Most Significant New Car Debuts of the New York Auto Show

2006 Jeep Commander

SUV buyers who need a third seat have been shut out at Jeep, but that will change with the arrival of the Commander this fall. Essentially a re-bodied Grand Cherokee, the Commander will come with a standard third-row seat, but its accommodations are child-sized. The Commander's interior is completely new, with rustic, distressed-leather upholstery and matte-finish wood available. Small, non-opening glass panels over the rear seats (like those in the Nissan Maxima) are standard. Mechanically, the Commander is a twin to the Grand Cherokee, and will share that model's powertrains: a 3.7-liter V-6, a 4.7-liter V-8, and a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, along with rear-wheel drive or a choice of three four-wheel-drive systems. The suspension consists of control arms up front and a live axle at the rear; stability control will be standard (as it will be on the Grand Cherokee for '06). The Commander retains the Grand Cherokee's 109.5-inch wheelbase, but its unique body is 2 inches longer and 4 inches taller. The slab-sided, rectilinear design is supposed to recall the old Jeep Cherokee, whose handsome styling remained popular as it moved from modern to classic during its extra-long life cycle. The Commander's weird, inset headlamps spoil the effect here, but ardent Jeep fans who need three rows of seats might not care.

2006 Lexus GS450h Hybrid

Lexus is adding another weapon to their green-leaning arsenal as they unveil the GS450h sedan, scheduled to reach dealerships in the spring of 2006. It joins Lexus's own RX400h SUV as the only luxury vehicles to offer the improved fuel economy and eco-friendliness of a hybrid powertrain. Lexus also touts the GS450h as the first rear-wheel-drive car to receive the hybrid treatment (all-wheel drive will not be available). The new sedan will be powered by an electric motor mated to a 3.5-liter V-6 and it should boast the same sporting dynamics as the more standard GS. Lexus claims that the hybrid system's performance will match that of a 4.5-liter V-8--"it will produce substantially more than 300 hp and achieve 0-60 mph in well under six seconds"--while returning gas mileage that equals that of a typical 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Combined fuel economy will likely fall somewhere in the high twenties. Lexus plans to market the GS hybrid not on its environmentally friendly powertrain, but rather its high-performance characteristics, and says that the prospect of spending less time--not money--at the pump will be what draws buyers to the GS450h. Expect a price premium of at least $5000-$6000 over similarly outfitted, non-hybrid GS430s.

2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class

After two concept previews, Mercedes-Benz at last rolled out the production version of its R-class SUV/wagon/crossover whatever, which goes on sale late this year. This is a big boy, stretching 203 inches, riding a 126-inch wheelbase, and tipping the scales at some 4800 lbs. The R-class ferries a half-dozen passengers in six individual chairs. With the four rear seats folded, it carries 72 cubic feet of cargo. Mercedes' newest entry will be sold here in two versions. The R350 uses Mercedes' new 3.5-liter V-6, with dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. It makes 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. The R500's 5.0-liter V-8 is from the older, SOHC, 3-valves-per-cylinder engine family. Its output is 302 hp and 339 lb-ft of torque. Both engines have standard 4Matic four-wheel drive and use the same 7-speed automatic transmission. The standard air suspension lowers ride height by one-half inch at speeds above 77 mph, or, at low speeds, can raise the ride height by three inches for additional ground clearance. No full-on, supercharged, 500-plus-hp, AMG version has been announced yet, but with the once-exclusive AMG models proliferating throughout the Benz lineup, it can't be far behind. Base R-class models will begin around $50,000 and will be built alongside the new ML in Merc's Alabama plant.

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