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FIRST DRIVE

The rookies of the road in '03

Companies such as GM, Chevy and Dodge dot this year's automotive landscape with extra-roomy SUVs, limited-edition vehicles and cars built for speed.

February 12, 2003|Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

Below are capsule reviews of new vehicle models.

Saturn Ion 3

Base price: $15,910. Engine: 2.2-liter, 140-horsepower, 4-cylinder. Fuel economy: 26 mpg city, 33 mpg highway.

A new name on a new and fashionable sedan with bigger dimensions and a new 4-cylinder with more gusto and far less racket and commotion than 4s in previous models. The 2.2-liter engine can be supercharged and will be in a high-performance 200-horsepower version of the coupe for '04.

The suspension system also is new to reduce road harshness. A good car for those wanting high mileage and low price without it looking like a bargain-basement offering. And thanks to plastic panels, a vehicle that will age gracefully.

Acura MDX Touring

Base price: $40,500. Engine: 3.5-liter, 260-horsepower, 24-valve V6. Fuel economy: 17 mpg city, 23 mpg highway. The sport utility derivative of the Honda Odyssey minivan was North American Truck of the Year in 2001, but the '03 model is far better. The V6 gets 20 horsepower more, and the ride is smoother and the handling more predictable thanks to a retuned suspension. Vehicle Stability Assist -- new and standard for the '03 model -- uses antilock brakes and either traction control and/or throttle control when needed in acceleration, braking or cornering to ensure optimum handling and control. It also features full-time four-wheel drive. Other changes: a factory-installed DVD entertainment system and a rearview camera that uses the vehicle's navigation system screen to show what's behind you.

GMC Envoy XL

Base price: $33,220. Engine: 5.3-liter, 290-horsepower V8. Fuel economy: 14 mpg city, 19 mpg highway.

For added power, a 5.3-liter V8 is an option only in the extended-length SUV, with seating for seven passengers, including third-row seating for two adults.

Aimed at those who need more towing capability with an additional 55 pound-feet of torque over the standard 4.2-liter inline 6. It can tow as much as 1,300 pounds more than the 4.2 liter.

Very spirited off the line, but you'll lose 1 mpg compared with the 6. The same type of engine will be offered in '04 GMC Envoy XUV and Buick Rainier sport utility vehicles.

Chevrolet Suburban 4WD

Base price: $39,006. Engine: 5.3-liter, 285-horsepower V8. Fuel economy: 14 mpg city, 18 mpg highway.

Smooth, sedan-like ride and agile handling for a vehicle so big -- except when pulling into that tight parking spot. Quadrasteer, a four-wheel-steering system that makes maneuvers easy, is offered on the three-quarter ton 2500 but not on the half-ton 1500.

It does benefit from StabiliTrak, offered for the first time with the base 5.3-liter V8, to maximize handling on all road surfaces. Also, optional Autoride ($875) controls shock damping to help smooth irregular roads and to take the bounce out of being big.

New for '03 are optional power-adjustable brake and gas pedals and a passenger air-bag system that won't deploy when a child is in the seat, and deploys at reduced force in low-speed impacts.

Chevrolet Corvette

Anniversary coupe. Base price: $43,225. Engine: 5.7-liter, 350-horsepower V8. Fuel economy: 19 mpg city, 28 mpg highway.

As civil as the Dodge Viper is crude. Active handling suspension, traction control and magnetic selective ride control -- a sophisticated term for a system that reduces bounce, vibration and noise by isolating and smoothing the action of each tire on all roads. Delivers flat ride and precise handling with little effort on the wheel. Offered only in anniversary red. Drawback: You'd think that because Chevy had 49 years to prepare, this would have been a knock-your-socks-off limited edition with let-it-all-hang-out performance.

It's a smooth ride, with sure-footed handling and ample power from the V8 teamed with optional six-speed manual (automatic standard), but nothing that stands out to make the 50th year noteworthy.

Chrysler Town & Country

Limited Edition. Base price: $36,285. Engine: 3.8-liter, 215-horsepower 4-cylinder. Fuel economy: 18 mpg city, 25 mpg highway.

Still the champ in the minivan segment in ride, handling, room, comfort and neat features, such as an optional rear cargo organizer ($250), a huge collapsible plastic tray with dividers that runs the width of the hold; grocery-bag hooks on the backs of the second- and third-row seats; power and retractable side doors and rear lift gate; a power sunroof that's available when you order the optional factory-installed rear-seat DVD entertainment system; and new power-adjustable brake and gas pedals.

Good mileage, ample power, all-wheel drive available. But the champ has gotten expensive.

Dodge Viper SRT-10

Base price: $79,995. Engine: 8.3-liter, 500-horsepower V10. Fuel economy: not available.

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