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'Crossovers' Steal the N.Y. Show

The car-based vehicles and SUVs play a big role at the international auto exhibition as car makers continue to pump new products into the fastest-growing market in the U.S.


New York — NEW YORK--Light trucks, among the most profitable of the auto industry's offerings, represented more than half the U.S. passenger vehicle market last year. And auto makers aren't slowing down in bringing out more trucks and "crossovers," which combine features of sport utility vehicles, minivans and passenger cars.

The latest batch of light trucks, heavy with crossovers, was unveiled at the New York International Auto Show, which ended Sunday. Ford's Lincoln division grabbed much of the attention with the Aviator, an upscale sibling of the Explorer (Business, March 27). Lincoln hopes the Aviator and the larger Navigator, newly redesigned for 2003, will appeal enough to consumers to pull the luxury brand out of the sales trough it has been wallowing in for more than a year.

A rundown of other key SUVs and crossovers introduced in New York shows that U.S. consumers looking for something other than a standard sedan will have a growing number of choices to make in the next year.

Mitsubishi Outlander: This new compact crossover is an entry-level vehicle that expands Mitsubishi's truck lineup. Mitsubishi likens its utility to that of a Swiss Army knife, but its distinguishing feature seems to be its relatively high seating position with respect to its overall low profile

. The 2003 Outlander features a 2.4-liter, inline-4 engine that produces 140 horsepower and peak torque of 157 pound-feet at only 2,500 revolutions per minute, making for brisk acceleration.

Four-wheel independent suspension, two-tone paint schemes and clear taillight lenses complement the package.

"Outlander is a spirited five-passenger sport [utility] for the young at heart who crave a stylish vehicle that's equipped to handle the challenges of an energetic urban and outdoor lifestyle," said Pierre Gagnon, president of Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America.

That sounds like the spin for a lot of other vehicles, but the Outlander's stylish design could catch on with buyers who want a restrained but rugged look coupled with optional all-wheel drive. Pricing and a sales date will come later.

Isuzu Ascender: The 2003 Ascender will replace the Trooper as Isuzu Motor Ltd.'s flagship SUV, offering a full-size vehicle with three rows of seating for seven passengers as standard equipment.

The largest and most powerful Isuzu SUV, the Ascender offers a choice of a 4.2-liter, inline-6 engine producing 275 horsepower, or a 5.3-liter V-8 with 285 horsepower but considerably more towing capacity.

Isuzu is 49% owned by General Motors Corp., and the Ascender is the first Isuzu truck to have GM's OnStar communications and emergency notification system. It will be built in Ohio alongside the Chevrolet TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy, with which Ascender shares its platform. And the Ascender comes with Isuzu's 10-year, 120,000-mile powertrain protection. Pricing was not announced.

Nissan Murano: Named after an island near Venice, Italy, the 2003 Murano is a five-seat crossover with Nissan's powerful and well-received 3.5-liter V-6, the same 240-plus horsepower engine used in the Altima and Maxima. Technological options include a new all-wheel drive system and, for the first time in North America, Nissan's continuously variable transmission, which offers an infinite number of gear ratios that change constantly to keep the engine operating in its most efficient range.

Nissan hopes Murano's styling, highlighted by a dramatically curved rear cargo door, will set it apart. Inside features include a lockable center console that can hold a laptop computer, and reclining rear seats that can be remotely controlled.

The Murano joins an increasingly crowded mid-size crossover segment. It goes on sale in November at an as-yet undecided price. Nissan hopes to steal sales from the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot and the more luxurious Lexus RX 300.

Honda Element: This was first shown as a concept vehicle called the Model X at the Detroit auto show last year. Now, Honda has come out with the production version (Highway 1, March 27), toned down a little on the inside and jazzed up a little on the outside.

The Element catches the eye with its unusual two-tone color scheme (the contrasting color is at the corners and along the edges of the roof) and a boxy design you'll either love or hate.

Aimed at the youth market, which Honda vaguely identifies as 71 million consumers, the Element is a "dorm room on wheels" that can be easily cleaned and reconfigured for various uses by different users.

Access is through "clamshell" doors that swing wide with no central support pillar to block the opening.

The seats flip out of the way, the floor is plastic so it can be hosed off after a day at the beach, and Honda says the entertainment system will enable occupants to play video games and listen to music on MP3 files.

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