New Cars 2012

It's a challenge for anyone to keep up with the constantly changing roster of cars on dealership lots. For car lovers it's an even tougher task, because beyond knowing that a certain model exists, you need to know where it fits in the automotive firmament. That's why we've gathered every new model due by the first half of 2012 and categorized them, not alphabetically or by some government-defined size class, but by their relevance to buyers, enthusiasts, and the companies that build them. Some cars thrust automakers into new segments, while others drive just like last year's model. Some cars protect the sanctity of the manual transmission, while others advance performance with the latest technology. Some cars address rising fuel-economy standards, while others disguise obscene speed in stealthy sheetmetal. Here are the 85 new arrivals shaping the automotive world for 2012.

These new models don't merely replace an existing car, they move their automakers into new segments.

Land Rover Range Rover Evoque
Don't be surprised if Land Rover's softest four-wheeler becomes its best-selling vehicle. The Evoque opens the Range Rover marque to new customers with its lower price, eye-catching style, and on-road predilection. Available in two- or four-door trim, the Evoque uses unibody construction and a 240-hp, direct-injected, turbocharged four-cylinder supplied by Ford. The Evoque doesn't offer a low range, locking differentials, or an air-sprung suspension, but Land Rover's signature Terrain Response system adapts the traction control, stability control, hill-start assist, hill-descent assist, and throttle response for specific conditions.

ON SALE: October | PRICE: $43,995 | NEW BUYER: Urban dwellers who rarely see a dirt road

Buick Verano
Buick's play for younger buyers is much more than a reskinned Chevrolet Cruze. Larger engines include a standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder making 177 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque and an optional turbocharged 2.0-liter good for about 220 hp. Luxury touches such as a heated steering wheel, a Bose stereo, and the next generation of OnStar technology complement the upscale cabin, which makes generous use of wood and aluminum accents.

ON SALE: Late 2011 | PRICE: $21,000 (est.) | NEW BUYER: Forty-somethings -- if Buick is lucky.

Saab 9-4X
Assuming Saab still exists in 2012, the 9-4X stands to be a major boon to sales as it nudges the Swedish automaker a little closer toward the mainstream -- or at least suburbia's crossover-loving buyers. The newly independent automaker faced a serious cash shortage in the first half of 2011, during which the 9-3 sedan accounted for 81 percent of Saab's U.S. sales. Developed under General Motors ownership, the 9-4X is a close relative of the Cadillac SRX, but the Saab boasts unique sheetmetal and distinct engines. A 265-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 is standard, available with either front- or all-wheel drive. The Aero trim includes all-wheel drive and a 2.8-liter turbo V-6 making 300 hp.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $34,205/$48,835 (base/Aero) | NEW BUYER: Mainstream suburbanites

Nissan NV
Cargo may be king in the commercial-van segment, but Nissan hasn't forgotten about the driver with its new NV. Optional equipment includes a power driver's seat, navigation, rear parking sensors, a backup camera, and a USB audio input. Based on Titan mechanicals, the NV offers the choice of a 261-hp V-6 or a 317-hp V-8 in either standard or high-roof configuration. The strongest NV can haul up to 3925 pounds and tow nearly 9500 pounds.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $25,930/$28,970 (low-/high-roof) | NEW BUYER: Plumbers, electricians, and contractors

Infiniti JX
Infiniti's need for a three-row family crossover -- something more practical than the FX and less thirsty than the QX -- will drive the luxury maker to the Nissan parts bin.Repurposing the Murano's hardware means a return to front-wheel-drive architecture, although Infiniti could choose to make the JX all-wheel drive only. Infiniti won't talk about the JX's powertrain until the Los Angeles auto show in November, but the VQ-series V-6 engine is pretty much a given.

ON SALE: Early 2012 | PRICE: $45,000 (est.) | NEW BUYER: Young families with kids Ford C-Max Aborted twenty-one months after Ford announced that the small seven-seat minivan was coming to the U.S. Should erase some of the confusion that would've come with selling three different powertrains wrapped in two distinct body styles under one name. Hybrid and plug-in-hybrid five-passenger C-Maxes are still planned.

Toyota Prius V
The Prius V is the first step in franchising the Prius name into a brand of high-mileage hybrids. The V uses the same general shape and an identical 134-hp hybrid powertrain as the Prius, but it's stretched 6.1 inches to accommodate rear seats that slide and recline and to give it more cargo space. The additional weight and less aerodynamic shape take their toll on the EPA fuel-mileage rating, which drops from 51/48 mpg city/highway to 44/40 mpg.

ON SALE: Late 2011 | PRICE: $27,000 (est.) | NEW BUYER: The eco-conscious family

No one really needs more performance when it comes to cars in this league, but that hasn't stopped automakers from building faster and racier variants of these already-fast-and-racy cars.

Jaguar XKR-S
There's no shortage of performance in the Jaguar lineup. With the XFR sedan, the XKR coupe, and the XJ Supersport sedan, the British automaker has a trio of 510-hp supercharged brutes that are plenty competent around a track. What Jaguar doesn't have is performance with cachet, because the R sub-brand doesn't carry the same emotional weight as the BMW M, Mercedes-Benz AMG, and Audi RS badges.

What a difference an additional consonant makes. Extracting more performance from the XKR to create the XKR-S was largely an exercise in calibration rather than fitting new hardware. The familiar supercharged 5.0-liter V-8 is up 40 hp and 41 lb-ft of torque compared with the XKR, for a total of 550 hp and 502 lb-ft. Engineers have stiffened the front suspension uprights, tweaked the rear suspension geometry, increased spring rates, and dropped the ride height 0.4 inch. The adaptive dampers and the active rear differential have also been tuned more aggressively.

We already knew that the XKR is a torque monster, so it's no surprise that the XKR-S produces silly thrust before the pedal is depressed even halfway. Jaguar claims that 60 mph comes in 4.2 seconds and top speed is 186 mph. With the rotary gear selector twisted all the way to the right for the sport setting, the six-speed automatic will crack off shifts with a hammerlike punch. Activating Dynamic mode sharpens throttle response, tightens the dampers, and opens a set of flaps in the exhaust. At full throttle, the XKR-S emits a raw, guttural snarl of blats and grunts, and the sharp bark at liftoff is chased by intermittent aftershocks of snaps and crackles. It's hardly the seductive symphony of an Italian engine, but this Jag has a presence and aural individuality that makes the heart flutter.

What really gets our pulse pounding, though, is the devilish active differential, which uses an electric motor to progressively lock the rear wheels together. As we hustle through the turns of the Algarve race circuit in southern Portugal, the diff makes its existence known by dialing in the perfect amount of lockup to keep the car neutral and balanced. Thanks to the rigidity of the chassis, the progressive action of the throttle pedal, and the supportive seats, you can perfectly read and anticipate the differential's intentions, inviting explorations into controlled oversteer without threatening a smoky spin.

The XKR-S sits at the pleasant intersection of legitimate track credibility and Jaguar brand character, making the R-S tag a worthy addition to the great performance sub-brands. Here's hoping that it makes its way to more Jags.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $132,875 | HARDER: 5.0L supercharged V-8, 550 hp, 502 lb-ft | HOTTER: French racing blue

Aston Martin Virage
Aston Martin has become a master of spinning its VH architecture into an endless array of similar yet different cars. The new Virage is no exception. Its 5.9-liter V-12 puts out 490 hp, landing it squarely between the DB9 and the DBS. The Virage also adds carbon-ceramic brakes, twenty-inch wheels, and firmer Bilstein dampers than in the DB9. It looks like any other Aston -- beautiful -- but shares only its roof and door skins with the DB9.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $213,710/$228,710 (coupe/convertible) | HARDER: Firmer suspension, carbon-ceramic brakes | HOTTER: Typical Aston genes, tweaked

Lamborghini Gallardo LP550-2 Bicolore
The Italian moniker would lead you to believe it's all about the two-tone paint job here, but the Bicolore's real selling point is rear-wheel drive. Whereas the limited-edition, rear-wheel-drive Gallardo Balboni came with a clutch pedal, the Bicolore is offered only with a six-speed automated manual mated to the 543-hp V-10.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $196,995 | HARDER: Rear-wheel drive | HOTTER: Blacked-out greenhouse

Maserati GranTurismo MC
Compared with Europe's MC Stradale and its four-point harnesses, optional roll cage, and automated manual, the American MC looks like a tame grand tourer: standard three-point belts, rear seats in place, and a torque-converter automatic. Still, there's no question that the MC presents an unlikely balance of sport over luxury for Maserati. In addition to an 11-hp increase, the adaptive suspension has been tossed in favor of fixed-rate dampers.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $143,400 | HARDER: Nonadjustable suspension | HOTTER: Aggressive aero bodywork

Audi R8 GT Spyder
Even in its first generation, the Audi R8 V-10 is such a complete driving machine that it worries such renowned rivals as the Porsche 911 Turbo and the Lamborghini Gallardo Performante. To find out whether shedding nearly 200 pounds and gaining 35 hp (for a total of 560 hp) is really worth a hefty $40,000 price hike, we went rain dancing on the back roads around Le Mans' Circuit de la Sarthe until the fading daylight signaled the end of playtime.

The droptop GT's standard equipment includes a six-speed automated manual, LED headlamps, hip-hugging bucket seats, and fancy custom wheels. In sync with the 43/57-percent front/rear weight distribution, all it takes to induce power oversteer or a liftoff tail slide are a jab at the stability control button and a stab at the throttle. Even though Sport mode will further sharpen the claws of this hard-core softtop, the steering isn't as ultraquick as you'll find in a Ferrari 458 Italia, the transmission isn't as machine-gun rapid as that of the McLaren MP4-12C, and the damper calibration isn't as crash-bang hard as that of any 911 adorned with a GT badge. Performance? Beyond reproach, with 398 lb-ft of V-10 torque arriving at a lofty 6500 rpm and with the ability to storm from zero to 124 mph in only 11.5 seconds. Roadholding? Tenacious -- sensational in the dry and out of this world in the wet. Handling? Fail-safe but never boring, benign but not to the point of being passive, predictable, controllable, and -- if desired -- beautifully malleable. True, this is a very expensive car. But when you consider the unique equipment and the limited production run, this special Spyder should hold its value better than the lesser versions.

ON SALE: Early 2012 | PRICE: $210,000 (est.) | HARDER: 35 more hp, 187 fewer pounds | HOTTER: Carbon fiber everywhere

Their predecessors had either grown old and stale or seen a sudden onrush of potent new competition, so the pressure's on for these new models to raise the bar.

Nissan Versa sedan
Apart from looking decidedly dour, the outgoing Nissan Versa sedan was actually a remarkably good economy car. The better-looking, pricier hatchback edition has been selling so well -- comprising more than three-fifths of the Versa's class-leading 28 percent market share in 2010 -- that Nissan left it alone for 2012 and focused on up-dating the notchback. The refreshed sedan weighs about 150 pounds less than its predecessor, thanks mostly to its new "V" platform, which underpins Nissan's March and Micra models on other continents. The most noticeable change, though, is its more stylish skin, which is said to signal the future direction of Nissan styling.

Cross your fingers that future Nissans don't look this drab inside. Or feel this cheap. That used to be the status quo for this segment, but entries such as the Ford Fiesta and the Hyundai Accent have reset the standard. Sure, those cars cost more than the base $11,750 Versa sedan, but most Versas will cost at least $15,000, where such shortcomings are much less forgivable. Plus, the Nissan is less powerful than those rivals and fails to achieve the now-magic 40-mpg highway rating (coming up short by 2 mpg). Instead, the Versa's best assets are its low price, decent steering, comfortable ride, and fields of legroom. However, that might not be enough for Nissan to maintain its lead in the sales race.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $11,750 | ENGINE: 1.6L I-4, 109 hp, 107 lb-ft | LOOK FOR BIG GAINS IN: Styling

Subaru Impreza
The Impreza has been plugging along as Subaru's most affordable offering, with little besides standard all-wheel drive to recommend it. An all-new version has the potential to add more enticements to the mix. A chief area of improvement is fuel economy; with a smaller, 148-hp, 2.0-liter engine instead of the previous 170-hp, 2.5-liter unit and a new CVT replacing the old four-speed automatic transmission, EPA figures make a sizable leap from 20/26 mpg city/highway to 27/36 mpg (a five-speed manual is also available). Sedan and hatchback models have roughly the same exterior dimensions as before but have airier interiors, roomier back seats, and more cargo space. The handling benchmark was the Mazda 3, which should bode well, but the really fun-to-drive models, the WRX and the STI, aren't undergoing a redesign just yet.

ON SALE: November | PRICE: $19,000 (est.) | ENGINE: 2.0L flat-4, 148 hp, 145 lb-ft | LOOK FOR BIG GAINS IN: Fuel economy

Chevrolet Sonic
Replacing the sad-sack Aveo, the Sonic is derived from the Opel Corsa but borrows its 1.8-liter and 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engines from the larger Chevy Cruze. The Sonic's hefty curb weight of nearly 2800 pounds doesn't help fuel economy in the city, but Chevy expects the Sonic to match the class leaders' 40-mpg highway rating. Quite unlike its predecessor, the Sonic aims to be the enthusiasts' choice in the segment, and our brief drive of an early mule was very promising, with the car proving to be eager and responsive.

ON SALE: October | PRICE: $14,495/$15,395 (sedan/hatchback) | ENGINES: 1.8L I-4, 135 hp, 125 lb-ft; 1.4L turbo I-4, 138 hp, 148 lb-ft (est.) | LOOK FOR BIG GAINS IN: Driving dynamics

Cadillac XTS
The Cadillac DTS, nee DeVille, is the last vestige of Cadillacs of yore. It's old, but not as old as its owner base, one of the most geriatric in the industry. Its replacement, the XTS, retains the DTS's generous proportions and front-wheel-drive layout. Crisper, more modern styling, however, should help the new car extend its appeal -- at least to would-be STS buyers, since that model, never a serious challenger to the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and the BMW 5-Series, has been dropped. Unveiled in 2010 as a plug-in-hybrid concept (shown above) with a 3.6-liter V-6, the production XTS will have the 3.6-liter but not the hybrid assistant. The XTS is larger than the CTS, but Cadillac is adamant that this is not the brand's flagship. Indeed, word is that the company is working on a true S-class/7-series competitor.

ON SALE: Early 2012 | PRICE: $50,000 (est.) | ENGINE: 3.6L V-6, 320 hp, 275 lb-ft (est.) | LOOK FOR BIG GAINS IN: Prestige

Ford Escape
A half-hearted redesign a few years back failed to keep the Escape competitive, but Ford's marketing muscle has kept sales strong (the Escape was the best-selling SUV in America in July). A truly new Escape -- developed in Europe, where it's known as the Kuga -- is on the way. Expect a major, and much-needed, interior upgrade as well as lots more luxury features. An all-four-cylinder engine lineup will include a 2.5-liter base engine; a 1.6-liter EcoBoost (the most economical); and a 240-hp, 2.0-liter EcoBoost in place of a V-6. The hybrid, however, will go away, as the all-hybrid two-row C-Max takes over that role. Styling will very closely resemble that of the Vertrek concept, as our illustrator shows above, but the Escape name will be retained.

ON SALE: Early 2012 | PRICE: $23,000 (est.) | ENGINES: 2.5L I-4, 170 hp, 170 lb-ft; 1.6L turbo I-4, 180 hp, 170 lb-ft; 2.0L turbo I-4, 240 hp, 270 lb-ft (est.) | LOOK FOR BIG GAINS IN: Interior quality

Cadillac STS: Some say that the XTS is the replacement for both the STS and the DTS. That sound you hear? The STS's rear wheels rolling over in its grave.

Sure, you know these cars are fast at first glance, but the rest of the motoring public will need to see a smoky, tire-screeching display of power before they have a clue.

Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8
Never mind the Swiss Large Hadron Collider: Chrysler's engineers in Auburn Hills, Michigan, are more than capable of bending the laws of physics, as evidenced by the latest Grand Cherokee SRT8. This is, after all, a 5150-pound SUV that can sprint from 0 to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, hit a top speed of 160 mph, and pull 0.9 g in least, according to the conservative physicists at SRT.

Much of that ability comes courtesy of -- you guessed it -- a monstrous Hemi V-8. Displacement grows to 6.4 liters for 2012; output jumps to 470 hp and an equally stout 465 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed automatic transmission and a rear-biased all-wheel-drive system carry over. Flared fenders, a tall air dam, twenty-inch wheels, and giant hood-mounted heat extractors lend this Grand Cherokee a menacing presence.

The SRT8's acceleration and shocking levels of grip are enough to make any driver question reality, but the Jeep's off-track performance is perhaps most incredible. Previous SRT-tuned Grand Cherokees sacrificed virtually every semblance of comfort in the name of performance, but the 2012 model flawlessly bridges the gap between track-day terror and daily driver. Adaptive Bilstein dampers help curb body roll when dialed into sport and track modes but otherwise provide a compliant, cossetting ride. A redesigned exhaust system provides room for a beefier receiver hitch and a heftier 5000-pound tow rating, and if you can ease up on the go pedal, a cylinder-deactivation function on the big Hemi promises a mild improvement in highway fuel economy.

A Jeep capable of warp speeds may still be a niche vehicle, but considering the SRT8's tenacity and tractability, it's a niche worth being in.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $55,295 | SUBTLE: Grand Cherokee roots | ANYTHING BUT: Physics-defying handling

Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG
as is its practice, AMG has kept the exterior modifications to its updated E63 AMG to a minimum so it can fly under the radar when you don't have your foot in it. The new 5.5-liter V-8 with twin turbos and direct injection matches the 518-hp rating of the old 6.2-liter normally aspirated V-8 with port injection and bumps torque up to 516 lb-ft, an increase of 51 lb-ft. The engine incorporates start/stop technology when the car is set to controlled-efficiency mode. The powertrain changes also help the E63 avoid a gas-guzzler tax, with an estimated 15/22 mpg EPA rating. As before, the seven-speed automatic uses a wet clutch in place of the torque converter.

The exhaust note with the turbo engine is a bit more subtle than the normally aspirated V-8's, but that only supports the E63's sleeper image. A $7300 performance package cranks maximum boost to 18.8 psi, up from 14.5 psi in the stock car, and increases output to 550 hp and 590 lb-ft without affecting fuel economy. The ultimate sleeper, though, is the E63 AMG wagon. It's 0.1 second slower off the line, but the rear-facing third-row seats mean your kids can wave to the audience as you perform 4.2-second sprints to 60 mph.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $89,775/$92,375 (sedan/wagon) | SUBTLE: A station wagon | ANYTHING BUT: Nearly 600 lb-ft of max torque

Audi A8L W12
The heart of Audi's A8 flagship, the 6.3-liter W-12 engine, has been given a bit more oomph for 2012, thanks to an increase in displacement and the addition of direct injection. It now puts out a healthy 500 hp and 463 lb-ft of torque. For all its muscle, the W-12 can't match the twin-turbocharged V-12 BMW 760Li's staggering 550 lb-ft of torque, but then, it doesn't have to. With its aluminum-spaceframe construction, the A8L W12 weighs about 4773 pounds, a good 250 pounds less than the Bimmer. Not surprisingly, it's mind-numbingly fast: the trip to 60 mph flies by in 4.4 seconds, according to factory figures. What's really impressive, though, is the smoothness with which this all transpires. The W-12 does its job in near silence until you ask for warp speed, when it responds with a refined, throaty roar.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $134,375 | SUBTLE: Understated luxury | ANYTHING BUT: Twelve-cylinder authority

Honda Civic Si
A larger 2.4-liter engine doesn't spin with quite the same enthusiasm as the old 8000-rpm screamer but adds 31 lb-ft of torque to combat the previous Si's weed-whacker-like character. At a relaxed pace, the Civic Si doesn't have the fun factor of a Volkswagen GTI, and in harder driving it doesn't have the bite of a Mazdaspeed 3, but Honda beautifully balances both sides of the sleeper coin if you value civility as much as you do liveliness.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $22,975 | SUBTLE: Economy-car origins | ANYTHING BUT: 201 hp channeled through a limited-slip diff

Who says you can't have fun with a four-door? These vehicles are more sports car than family sedan, but that won't stop them from moving four people in comfort.

Dodge Charger SRT8
Still miffed that Dodge dares to slap the Charger name on a four-door sedan? The 2012 SRT8 may well earn Dodge absolution from muscle car enthusiasts. The 2012 SRT8 might not fix the historical problem, but some extra performance might be a worthwhile consolation prize.

All Chargers pay homage to their forebears with sweeping rear fenders, a C-shaped swage line, and vintage-looking taillights, but SRT models play up the muscle car lineage with a blacked-out grille, a blistered hood with functional heat extractors, and a deck-lid spoiler. Like its greatest ancestors, the SRT8 packs serious Hemi power: a new 6.4-liter V-8 cranks out 470 hp and a stout 470 lb-ft of torque.

That's enough to muscle the 4365-pound sedan from 0 to 60 mph in just under five seconds and through the quarter mile in less than thirteen ticks, according to SRT. But, unlike its distant relatives, the SRT8 does more than just hustle in a straight line. Wide tires provide great grip, adaptive dampers help keep body roll in check, and the car is more receptive to midcorner corrections than previous SRT8s -- or, for that matter, any other vehicle to have worn the Charger badge.

ON SALE: Now| PRICE: $46,620 | 0-60 MPH: 4.8 sec (est.) | TOP SPEED: 175 mph

Chrysler 300 SRT8
Want the aptitude of the Charger SRT8 but not the attitude? Turn to Chrysler's 300 SRT8. Subtler sheetmetal and softer damper tuning lend the 300 more of a relaxed feel, but it's definitely no slouch. Expect a top speed of 175 mph and quarter-mile times in the high-twelve-second range.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $47,995 | 0-60 MPH: 4.8 sec (est.) | TOP SPEED: 175 mph

The fifth iteration of BMW's executive express is the first M5 to sport turbochargers. The twin-turbo 4.4-liter V-8 will top the outgoing V-10's output with 560 hp and 500 lb-ft of torque. Power meets the pavement through a six-speed manual or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic and an electronically controlled limited-slip differential.

ON SALE: Early 2012 | PRICE: $90,000 (est.) | 0-62 MPH: 4.4 sec | TOP SPEED: 190 mph

Porsche Panamera Turbo S
The letter S is your clue that the Panamera Turbo has an additional 50 hp and 74 lb-ft for a total of 550 hp and 590 lb-ft. Porsche asks a $38,000 premium for the Turbo S but includes standard equipment such as the Sport Chrono package and active antiroll bars. Mighty generous of them.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $174,175 | 0-60 MPH: 3.6 sec | TOP SPEED: 190 mph

One is a German-engineered sport sedan, The other a mid-size four-door designed specifically to American tastes. Based on the badges on their grilles, we wonder if they were switched at birth.

Buick Regal GS
Many prospective buyers will be crestfallen to learn that the Regal GS, which was engineered largely in Germany, will not come with the turbocharged V-6 and all-wheel-drive set-up found in the Opel Insignia OPC. Instead, it will rely on a higher-output version of the Regal Turbo's four-cylinder powering the front wheels. GM officials claim that the primary reasons for this milder configuration have to do with weight and fuel economy. We bet cost concerns also played a big role, along with the larger question of where the brand should be positioned.

What do you get with the GS? For starters, the Regal Turbo's 2.0-liter has been amped up from 220 hp to 270 hp and from 258 lb-ft of torque to an impressive 295 lb-ft. That power will travel to the front wheels via an honest-to-goodness six-speed manual (a six-speed automatic will be available shortly after launch). Buick promises the Regal GS will reach 60 mph in "under seven seconds." A new strut design up front, already seen on the V-6-powered
LaCrosse, will purportedly improve steering feel and combat torque steer. In addition, the Regal will employ adjustable dam-
pers with three settings.

The interior sparkles with Germanic charm, featuring heavily bolstered black leather front buckets, a flat-bottomed steering wheel, and satin trim. All very nice, but would it have been too much to ask for a few cues to Buick's own performance heritage, such as a blacked-out front grille and a retro turbo badge?

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $35,310 | GERMAN INFLUENCE: Boosted, small-displacement engine | AMERICAN ROOTS: The old-man badge

Volkswagen Passat
Aimed squarely at the core of the mid-size segment, the Passat is significantly changed to broaden its audience. Chief among the differences is a $7000 price cut, thanks to a new assembly plant on American soil and a five-cylinder engine that replaces the turbocharged four-cylinder. Stretching the wheelbase 3.7 inches yields increases to both front and rear legroom. Optional engines include a 280-hp narrow-angle V-6 and a 2.0-liter turbo-diesel that returns 43 mpg on the highway. In all, the Passat is a competent sedan for middle America, even if it isn't the unique offering it once was.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $20,765 | AMERICAN INFLUENCE: 1.4 inches of additional rear legroom | GERMAN ROOTS: Optional diesel engine

Federal regulations are driving up mandated fuel-economy ratings some 18 percent by 2016. To reach those targets, automakers are unleashing a barrage of downsized engines and fuel-economy specials.

Mercedes-Benz S350 Bluetec 4Matic
Even the upper reaches of the market aren't immune to the pressures of government regulations. Although Mercedes-Benz already sells a hybrid S-class, the diesel-fed S350 Bluetec brings even better fuel economy, to the tune of an estimated 20/31 mpg instead of 19/25 mpg. And that's with standard all-wheel drive, which isn't available on the hybrid. The 240-hp V-6 provides a mountain of torque right off idle, but the seven-speed automatic and turbocharger are slow to respond during the transition from cruising to acceleration. While choosing the S350 Bluetec means moving through life at a more leisurely pace than owners of more powerful big Benzes, it doesn't mean skimping on luxury. The diesel S-class can be outfitted with much of the same equipment you'll find on a $160,000, V-12 S600, including Mercedes' slick SplitView front monitor that allows the driver to see the navigation map while the passenger watches a movie.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $95,000 (est.) | FUEL mileage: 20/31 mpg (est., versus 14/21 mpg for a V-8 S550 4Matic)

BMW Z4 sDrive28i
BMW's sporty roadster is the first U.S.-market car to adopt the company's new four-cylinder engine (code-named N20) fortified with direct injection, Valvetronic, and a twin-scroll turbocharger. The optional six-speed automatic is booted in favor of an eight-speed unit to help achieve a claimed 20 percent improvement in fuel economy over the outgoing six-cylinder. Power is down 15 hp to 240 hp, but torque rises by 40 lb-ft.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $48,000 (est.) | FUEL mileage: 22/34 mpg (est., versus 18/28 mpg for a Z4 sDrive30i)

BMW 528i
Like the Z4, BMW's middle child drops the normally aspirated in-line six for the N20 turbocharged four-cylinder. But since the 528i already uses the ZF-supplied eight-speed automatic, the fuel economy improvement is slightly less significant, at 15 percent higher than last year's car.

ON SALE: October | PRICE: $46,000 (est.) | FUEL mileage: 25/36 mpg
(est., versus 22/32 mpg for the outgoing 528i)

Buick LaCrosse and Buick Regal eAssist
Buick's mid-size sedans both receive a "mild" hybrid system for 2012. That is, the package uses a 2.4-liter four-cylinder paired with a small, belt-driven motor/generator to help raise fuel economy. The system works smoothly and unobtrusively -- enough so that it's now the base model for the LaCrosse, although you can get the V-6 for no extra charge.

ON SALE: Late 2011/Now (Regal/LaCrosse) | PRICE: $29,530/$30,820 (Regal/LaCrosse) | FUEL mileage: 25/36 mpg (versus 19/30 mpg in the 2.4-liter gasoline-only cars)

Mazda 3
Mazda enters the 40-mpg club in 2012 with a new direct-injected 2.0-liter that joins the current 2.0- and 2.5-liter engines in the face-lifted 3. The new engine, strangely dubbed SkyActiv-G, can be paired with either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic in the sedan or the hatchback. The most frugal model is the sedan with the automatic transmission, at 28/40 mpg; the stick-shifted hatchback is the least efficient host for the new engine, at 27/38 mpg.

ON SALE: October | PRICE: $17,000 (est.) | FUEL mileage: Up to 28/40 mpg (versus 25/33 mpg in the base sedan)

A hybrid badge doesn't necessarily mean you're helping the environment. These cars use their electric motors to put performance ahead of fuel economy.

Infiniti M35h
The sporty M hybrid boosts power and fuel economy with a 67-hp electric motor sandwiched between a 3.5-liter V-6 engine and a seven-speed automatic. True, the M35h is far more efficient than the M37, but a BMW 528i gets you fairly close to this hybrid's fuel economy for a lot less coin.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $54,595 | FUEL mileage: 27/32 mpg
(versus 18/26 mpg for the M37)

BMW ActiveHybrid 535i
The ActiveHybrid 5-series advances BMW's gas/electric technology by allowing the car to operate for brief periods in an electric-only mode, which isn't true of the hybrid 7-series. The ActiveHybrid 535i pairs the turbocharged in-line six with an eight-speed automatic and a 54-hp electric motor

ON SALE: Early 2012 | PRICE: $55,000 (est.) | FUEL mileage: 22/33 mpg (est., versus 20/30 mpg for the 535i)

Porsche Panamera S Hybrid
To electrify the Panamera, Porsche simply adapted the Cayenne's hybrid powertrain to the hatchback sedan. That means this car gets an electric motor mounted between Audi's supercharged 3.0-liter V-6 and an eight-speed, torque-converter automatic transmission. The seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is ditched.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $95,975 | FUEL mileage: 22/28 mpg
(est., versus 18/27 mpg for the V-6 Panamera)

Buick Lucerne
The Opel-ization of Buick doesn't provide a car big enough to replace the Lucerne, but few will miss it, as it's one of GM's most outdated vehicles.

Most new cars follow a very familiar formula and wind up fighting a war of attrition against nearly identical competitors. Not so for these nonconformists, Any one of which could become the next Ford Mustang -- or Pontiac Aztek.

Mini Coupe
BMW has proven to be a remarkable shepherd for the Mini brand over the past decade, and the company clearly feels there's a need to expand the model range further. Thus, it's welcoming a fifth model to the fold: the two-seat Mini Coupe aims to steal some sales from a far more expensive German two-door -- the Audi TT.

Beyond being the first Mini to use a three-box design, the Coupe distinguishes itself from the hatchback with A-pillars that are slanted 13 degrees flatter and a "helmet roof." In back, the wraparound rear window and integrated upper rear spoiler lift up with the deck lid to provide access to the cargo area. At 50 mph and up, a second spoiler automatically rises out of the trunk lid and works with the roof-mounted spoiler to reduce lift and further improve aerodynamics and grip. A pair of center-mounted exhausts and a suspension lowered by about an inch play up the aggressive message. Overall, the design is effective -- the Coupe looks sportier than the hatchback, not to mention Mini-er.

Those impressions are mostly illusory. The Coupe is actually 0.2 inch longer than the hardtop and weighs some 55 pounds more, despite employing several weight-saving tricks such as a lightened manual transmission and aluminum rear control arms. That said, the Coupe does indeed drive like a Mini. We drove the hot model -- the John Cooper Works Coupe with 208 hp and a six-speed manual -- at the Wachauring racetrack in Melk, Austria, about an hour from Vienna. There also will be Cooper and Cooper S models with an optional six-speed automatic transmission.

Pitched into some of the bigger, wider corners on the reasonably challenging, compact course, the Coupe's rear end is surprisingly twitchy; it's practically itching to oversteer. This is even more noticeable as we relax and then disable the electronic nannies. When stability control is in dynamic mode or disabled completely, the Coupe uses its brakes to mimic a limited-slip differential. Throttle- and brake-pedal response are impressive, and the JCW's beefed-up brakes stand up to repeated flogging. The electric power steering, in typical Mini fashion, is precise and provides good feel.

Brand executives hope the Coupe will attract more male buyers, including those who aspire to cars like the TT and the Porsche Cayman, but we suspect that many enthusiasts will dismiss the Coupe as a marketing exercise or, worse, a poseur. Those who've purchased Mini Coopers because of their styling, heritage, and upscale practicality, meanwhile, will be puzzled. The Coupe is attractively priced, however, slotting in closer to the hatchback than to the four-seat convertible. That leaves room for the two-seat Roadster, which will arrive in the first quarter of 2012.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $22,000/$25,300/$31,900 (base/S/JCW) | ENGINEs: 1.6L I-4, 121 hp, 118 lb-ft; 1.6L turbo I-4, 181 hp, 192 lb-ft; 1.6L turbo I-4, 208 hp, 207 lb-ft | HUH?! Heavier than the Cooper hatchback

Scion iQ
If you live in a part of the country where the local Walmart offers acres of asphalt upon which to park your crew-cab, extended-bed, dualie pickup truck, you'll look at the latest addition to the Scion lineup and think "what the...?" If, on the other hand, you're a city mouse who constantly struggles to squeeze your Honda Fit into a parking spot the size of a block of cheese, the Scion iQ might be the smartest car on the market.

The iQ, which has been on sale with a Toyota badge elsewhere in the world since 2008, is only the second entry in our market's teensy-car segment. And when we say teensy, we mean it: the iQ may be 14.0 inches longer than a smart fortwo, but it's 19.5 inches shorter in length than a Fiat 500 and 26.5 inches shorter than a MINI Cooper -- which was the smallest car sold in America only a few years ago.

It's pretty obvious that Toyota chose its microcar's name to aggravate Smart, but ForTwo owners are the ones who will be really ticked off, because the iQ is a better car in every measure. Up front is a 1.3-liter four-cylinder hooked to a smooth continuously variable transmission, a combination powerful enough to accelerate the 2127-pound Scion to 60 mph in less than twelve seconds and to a top speed of 100 mph.

The ingeniously packaged interior sits three adults comfortably, thanks to an asymmetrical dash that allows the front passenger's seat to slide forward of the driver's. A fourth seat, located behind the driver, is big enough for a small child -- and the split rear seats can be folded for extra cargo space. The front seats are supportive, and the steering wheel is thick and wrapped in leather.

Best of all, the iQ drives like a real car, with supple suspension tuning that smooths bumpy pavement far more effectively than its 78.7-inch wheelbase suggests would be possible. Its electric power steering is the best of any Toyota product's, and the iQ's turning circle is so small (25.8 feet) that you'll probably never use full lock.

In fact, the only thing we can find to complain about is Scion's selection of nonintuitive, muffled-sounding stereos. At least they all feature standard HD radio and Bluetooth. The iQ starts at only $15,995. That's a small price to pay for a small car that's big on brainpower.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $15,995 | ENGINE: 1.3L I-4, 94 hp, 89 lb-ft | HUH?! Clever 3+1 seating

Ferrari FF
Yes, a four-wheel-drive, four-seat hatchback makes for a strange Ferrari...but it's still a Ferrari. The 6.3-liter V-12 can send up to twenty percent of its 651 hp to the front wheels via a lightweight second transmission while channeling all its acoustic fury via six-into-one exhaust headers.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $350,000 (est.) | ENGINE: 6.3L V-12, 651 hp, 504 lb-ft | HUH?! Everything...except the V-12

Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet
In theory, combining the impracticality and heaviness of a convertible with the butch styling and limited driving dynamics of a bulky crossover isn't a great idea. Alas, that's the reality, as well, but the CrossCab is not without redeeming qualities, including a well-appointed interior and a smooth (if somewhat jiggly) ride.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $47,200 | ENGINE: 3.5L V-6, 265 hp, 248 lb-ft | HUH?! A crossover without a roof

Honda Element America's first little box on wheels once captured nearly 10 percent of small-SUV sales. But niche vehicles age quickly, particularly when they receive minimal attention over a nine-year span.

Pinups, eye candy, automotive porn stars. Call 'em what you want. These cars ooze sex appeal.

Ford Mustang Boss 302
Never mind the more powerful, more expensive Shelby GT500. The Boss 302 is the best Mustang you can buy. A lower curb weight and the linearity of a normally aspirated V-8 make the Boss the pony for track days. With forged pistons, the 5.0-liter's power peak climbs to 444 hp at a lofty 7400 rpm. The Laguna Seca edition ditches the back seats in favor of a cross brace and swaps in a larger rear antiroll bar, stiffer rear springs, a Torsen limited-slip differential, nineteen-inch aluminum wheels, and Pirelli R-compound tires for $6995. An optional TracKey can be purchased from your Ford dealer to recalibrate the throttle for faster response and to tweak the cam timing to create a sultry, loping idle.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $41,105 | ENGINE: 5.0L V-8, 444 hp, 380 lb-ft | LUST AFTER: The wild, always-eager V-8

Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4
The successor to the Murcielago is 199 pounds lighter thanks to a new carbon-fiber monocoque. Beneath Lamborghini's signature creased bodywork, the coilover suspension is tucked toward the center of the car and is activated by pushrods. The Aventador's V-12 shrieks to 8250 rpm to hit its 691-hp peak on the way to a claimed top speed of 217 mph. Lamborghini deliberately chose a seven-speed automated manual over a dual-clutch automatic transmission for the sharper, racier feel of the torque drop-off during shifts. In Corsa mode, changing gears results in brutal, 50-millisecond whacks capable of aggravating the traction control.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $393,695 | ENGINE: 6.5L V-12, 691 hp, 509 lb-ft | LUST AFTER: The Italian bombshell that's out of your league

Fisker Karma
The Karma is the sport sedan of the future, delivering a clever drivetrain and remarkable handling under sensuous curves. The Karma uses a plug-in hybrid powertrain that's similar in concept to the Chevy Volt's, but the two cars are worlds apart in performance. Two electric motors drive the rear wheels through a limited-slip differential, and power comes from either a 20-kWh lithium-ion battery pack or a General Motors-built turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine. With both sources contributing electricity, the Karma makes 981 lb-ft of torque and hits 60 mph in 5.9 seconds. Drive it with restraint, though, and the Karma can cover fifty miles gas-free.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $96,850 | POWERTRAIN: 2.0L turbo I-4 and two AC motors, 402 hp, 981 lb-ft (total) | LUST AFTER: The curves, oh, the curves!

McLaren MP4-12C
McLaren is back in the production-car biz, and although its new car may be less outrageous than the million-dollar F1 from the 1990s, it is just as ambitious. With the mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive MP4-12C, the British racing specialists are aiming squarely at Maranello's finest. A 592-hp, twin-turbo V-8 paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic propels the MP4 to 60 mph in 3.0 seconds and on to a top speed of 205 mph. Antiroll bars are absent, replaced by an active system that passes hydraulic fluid between the left and right dampers. It all adds up to a supercar that comes strikingly close to, but doesn't quite top, the Ferrari 458 Italia.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $231,400 | ENGINE: 3.8L twin-turbo V-8, 592 hp, 443 lb-ft | LUST AFTER: A British playmate for the Italian

Exit the 997-series, enter the 991-series. The sixth generation of Porsche's iconic, rear-engine sports car is about to debut.

The next 911 will eventually appear in Turbo, GT3, and Targa configurations, but for the first eighteen months of production, the only models available will be coupes and convertibles in base and S trim. The Carrera and the Carrera 4 will be powered by a (smaller than before!) direct-injected 3.4-liter six-cylinder rated at 350 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque; S models will be fitted with a 3.8-liter engine good for 400 hp and 324 lb-ft. All new 911s will come with automatic start/stop technology to help reduce fuel consumption.

The manual transmission is now a seven-speed -- top gear is past sixth, a dogleg move to the right -- and the awkward thumb switches for the PDK dual-clutch automatic are being dropped in favor of more intuitive paddle shifters. In combination with a reduction in weight (from 40 to 110 pounds, depending on model and equipment), the next-generation 911 promises to be an even livelier machine. The manual Carrera 2, Porsche insiders claim, sprints from 0 to 62 mph in 4.8 seconds and tops 181 mph; the C2S does 4.5 seconds and 189 mph. In either car, the PDK variant is 0.2 second quicker off the mark.

Electromechanical power steering is a 911 first and consumes less energy than the outgoing hydraulically operated steering, allegedly without compromising accuracy and feedback. Nineteen-inch wheels on the Carrera and twenty-inchers on the S give engineers room to install larger-diameter discs and more powerful six-piston calipers up front. Carbon-ceramic brake rotors cost extra, as do adjustable dampers, dynamic engine mounts, and active antiroll bars.

The design, penned by Michael Mauer, is scheduled to retain its revised proportions for two seven-year life cycles. Although the evolutionary silhouette still shouts 911, the wheelbase goes up by four inches and the overall length increases by two inches, shrinking the front and rear overhangs. On convertibles, the top again looks as if it were made of soft fabric, but it actually consists of three semirigid panels coated with a novel material that conceals the cutlines. The new cockpit layout mixes old-school 911 elements with overtones from the Panamera sedan, such as the ramplike center stack. Drivers will also find more front legroom, a more generous steering-column adjustment range, and a bigger navigation screen.

ON SALE: February | PRICE: $80,000 (est.) | ENGINES: 3.4L flat-6, 350 hp, 280 lb-ft; 3.8L flat-6, 400 hp, 324 lb-ft | THE STANDARD: Sports car purity

BMW 3-Series sedan
The Bavarians won't unwrap the 2012 3-series sedan until November, but our illustrator's preview below hints at what you can expect from the next evolution of the legendary sport sedan. The most dramatic change occurs under the hood, though, with the engine downsizing that's rolling through much of BMW's portfolio. The 328i will trade the normally aspirated in-line six-cylinder for a turbocharged four-cylinder making 240 hp; the 335i retains the 300-hp, turbocharged in-line six. Both models will offer an eight-speed automatic in place of the current six-speed slushbox. There also will be an infusion of new technology, including adaptive cruise control and a blind-spot monitoring system. The four-door M3 is out of play until a replacement arrives (with a turbocharged six-cylinder) for 2013. The coupe and the convertible, and their M3 variants, carry over for 2012.

ON SALE: Early 2012 | PRICE: $36,000 (est.) | ENGINES: 2.0L turbo I-4, 240 hp, 258 lb-ft; 3.0L turbo I-6, 300 hp, 300 lb-ft (est.) | THE STANDARD: Driving enlightenment from a daily driver

In America, everyone gets a second chance. these five cars -- which run the gamut from econobox to luxury -- demonstrate that reputations can be rebuilt.

Lexus GS350
Lexus's mid-size, rear-wheel-drive sedan has always been somewhat lost in the shuffle -- a little too anonymously styled to be an icon; a little too harsh to be a luxury car; a lot too isolated to be a driver's dream. Lexus addressed the lack of visual drama with the LF-Gh concept car at this year's New York auto show. As of the printing of this issue, we still haven't seen the production version, but we've driven a heavily disguised model and can happily report that Lexus has fixed the other two problems.

No longer suffering from contrived sportiness, the GS impressed us with phenomenal handling. Gone is the last car's harsh ride -- and the GS350 actually communicates with its driver through precise steering. The BMW 5-series was Toyota's clear benchmark, and we'll find out soon enough whether Lexus has managed to outshine the current 5-series, now that the Bimmer's flame is burning somewhat dimmer.

ON SALE: Early 2012 | PRICE: $48,000 (est.) | ENGINE: 3.5L V-6, 305 hp, 275 lb-ft (est.) | REPUTATION RESET: Wannabe to contender

Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
There's no question that the Camaro is an awesome car with a muscular stance and a burly V-8, but it leaves something to be desired as soon as you move the steering wheel off-center. The ZL1 model is the Camaro's chance for redemption, with genes borrowed from the Cadillac CTS-V. The authoritative LSA engine is guaranteed to impress, but we're really hoping for great things from the chassis, where engineers have added adaptive magnetorheological dampers and Brembo brakes.

ON SALE: Early 2012 | PRICE: $50,000 (est.) | ENGINE: 6.2L supercharged V-8, 550 hp, 550 lb-ft (est.) | REPUTATION RESET: Underwhelming sports car to overwhelming performance

Mercedes-Benz SLK
Mercedes' small roadster is sharper and sportier than ever. With precise steering, taut handling, and a buttoned-down ride, the SLK will finally give BMW some competition in the fun-to-drive, open-air segment. The 3.5-liter V-6 in the SLK350 delivers smooth power, and the SLK250 brings a new turbocharged four-cylinder good for 201 hp. The optional Magic Sky roof makes the hard top even more versatile with an overhead glass panel that slickly switches from transparent to opaque.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $55,675 | ENGINES: 1.8L turbo I-4, 201 hp, 229 lb-ft; 3.5L V-6, 302 hp, 273 lb-ft | REPUTATION RESET: Chick car to capable cabrio

Hyundai Accent
Hyundai's ascension to the major leagues continues with the subcompact Accent, which makes strides in style, interior quality, and driving goodness similar to those recently made in the Elantra and the Sonata. Even more so than those two, the Accent has upped its game in the chassis department -- perhaps the best we've seen from the Korean automaker -- with a ride that's comfortable but never sloppy or spongy. Unlike several of its peers, though, the Accent doesn't offer luxuries like leather, navigation, or heated seats.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $14,995/$15,355 (sedan/hatchback) | ENGINE: 1.6L I-4, 138 hp, 123 lb-ft | REPUTATION RESET: Subcompact dumpling to all-around charmer

Kia Rio
In a reversal of the normal Kia/Hyundai roles, the Rio is a more premium car than its Hyundai Accent sibling. The Rio uses the same direct-injected 1.6-liter four-cylinder and six-speed transmissions as the Accent, so it will likely earn the same 30/40-mpg EPA rating. However, the Kia is available with an auto start/stop system that should improve real-world fuel economy in the city. It also has some of the upscale options that the Hyundai eschews and no longer looks like a Third World taxicab.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $15,000 (est.) | ENGINE: 1.6L I-4, 138 hp, 123 lb-ft | REPUTATION RESET: Warranty on wheels to style leader

Ford Ranger
Mercifully laid to rest after years of battling a terminal diagnosis. There's no room in the U.S. market for the global Ranger replacement, which is larger and too close in size to the F-150.

Four cars, from four countries, with four very different missions but one very important thing in common: they play to emotion and transcend their prices by driving far better than you'd expect.

Porsche Cayman R
Porsche's Cayman is already one of the most engaging sports cars money can buy, with its telepathic steering, glued-to-the-pavement roadholding, and forgiving handling. So it's that much more impressive that the folks in Zuffenhausen could find enough improvements to make the Cayman R such a transformative car. Starting at $67,250, a Cayman R isn't an affordable proposition, but what you get is quite possibly the world's best sports car. Compared with a Cayman S, weight has been cut by 121 pounds by ditching the stereo and the air-conditioning and swapping in lightweight seats and aluminum door skins. The R rides 0.8 inch lower on stiffer springs and dampers, with revised antiroll bars for even flatter cornering. Porsche then massages the 3.4-liter flat six for another 10 hp, raising total output to 330 hp and lowering the 0-to-60-mph time to that of a 911 Carrera -- 4.7 seconds, says Porsche. The result is a Cayman that's more responsive and has even more grip. It's the perfect sports car, whether you're trying to prove the point on the track or on a winding mountain road.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $67,250 | ACHIEVEMENT: Pristine handling

Ford Focus
For 2012, the Focus vaults from worst to first. Although a fully loaded model costs nearly $30,000, you still get the Focus's best attributes in the $17,295 base car. The progressive steering, the superb ride, the poised handling, and the enthusiastic 2.0-liter four-cylinder make the Focus more fun than any other compact car on the market.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $17,295 | ACHIEVEMENT: Chassis excellence

Hyundai Genesis 5.0 R-Spec
Arguably, a Genesis in any trim is a car worth more than its sticker price, and the new R-Spec model, with its 5.0-liter V-8, is no exception. The R-Spec can hold its own against luxury sedans such as the outgoing Lexus GS, although it still comes up short against sportier competitors from BMW, Audi, and Infiniti. Along with the 429-hp V-8, the new top trim includes firmer steering and a stiffer ride, but the tweaks add up to a car that's pretty mild to be wearing the name R-Spec. Buy it for the luxury, not the sportiness.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $47,350 | ACHIEVEMENT: Lexus-like luxury

Nissan GT-R
Nissan's blistering all-wheel-drive coupe is only three years old, but the GT-R is already receiving a significant update. The front fascia is mildly massaged, and the twin-turbo V-6 gets a 45-hp bump in power, to 530 horses. Revised suspension geometry improves steering feel and handling balance, adding some soul to the GT-R's already impressive raw performance. In short, the GT-R is now a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo-like handler; a vehicle so incredibly adept at reading the intentions of the operator that it feels like an extension of the driver himself.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $90,950 | ACHIEVEMENT: Supercar capabilities

Mazda RX-8: An effervescent optimist, the RX-8 masked its maladies -- heavy oil consumption, poor fuel economy, and limited low-end torque -- behind a lively, endearing soul.

Looks are important for any car, but for these new models, styling is the defining element. That's true whether we're talking about popularly priced funsters that start under $20,000...

Volkswagen Beetle
The retro-cute Beetle returns as a hunkered-down neo-GTI.

When the New Beetle came out, it was a sensation -- but that was more than a dozen years ago. It seemed the fad had passed, but Volkswagen is having another go at it with the all-new (but no longer New) 2012 Beetle.

Hoping for better long-term sales and a wider audience (meaning men as well as women, as the latter constituted two-thirds of New Beetle buyers), designers went less cute-and-cuddly and more squat-and-sporty. The new body is wider, longer, and lower. At the same time, the longer hood and the more upright windshield more closely mirror the shape of the original Beetle.

To bolster its performance image, a turbocharged variant is available from the get-go, in addition to the standard model. (A TDI diesel and a convertible join the lineup next summer.) Gasoline powertrains parallel those of the Golf and the GTI. Thus, the base car gets VW's underwhelming 2.5-liter five-cylinder with a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic. As in the GTI, the Turbo's 200-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder comes with either a six-speed stick or a six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic.

With the windshield moved rearward, the driver has a more normal relationship with his surroundings and is no longer looking out over a vast dashboard. Once again, however, you sit way down in the car unless the manual seat is raised. Despite the lowered roofline, there's still plenty of headroom as well as good legroom, and the wider body makes for a roomier-feeling interior -- at least up front. In back, headroom and knee clearance are minimal and hip room is tight -- a two-door Golf is a limo by comparison. The trunk, though, has grown significantly; it's now an impressive 15.4 cubic feet, expandable to 29.9 cubic feet via a split rear seatback.

Unlike the cost-cut-to-the-bone Jetta, the Beetle's interior has a pleasing mix of materials and textures. The all-new instrument panel scraps the previous circle theme and has a flatter face that harks back to the original Beetle. Another retro design touch is the body-color trim on the dash and the doors -- the Turbo (pictured above) has shiny black trim and rather unconvincing faux carbon fiber on the dash. It also has a thick, flat-bottomed steering wheel; a trio of auxiliary gauges; and firm seats (in cloth or leather) with prominent lateral bolsters. Keyless ignition is new, as is navigation.

With Golf/GTI mechanicals, it's not surprising that the Beetle Turbo is quite good to drive. The blown 2.0-liter quickly scoots the 3089-pound coupe to autobahn speeds, where the car is solid and planted. Boost is nicely integrated, and throttle response is linear. The stability control-based XDS programming from the GTI is on hand to help manage the 207 lb-ft of torque, which is accessible across a wide rev band. The DSG's determination to get you into the highest gear as soon as possible, however, saps some of the perceived liveliness. You can leave the lever in Sport rather than Drive or call the shots yourself (there are shift paddles on the top two trim levels) -- or you can go for the manual and save $1100. The Turbo uses a strut-type front suspension and a multilink setup at the rear (the standard car makes do with a beam axle). Suspension tuning in the Turbo is firmer than in a base Beetle, which in turn is firmer than in a Golf. The Turbo also offers a sport suspension, a no-cost option that was on our test car. Even in this maximum-sporty guise, the Beetle Turbo is not a GTI, but it was quite responsive through the few curves on our test route outside of Berlin. Over the patchy pavement in the grittier parts of the city, the Turbo rode pretty stiffly, however, and we'd like to see VW dial back the boost in the electrically assisted power steering.

All told, the 2012 Beetle Turbo isn't quite a GTI, but it's definitely more fun than the previous iteration. Both Beetles sit between their squarer siblings, and that's reflected in their pricing. At $19,765, the base car costs $1000 more than a Golf; the Turbo starts at $24,165, a few hundred less than a GTI.

Still not buying the concept of a sporty Beetle? Maybe the Beetle R -- with even more power and, potentially, all-wheel drive -- will convince you. It's not yet approved but is being planned, the better to establish a new persona for this new Bug.

ON SALE: October | PRICE: $19,765/$24,165 (base/Turbo) | ENGINES: 2.5L I-5, 170 hp, 177 lb-ft; 2.0L turbo I-4, 200 hp, 207 lb-ft | DESIGNED BY: Marc Lichte

Hyundai Veloster
The Elantra-based Veloster features an unusual three-door arrangement -- with two conventionally hinged doors on the passenger's side instead of some gimmicky half door like on the Mini Clubman or the old Saturn SC -- that gives it an additional measure of practicality. Its 138-hp, 1.6-liter four-cylinder, with a six-speed stick or a six-speed dual-clutch automatic, should net the Veloster a 40-mpg highway rating, besting the two-seat Honda CR-Z hybrid. Of course, sporty coupes really live and die by their looks; by that measure alone, the Veloster may have what it takes to thrive.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $18,000 (est.) | ENGINE: 1.6L I-4, 138 hp, 123 lb-ft | DESIGNED BY: Goo Lee

Fiat 500C
Fiat has peeled back the top on its new 500, in the same manner it did on the first one so many years ago. A canvas roof (available in three fashionable colors) slides back, electrically this time, and stacks behind the rear seats. The door frames and the side pillars remain intact, so this is really more like an oversize sunroof. No matter. The open-air option still adds a new degree of la dolce vita to the diminutive Fiat.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $20,000 | ENGINE: 1.4L I-4, 101 hp, 98 lb-ft | DESIGNED BY: Roberto Giolito

...Or high-style high rollers that command $50,000, $100,000, or even $200,000.

Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster
The original Mercedes Gullwing begat the equally desirable 300SL roadster, and now the new Gullwing has had its roof removed as well. This time, however, the coupe and the roadster will be sold alongside each other, the latter commanding a premium over the Gullwing's nearly $200,000 sticker price. Although it does without the coupe's signature doors, the roadster makes an impression in its own right. The good news is that there's no sacrifice in performance, as the open-topped version -- which gains less than 100 pounds -- storms to 60 mph in the same 3.7 seconds as the hardtop. Both have an advertised top speed of 197 mph. Because top-down driving can get a bit chilly at those speeds, Mercedes' Airscarf neck warmer is standard.

ON SALE: October | PRICE: $225,000 (est.) | ENGINE: 6.2L V-8, 563 hp, 479 lb-ft | DESIGNED BY: Gorden Wagener

Audi A7
Audi hopes to elevate the hatchback category by selling its A7 as a high-style premium offering. Don't look to BMW's 5-series Gran Turismo as a predictor -- that car doesn't have anywhere near the presence or desirability of this Audi. Longer and lower than an A6, the A7 is more about style than practicality, although there's a bit of that, too, with 24.5 cubic feet of cargo space -- more if you fold down the rear seats. Available exclusively with a supercharged 3.0-liter V-6, its price is about $9000 higher than that of an equivalent A6.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $60,120 | ENGINE: 3.0L supercharged V-6, 310 hp, 325 lb-ft | DESIGNED BY: Cesar Muntada Roura

BMW 6-Series
The big 6-series coupe and convertible are the latest BMWs to benefit as the company steps back from the "flame surface" styling of the Chris Bangle era. The new 2012 models also join in BMW's engine downsizing and turbocharging push, with the 650i getting a 400-hp, 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 and the 640i coming to market with a 315-hp version of the brand's N55 3.0-liter twin-scroll-turbo straight six under the hood. A six-speed manual transmission remains available (at least in the 650i), but the excellent eight-speed automatic is hardly a bad choice. Speaking of choice, xDrive all-wheel drive joins the 650i's options menu this fall. The convertible features the same softtop design as before, with flying-buttress rear corners and a power-retractable backlight.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $74,475/$81,975 (640i coupe/convertible); $83,875/$92,375 (650i coupe/convertible) | ENGINES: 3.0L turbo I-6, 315 hp, 330 lb-ft; 4.4L turbo V-8, 400 hp, 450 lb-ft | DESIGNED BY: Florian Wendel

"The 6-series definitely has to be a statement, but we try to focus on what we're trying to achieve in terms of character. In the case of this car, we really wanted to play up the sensual sportiness aspect. If you see this with respect to the previous car, you can see there's a lot more sculpture, a lot more play with light and shadow." -- Karim Habib, head of BMW exterior design

You could let the cold, calculating logic of a computer shift for you, or you could drive a real car. A six-speed manual is the only transmission offered in these sports cars.

Audi TT RS
Audi's TTS is a fast, capable, beautiful sports car with an image problem. But even if you disregard the TT's reputation as the Hyundai Tiburon for chic women with impeccable taste and generous budgets, the TTS doesn't stir the soul the way a $50,000 sports car ought to.

Audi is addressing that problem with the much more aggressive TT RS coupe and its 360-hp turbocharged five-cylinder. To emphasize the TT RS's performance credentials, Audi is equipping it solely with a six-speed manual for the American market.

We were limited to just two laps around a racetrack in a TT RS, but it didn't take much time to realize that we were driving something special. Audi says that the RS engine, which makes 343 lb-ft of torque, shaves 0.8 second off the TTS's already impressive 0-to-60-mph time -- figure the TT RS can nail that benchmark in 4.1 seconds. Even better, the car's lopey five-cylinder gurgles and throbs like a 1980s Audi rally car. The rush of power is ferocious.

With instantaneous turn-in, the TT RS is reminiscent of a Porsche Boxster, which carries its engine behind the seats. The RS isn't as well balanced through the corners as the TTS (blame the extra hundred pounds or so over the front end), but it's not an understeering pig, either. The additional power helps rotate the rear end, and the RS dances around a track nearly as gracefully as its lighter sister but with a whole lot more pace. There's little question that a TT RS could keep up with -- or beat -- a mid-engine Porsche around a racetrack. But then again, so could the TTS. The difference is that the TT RS can appeal to hard-core enthusiasts in ways the TTS doesn't.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $57,725 | ENGINE: 2.5L turbo I-5, 360 hp, 343 lb-ft | PURE: As good as a Porsche

BMW 1-Series M coupe
You'd be forgiven for expecting that the first M car introduced since the X5 M and the similar X6 M would appeal more to mainstream buyers than to enthusiasts. Happily, the 1-series M coupe is as pure as any M has ever been. This car delivers the visceral, intoxicating, shift-it-yourself fun of the M ideal. It'll be sold for only one year, with about 800 cars destined for the United States. You want one.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $47,010 | ENGINE: 3.0L twin-turbo I-6, 335 hp, 369 lb-ft | PURE: Faster than an M3

Volkswagen Golf R
Ditching the old R32's VR6 engine helps the new Golf R lose weight and get better fuel economy, but VW enthusiasts have a much better reason to embrace the familiar turbocharged 2.0-liter: tunability. This hot hatch (two- and four-door) will boast an estimated 252 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque from the factory, and silly output gains are now just an ECU reflash away.

ON SALE: January | PRICE: $34,760 (est.) | ENGINE: 2.0L turbo I-4, 252 hp, 243 lb-ft (est.) | PURE: 150 pounds lighter

"If a car sits in the garage all the time, it's not good for the car. Or the driver. Same if it's only driven in the sunshine or to impress someone on the boulevard. We want the car to contribute to the driver's life -- not just be jewelry." -- Dr. Kay Segler, former director of BMW M (and current brand manager of Mini)

Lotus Elise and Exige: They never stood a chance against the almighty U.S. Department of We Know What's Best For You. Both cars came with air bags, but in August, the exemption that allowed Lotus to sell cars without smart air bags expired. Stupid.

Much ink has been spilled over Lotus's intentions to broaden its lineup, but an automatic transmission for the Evora opens the door to a fresh set of buyers well before the brand's slew of new cars starts arriving in 2013.

Lotus Evora IPS
More than Ninety percent of all vehicles sold in America, cars and trucks alike, have automatic gearboxes, because something like half of all American drivers simply can't or won't drive a manual. Adding an automatic transmission (called Intelligent Precision Shift) to the mainstay Evora will, says Lotus, double the firm's potential market in this country. That's the reasoning behind adapting the Toyota Camry's six-speed automatic box to the Evora's dynamic requirements.

An excellent adaptation it is, too. "Toyota sells us the metal parts, but we don't have access to their control systems, so we do our own," said one of the technicians at Hethel when we were there to test-drive the IPS. Lotus's electronic brain box "knows" not to shift up in the middle of a corner and to shift down under heavy deceleration. In normal mode, paddleshifting is allowed, but it reverts to full automatic operation after ten seconds. A sport mode holds gears longer and allows a ratio to be held indefinitely. It works well, and for anyone facing daily traffic, the IPS is a nice choice. Then again, an Evora isn't really the right tool for facing daily traffic anyhow.

ON SALE: December | PRICE: $67,700 (est.) | ENGINE: 3.5L V-6, 276 hp, 258 lb-ft | UNPURE: Six-speed auto

The burgeoning field of electric vehicles proves that the battery-powered revolution is more than a fad.

If you believe the forecast, the future looks bleak for driving enthusiasts. Imagine egg-shaped personal transportation modules capable of autonomous operation. Road fatalities drop, fuel efficiency improves, and drivers are saved from the tedium of...well...driving. While the 2012 Mitsubishi i doesn't offer any type of autonomous operation -- it won't even park itself -- this electric city car could be a step toward the end of automotive life as we know it. Driving the i is so not fun that it might as well drive itself.

The North American i is a larger (more than four inches wider and nearly eight inches longer) and more powerful version of Mitsubishi's popular kei car sold in Japan. A 66-hp AC motor lies below the cargo floor and drives the rear wheels through a single reduction gear. Power for the motor comes from 88 lithium-ion batteries capable of storing 16 kWh of electricity. Electric cars like this aren't fast, so we won't fuss over the i's slowness to 60 mph (about fifteen seconds). Acceleration eventually flatlines at 80 mph.

Bending the i enthusiastically into a corner results in tire-squealing understeer. The wider rear tires promulgate the push as the softly sprung suspension lets the body heel over until it settles on its bump stops. On the plus side, the ride is quite pleasant at moderate speeds, even over broken pavement.

The i's lack of gearchanges and notable absence of driveline noise make it feel refined. Or innocuous. Given the car's intended purpose -- shuttling people in blissful harmony with nature while using as little energy as possible -- the i delivers. According to the EPA, it is also more efficient than the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt, with a combined rating that's the equivalent of 112 mpg. The i's expected range is 62 miles; a full recharge requires 22.5 hours from a 120-volt outlet or six hours at 240 volts.

The i's price undercuts that of the Leaf by about $7200, which might be enough to lure prospective buyers. However, the car's limited dynamic performance and range may leave you wishing that the i actually could drive itself.

ON SALE: January | PRICE: $27,990 | MOTOR: AC, 66 hp, 145 lb-ft | RANGE: 62 miles

Ford Focus Electric
By the end of this year, Ford will enter its first-ever battery-powered compact into the EV fray with a 123-hp electric motor turning the front wheels of a four-door hatchback. A high-power charger means the Focus will juice up twice as fast as a Nissan Leaf on 240 volts.

ON SALE: Late 2011 | PRICE: $35,000 (est.) | MOTOR: AC, 123 hp, 181 lb-ft | RANGE: 100 miles (est.)

BMW ActiveE
In advance of launching the i3 electric city car, BMW is conducting an EV field trial similar to the Mini E project. The ActiveE packages second-generation electric running gear in a 1-series coupe and will be available in select areas of California and the Northeast on a two-year lease.

ON SALE: Late 2011 | PRICE: $2250 down, $499 per month | MOTOR: AC, 170 hp, 184 lb-ft | RANGE: 100 miles

Tesla Roadster
It was part of the plan all along, but the electric Roadster's 2500-unit production run will likely end before 2011 does, leaving Tesla without a car to sell until the Model S sedan arrives in late 2012. Gee, that sounds like a great business plan for a carmaker...

The world's most expensive cars are developed on some of the smallest budgets. That means long life cycles and, in turn, plenty of special editions to keep the money coming in before the next generation arrives.

Bentley Continental Supersports Convertible ISR
In February, a Supersports convertible set an ice speed record by averaging 205.48 mph on top of the frozen Baltic Sea. If that sort of thing speaks to you, you might be interested in one of the 100 ISR special-edition cars painted like a Porsche 911 GT3 RS. (Oh, and you should know that Bentley's speed record stood for less than a month.)

PRICE: $297,495 ($11,500 more than a Bentley Continental Supersports convertible)

Bentley Continental Flying Spur Series 51
Bentley is in no rush to jeopardize the success of the strong-selling Flying Spur sedan, so the current car drags on during the slow rollout of new two-door Continental variants. The Series 51 gives buyers package-specific wheels as well as a greater variety of exterior and interior choices.

PRICE: $198,865 ($9070 more than a Bentley Continental Flying Spur)

Lamborghini Gallardo LP570-4 Spyder Performante
The Performante is a droptop Gallardo that's been Superleggera-ized. That is, the suspension has been stiffened, the V-10 makes an additional 10 hp, and a smattering of carbon fiber drops the weight by 143 pounds.

PRICE: $254,695 ($23,300 more than a Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 Spyder)

Porsche 911 GT3 RS 4.0
The 997-series 911's final swan song (we think) involves turning the already radical GT3 RS up to eleven by enlarging the flat six from 3.8 to 4.0 liters. Power output climbs from 450 hp to 500 hp, and production is limited to 600 cars. It will be years before we see a new GT3, but the next 911 is hanging out on page 76.

PRICE: $185,950 ($49,500 more than a Porsche 911 GT3 RS)

Each of these new or updated cars carries a laundry list of changes and fresh features, but the core of the car and its character are essentially unchanged.

Audi A6
Audi has delivered several meaningful, tangible changes to the new A6, but what really matters -- how the car drives -- is still very familiar. Which is to say it's an agile, responsive sport sedan that's a delight to drive. The old 4.2-liter V-8 has been dropped, but our preferred engine, the supercharged V-6, gains 10 hp and 15 lb-ft of torque, for 310 and 325, respectively. There's a new eight-speed automatic and an optional revised all-wheel-drive system that defaults to a 40/60-percent front/rear torque split. The base front-wheel-drive A6 retains a CVT but jettisons the normally aspirated 3.2-liter V-6 in favor of a turbocharged four-cylinder. Exterior styling is merely evolutionary, but the interior delivers a sizable dose of style and technology. There's a touch pad for navigation entry, Google Earth imagery, and the ability to create a Wi-Fi hot spot. The new A6 now offers a head-up display, full LED headlights, lane-departure warning, night vision, and adaptive cruise control.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $42,575 | MOST SIGNIFICANT CHANGE: Rear-biased all-wheel drive

Honda Civic
With the new Civic, Honda sought to polish what it already had. It may not be surprising that the Civic hasn't undergone a wholesale rethink, but the list of what has not changed is long. The 140-hp, 1.8-liter four-cylinder is untouched, and the automatic is still a five-speed, yet the combination manages to improve both city and highway fuel-economy ratings by 3 mpg, to 28/39 mpg. A new HF model with aerodynamic enhancements returns 29/41 mpg, while the hybrid improves to 44/44 mpg. The Civic remains a friendly but not terribly exciting driving companion. The electric power steering has been revised for greater linearity, but it still seems overly light on-center. Once again, the Civic is a good all-around compact car. Unfortunately, the rest of the class has moved well past "good."

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $16,575/$24,820 (base/hybrid) | MOST SIGNIFICANT CHANGE: New HF model hits 41 mpg

Ford Taurus
Ford is serious about the Taurus. The current car was introduced in early 2009, and less than three years later Ford is bringing out a host of updates to its large sedan. The exteriors of both the base Taurus and the high-performance SHO have been mildly redesigned, and the tweaked interiors will be offered with the MyFord Touch interface, but the most significant changes are on the powertrain and performance fronts. The Taurus will be newly available with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder EcoBoost engine making some 237 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque and delivering at least 31 mpg on the highway. The current 3.5-liter V-6 adds variable valve timing and gets a power boost of 27 hp, for a total of 290 hp. Of special interest, the all-wheel-drive SHO gets its own portfolio of improvements, including tweaks to its electric power steering, revised paddle shifters, and more robust brakes, which it seriously needs.

ON SALE: Early 2012 | PRICE: $27,000 (est.) | MOST SIGNIFICANT CHANGE: New four-cylinder base engine

Mercedes-Benz C-class
Mercedes-Benz insists that there are more than 2000 new parts in the 2012 C-class, although it might not look like it. The most significant additions include a new turbo four-cylinder, a two-door coupe, and four new driver-assistance systems. The C300 uses the carryover 3.0-liter V-6, and the C350 switches to a new 3.5-liter, 60-degree V-6 good for 302 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $34,000 (est.) | MOST SIGNIFICANT CHANGE: New two-door model

Cadillac SRX
After just two years on the market, Cadillac has abandoned both of the engines that the SRX was launched with in favor of the 3.6-liter V-6 found in the CTS. In the SRX, the V-6 makes 308 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque with an urge and surge that keep on churning and boiling until very near the 7200-rpm redline.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $36,060 | MOST SIGNIFICANT CHANGE: An engine with power and refinement

Chevrolet Impala
For 2012, the 3.5- and 3.9-liter V-6 engines are replaced by the familiar 3.6-liter making 302 hp and 252 lb-ft. The four-speed automatic finally retires, giving way to a six-speed unit. Fuel economy -- now rated at 18/30 mpg -- is largely unchanged.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $26,470 | MOST SIGNIFICANT CHANGE: 91 (!) additional hp

Volkswagen Eos
After six years making nary a tweak, VW has finally revised the slow-selling Eos convertible, bringing its front-end design in line with the new corporate face. The stick shift is now gone, but the rest of the Eos's good qualities remain intact: supercool hard top with sunroof, comfortable seats, and a great engine.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $34,765 | MOST SIGNIFICANT CHANGE: Adopting the family face

Toyota Yaris Hatchback
For 2012, Toyota considered rebadging the face-lifted Yaris the Yawnis. OK, not really, but we're lulled to sleep by the same old 106-hp four-cylinder and optional four-speed automatic (a five-speed manual is standard). If you love it and want a Yaris, you'll have to buy a hatch -- the sedan is for fleets only.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $15,000 (est.) | MOST SIGNIFICANT CHANGE: Fresh looks

[RIP] Lincoln Town Car Lived a full, long life, dedicating its final years to service. Rarely celebrated but always respected -- mostly because you never knew who was in back.

No surprises here. These stalwarts may be new, but they aren't about to deviate from comfortable market perches they've held for years.

Mercedes-Benz ML-class
Those infamously intractable Germans made a number of concessions for boorish Americans with the new ML-class. The ML's "award-winning cupholders" are now available with built-in heaters and coolers. The multicontroller and the cruise control stalk have been relocated, the rear seats now recline, and the expanded cargo area can accommodate golf clubs stowed sideways. iPad docking stations in the rear are available as a dealer-installed option for in-car movie screenings.

Under the hood, both the new direct-injected V-6 and the 3.0-liter turbo-diesel provide more grunt and improved efficiency over their predecessors. As we traversed Montana highways and crossed the Continental Divide in an ML350 Bluetec, acceleration proved most urgent in the midrange stretch of the power band, where torque peaks between 1600 and 2400 rpm; passing slower traffic requires careful management of shift patterns while avoiding the engine's wheezy upper rev ranges, where oomph tapers off. Some forethought is also required when negotiating mountain passes, as the ML turns in lazily, with a reluctant shift in body mass until it finally settles on a course. Although the $5150 dynamic handling package boosts crispness in Sport mode, there's still perceptible body roll.

An afternoon stint in a gas-fueled ML350 revealed noticeably spunkier acceleration with longer legs, aided by a broader torque peak that stretches between 3500 and 5250 rpm. Both variants provide a smooth, quiet ride that makes prolonged stints in the cabin seriously comfortable.

Compared with its predecessor, the new ML is better equipped, more lavishly detailed, and identically priced. But its conservative styling and stodgy road manners suggest that Mercedes doesn't want to offend its core constituents. So, while one Benz exec describes the new ML as "bolder, stronger, and safer," we can't help but think that two out of three isn't bad.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $49,865/$51,365 (ML350/ML350 Bluetec) | ENGINES: 3.5L V-6, 302 hp, 273 lb-ft; 3.0L turbo-diesel V-6, 240 hp, 455 lb-ft | RADICAL MOVE: Rear-seat iPad holders (seriously)

Jeep Wrangler
When Disneyland closed Space Mountain in 2009 for refurbishing, Internet message boards erupted with apprehension. "Don't screw it up!" collectively exclaimed the enthusiasts at and elsewhere. A signature attraction for more than thirty years, the thrill ride embodied the Disney experience nearly as much as Mickey Mouse himself. But the theme park isn't alone in having to safeguard an icon: it's much the same whenever Jeep changes the Wrangler. Nevertheless, change becomes necessary as demand grows for more power and better fuel economy.

In other words, it's time to say good-bye to the clamorous, pushrod 3.8-liter V-6 engine that Jeep shared with Chrysler's minivans. Good-bye to its hunting companion, the four-speed automatic transmission, too. Powertrain refinement was never part of the Wrangler's story, and potency existed only when AMC stuck its V-8 into the 1972 CJ model.

For 2012, the Wrangler gets Chrysler's fully contemporary Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6, a dual-overhead-cam unit that features numerous advances in efficiency and noise reduction. Output jumps from 202 hp to 285 hp, and torque advances by about ten percent, to 260 lb-ft. Squeezing the tall Pentastar V-6 under the hood was almost like getting Jay Leno jaw-first through the tiny door inside Alice's Wonderland. Engineering chief Tony Petit lost a lot of sleep while adapting the powerplant with a revised throttle body, a serpentine belt that would stay clear of water and mud, a high-mounted alternator, and unique exhausts.

A new five-speed automatic transmission further enhances powertrain efficiency, but some twenty percent of buyers will choose the standard six-speed manual. Acceleration improves almost shockingly, with 0 to 60 mph for the Sahara Unlimited occurring in 8.4 seconds, a full three seconds quicker than last year's model. Revving the engine to its 6500-rpm redline is perversely pleasurable. Considering the improved interior that was fitted in 2011 and the much-reduced cabin noise, the only thing left to complain about is the vague steering, which must be tolerated because the solid front axle dictates a recirculating-ball design. Overall, the Wrangler -- even the four-door Unlimited -- distinguishes itself well from the typical mid-size SUV. Especial-ly since the typical mid-size SUV can't drive right off the showroom floor and conquer the Rubicon Trail, as the top-of-the-line Wrangler Rubicon once again proved it could do.

Wrangler sales are booming -- they're expected to top 100,000 for 2011, a first -- and Jeep's biggest problem will be figuring out how to build enough units at the Toledo plant to meet demand. And the prospect of even more desirable Wranglers extends from the possibility that the Pentastar V-6 could receive direct injection and turbocharging. A 400-hp Wrangler? That's something to ponder while lining up at the new Space Mountain.

ON SALE: Late 2011 | PRICE: $22,845/$26,345 (two-/four-door) | ENGINE: 3.6L V-6, 285 hp, 260 lb-ft | RADICAL MOVE: Finally, a new engine

Chevrolet Malibu
Chevy stylists are injecting some sportiness into their conservative mid-size sedan with Camaro-inspired cues. The powertrain, however, steps in the opposite direction, as the Malibu will initially launch with a hybrid powertrain good for about 26/38 mpg. Six months after the hybrid arrives, Chevy will introduce a new four-cylinder that returns more than 30 mpg on the highway. And it better, since the 2012 Toyota Camry hits the big three-oh with a V-6 -- a cylinder count no longer even available in the new 'bu.

ON SALE: Early 2012 | PRICE: $23,000 (est.) | ENGINES: 2.5L I-4, 190 hp, 180 lb-ft; 2.4L I-4/electric hybrid, 182 hp, 172 lb-ft (est.) | RADICAL MOVE: Chopping 4.5 inches from the wheelbase

Honda CR-V
Honda insists that the vehicle seen in this photo is a concept, but you can count on the production car looking nearly identical, save for the tinted glass and the big wheels. The Japanese automaker has little reason to mess with America's best-selling SUV, so the changes are rather predictable. There's an all-new interior, a slight increase in fuel economy, reduced weight, and a lower cargo floor.

ON SALE: Late 2011 | PRICE: $23,000 (est.) | ENGINE: 2.4L I-4, 180 hp, 160 lb-ft (est. | RADICAL MOVE: Rear taillights with "a more three-dimensional style"

Volvo S40 and V50 With the V50's passing, the Swedish carmaker once known for its two-box four-doors no longer offers a single traditional wagon in its lineup.

Related Articles