A dozen for the road

Chicago Tribune

Below are capsule reviews of current models of cars, pickup truck and sport utility vehicles.

Buick LeSabre Celebration Edition

Base price: $30,650. Engine: 3.8-liter, 205-horsepower V-6. Fuel economy: 20 miles per gallon city/29 mpg highway.

Styling is conservative. Two-tone seats and chrome-plated wheels do little to liven up the look. But the importance of this car is function over flash. Big, roomy, comfortable and quiet. Front- and rear-seat room is cavernous, as is the trunk. Smooth ride and precise handling, the latter a surprise benefit considering this is a full-size sedan.

Pluses: StabiliTrak control system to prevent lateral wandering, and a mileage rating you would expect from a smaller car. Next generation coming for '05.

*

Cadillac CTS Sedan

Base price: $29,350. Engine: 3.2-liter, 220-horsepower V-6. Fuel economy: 18 mpg city/20 mpg highway.

Not a Chevy in disguise but rather an all-new rear-wheel-drive, entry-level luxury sedan with dynamic styling to be shared with models coming out in the next 18 months.

Beefed-up V-6 teamed with a five-speed manual as standard, in part to keep the base price less than $30,000. With options, however, such as $1,200 for automatic transmission, expect to spend about $35,000.

Four-wheel anti-lock brakes and all-speed traction control are standard. StabiliTrak is optional, with the sport package recommended for serious drivers. Side air bag curtains also are standard. Styling, performance, room, comfort and luxury amenities to win over younger buyers.

*

Chrysler PT Cruiser Turbo

Base price: $22,365. Engine: 2.4-liter, 215-horsepower turbo four-cylinder. Fuel economy: 20 mpg city/26 mpg highway.

This is the high-performance rendition of the retro sedan with 65 more horsepower. Suspension and steering tweaks for improved handling to make it a little more limber. No perceptible turbo lag, and thanks to special acoustic dampeners on the turbo's intake system, there's no whine either. The turbo gives it the muscle that critics have been begging for.

Offered only with automatic initially; a five-speed manual will come later this year. But the automatic comes with Autostick for manual shifting without bothering with a clutch.

*

Honda Accord EX V-6

Base price: $25,800. Engine: 3-liter, 240-horsepower V-6. Fuel economy: 21 mpg city/30 mpg highway.

This is a total redesign as '03 Gen VII, though only a trained eye will be able to distinguish it from a VI.

Major re-engineering results in more potent yet whisper-quiet V-6. Retuned suspension minimizes unnecessary body motion; beefed-up brakes and quicker-response steering.

*

Honda Civic Hybrid

Base price: $19,550. Power: 1.3-liter, 85-horsepower gasoline engine and 13-horsepower electric motor. Fuel economy: 48 mpg city and highway.

A gas-electric hybrid that doesn't look or act differently from the gas-only model. Very consumer-friendly and a well-recognized name, which should help give hybrids consumer acceptance.

With the combination of gas and electric, your driving range isn't limited, because the batteries recharge as you drive. No need to stop for a lengthy recharge as with battery-power only. Superb mileage and reduced emissions. Nice car to have whether gas is $1 or $2 a gallon.

*

Honda Element 4WD EX

Base price: $20,850. Engine: 2.4-liter, 160-horsepower four-cylinder. Fuel economy: 20 mpg city/23 mpg highway.

A combination of SUV, wagon, van and truck, a multipurpose machine with a host of functions but a love-it-or-hate-it design featuring lots of plastic cladding. Targeted at youth on a budget. Rear seats fold flat against the sidewalls to open the cargo compartment but block side-window visibility.

Fairly peppy but hardly quiet. Suspension tuned for, well, youth on a budget. Neat features: removable glass skylight; wide-open front and rear doors, with rear doors that swing back "suicide" style; waterproof seat fabric; and water-resistant cargo floor. A new alternative to having to settle for Dad's hand-me-down Crown Victoria.

*

Honda Pilot EX

Base price: $29,270. Engine: 3.5-liter, 240-horsepower V-6. Fuel economy: 17 mpg city/22 mpg highway.

Rides and handles more like a sedan than a sport ute. Absorbs bumps in the road and sits flat in tight corners. Same 3.5-liter V-6 with five-speed automatic as the Acura MDX from which it is derived. Smooth, commotion-free acceleration but not overly energetic, a concession to mileage over muscle. All-wheel drive.

Three rows of seats, but the third row is for munchkins. Nine cup holders, four power plugs, four pop-down grocery bag holders and four cargo net holders are standard, but a power sunroof is not even an option.

*

Infiniti G35 Sedan

Base price: $28,950. Engine: 3.5-liter, 260-horsepower, 24-valve V-6. Fuel economy: 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway.

One of a new breed of rear-wheel-drive sedans (by '05 all of the division's vehicles will be rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive) to draw younger, more affluent buyers. Lively V-6 to be shared with Nissan's Z, but this car's forte is precise handling and above-average performance while sticking to the pavement. Stability-traction control standard.

Neat features: Adjust the steering wheel and the in- strument pod moves with it so the driver doesn't lose sight of gauges. Driver's-seat "dual- density foam" molds and holds you in place.

Not so neat: Try to find the power mirror button.

*

Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4WD

Base price: $24,385. Engine: 4-liter, 190-horsepower inline-6. Fuel economy: 16 mpg city/19 mpg highway.

Brought out for '03 to give serious off-roaders a machine to do battle with when carving a path through Ma Nature's territory. This vehicle is meant to help you move in and out of tough spots when off-road but not to cushion your tush when on pavement.

Ride is stiff, and "handling" refers to climbing, clawing and digging into sand, dirt, mud or whatever other gunk or goop you need to grab hold of to keep moving when the pavement disappears.

A vehicle for those willing to accept a harsher ride to be able to go where most other people, especially those in car-based SUVs, fear to tread.

*

Land Rover Freelander

Base price: $27,775. Engine: 2.5-liter, 174-horsepower, 20-valve V-6. Fuel economy: 17 mpg city/20 mpg highway.

New low-cost, entry-level SUV from a company known for upscale sport utes. Full-time all-wheel drive designed for optimum on- or off-road capability.

New features for '03 include a one-gallon-larger fuel tank, body side moldings to protect the panels and a tweak of the air-conditioning system to reduce noise. Could argue that the 2.5-liter could use more horses or more torque, but thanks to the bigger tank, this Freelander has more driving range though not better mileage.

The seat should be lower or the roof line higher to protect the melon when entering.

*

Mitsubishi Outlander XLS AWD

Base price: $20,790. Engine: 2.4-liter, 140-horsepower four-cylinder. Fuel economy: 20 mpg city/25 mpg highway.

Another compact SUV that resembles a tall-roofed station wagon with all-wheel drive, but this one is a standout. Rugged looks outside, room and comfort inside, choice of two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive and well-equipped with automatic transmission, air conditioning, power windows and locks standard.

Ride is surprisingly pleasant and handling better than average in this car-based SUV. One shortcoming: The engine does well on mileage but doesn't have a lot of spunk.

*

Pontiac Vibe GT

Base price: $19,340. Engine: 1.8-liter, 180-horsepower four-cylinder. Fuel economy: 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway.

New four-door hatchback that looks a bit like a sport ute with a choice of front- or all-wheel-drive and high-mileage or high-performance engines. All seats but the driver's fold flat to turn the cabin into a long- distance cargo carrier.

Basically a compact four-door hatchback dressed in sports duds that can carry more stuff than your traditional economy sedan.

For a little better handling, optional 17-inch performance radials replace standard 16-inch all-season tires. Anti-lock brakes standard on all but base front-wheel-drive model.

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