Step right up to the new automotive buffet

Fall produces a conditioned response in most “car people.” The air gets crisp; the leaves begin to turn, and we start salivating in anticipation of the new cars automakers are about to plate up.

For the most part, fall still brings sales of the current favorites and the onslaught of new automotive recipes. But new cars have little to do with the calendar year in which they appear in dealerships these days, and everything to do with marketing, retooling and when manufacturers expect to get them out the factory doors.

Some 2005 models have been in showrooms for months now, right beside the 2004s, and some 2006 models are due in the not-too-distant future. Below is a small menu of the enormous cuisine of entirely new models or model redesigns for 2005/2006. Hopefully, there’s something for everyone’s car-related tastebuds to enjoy. Buon appetito!

• Mini Cooper convertible — It’s a retro cutie, with BMW quality and a base sticker price expected to be around $17,000, though the power-enhanced Cooper S cracks the $20,000 barrier. For a tiny vehicle, it breaks tradition and has an automatic convertible top — no elbow grease needed. There’s even a mode that allows the top to open partially over the front seats alone.

The front-wheel drive car’s basic 1.6 liter/115 horse power, single overhead cam, inline-4 cylinder engine gives plenty of power to the light car, but the supercharged 170 hp Cooper S is still available. The mileage is 25/37, and finding parking for this mini-babe is no problem, even in Boston.

• Chevy’s Corvette — It’s hard to believe, but General Motors has improved its flagship roadster in this, its sixth edition. The design is wonderfully fluid — open or closed — and Corvette’s returned to its origins with a smaller car physically than its last incarnation.

The 6L/400 hp, overhead valve, V-8 engine gets this rear-wheel drive rocket ship from 0 to 60 in a tad over four seconds, according to reports, and you can do that with either a manual or automatic tranny. An even more powerful ‘Vette is due next year, but if you need to get to 60 faster than this, you probably should call your lawyer or hire a bodyguard. For such a speed demon, the mileage isn’t bad at 18/25 mpg. Price tags still start at a reasonable $45,000 for the most recognizable American masterpiece in the world.

• Ford Mustang — Its new/old exterior harkens back to late ’60s-era Mustangs. It’s a fastback. What can I say? I love the profile. Don’t let its retro lines fool you; only its outside is nostalgic.

The new engine is a 4L/202 hp, SOHC, V-6. The GT version offers a 4.6L, V-8 and erupts with 300 hp for the RWD pony car. Yes, you can still get a stick, but a new 5-speed automatic is available, too. Need this power and panache in an open car? Relax, a convertible’s on the way. Mileage mimics the ‘Vette at 18/25 mpg, but prices start at about $19,000.

• Chrysler 300 — The return to the 300 series is proving advantageous for Chrysler. A lot of these big mamas are already on the road. Their robust-looking exterior holds an equally powerful engine. The 300’s base 2.7L/190 hp, double overhead cam, V-6 is nothing to shake a stick at, but the 300C offers the 5.7L/340 hp, OHV, V-8 Hemi for which Chrysler is famous. Prices start at about $23,500, or about $33,000 for the C edition. The mileage is 17/25 mpg. All this with a choice of rear- or all-wheel drive in a sedan your father would find comfortable and luxurious, even if he’s A.J. Foyt!

• Mercedes Benz CLS 500 — There is absolutely nothing stodgy about this brand new model from Daimler. The four-door coupe is incredibly sleek and stylish; it’s simply stunning. It has all the MB staples, a profile to die for, and it’s beefcake all the way with RWD and a 5L/302 hp, SOHC, V-8. If you think you need the Jag to be chic, take a gander at this one. Mileage comes in a 17/23 mpg, and the tab should start in the high $60K-low $70K range, according to estimates.

• Volvo V50 Wagon — This car should win the official Mom-mobile award from the PTA set. Volvo can put a little punch in the package with the optional 2.5L/218 hp, turbo-charged DOHC, I-5, though the standard engine (2.4L/168 hp, DOHC, I-5) will easily get folks where they want to go. Volvo’s wagons aren’t shoe boxes any longer. This wagon offers either FWD or AWD, 63.9 cubic feet of cargo space inside gentle, pleasing curves. Mileage is excellent for a wagon at 22/30 mpg, and it starts at about $26,000.

• Honda Accord Hybrid — Want to go green but can’t give up the power of a six-cylinder or the roominess of a mid-size sedan? Take a look at Honda’s new Accord Hybrid. Its 3L/255 hp, SOHC, V-6 combined with a 16 hp electric motor gives substantial power to the FWD car, and an exceptional six-cylinder fuel efficiency of 30/38 mpg. For that, you’ll pay Honda $26,000-$35,000 for the Hybrid, or $7,000 to $10,000 more than its normal Accord. The styling is acceptable, though not head-turning, but as your mother always told you, looks aren’t everything. This car has purpose and great technology.

• Scion — Toyota’s boxy baby, the xB, entered the U.S. this year, and its quirky crate-like motif and under $15,000 price made it a hit with young drivers. The curvier xA — around $13,000, including air conditioning — should be available nationwide now. Both share Toyota Echo’s 1.5L/108 hp, DOHC, I-4 engine and offer over 30 mpg fuel economy. A new model, the tC, is more mainstream in design, and it comes with a 2.4L/160 hp, DOHC, I-4 giving 23/30 mpg. Like its siblings, tC has FWD, but it isn’t as nouveau nor as original as its carton-esque brother the xB. The cost of conformity is higher, but it’s still low at around $16,000.

• Dodge Magnum RT Wagon — Trust me, this is not your mother’s station wagon. It’s got a Hemi, attitude, and with its P-package, it’s Chrysler’s new, mean-looking addition to the police cruiser market. RT ads claim it’s “the most powerful production vehicle for under $30,000.” The small print explains is five whole dollars under $30,000, and that’s without options, But who’s complaining when you get a 5.7L/340 hp, OHV, V-8 Hemi under the hood? The RT offers AWD, though RWD is still possible for maximum thrill-wheel driving. Inside, Dodge hasn’t forgotten what station wagons are supposed to do, carry stuff, including the kids. It’s a big boy, with 17/23 mpg mileage.

• Lotus Elise — It wouldn’t be an eclectic menu of new cars without a little exotica. The mid-engine, RWD Elise is now available in the U.S., and we’re real happy ’bout that. It sports the same engine as the Toyota Matrix, but the 1.8L/190 hp, DOHC, I-4 should move the lighter 2,000-lb Elise around like a meteor. The design is extra-terrestrial as well, and no one will mistake it for anything else, with or without its roof. Elise’s mid-engine capabilities should make it a treat on New Hampshire’s wonderfully winding back roads. Mileage is 26/38 mpg; it should cost about $41,000.

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