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Automotives: GM offering several new models in 2004

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- General Motors is making some new moves for the 2004 model year, everything from sports cars to trucks and SUVs, and it summoned automotive journalists to a series of regional displays to introduce the new fleet.

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- General Motors is making some new moves for the 2004 model year, everything from sports cars to trucks and SUVs, and it summoned automotive journalists to a series of regional displays to introduce the new fleet.

Some had been introduced before, such as the Cadillac XLR sports car and the Cadillac SRX sport-utility vehicle. But many were making their media debuts, before being released to the public via dealer showrooms.

Chevrolet had the most new vehicles, with the new midsize Colorado pickup, which replaces the S-10 (and the GMC counterpart, the Canyon), as well as the Malibu, Malibu Maxx, SSR sports-car-pickup specialty car, and the Aveo. The GMC truck line, along with the Canyon, demonstrated the Envoy XUV, which is a singular long SUV with an opening roof over a completely enclosed rear cargo area.

Cadillac had the $75,000 XLR on hand, and it had the new SRX, which had been introduced prior to the display session, but was at the site armed with the 4.6-liter Northstar V8 engine. Saturn had an Ion coupe, and the new Redline version of the VUE, its upgraded SUV, complete with a Honda V6 engine. And Buick had the Ranier, its new SUV. There was even a Saab 9-3 convertible, as that Swedish company is now a GM brand.

Here is a brief snapshot of some of the more significant vehicles:

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  • Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon -- The pickups are new from the tires to the roof, with regular, extended and crew cabs and thorough refinements throughout. The only difference between the two is the grille, with the Chevy getting the now-trademark horizontal bar through the middle. Most impressive is the introduction of GM's spinoff engines that make the highly successful 4.2-liter in-line six-cylinder. That engine, first put in the TrailBlazer and Envoy, is a dual-overhead-camshaft, multiple-valve engine with great power and smooth performance. For the Colorado (and Canyon), GM chopped two cylinders off and made a high-tech four-cylinder, and also reduced it by one cylinder to make a five-cylinder -- both of which are in the midsize trucks. I drove the five-cylinder version of both, and found them very responsive and smooth. The trucks will come with three suspensions, including an off-road Z71, and prices start at $16,000.
  • Chevrolet Malibu -- The Malibu name used to adorn Chevy' s first attempt at a midsize car, back in the 1960s. It has been rejuvenated recently on some compact Chevrolet vehicles, and will be an all-new car for 2004, which Chevy officials claim can take on the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry midsize giants. That may be a bit optimistic in the fierce category that also includes the Mazda 6, Altima, Jetta and others. The car is good-looking, in a generic sort of way, with the horizontal bar grille and inoffensive but unremarkable features otherwise. A rigid body platform and the corporate global Ecotec four-cylinder engine or a 3500 pushrod V6 are available. The interior is good, with 60-40 split rear fold-down seat. Price starts at $18,370, and GM officials say they anticipate selling 90,000 Malibu and Malibu Maxx models.
  • Malibu Maxx -- More than just a wagon-back version of the Malibu, the Maxx rides on a longer wheelbase and actually is more attractive, as well as more interesting, than its sedan cousin. The rear seat slides almost 7 inches forward or back, with a 60-40 split backrest. A fixed skylight above the rear seats is a nice feature, and a rear DVD entertainment system is on the rear of the center console, with two sets of infrared headphones and video game jacks, and a standard power outlet in the rear cargo area. Price is $21,600.
  • Chevy SSR -- Chevrolet claims the SSR has graced 21 magazine covers and attracted 10,000 requests, which might be because two or three years as a car-show star have almost made its introduction something beyond "long-awaited." The sedan-like front end opens to a pickup-box rear, much like the El Camino of the 1960s, and the roof over the two-seat occupant compartment rolls back and disappears, making it a convertible pickup-car. The SSR feels solid and a bit hefty, and with good reason. Instead of being mounted on a sedan or sports-car platform, it is planted on the TrailBlazer SUV platform. The unique roadster draws nothing but stares on the road, and it is powered by a 5,300 pushrod V8 engine made of aluminum and putting out 300 horsepower and 331 foot-pounds of torque. Price is $41,370, and the list for long-term road-tests is as long as the list of media folks present.
  • Cadillac CTS -- The chiseled look of the CTS is familiar by now, but Cadillac has revised the car for 2004 to be powered by an all-new "high-feature" V6 that is shared for this year only by the SRX and the Buick Rendezvous. It has 255 horsepower from variable valve-timing and makes the CTS a true sports sedan. A Corvette V8 version will be following after the first of the year, but drivers who try the front-engine/rear-drive car with the hot new high-tech V6 might not bother waiting.
  • GMC Envoy XUV -- The Envoy may be getting rewarded for its loyal years of second-class treatment alongside the Chevy TrailBlazer, and while both were given stretched versions a year ago, only the Envoy gets the opening rear roof treatment. The front two rows of seats are strictly out of the extended SUV, but the rear cargo area is encased in composite material, including a midgate power-glass window that can be closed to seal off the rear area. The roof rolls at the touch of the key fob and disappears to leave the entire rear area open to the sky. You can visualize four people riding home while hauling a tall tree from a nursery, sticking up through the open roof. So well-sealed is the rear compartment that you can hose it out for cleaning, with one-way drains that are guaranteed not to clog, according to GM officials. The tailgate either drops down or swings open from left-to-right. A V8 is available, but the aforementioned 4.2-liter in-line six is both the base and an excellent engine for the Envoy. Price is $31,240.
  • The Aveo, in either sedan or wagon-back form, is a new subcompact that Chevy officials claim will take on the best little cars, such as the Kia Rio or Hyundai Accent. If it looks the part of taking on those Korean-built minis, that's appropriate because Chevrolet bought out Daewoo, a Korean company that had created Italian-designed cars. The rebadged Daewoo is the Aveo (pronounced Ah-VAY-oh), with a 16-valve Ecotec engine that shows 103 horsepower and 105 foot-pounds of torque. The Aveo starts at $9,995, with the upgraded LS starting at $12,500.
  • Buick Ranier -- The Rendezvous brought more -- and younger -- buyers to Buick showrooms last year, and the Ranier gives Buick a second SUV. This one is a refaced version of the TrailBlazer, and comes with either the 4200 in-line six or the optional 5300 V8. The Ranier is the only one of the corporate short-wheelbase SUVs to get the V8, but the six has 275 horsepower, almost as much as the V8's 290. A stiffened body and considerable attention to reducing road noise make the Ranier a distinctive midsize SUV. A spacious interior with Buick-quiet ambience and on-demand all-wheel drive should make it a popular attraction at $35,295.

All of the new GM products will be worth longer evaluations on the road, and there was no Pontiac GTO available at the San Antonio session. Short trips in the XLR with the roof down, and the SRX with the enormous sunroof slid back and the Northstar V8 doing its thing reinforce their attractiveness as well.
John Gilbert writes weekly auto columns. He can be reached by e-mail at jgilbert@duluth.com .

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