The new model year is upon us, bringing the darlings of the last auto show season to our local dealers and driveways. The dominant themes are fun and versatility, often taken together. Numerous new models are recasting successful predecessors, like the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, while others look to a more distant past for inspiration, such as the Jeep Commander and Toyota FJ Cruiser.
While there are even more new and significantly revised vehicles hitting the market, the machines presented here are the standouts, the ones to put on your must-drive list and to debate at the water cooler. Read on, you might discover your next gotta-have vehicle is just a click away.

GM Performance Division stuffed an LS2 6.0-liter V-8 under the hood of the Chevy TrailBlazer and lowered the suspension, then tuned and tested it at the Nurburgring. The 6.0-liter small-block makes 400 horses and 395 pound-feet in the SSR and Pontiac GTO. Of course, the SS package includes special styling and trim. Chevy estimates the TrailBlazer SS will do 0-60 mph in less than six seconds; not quite as quick as the 0-60 time Ford predicts for its SVT-built Adrenalin SportTrac. But the Chevy will beat the Ford to market -- it'll be available late this year only with an automatic transmission and your choice of rear- or four-wheel-drive.

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Long criticized for its smallish Quad Cab rear seats and doors, the new Mega Cab is 20 inches longer than the current four-door configuration, giving Dodge buyers the most interior space (145 cubic feet--more than many SUVs) available for any full-size pickup. A clever rear seat design (split 60/40) allows for a reclining seat back, as well as a fold-flat-forward configuration--the result being almost 70 cubic feet of cargo capacity. Behind the rear seats are two hidden, floor-mounted storage compartments, designed to hold various tools, towing gear, and recovery straps. Although technically offered in 1500, 2500, and 3500 configurations, all Mega Cab models will be based off the Ram Heavy-Duty chassis, allowing for a wide variety of payload and towing capacities (the former ranging from 1400 to 2800 pounds; the latter from 6200 to 15,800 pounds). Half-ton models will be offered with the 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 and five-speed automatic, while the 2500 and 3500 models will offer the HEMI with a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic, as well as the 5.9-liter High-Output Cummins Turbodiesel with the six-speed manual or heavy-duty four-speed automatic. The Mega Cab will share the numerous updates to the Ram line, such as new dash design, when it goes on sale this fall.

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This anodized red "Nitro" concept reveals the Jeep Liberty-derived Dodge sport/utility that launches in 2006 as an '07 model. The exterior transformation brings flat surfaces and crisp lines to the enlarged Liberty profile, with the key distinguishing element being a downsized rendition of the macho Dodge crosshair grille. The Nitro's nose is much like the one on the youth-targeted 2002 M-80 pickup truck concept, including its Mercedes/Land Rover-like side vents in the upper fenders, below the A-pillar. Conceived as a midsize alternative to the Durango SUV, the Nitro has a 3.7L/210-hp SOHC V-6 with 235 lb-ft of torque, full-time 4WD, and a four-speed automatic. Tiping the scales at 4115 lbs, the Nitro reportedly runs 0-60 mph in 9.6 seconds. It has a "Load and Slide" cargo floor, made of textured vinyl, that slides to the rear for easy loading and unloading, modular storage bins and a first-aid kit.

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After six special-edition Harley-Davidson Ford F-150 and Super-Duty pickup trucks, the all-American alliance gives the bad-boy treatment to the new-generation F-150 for the first time. After a disturbing effort with a pumpkin-colored Super-Duty, we're glad to see Ford is back in black. For 2006, the Ford Harley-Davidson F-150 SuperCab is given a black monochrome treatment, with red and blue stripe accents and obligatory badging. The truck is dressed with a distinct lower valance, custom billet grille, blackout headlamps and taillamps, chrome side steps, and massive 22-inch aluminum wheels. Inside, the Harley truck has all the leather, embroidery, and chrome expected, transforming the dash, captains chairs, center stack, and even doors. Buyers will have a choice of 4x2 and AWD configurations, marking the first all-wheel-drive application on the F-150. Under the hood on all examples will be a 5.4L/300-hp V-8 boasting 365 lb-ft of torque. Bristling with attitude, this truck shows that Ford has the formula down pat.

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Built on a fortified Chevrolet Colorado platform, the H3 offers Hummer-grade toughness in a right-sized package. Compared to the H2, the H3 is 16.9 inches shorter in length, six inches shorter in height, and 6.5 inches narrower. The H3 uses an electronically controlled 4WD system with a fully locking rear differential, traction control, underbody shielding, and GM's StabiliTrak vehicle stability enhancement system. H3 offers two tire packages, a Goodyear 32-inch all-terrain tire and Bridgestone 33-inch, both larger than those available with any other midsize SUV. Interior notables include available heated leather seats, a large electric sliding sunroof, DVD-based navigation, and numerous customized accessories. Powertrain is a 3.5L/220-hp I-5 with a choice of manual or automatic transmission. Peak fuel economy is 20 mpg.

Isuzu dealers have been starved for product in recent years, seeing Axiom, Hombre, Rodeo, and Trooper fade away without replacement. So, these rebadged GM trucks are much-needed nourishment for the product-starved dealer body. Like the Chevrolet S-10-based Hombre compact truck, the i-280 and i-350 leverage the GM-Isuzu partnership to deliver ready-made vehicles to the wafer-thin product portfolio. A simpler lineup than Chevy offers, the price-leading i-280 is a 2WD extended cab truck powered by a 2.8L/175-hp I-4. From this core configuration, the i-280 will be offered in four trim levels, ranging from pure utilitarian, workhorse to comfortably equipped with all the basic power amenities. The i-350 is 4WD crew cab pickup with a 3.5L/220-hp I-5 and automatic transmission. This model features a shift-on-the-fly 4WD system, larger tires, and an off-road suspension. A Limited Package can outfit the i-350 with such niceties as six-disc changer, leather trim, and moonroof.

Built on the Grand Cherokee platform, the seven-passenger Commander expands the Jeep line to have a three-row vehicle, while retaining the legendary off-road capability. With more right angles than SpongeBob SquarePants, Commander styling was inspired by the Willys Wagon, the Wagoneer, and the Cherokee. The Commander will be offered with the choice of a 3.7-liter V-6, 4.7-liter V-8, or 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, and three full-time four-wheel drive systems. Its three rows are in a stadium seating setup, and the second and third rows fold to create a flat load floor. The V-6 is backed by the W5A580 five-speed automatic, and the 545RFE multispeed automatic comes with both V-8s. The new sport/utility will be available in two trim levels: the regular Commander, with body-color grille, standard cloth seats, and the V-6; and the Commander Limited, which has a chrome grille, leather seats, D-pillar-mounted assist handles (on the back of the vehicle), and the 4.7-liter V-8 as its base engine. Both models are available with two- or four-wheel-drive, and towing capacity is 3500 pounds for all models.

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The first high-performance SUV from Jeep is the Grand Cherokee SRT8, powered by a 6.1-liter Hemi that provides 415 horsepower and 410 pound-feet of torque. Its 0-to-60 times are said to be under five seconds, beating the Porsche Cayenne Turbo and BMW X5. SRT engineers designed a lighter-weight four-wheel-drive system for this Jeep, and also modified the suspension, upgraded the brakes and exhaust, and gave the sport/utility unique front and rear fascia and 20-inch wheels. The 6.1-liter Hemi uses exhaust headers, a 2.75-inch exhaust system with four-inch tips, and a fresh-air induction system that allows for a fording depth of up to 19 inches. This Hemi has 85 more horsepower than the 5.7-liter version, and is backed by the W5A580 five-speed automatic with the AutoStick feature. Ride height has been lowered one inch from stock Grand Cherokee levels. Other suspension modifications include unique anti-roll bars, SRT-tuned dampers, and new front suspension knuckles. With the optional Mopar hitch package, towing capacity is 3500 pounds. Expect to see the SRT8 in dealerships in fall of this year.

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The new seven-passenger Sedona is based on a fresh platform, with an increased length, width, and wheelbase. The added space is maximized with flip/fold second-row seats and a standard foldaway third-row, now de rigueur for the segment. Offered in two trims, the LX will feature six airbags, tri-zone air conditioning, sliding door power windows, cruise control, AM/FM/CD player, second-row captain's chairs, and keyless entry with an alarm system. The Sedona EX will add a chrome grille, foglights, eight-way power-adjustable driver's seat with power lumbar, heated power mirrors, AM/FM/CD/MP3/cassette stereo system, auto-dimming rearview mirror with Homelink, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, power rear quarter glass, compass, roof rack, and wood trim. Options will include leather seats with front seat heaters, backup warning system, power sliding doors, power liftgate, power adjustable pedals, power sunroof, and a premium entertainment system featuring a DVD player and 11 speakers. On the safety front, the Sedona will come equipped with six airbags, four-channel ABS, electronic brake force distribution, tire pressure monitor, and active front headrests. Electronic stability program and traction control will be optional. To move this large family hauler, the Sedona is fitted with a new 3.8L/240-hp V-6 with a five-speed Sportmatic transmission.

The new Range Rover Sport is Land Rover's first shot at the burgeoning fast-SUV market. To ensure the Sport is what it says it is, the top-of-the-range version boasts a Jaguar-sourced supercharged V-8 underhood kicking out 390 horsepower (the entry-level model gets the same 300-horse, 4.4-liter naturally aspirated version of the engine as used in the LR3). Land Rover is clearly targeting the BMW X5 for pavement athleticism, but claims far more off-road ability. The RRS's top speed is pegged electronically at 140 mph, the limit of off-road-tire technology. And yet, with extensive use of electronics and clever suspension hardware, as well as such traditional SUV items as a low-ratio transfer box, Land Rover claims the Sport can reconfigure itself at the flick of a couple of switches from fast-road handler to trailer hauler to serious off-road explorer. Despite its nameplate, the Sport is derived from the all-new, SUOTY-winning Land Rover LR3, a completely different bloodline from the Range Rover's.

Lincoln's second pickup takes a more conventional approach than the star-crossed Blackwood, pairing work truck abilities with automotive luxury. Derived from Ford's award-winning F-150, the 2006 Mark LT will come in a single crew-cab body style with a 5.5-foot-long cargo bed for $39,530. Power is supplied by the Navigator's new 24-valve, 5.4L/300-hp V-8 for rear- and four-wheel-drive models. Towing and payload capacities will outshine the Blackwood's, at 8900 lbs and 3/4-ton, respectively. In keeping with the marque's stature, the Mark LT's interior will be the most plush of any Ford brand pickup. A full roster of luxury touches are in the offing, including real Ebony wood, soft leather, and French-style stitching.

Longer, lower, and wider was the siren song of American cars in the 1950s and 1960s, and it also applies to Mercedes' completely redone M-Class SUV. Front and rear legroom is increased considerably as a result. Mercedes removed the truck frame that underpinned the previous version and retuned the suspension for a more carlike ride. While vaguely recognizable as an M-Class, the 2006 model is clearly sleeker-looking and more in tune with the luxury and refinement buyers expect of a Mercedes passenger car. On sale now, the five-seater launched with the company's new four-valve/cylinder DOHC 3.5-liter/268-horsepower V-6, as well as the carryover three-valve SOHC 5.0-liter/302-horse V-8. Pricing for the ML350 has been set to start at $39,750, with the higher-powered model will retail for $48,500.

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Born in concept form as the GST--for Grand Sport Tourer--Mercedes brought its supersized luxury crossover to market largely unchanged as the new-for-2006 R-Class. Now dubbed a "Sport Tourer," the Alabama-built R-Class shares platform basics and about 35 percent of its hardware with the equally new M-Class, including V-6 and V-8 engines and all-wheel drive. From there, this unique 2+2+2 seater treads its own path into an emerging segment that lies somewhere between, yet beyond, station wagon and SUV. The R350 has M-B's new 3.5-liter DOHC modular V-6 that's now filtering into other model lines. Producing 268 hp at 6,000 rpm, it uses variable valve timing to help turn out a stout 258 lb-ft of peak torque from 2,400-5,000 revs--90 percent of that from just over 1,500 rpm. The SOHC V-8 in the R500 is Mercedes' veteran 5.0-liter that develops 302 hp and 339 lb-ft of twist from 2,700-4,750 rpm.

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As Mercury refines its image, it also is refining the Mountaineer. The 2006 model has a revised front fascia, fog lamps, and trim. Updates continue down the side with more aerodynamic mirrors and integrated power running boards. To the rear, clear taillamp lenses and new liftgate round out the cosmetic makeover. More drastic changes were made to the interior, with new seats, instrument panel, and upgraded materials. Changes in the seats create a flatter load floor, and the second row will be available with captain-style configuration. The powertrain has been enhanced, with a more-potent three-valve 4.6L V-8 now producing 292 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque, round through a six-speed automatic transmission. An improved 4.0L V-6 with five-speed automatic remains standard equipment. All these components ride on a strengthened platform damped by a revised suspension, with an all-new independent rear setup.

Mitsubishi returns to the pickup market after a decade of absence with the midsized Raider. Co-developed with the new Dodge Dakota platform, the Raider will also be offered in two cab configurations, extended cab and crew cab, with each offered in two- and four-wheel drive. Base engine will be a 3.7L/210-hp V-6 with an available 4.7L/230-hp V-8 boasting 290 lb-ft of torque, both shared with the Dakota. With an extended cab bed length of 6.5 feet (5.25 on the double cab), Mitsubishi claims the largest cargo bed in its class, along with a 1700-pound max payload, and a 5000-pound tow capacity. Keeping with Mitsu's love for technology, the Raider will offer a thumping 500-watt audio system with a six-disc, in-dash CD changer, and Bluetooth.

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Pontiac will soon offer first sport/utility vehicle, expanding the product range into the every-popular segment with its own variation of the Chevrolet Equinox. Like its corporate twin, the Torrent will stand out in the compact 'ute class by offering a slightly bigger package than most and a base 3.4L/185-hp V-6 with a five-speed automatic transmission. Offered in front- and all-wheel drive, the Torrent is tuned for a more enthusiastic drive than the Equinox, fitting with the Pontiac brand character. The five-seater boasts several distinct features, such as electric power steering, a rear seat that adjusts eight inches fore/aft, and removable/adjustable rear package shelf. Ultimately, the long wheelbase and large side doors may be counted among the most appealing traits, allowing easy ingress/egress.

Subaru has given the 2006 Foresters a significant freshening, with an updated exterior, enhanced powertrains, and increased content for the car-based adventure machine. Most noticeable is the completely revised frontal styling, including new grille, headlights, bumper, hood, and fenders. At the rear are new taillights. The 2.5-liter flat four engines have also been upgraded. Subaru's new Active Valve Lift System has given the naturally aspirated version an eight-horsepower increase to 173 hp. The turbocharged version boasts 20 more horses, boosting its output to 230 hp. Subaru claims the engine will propel the XT Forester to 60 mph in under 6.0 seconds, yet it will meet LEVII emissions standards. Among the detail changes to the car are a slight increase in ride height, and improvements to both manual and automatic transmissions. Even entry-level models will now come standard with side airbags and air conditioning.

Don't laugh, but this crossover SUV powered by the Outback wagon's 3.0-liter flat-six and five-speed automatic is intended to outperform BMW's X5 3.0i. Check the stats: relative to the BMW's inline six the Subie makes 25 more horsepower (250 total), and the trucklet weighs 450 pounds less, giving it a 19 percent advantage in weight-to-power. The front strut/rear multi-link suspension is tuned to closely match the handling dynamics of the BMW, while softening the suspension settings for improved ride quality. Fat 255/55R18 Goodyear Eagles match the size of the X5's sport suspension tires. Where Subaru clearly trumps BMW is in interior space efficiency. Stretching just five inches longer on a 2.8-inch shorter wheelbase, the B9 Tribeca fits three rows of seats (a third-row-delete option will be offered). Max cargo space with the seats folded flat appears to be much larger than in the BMW. Of course, learning to love Subaru's new airplane-inspired nose may take time.

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Suzuki offered a first look at its intended Grand Vitara replacement in New York with the Concept-X2. The show vehicle presented a traditional sport/ute package, complete with ladder-frame construction, in tasteful sheetmetal made elegant with its two-tone paint scheme. The Concept-X2 measures 176 inches bumper to bumper, stands 66.7 inches tall, and stretches 74.4 inches wide, making it a foot longer, slightly shorter, and four inches wider compared to a 2005 Grand Vitara. Under the Majestic Graphic sheen is a 185-hp DOHC V-6 engine teamed with a five-speed automatic transmission. Power is routed through a full-time 4x4 system, with four traction modes to apply to on- and off-road driving conditions. To enhance dynamics, the X2 features Electronic Stability Program, unifying antilock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, traction control, and stability control. Should disaster strike, the five-passenger X2 is fitted with dual front and side airbags, and front and rear curtain airbags. Interior amenities count AM/FM/XM/CD stereo, HomeLink, keyless entry, and silver-trimmed black leather seating surfaces.

Very similar to the FJ Cruiser Concept shown in 2003, the Toyota FJ Cruiser will be in showrooms in early 2006. Inspired by the legendary FJ-40 Land Cruiser, the new FJ is aimed at young buyers with active outdoor lifestyles. Power will be from a 4.0-liter/245 horsepower V-6, and a five-speed automatic on two- or four-wheel-drive models, or an available six-speed manual on 4x4 models only. Just like the outside, the interior of the FJ Cruiser is tough and straightforward, but neither stripped nor boring. Body-color accents surround the industrial-looking instruments, a mechanical appearance that extends to the wheel, shifter, and door panels. Standard equipment includes air conditioning, AM/FM/CD stereo, and tilt wheel, and a full range of extra comfort, safety, and convenience options will also be available. In back, the rear seats fold flat for maximum cargo room. With the FJ Cruiser, Toyota brings basic functionality, flexible utility, and affordability to a vehicle with rugged styling and an aggressive stance. It all adds up to an offering that should be a hit with young, and young-at-heart, buyers.

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