Black Enterprise 1998 SPRING AUTO GUIDE

Our Picks For The Vehicles This Season

has the answer. Call this the ES300 “Power Wagon,” if you will. It has all the pleasant ride characteristics of the most popular Lexus sedan, yet the aggressive styling and roomy utilitarian interior add function. A modified V-6 is so silky smooth, you’ll be surprised how fast it gets you up to speed. Those are 220 extremely polite horses.

Don’t want to climb into a truck? The RX300 is just a bit taller than a passenger car, making entry and exit even easier. Although the suspension may not look that remarkable on paper, Lexus also realized that people rarely drive on paper. It handles pavement just fine, making bumps disappear and taking advantage of its passenger-car-type credentials to tame curves as well.

For $31,550, you get a basic front-wheel-drive model, while another $1,400 adds full-time all-wheel drive. Figure around $35,000 if you load it up. This isn’t a rough and tumble SUV ready to follow the LX470 or even a Jeep off-road. But when it comes to handling foul and fair weather with courteous manners, the RX300 reigns as a new champion of comfort among SUVs. www.lexus.com

Mazda Miata
How can you trump the impact the original Miata had on the market when it arrived more than a decade ago? Well, you can’t. But Mazda is smart enough not to mess with success. Rather than transform the vehicle frequently acclaimed as “the most fun you can buy in a car per dollar,” they simply made a few improvements.

In fact, there are far more improvements than a readily visible. The engine is more powerful and the chassis stiffened. Pop-up headlamps are replaced by exposed oval lamps. There is a bit more curve to give the car a slightly more masculine and aggressive look. The trunk is roomier, and the convertible top, now with a glass rear window, is even easier to operate. And it’s hard to believe, but Mazda took the best-shifting manual transmission on the market and made it better.

Best of all, this is the only roadster on the market starting at less than $20,000. In fact, by the time you pay for your first oil change, it’s the only one under $30,000. This keeps the Miata’s reputation absolutely intact as the most affordable smile-maker you can buy on four wheels. www.mazda.com

Mercury Cougar
After a brief demise, the Cougar is returning for 1999. This time it’s like no Cougar that has gone before. There is no V-8. Rearwheel drive is gone. It’s a much smaller vehicle, with many of its underpinnings designed overseas. And it’s no longer related to a Ford Thunderbird. (That car is taking a long hiatus and returning in a much changed form).

We know what it’s not, but what is a Cougar? You wouldn’t know from the styling, but it could be called a Mercury Mystique coupe. It shares it engines and suspension with that car.

You can choose a 125-horsepower four-cylinder or 170-horsepower V-6. Although the Mystique has not had much success as a sedan, perhaps its sporty nature will find

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