A Look At Next Year's Hot New Cars

We've entered a very brief season of limbo, when all the 2004 production models and concept cars are set to debut at the L.A. and Detroit auto shows, and yet when few if any of them have been available for actual driving.

When the hiatus ends there will be dozens of new models this coming year, and it sure is going to make for a fun time testing many of them. For starters, many of these cars will be available in very limited quantities, but that doesn't mean they will be ridiculously expensive.

Consider:

For less than $20,000 from DaimlerChrysler there'll be the Dodge SRT-4 — a Neon on steroids apparently ready to knock off all other pocket-rocket pretenders like the BMW's Mini Cooper S and Ford SVT Focus. And with a purported 5.9-second 0-60mph, it may well rival even the great Subaru WRX for a lot less money.

For under $30,000 there'll be the Mitsubishi Evolution, a 270hp coupe based on the staid Lancer. Like the SRT-4, it's going to have little to do with its base-model cousin. Luckily for Mitsubishi, this car's existed for years in Japan and Europe, so they already have a great deal of experience getting it right for America.

For about $40,000 there will be a BMW 330i with a so-called performance package. This is a standard 330i modified to produce about 10 more horsepower and also paired with a six-speed manual gearbox and a higher rev limit (these modifications equal the fastest 3 series this side of a far more expensive M3). Special seats and gauges are also included, as are larger wheels, tires, and unique exhaust.

That's strictly for starters, too. There will be several more, reasonably priced limited-edition cars.

But there are a handful of cars that we're itching to drive because much more is at stake than mere burnt rubber and engineers' egos. These would be the following five, each of which promises to be great in its own right.

And if it's not? These companies — or at least distinct divisions at them — will be in deep, deep trouble.

Pontiac GTO

In about a week we'll tell you all we know about the reborn GTO; for the moment, though, our hands our tied. And if we let the cat out of the bag, we'll never get to test-drive this car, so for now we'll just drop hints based on what General Motors previously said about this car.

It will be rear-wheel drive. After all, GM went down to their Australian unit, Holden, to get a rear-wheel drive chassis precisely so they could revive the performance past of the Pontiac division.

It will have more horsepower than the Australian-built Holden Monaro on which it is based. That means well north of 300hp from its Corvette-based 5.7-liter V-8.

It will come with both a manual and automatic gearbox; it may have traction control as well.

It will arrive some time in the latter half of next near and will be the crown jewel of the Pontiac lineup. Given that status, expect a base price of around $25,000-$30,000.

What else we expect: limited production. That's because this car will actually be built in Australia and the plant where it's produced simply isn't able to offer American buyers more capacity while making Australians wait for their cars.

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