meant to convey the impression that it is carved from a single piece of stone.

Mercedes-Benz: The SL55 AMG from the German auto maker's performance group combines luxury and performance. Powered by a 5.5-liter supercharged V-8, it packs 493 horsepower and races from zero to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds, making it the fastest production Mercedes ever sold.

The SL55, based on the all-new SL500, is the latest descendant of the legendary 1954 gull-wing 300SL and completes Mercedes' lineup of super-tuned AMG cars. Pricing for the SL55, expected to start at about $120,000, will be as supercharged as the engine.

BMW CS-1: On the other side of the spectrum is the CS-1, the design study for the Bavarians' upcoming 1-Series. BMW will introduce the line in the next couple of years to attract more young people to its growing brand, but the company has said little more about its plans than that.

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