Carmakers are packing more punch under the hoods of their 1991 cars and trucks and are wrestling with ways to persuade America's drivers to use it wisely.
The hundreds of new models that U.S., Asian and European automakers will be showing off late this year and early next year are aimed at the U.S. love affair with power on the highway.Perhaps the longest-awaited entry into the U.S. market is General Motors Corp.'s Saturn car. The car is due in showrooms in October or November, but GM kept the lid on preview peeks at the vehicle.
It's expected to be priced somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000 and compete in the thickest part of the market. GM officials have said they expect that 80 percent of Saturn's sales will come from traditional import buyers.
But analysts say that remains to be seen.
Increased power in 1991 cars comes despite rising fuel prices stemming from the Middle East crisis. Actually, analysts say, cars have made great strides in fuel-efficiency since the last big oil crunch of the late 1970s.
Ford Motor Co. officials, in fact, like to brag that the Lincoln Continental of today gets just about the same mileage as the Ford Pinto of 1979, a gas sipper of its time.
But with more power, automakers also are finding that safety sells, too. Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca has appeared on a series of television ads along with accident survivors who thank the company for installing air bags in all of its North American-made cars.
The ads say little, if anything, about air bags being supplemental safety devices, designed to work in conjunction with seat belts.
Along with air bags, and all in the name of safety, new cars have automatic seat belts, beefed-up door structures to absorb more shock in a side impact, and traction control systems to deter skidding.
Mercedes-Benz, in fact, has a system that puts on the brakes automatically if the car's wheels begin to spin.
Nearly all automakers are bragging about more power in their vehicles' engines. In some cases, usually with large, luxury cars, that comes from simply larger engines like the engine for General Motor Corp.'s Cadillac De Ville and Fleetwood, which goes to 4.9-liter from a 4.5-liter.
Trucks, too, are getting more powerful. The Dodge Dakota pickup gets a 5.2-liter V-8 for 1991, the first V-8 in a pickup its size.
More often, though, the extra horsepower is coming from the growing number of multi-valve engines. These are power plants with four valves per cylinder instead of the traditional two. Such technology, coupled with more efficient fuel delivery systems, boost horsepower while reducing fuel consumption.
The 5-series of BMW cars have the same size engine for 1991 as they did for 1990 - a 2.5-liter, six-cylinder model - but with the addition of more valves per cylinder, horsepower is boosted to 189 from 168.
Another way to boost power from the same size engine is to add a turbocharger, which boosts air compression entering the engine. But turbochargers produce higher engine temperatures that can speed engine wear.
Pontiac has dumped turbochargers from its entire 1991 line. The 3.1-liter Turbo engine has been replaced by a 3.4-liter V-6. Horsepower rises to 210 from the turbocharged engine's 205.
While the cars of the coming year have the capacity to go faster quicker, automakers also are equipping more with sophisticated systems to stop them.
Anti-lock braking systems, called ABS in the industry, can add hundreds of dollars to the price of a car. But industry watchers say ABS is an extremely important safety feature that will probably be standard equipment on all cars some day.
Most drivers north of the Mason-Dixon Line know that it's best to gently pump the brakes when slowing down on slippery pavement. ABS systems do that for the driver.
Sensors detect when wheels are beginning to lock and send signals to the braking system to pulse pressure in the brake lines, in effect pumping the brakes and avoiding a slide.
But all the new technology, whether it's under the hood, at the wheel or in the passenger compartment, costs money and consumers will see it.
Prices for 1991 models, announced through mid-September, will rise somewhere between 1 percent and 5 percent, depending on manufacturer and model.
Perhaps the least expensive car on the market for 1991 is the Yugo GV Plus, a Yugoslav import with a base price of $4,435. With a little bit of hunting, a consumer can find a car that cracks the quarter-million-dollar mark, too.
But these days, seeing a new price doesn't necessarily mean a carbuyer will actually pay it.
Incentives still are lurking around, and manufacturers are finding it hard to get out of the money-back business. Basically, automakers use incentives to spur sales. But to some degree, consumers demand it.
One auto executive gave an example of how crazy the system has become. He said that someone who wouldn't touch a car with a $12,000 price tag would be more likely to buy one listed at $13,000 and carrying a $1,000 rebate.
It pays consumers to shop around, even after they've decided on exactly the car they want. Going to different dealers representing the same manufacturer for the same car can result in some savings.
Consumers also can save money by purchasing options in packages. And for 1991, there are options and gadgets galore.
Chrysler has redesigned its popular minivan for 1991 and has included not only a cup holder but a juice-box holder. Other options include power everything: mobile phones, leather seats and door panels, a compass and double bright neon green windshield wipers.