The '92s: Snappier, Snazzier, And Safer

As U. S. and foreign carmakers unveil their 1992 models, some cars sport all-new looks and all-new names. Subaru's sleek SVX sports sedan, for example, has a unique window design that makes it seem as if the roof is supported entirely by glass.

But some of the most dramatic new offerings carry familiar nameplates. So, just because you know the old Eldorado, Mercedes S-class, or Camry doesn't mean you'll recognize the new one.

Cadillac's new Seville and Eldorado roll out with little resemblance to the past--or each other. Although they share the same engine and other under-the-skin parts, the two-door, $32,470 Eldorado and the four-door, $34,975 Seville are quite different in styling. (All prices are for base models, excluding taxes and destination charges.)

A LONG WAY. Move up to the $34,970 Eldorado Touring Coupe and the $37,975 Seville Touring Sedan, and they're even more distinct from other Cadillacs. The subtle Seville is styled to please luxury-import buyers: Chrome and other flashy accoutrements are gone in favor of an understated elegance. Add its firmer suspension, which produces notably tighter handling, and the Seville has come a long way from the barges of yore. The Eldorado, even in Touring Coupe trim, is slightly more American: squarish in design and still a bit vague in handling. Inside, though, improvements abound. This Eldo offers almost 50% more rear-seat room than a Lexus LS 400, and the wood trim is real--just as it was on Caddys of a generation ago.

Mercedes' S-class is another rejuvenated nameplate. As usual, Mercedes packs its cars with technological wonders. Standard down the line this year: prewiring for a car phone and memory controls that adjust the seat, tilt-telescopic steering wheel, headrest, and all three rearview mirrors. The S-class adds its own goodies. Its air-conditioners are free of chlorofluorocarbons, and separate thermostats are standard for driver and front passenger. An optional system lets rear passengers create distinct third and fourth "climate zones." In addition, the side windows are double-paned to prevent fogging and reduce noise. Indeed, they are amazingly quiet cars. The lineup includes four gasoline-powered cars and a turbo-charged diesel model, all with the refined yet practical interiors Mercedes is known for. Prices on the S-class cars range from $69,400 for the 300SE to $127,800 for the 600SEL.

NIFTY. The exteriors of the $14,980 Ford Taurus and $15,928 Mercury Sable look very similar to last year's models. To find out what's new, sit behind the

wheel. Among the subtle improvements: new seat fabrics, more pleasing gauges, an extra set of radio controls located closer to the steering wheel, and a nifty feature that scales back the radio's volume when the motor is turned off--great if your rap-loving teenager drove the car last. In addition, a host of mechanical changes reduces interior noise, while a V-6 is standard.

Mazda's 929 adds something the old flagship sedan lacked: styling panache. The long, low look is faintly Jag-uaresque, complimented by some interior styling cues, such as a forward-tilting instrument panel. Unfortunately, the 929 shares Jaguar's limited headroom. It can also be a bit skittish on curves, and the accelerator pedal is too sensitive, which makes for lurching starts. There's an optional solar-powered fan to cool down the $27,800 sedan's interior on hot days.

Buick's new, compact $13,560 Skylark is loaded with functional and convenient features, from a console storage bin between the front seats large enough for a fold-up umbrella to standard antilock brakes. Inside, the Skylark's instrument panel sweeps into the doors as it does on the hugely successful Park Avenue Ultra. Outside, the Skylark imitates nothing: Its pointy front end is dramatically different from the exteriors of its sister models, the Pontiac Grand Am and the coming Oldsmobile Achieva.

The $27,700 Audi 100 has a new body, a more spacious interior, and 250 pounds more than its predecessor. Fortunately, it also has a new 172-horsepower V6 engine to replace the 130-hp five-cylinder for extra reserve power, plus bigger brakes. Compared with its predecessor, the 100 is notably more poised in turns, and it downshifts more smoothly.Chevrolet's new Suburban is aimed at the horse-hauling crowd, particularly now that Jeep has killed off its Grand Wagoneer. Built on the same chassis as GM's full-size C/K pickups, the nine-passenger, $18,155 Suburban is available in half-ton and three-quarter-ton versions--and can tow up to 10,000 pounds. Despite a wheelbase two inches longer than the old Suburban's, this one is slightly shorter overall. Interior passenger space is greater, and a 4-foot-by-8-foot sheet of plywood can still lie flat in back. It will be available in Texas and California before going nationwide.

FINE FIT. The Toyota Camry has widened and lengthened into a midsize. Toyota says the $14,368 Camry, with a four- or six-cylinder engine, tops the best-selling Honda Accord in quietness and other areas of comparison. Certainly, it's tightly put together, with Toyota's usual fine fit and finish and improved structural rigidity. It also got a driver's airbag and adjustable shoulder-belt anchors. At Toyota's Lexus division, the $25,250 ES300 shares fewer mechanicals with the new Camry than its predecessor, the ES250, did with the old Camry. It has more of its own personality, too, though the gauges look as if they're cheap imitations of those on the top-of-the-line Lexus LS400. The new $32,000 SC300 coupe's standard V6 isn't as powerful as the already introduced SC400's V8, but it comes with either manual or automatic transmission.

Chrysler gave its minivans new interiors and mechanicals last year, and it hasn't changed them much this fall. In an industry first, however, Chrysler is offering optional child seats that are built into the second-row seats in its family-movers. The safety seats use a five-point design, anchoring the belts at both shoulders, across the lap, and between the legs. They meet all regulations for child car seats, cost $200 for the pair, and allow parents to say goodbye to lugging portable seats from car to car. When not in use, the seats can be flipped back to unveil a standard backseat to accommodate adults.

Among the new cars that have new names, four stand out. Foremost is the Porsche 968. Porsche is outstanding in its ability to make each model unmistakably a Porsche and yet distinct. It's a styling skill shared by only a few others--Jaguar, say, and Mack Truck. The $44,500 968, which replaces the 944, is a beauty, with round headlights that lean backward. The four-cylinder engine mates to either a six-speed manual or Porsche's unique Tiptronic transmission, an automatic that can shift like a manual. Either way, the closer you push the tachometer needle to the red line, the better the engine performs. Mitsubishi's new Expo and Expo LRV are mini-minivans. The slightly larger, $13,549 Expo has seven seats--but don't expect it to hold seven adults. The five-passenger, $11,169 LRV is more practical. It sits as high as a Dodge Caravan, and the ample headroom and generous windows give it an airy feel. Think of it as a spacious, subcompact station wagon. But remember that you'll pass up the space of a true minivan if you pick the $13,889 version with all-wheel drive.

GMC Truck has plucked the 4.3-liter turbocharged and intercooled V6 engine from its Syclone pickup truck and dropped it into an off-road vehicle. The $28,995 Typhoon goes from 0 to 60 in less than five seconds, making it more suitable for pole positions than climbing out of canyons.

Subaru's new SVX sports sedan is loaded with gadgets, including all-wheel drive, a driver's-side airbag, motorized shoulder belts, and a horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine. (Think of it as a V6 with a 180-degree V.)

This $25,000 high-performance racer hugs the road and draws stares for its "window-in-a-window" design, which features additional glass above and around the smallish windows. The SVX replaces the wedge-shaped XT in Subaru's lineup.

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