Brand New Rhythms: Highlights of the 2006 lineup

206 Jeep Commander2006 Jeep Commander
At first glance, you?ll think it?s a Jeep Cherokee, which went out of production in 2001 and was replaced by the smaller Liberty. Up close, you?ll notice the larger exterior dimensions, the luxuriously appointed interior with three-row seating and the subtle badging on the hatchback door that states, ?5.7 L HEMI.? Jeep has gone upscale for 2006 with the introduction of the all-new Commander SUV. Available in base and limited guise, the Commander offers features never before available on a Jeep vehicle, including a full complement of safety gear. Commander styling is evolutionary. The roofline has been raised for more headroom with twin sunroofs for second-row passengers. The ?box? theme of the original Cherokee is freshened with chrome accents, jeweled head and tail lamps, and restyled wheels available in painted or optional chrome finish. Inside, it?s all about comfort. Leather, satellite radio and DVD navigation, myriad storage compartments, rear DVD entertainment system, stepped theater-style seating, and heating and cooling controls for the third row are among standard and optional Commander highlights.

I had the opportunity to drive Commander off road. It is ?Trail Rated? by Jeep, which means it can get down and dirty. We drove over small trees, large rocks, through mud-filled trenches and up hills so steep you couldn?t see the other side when you reached the top. Commander?s advanced Quadra-Drive II 4×4 system represents the most advanced four-wheel drive technology Jeep has ever produced. Commander base pricing begins at $27,985 for 4×2 models. Limited 4×4 models are the priciest, beginning at $38,900. With options, my tester came in at $42,880.

2006 Lexus IS2006 Lexus IS
Lexus needs the IS to do well against BMW?s 3 series, which is the current benchmark for entry sport luxuries. The all-new IS comes in three models, each offering something for every category of driver. From a style point of view, it is edgy, has aggressive, angular lines, a wider stance and a longer wheelbase.

We start with the IS 250 and its very capable 204-horsepower, 2.5-liter V6, linked to a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. We then move up to the extremely agile and road-hugging 204-horsepower, 2.5-liter V6 IS 250 AWD, coupled with a six-speed paddle-shift automatic. Unfortunately, the AWD model isn?t being offered with a six-speed manual?at least not yet.? Rounding out this redesigned lineup is the IS 350, which offers a potent 306-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 backed by a paddle-shifted six-speed automatic transmission. Absolutely amazing!

For our drive we started with the IS 350. Right away, we could feel the IS 350?s bottom line. It moves from 0 to 60 faster than Dave Chappelle leaving Comedy Central?less than 5.6 seconds. Once on the open road, I had fun with the paddle shifters. My only regret was not having enough time to fully engage and become familiar with the six-speed automatic transmission or the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system (VDIM). Get used to this acronym before going into the dealership because you will hear about it often. VDIM enhances handling, traction and the brake control systems by anticipating unstable conditions and maximizing driving fun.

You may think getting into the IS 250 AWD would be a step down, considering the significant difference in horsepower from the 306 in the IS 350. Wrong. Although a bit sluggish on the initial launch, the AWD hugs tighter than Mom at her boy?s graduation. The sophisticated exterior is equally matched with a clean, luxurious interior. All models come standard with a center console mini-jack to allow any MP3 player convenient access to play through the 194-watt, 13-speaker Lexus Premium Audio System. You can upgrade to the incredible Mark Levinson Premium Audio Discrete 5.1 Surround Sound System. The Mark Levinson offers 300 watts of power via 14 speakers, including a center speaker, subwoofer and 7.1-channel speaker architecture surrounded by acoustic-controlled glass. Let?s not forget the integrated DVD player conveniently placed within the cabin. In a very worthwhile safety feature, you can only view a DVD while the parking brake is on.

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML5002006 Mercedes-Benz ML500
Finally, the ML is something you can actually show off at your 10th high school reunion. Previously, it was more for gardening and groceries. Now it is edgier, more aggressive and sophisticated. A new seven-speed transmission is mated to Benz?s endearing 302-horsepower V8. Permanent 4WD, 4-wheel traction control, an independent suspension, speed-sensitive steering and gas shock absorbers define the ML as capable. We are not too excited about the touch-sensitive shifter. You have to triple check the odometer to make sure you are in the right gear before hitting the accelerator. Up-level features include an auxiliary jack for MP3 players, SIRIUS Satellite Radio, rain sensors and Parktronic parking assist. Suggested retail starts at $48,500, but climbs to $63,515 with ?have to have? optional equipment. For that much loot, give me the ?06 Range Rover Sport with the 400-horsepower SC V8!

2006 Cadillac DTS2006 Cadillac DTS
Although Cadillac?s core buyers are those approaching retirement, the manufacturer has noticed a shift upward as those in their early 40s begin to purchase the DTS. With such amazing performance and comfort, I can see why. Available starting at $41,990, the DTS includes features such as an LED interior and backup lights for better visibility; independent auxiliary audio input for any and all MP3 players; a larger distinctive grille; and optional-seat climate-controlled packages. Step up to the Performance Package and you get XM, leather with a burl walnut- and nickel-laced interior, 18″ rims and the Northstar 4.6-liter V8 engine with 291 horsepower that produces deep, soothing exhaust notes. It didn?t feel like a family mammoth at all. The handling was responsive and it has a great turning radius. The get-up-and-go will easily take you to get-up-and-gone.

Cruising through a picturesque countryside is one thing, but how about cruising under extreme conditions? Cadillac created a small but effective test track-proving ground to show off the abilities of its new (major/minor, as they call it) DTS with its four-channel StabiliTrak, Brake Assist and Magnetic Ride Control, which basically means this car can safely handle just about anything you or your fellow drivers on the road toss in front of it without swaying wildly all over the road.

Kimatni D. Rawlins is the publisher of Automotive Rhythms and host of The Urban Automotive Experience. Visit