2006: The Year of the Performance Variation?

2006: The Year of the Performance Variation?

Maybe you haven't yet noticed, but 2005 is proving to be an extremely active year in the world of high-profile "all-new" models. Two immediate examples that spring to mind are the Ford Mustang and the Chevrolet Corvette. One of those model nameplates is 41 years old, the other is 52, yet never in their overlapping history have they both been "all-new" in the same year. Another biggie for 2005 is Chrysler's 300, as well as its platform mate, the Dodge Magnum. If those nameplates don't hold enough equity for you, how about an all-new Porsche 911, Porsche Boxster, Cadillac STS and BMW 6 Series?

Trucks and SUVs had plenty of activity, too, this year, with the compact truck segment absolutely on fire for 2005. Am I sounding a bit melodramatic? How else would you describe a year in which three of the five models that make up the segment (Dakota, Frontier and Tacoma) got a redesign? If that's still not enough big-name truck activity, I'll raise you a Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan Pathfinder and Land Rover Discovery — all three redesigned for 2005.

OK, so undeniably a busy year. "What's the point?" you may be asking yourself, or perhaps even shouting at me through your computer screen? The point is that automakers are under more pressure than ever to keep their product lines fresh these days, and beyond the straightforward (and expensive) redesigns mentioned above they also are becoming increasingly dependent on the creative packaging of existing models. In the next four months, five of the year's most important auto shows will take place. They are, in chronological order, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Geneva and New York. It's at these shows where automakers display their best and brightest offerings for the upcoming model years, in this case 2006 and 2007. I've had a sneak peek of what's in the pipeline, and I can assure you we'll be seeing lots of familiar sheet metal when the car covers are dramatically pulled back.

Going back to the all-new models I've already referenced, here are some variations you'll be seeing in the coming weeks and months, with their parent vehicle noted:

2006 BMW M6 (6 Series)
2006 Cadillac STS-V (STS)
2006 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 (Corvette)
2006 Dodge Charger (300/Magnum)
2006 Ford Mustang Convertible and SVT Mustang (Mustang)
2006 Jeep Commander (Grand Cherokee)
2006 Porsche 911 Convertible and Turbo (911)
2006 Porsche Boxster Coupe (Boxster)

If there's a theme to the list above, it's performance and/or fun. With the possible exception of the Jeep Commander, which is really a more upscale/premium version of the Grand Cherokee, every "variation" on the existing all-new models for 2005 represents a bump in performance. Of course, you could argue the convertible versions of the 911 and Mustang are more focused on "fun-in-the-sun" performance rather than pure acceleration or handling improvements.

If you've been watching the automotive market for even a few years, you're well aware of this tradition of spinning performance versions off of existing new models. What makes 2006 different is the sheer number of all-new performance, or "tuner" versions, coming from high-profile models. Just as we reveled in an all-new 300, Mustang, Corvette, 911 and 6 Series in 2005, I can hardly wait for the coming months in which we'll see an all-new Charger, SVT, Z06, Turbo and M6.

My only word of caution (and hopefully I caught you in time): Resist the urge to rush out and snag one of these exceptional all-new 2005 models. While the manufacturers depend on the performance variations to maintain customer interest and showroom traffic, they would love you to buy the mainstream versions that are already available, and then come back for the performance version in a few months. However, if you wait and, for example, the SVT Mustang proves too much for you (either in terms of performance or price), you can always go out and pick up a 2006 GT. But if you rush out and buy a 2005 Mustang — a car I strongly endorse by the way — you could be in the tough position of either passing over the SVT version, or trading in your "almost-new" 2005 at the height of its depreciation curve.

If you're somewhat of a performance nut, like myself, think of 2005 as the pregame show. And rest assured that the main event is just getting started.

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