Auto Essentials; Four all-new 2007 specials

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Jeep Wrangler: rough, rugged, refined
So you think you know something about off-roading. You hit a few trails, climb a couple of grassy knolls and plow over potholes on your daily commute. Try having a helicopter drop you off in a remote area on one of the toughest off-road trails in America, the Rubicon, which is what Jeep did to show off its 2007 Wrangler models: Wrangler X, Sahara and Rubicon. All have a longer wheelbase of 2 inches and a wider track of 3.5 inches for an improved on-road experience. A 100 percent stiffer frame cuts cabin noise by 20 percent. Large 32” BF Goodrich Off-Road tires are standard on the Rubicon model. Add a 3.8-liter V-6 engine pumping out 202-horsepower with 237 pound-feet and you are ready to take on far more than grassy knolls and potholes. The base Wrangler X costs $18,765, the Wrangler Sahara $23,530 and the mighty Rubicon $26,750. The Wrangler Unlimited starts at $20,410. All are very competitive prices, considering utility and improved comfort.

Acura MDX: A sharper image
When it comes to autos, Japan clearly is the technology guru.  Honda’s luxury division Acura just landed a one-two combo with the turbocharged RDX crossover and its redesigned older SUV sibling, the all-wheel drive MDX. With its 3.7-liter VTEC V6 engine and 5-speed automatic transmission with Sequential SportShift, the 300-horsepower gives this vehicle incredible passing power and places it among the elite V6 engines in the business. Consumers of Japanese imports know exactly why they stick with the technology gurus. The technology works, unlike some German innovations, which either are over-engineered or driven too much by software sophistication that self-destructs from confusion. On the road the MDX is very versatile. Not only does the V6 move the vehicle with passion, its standard Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system (SH-AWD) makes it suitable for warm and cold weather alike.

Open the doors and it’s as if you walked into that gadget heaven, The Sharper Image. The circular joystick puts you in command of such items as the intelligent navigation system, XM Satellite Radio and an auxiliary input for MP3 players. Bluetooth allowed me to sync my Treo 700 with no qualms, enabling me to speak via the Acura’s 253-watt, 8-speaker Acura Premium Sound System. It also comes with a rear camera, navigation with voice activation, and AcuraLink Satellite Communication System with real time traffic capability.

Volkswagen Eos:  pure bliss, rain or shine
Named after the Greek goddess of the dawn, Volkswagen’s new Eos, with its innovative retractable hardtop, already boasts top-selling convertible honors in Europe. It is now available in the United States and, after spending time in the Eos rolling through the mountains and gorges of Portland, Oregon, I can see why it’s a hit. Its most commanding feature by far is its roof.  Employing a creative five-panel design, the retractable hardtop has an integrated sunroof and a heated rear glass window. It can be folded and stowed away in 25 seconds flat, creating the world’s first four-seat hardtop convertible with a sunroof. With the top up, the Eos has the elegance of a well-styled coupe.  Inside, noise levels are low and any hint that the Eos is a convertible is concealed.

The Eos will be attractive because of its CSC (coupe-sunroof-convertible) configuration, but it’s everything under the roof that makes it the vehicle that it is. Most notable for me was the 2.0-liter turbocharged 200-horsepower engine.  Whether mated to the standard six-speed manual transmission or the double-clutch DSG six-speed automatic with Tiptronic, the engine was powerful, smooth and quiet.  In an era where HEMIs and high horsepower engines are commonplace, confident power coupled with 23 mpg city and 32 highway mpg (for the six-speed manual, 31 highway mpg with the automatic) make the Eos 2.0T a great choice.  It also heads from 0 – 60 mph in 7.3 seconds and holds a clean ULEV II emissions rating.  But for those who crave a little more juice, a 3.2-liter 250-horsepower V6 will be available in a few months.  That should hit the 60 mph mark in about 6.4 seconds with similar fuel economy.  Both engines run on premium unleaded fuel. You can take a base Eos home for $27,990.  When the 3.2-liter model is available it will sell for $36,850. 

Mercedes-Benz Mercedes-Benz E320 BLUETEC: green diesel
Loud, dirty, smoky and difficult to start in the winter are some of the traits of diesel-powered vehicles. The Environmental Protection Agency’s 2007 Highway Rule mandates use of a new diesel fuel called Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD), which is 97 percent cleaner than previous formulations. It has been available since October 15. To stay ahead of the curve, Mercedes-Benz offers its new E320 BLUETEC, which has the ability to travel 700 miles before refueling!

Mercedes-Benz first introduced passenger diesel vehicles in 1936 in the 260 D.  Fast forward to 2004 and the E320 CDI is brought to the States after Mercedes took a diesel hiatus.  Fast forward another three model years, and we have the E320 BLUETEC to wage battle in the “green war.”  A diesel considered “green?”  Yes.  Compare old diesel fuel with concentrations of 500 parts per million of sulfur. ULSD reduces the sulfur content to 15 parts per million. When sulfur in diesel is burned, it forms sulfur dioxide, a foul-smelling, colorless gas harmful to those with lung problems and to children, who need to breathe twice as much air as adults.

With ULSD, BLUETEC enables the E320’s 3-liter V6 to burn diesel cleaner and achieve 37 miles per gallon (mpg) on the highway and 26 mpg in the city. The 208-horsepower V6 also produces 400 pound-feet of torque between 1600 – 2400 rpm. Mercedes says this fits U.S. driving habits. But on our test drive the vehicle lacked the power to start quickly or accelerate passionately compared to more powerful V6s in the industry and is slower than the previous generation E320 CDI. We also noticed that the suspension was floaty, not firm like the E550 we are currently testing. Yet, its 7-speed auto with TouchShift is super smooth. Aesthetically, the E320 BLUETEC is similar to its petrol-powered compatriot. The interior is so similar, I cannot tell them apart. Mercedes says $2,800 worth of previous upgrades is now standard.     

Kimatni D. Rawlins is the publisher of Automotive Rhythms and host of “The Urban Automotive Experience.”  The editors of Automotive Rhythms contributed to this article. Visit www.AutomotiveRhythms.com. Leon L. Brittain and Nizam B. Ali also contributed to this report