Maxima plays up sportiness, a sexy Hyundai and more

The New York International Auto Show is the last major auto show in the USA until November. It opens to the public March 21 with a sneak preview; the media get an early look starting Wednesday. Here are a few models show-goers will see.

Nissan Maxima

What:A near-luxury flagship sedan. Pedigree:Nissan always throws some of its best into the Maxima even though it's a heartbeat away from the automaker's separate Infiniti luxury brand. Personality:Nissan is trying to play up the sedan's sportiness, including a cabin "imparting the feeling of a sports car" and new "drive-sport" position for the shifter for its continuously variable transmission. When:On sale in July. Why:Because just as some buyers opt for the bottom-level luxury car, others are happy to avoid paying the luxury brand premium and take the full-featured top of the line from the mainstream brand. Marquee features:A little shorter, but a little wider than the current edition. The standard 290-horsepower V-6 engine has 35 more ponies. The dashboard got an ergonomic redesign. How much:Likely to be a bit more than the current version's $28,270 base.

Acura TSX

What:Luxury sedan for the nouveau riche. Pedigree:Acura, Honda's luxury division, has aimed to attract younger buyers. So the TSX, as one of its least-expensive models, is critical to that goal. Personality:Sporty, for a luxury sedan. The new TSX has a smidge less horsepower, but more torque than the current model, giving it a feeling of more power across a wider range of speeds. When:In showrooms next month. Why:Entry-level luxury cars are the perfect place for automakers to capture the affluent as they begin to reward themselves. Marquee features:Real-time weather from XM Satellite Radio as a option. The 2.4-liter aluminum-block four-cylinder engine meets the latest EPA regulations for "ultra-low emission" vehicles. To underscore its sportiness, a six-speed manual transmission is available, in addition to the five-speed automatic. How much:About $28,000 to $35,000. The current model starts at $28,190.

Audi A4 Avant

What:A sport wagon. Pedigree:Derivative of the A4 sedan shown in January. Personality:Saucy looks yet plenty of room for those massive economy-size diaper packages from Costco. When:On sale early 2009. Why:Because mom wants the world to know she's successful, well-educated and had to trade in the BMW 3 Series sedan that she dearly loved in the name of becoming a responsible parent. Marquee features:About four inches longer than the current model, yet 10% lighter with a more rigid body for safety. The 2-liter, four-cylinder turbocharged engine produces 211 horsepower, 11 more than the current version. Has lots of high-tech touches inside like a parking assist feature and warning systems to prevent drivers from drifting out of their lanes or to let them know if another car is in their blind spot when they attempt to change lanes. How much:Unclear, but the current model goes for about $30,000.

Hyundai Genesis Coupe

What: A swoopy, rear-drive coupe with powerPedigree: This may be the best part: It doesn't really have one. This is the coupe version of Hyundai's grab for attention in the upscale car market where it has never competed. Personality:As sexy as Hyundai's California design studio could make it. Meant for true performance car lovers. When: On sale spring 2009 as a 2010 model. Why:Hyundai is trying to upgrade its image. This coupe, and an upscale Genesis sedan, are aimed to win buyers who've never considered the brand. Marquee features:An aluminum block V-6 with the power of a V-8. A design intended to save weight and make the Genesis agile as well as powerful. How much:Less than $26,000, firm price not yet announced.

Honda Fit

What:The smallest Honda gets a quick U.S. redo. Pedigree:The subcompact Fit was among a batch of new, tiny models to hit American shores about two years ago. They included Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris. They were a big hit. Fit sales were up 68% for the first two months of the year compared to the same period last year, Autodata says. But Toyota sells twice as many Yarises. Personality:Practicality persists. The current Fit is known for its versatility and great gas mileage. The new Fit carries over a lot of the same features. When:In showrooms in the fall. Why:With gas prices headed toward $4 a gallon, Fit's size and thrift (34 mpg highway on the current model) couldn't be more right for the times. The quick redesign results from Honda having introduced it to the USA at a time when it was mid-stream in all the other countries. Now we'll have the new one about at the same time as everyone else. Marquee features:Based on the version shown in Tokyo, Fit will get a slightly roomier interior and keep some of the nifty things that make it stand out. Most important are seats that flip every which way to let sports enthusiasts more easily carry everything from skis to bicycles inside the car.How much:Not announced yet, but the current Fit goes for about $15,000.

Pontiac Solstice coupe

The 2009 Pontiac Solstice coupe, based on a concept Pontiac revealed in 2002, is set to hit dealerships early next year. Pricing hasn't yet been revealed, but the current Solstice starts at $22,785. The roof panel is removable for drivers who still want the convertible experience. The roof panel frame is made of lightweight magnesium and weighs 31 pounds. The coupe has a standard 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine with 173 horsepower. A high-performance GXP version has a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 260 horsepower.

Saab 9-X BioHybrid

What:Premium, compact, two-door, four-seat concept car.Pedigree:Picks up design themes from Saab's Aero X and an earlier 9-X concept. Made its worldwide debut the just-ended Geneva auto show. Personality:Meant to be sporty and fun to give Saab a more youthful orientation with an eco twist. The shape is in keeping with GM's recent fixation (in its marketing) on aerospace, and its former ownership by a Swedish jetmaker. The cabin is designed to be light and airy in keeping with its Scandinavian roots, with interior lights that can be adjusted from "bright and cold" to "warm and soft." When: The concept looks close enough to a production model that it stands a reasonable chance of being built. Why:To try to amp up Saab's image as a brand that might actually appeal to the young, Ivy-league set. It's packed with electronics, such as a Sony in-car connectivity system and an electric slide out floor in the rear cargo area. Marquee feature:Shows that General Motors is taking hybrids seriously in small vehicles, not just hulking SUVs. The 200-horsepower, 1.4-liter BioPower turbo engine is particularly low on CO2 emissions if filled up with E85 fuel that's 85% ethanol. How much:Note that word "premium." Saab will expect a handsome price for a relatively small car if the 9-X BioHybrid goes into production.

Mitsubishi iMiEV

Mitsubishi Motors is testing U.S. reaction to an all-electric car at the show. The four-door iMiEV can run for 80 miles on a full charge. Mitsubishi plans to begin selling the car in Japan to fleet customers in mid-2009 and to the general public in 2010. The car will cost between $25,000 and $30,000 in Japan, or up to $7,000 more than its high-mileage, gas-powered counterpart, the i minicar.

Mitsubishi will consider bringing the car to the U.S. or Europe after 2010 if there is enough demand for a small electric car. The iMiEV is smaller than a subcompact, about the size of a four-door Smart car.

Chevrolet Malibu

What:Mainstream sedan. Pedigree:General Motors makes its stand as a contender against the Japanese sedans with a new Malibu, which it has backed with a huge marketing campaign. Several months after its coming out at the Los Angeles show, it looks like a critical and sales winner. Personality:Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet — with pizzazz. Chevy set out to show it can win at the style game, and through details, the quality game. When:Sold since November. Why:GM's future depends on it. The nation's biggest automaker stumbled into the new century on the strength of full-size pickups and SUVs. With that market declining, and cars growing, GM has to try to reclaim what it used to own. It also recognized that buyers perceived import cars as better values. Marquee feature:A new design that pushes the wheels to the corners. A two-tone interior that has a richer feel than the previous version. Huge attention to tolerances, fit and finish. How much:Starts at $19,995.

Ford Focus

What:Small two-door, four-door sedans. Pedigree:Introduced in 2000, the Focus got a significant update for 2008. Personality:A passel of young folks are falling for the Focus, with sales up 30% compared with last year. Ford says it's getting a growing number of buyers ages 16 to 35. When:On sale last November. Why:Because Ford needed a small car that could grab younger buyers, who tend to be loyal if they like a brand. Marquee feature:Ford's Sync technology, which lets drivers speak commands to their stereo instead of pushing buttons. How much:Entry-level two-door starts at $14,664, four-door at $14,995

Ford Verve

What:Subcompact sedan. Pedigree:The Verve concept will become the next-generation Ford Fiesta, starting in Europe later this year as a 2009. Personality:The sleek little car is aimed to attract even more young buyers than the new Focus. Ford even is considering bringing the USA a hatchback version, which traditionally has sold poorly here, because younger tastes are changing When: Goes on sale here as a 2010 model. Why:Ford is trying to win back street cred with younger buyers, who they hope will stay loyal to the brand Marquee feature:A panoramic glass roof and no side pillars between the doors, giving it an open, airy feel and a sporty look. How much:Not yet set.

BMW M3 convertible

What:BMW's signature open-air experience, will offer a V-8 engine and its first retractable hardtop. Pedigree:The fourth generation of the M3 convertible, which BMW aims to be a showpiece of high-powered engineering and droptop luxury. Personality:Young and racy, just like the Hollywood crowd expected to buy it. Just the car for a 30-something talent agent who aspires to be a movie studio chief. When: Will be in showrooms by summer. Why:Probably BMW's best weapon to keep its image fresh and vital, all the more necessary because of the challenge it is getting from Audi the same big-money party crowd. Marquee features:Instead of only offering a six-cylinder engine, the M3 convertible has a 4.0 liter V-8 engine that develops 414 horsepower. It goes from zero to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds and hits a top speed of 155 mph. The convertible top stows in a compartment in the rear. How much:Expected to be mid-$60,000 range. The M3 sedan will sell for $54,575 and the coupe will go for $57,275.

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