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.

Which may well have an effect Pontiac didn't dare dream of — exclusivity. See, even if the new GTO doesn't live up to its past reputation (and quite honestly, how could it?), it almost won't matter. If it's at least competitive in the segment, looks less cheap and toyish than current Pontiac iron, and drives like a performance automobile, then it will be in high demand because it will be hard to come by.

That alone will help Pontiac as it busts its hump elsewhere in the division to make good on that up till now hollow ad slogan "We are driving excitement!"

Cadillac XLR

The Cadillac XLR is the car we most want to drive next year. In fact, shy of cars that sell for more than $100,000 (expect the XLR to sell for about $80,000 when it goes on sale this coming summer), it may well be the best-performing car we drive in 2003.

Have your doubts?

Good. Skepticism when it comes to any all-new product is smart. But on paper, the XLR certainly seems to have the right stuff.

Not only is the XLR based heavily on the Corvette but it's getting several key attributes not available on the Chevy. For example, it's suspension, Magnetic Ride Control (which sounds like a gimmick Caddy might've launched in the 1950s), may be the most truly instantaneous adaptive suspension ever invented. Details are embargoed until after the car's debut in a week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, but if the specs are accurate, this car is going to out-handle the new Mercedes SL500.

It may even be as good as a stock 911 at unbending turns, a very impressive target indeed. We're also excited about the XLR because an adaptive suspension won't only be capable of scooting the Caddy quickly around turns, but will also mean the car is comfortable when you're just bumping along in traffic — not a claim you can make of the 'Vette.

Horsepower? We can't tell you that yet either. But it will best Mercedes' 302hp V-8 SL by a good margin. And the XLR will be lighter than that car as well, which means its 0-60mph time will also be scorching: maybe as low as 5.0 seconds flat.

Other neat tricks include a folding metal hardtop, which is reminiscent of Mercedes' stylish SL convertible.

Will all that be enough to get a putative SL or Porsche 911 buyer to get a Caddy instead? Only time will tell.

Bentley Continental GT

This is by no means your rich granduncle's Bentley.

Meant to fully modernize Bentley (and to take it as far away from Rolls-Royce as possible, now that that company is set to debut its own first new model under BMW ownership), the Continental GT has more in common with Audi and Lamborghini than with any British-based automaker.

That's because Volkswagen, the parent of Audi and Lamborghini, now also owns Bentley. In fact, the 12-cylinder engine found in the new Continental will also be under the hood of some of the forthcoming Phaeton sedans, an upscale (though not this upscale) Volkswagen set to go up against BMW 7 series cars.

But the approximately $150,000 Continental will only share the underpinnings of its relatives; everything visible will be far richer and more distinctive than in any Audi or VW.

Even that W-12 engine (two narrow-angle V-6s joined at the center) will be far more powerful thanks to twin turbochargers. Expect output exceeding 500hp, and a six-speed automatic gearbox that sends power to all four wheels. Also expect 0-60mph times to come in well under five seconds. Power won't only be excessive — it will be tuned to Bentley standards. Meaning high torque at very low rpm, a characteristic of all Bentleys.

The cabin will be large enough to seat four in eminent comfort, and of course can be ordered to match any owner's tastes (for an additional cost). Bentley even went out of its way to measure both very tall and very short people to make sure wheel and seat adjustments had a very wide range.

And such minute attention to detail is somewhat new at Bentley. Certainly past models have all been exquisitely hand-tailored, and that won't change with the Continental GT. But a blend of modern manufacturing acumen will be blended with that traditional old-world appeal, and it's the newfangled approach and look of the GT that is meant to appeal to a younger, less exceedingly well-heeled customer.

Still, a modern Bentley is like a non-sexist James Bond — do buyers want that? It's a very important question that will surely be answered in the next 12 months.

Chrysler Crossfire

The Crossfire and Pacifica wagon both debut in 2003, and they are each massively important products to DaimlerChrysler. Not only do these cars represent a new phase in the Chrysler turnaround plan but these two vehicles are supposed to showcase Mercedes-Benz technical expertise harnessed, for the first time, in Chrysler products.

So far, we like what we've seen of the Crossfire. The production model looks less like a copy of the Audi TT and more like its own animal. Not that it will be — at least not entirely.

The approximately $30,000 two-seater will get a 215hp 3.2-liter V-6 from Mercedes and will be made in conjunction with German coachbuilder Karmann. (Maybe that's why the Crossfire looks faintly like an old VW Karmann Ghia.)

Unique traits include a six-speed manual transmission — and of course a very unusual design, both inside and out. And as cool as the exterior of the car is, we think the interior is even more important because it signals a new design language for all future Chrysler cars. A high center spine divides the two sides of the car, and a lot of brushed metal is visible here.

Metal is also used to accent gauges, on the doors, and on the instrument panel. We applaud this look — but hope for Chrysler's sake it's actually what debuts in showrooms this summer. See, we've seen too many "production-ready" cars morph from something cool to something made of plastic by the time the bean counters get their mitts on the budget.

That simply cannot happen here — this car has to look better than a BMW, hotter than the new Nissan 350Z, more unique than the Audi TT. In sum, it has to look like a steal at $30,000 for Chrysler to get the shot in the arm they need from it. They cannot afford another Plymouth Prowler, an expensive bauble that only men in mid-life crisis want. The Crossfire cannot even be a Viper — a very hot machine, but one too bug-ridden to ever achieve mainstream success.

No, the Crossfire has to compete against faster cars like the Nissan Z by having a more relaxed ride and more astutely designed interior, and it must beat back competition from German carmakers by being less expensive. It also can't be a creampuff — it must be fast and agile enough to match its rakish looks.

As you can tell, we still have doubts. We want Chrysler to nail this because we still think they have some of the cleverest designs and freshest ideas in the business. What they don't have is a good track record for bringing great ideas to market without lots of warts. So enough excuses, gentlemen, DaimlerChrysler is running out of "next times."

Mazda RX-8

No worries about the RX-8 being a winner. Advance word says the RX-8, the spiritual (if not actual) successor to the RX-7, is going to be a big hit. And why shouldn't it be? Coming on the heels of the superb Mazda Protege and Protege5, not to mention the excellent Mazda6 (review to come), the RX-8 is more proof that at least one of Ford's foreign brands is not only on the right track, but already improving mightily.

For starters, the rear-drive RX-8 is a 2+2 design, with rear swinging back doors that make backseat access a snap. (Think suicide doors, but these can't open without the front doors also unclipping, so they aren't dangerous.) There's real room in the backseat, too, so the RX-8 can legitimately be called practical, unlike other sports cars.

And make no mistake — this is a sports car. It has a 9,000rpm, 247hp rotary engine, a sport suspension and a slick-shifting, six-speed manual gearbox. At 2,900 pounds, it weighs more than the old RX-7, but only by about 150 pounds. Slickest of all, however, is that Mazda has revived rotary engine technology once again (it keeps doing it), and in this edition, it's getting all that horsepower from a tiny, 1.3-liter engine. That enables a car the size of Civic to have serious muscle and seating for four, and still get 30mpg on the highway. Brilliant.

It's also going to cost about $28,000, which isn't cheap, but for BMW/Audi-matching performance at much less money, it sounds pretty darn good to us.

For more, go to Forbes.com..