By Tony Whitney

One of the benefits of staging a major auto show late in the winter season is that visitors get to see vehicles that were released after the earlier shows and might not have made it to some major U.S. events or other Canadian shows. So it is with the Vancouver International Auto Show, set for the city’s BC Place stadium from March 31st to April 9th.

As one of the last big North American shows of the winter (only New York comes later), the show will provide a great opportunity to see just about all the cars, SUVs, minivans and pickups that will be on the market during 2006 and into next year.
Prior to the event, I contact automakers and try to discover just what their highlights will be.

2007
2007 Audi S6

2006
2006 BMW Z4 M Roadster

2007
2007 Chrysler Aspen

Dodge Nitro
Dodge Nitro

2007 Ford Edge
2007 Ford Edge

Ford Shelby Mustang GT500
Ford Shelby Mustang GT500

Chevrolet Camaro concept
Chevrolet Camaro concept

2007 Saturn Sky
2007 Saturn Sky

2007 Honda Fit
2007 Honda Fit

2007 Hyundai Entourage
2007 Hyundai Entourage

2007 Hyundai Santa Fe
2007 Hyundai Santa Fe

2007 Nissan Versa
2007 Nissan Versa

Mazda CX-7
Mazda CX-7

Suzuki PX concept
Suzuki PX concept

2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid
2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid

2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser
2007 Toyota FJ Cruise

2007 Volkswagen Eos
2007 Volkswagen Eos

2007 Volvo C70
2007 Volvo C70

Jaguar XK convertible
Jaguar XK convertible

2007 Mercedes-Benz S 550
2007 Mercedes-Benz S 550

Lotus Elise
Lotus Elise

Audi will be displaying its awesome new S6, a high-performance car based on the A6 sedan. I drove an earlier version of this car and found it an amazing experience, and the new model should be even better. It’s powered by a mighty 5.2-litre V10 with 420 horsepower and handling to match – a solid rival for products like the BMW M5 and Mercedes-Benz AMG versions of the E-Class.

BMW is also focusing on performance with its newly updated Z4 Roadster, which now has a magnesium/aluminum “Valvetronic” lightweight engine boasting a substantial power increase. Even more potent is the M Roadster, with 333 hp. At the top of BMW’s performance range is the new M6 with the same V10 powertrain as the legendary M5. We haven’t had an M6 in Canada for many years, so this will be much welcomed by BMW fans. The M6 has an impressive 500 hp and confirms the Bavarian automaker’s commitment to seriously powerful machinery. On the Mini front, two new trim packages will be shown in Vancouver, the Checkmate and Quicksilver.

Over at DaimlerChrysler (read Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep) look for the Chrysler Aspen to make its Canadian debut at BC Place. And don’t expect it to be much like the none-too-lamented Dodge Aspen of a few years back. Vancouver showgoers will get their first look at the new Dodge Caliber entry-level model, which will also come in a performance SRT4 version. Concepts will include the Dodge Nitro and a fascinating flight of fancy on the Jeep theme, dubbed Rescue. DaimlerChrysler will have a very large display area featuring all its current models.

Expectedly, Ford Motor Company will also take up lots of space with a wide variety of current products and newcomers. Western “firsts” will include the Ford Edge crossover, originally shown in Detroit; the exciting Shelby-inspired Mustang GT500; and the new Lincoln MKX crossover utility, as well as the new Explorer Sport Trac sport utility truck, the Mustang GTR concept, a Shelby Cobra concept with 605 hp, the Explorer and Fusion HPA models, the radical Model U concept (a Model T for the 21st century?) and my current favourite, the reborn Ford GT, inspired by the 1960s GT40 race car.

Rounding out big displays by members of the North American “Big Three” is General Motors’ usual extensive roster of vehicles slotted into every imaginable segment. Look for the amazing GM Sequel fuel cell concept vehicle and get a glimpse of what might be cruising our roads a few years from now. Other concepts include the Buick Velite and Saturn Aura. And expect lots of excitement around the wonderful Camaro concept first shown in Detroit earlier this year. This car was cheered by the assembled media when first rolled out and fans will be just pleading with Chevrolet to build it.

General Motors will also show a long list of all-new 2007 feature vehicles, including the Saturn Vue Green Line Hybrid, Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Yukon XL, Chevrolet Suburban, Chevrolet Avalanche, Cadillac Escalade, Chevrolet Aveo, Pontiac Wave and the appealing new Saturn Sky sports roadster. Also worth a look is the Pontiac G6 convertible hardtop, the least-expensive model available with this folding-roof feature. These models are all production vehicles, scheduled to arrive at the dealerships during the year.

Joining a surprising number of new vehicles that fall into the “affordable” category is Honda’s new Fit, which drew enthusiastic reviews when first shown in Detroit last January. This is a five-door hatchback with all the usual Honda qualities, but its price is surprisingly low. Honda is rightly proud of its amazing record in the most recent car and truck of the year contests, since it swept just about all of them with its Civic and Ridgeline. With Automobile Journalists of Canada (AJAC), North American Car and Truck of the Year and Motor Trend trophies to show off, expect Honda to focus its displays on these two outstanding products.

Korean automaker Hyundai, which has also won its fair share of awards recently, will be displaying its new Santa Fe SUV, which has moved upmarket to make room for the entry-level Tucson compact SUV. Even so, the Santa Fe will still feature a very reasonable sticker price for its class, which includes some fairly costly rigs. Also brand new from Hyundai is the Entourage minivan, confirming that interest in these practical vehicles is far from waning. Expect the Entourage to offer lots of basic equipment for a reasonable price-tag. Another new Hyundai is the three-door Accent hatchback, one of the least expensive ways to get into a new car in the Canadian market.

Hyundai’s sister company Kia, which claims to be the world’s fastest-growing automaker, will be showing its new 2007 Magentis, its entry in a highly-competitive class that takes in the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Magentis is a plush, technically sophisticated automobile that comes at a very reasonable price for a model in this class.

Mazda tells me that the big news in Vancouver this year will be its all-new 2007 CX-7 crossover vehicle which goes on sale in May at just over $30,000. An all-wheel drive version costs a little more, but that’s what most buyers will probably go for. The crossover segment continues to grow and is probably winning buyers from both SUVs and minivans.

Mitsubishi is making a big effort to earn a place in the hearts of Canadian auto buyers and certainly has one of the more interesting model ranges in the industry. New at BC Place will be the Eclipse Spyder, a convertible version of the currently-available Eclipse coupe. Also new is the Lancer Sportback, a car not sold south of the border, and a Lancer Ralliart model with more performance features.

Nissan will be drawing attention from budget-minded auto buyers with its new Versa, the first true entry-level model from the company in many years. Expect this one to compete with Honda’s new Fit and Toyota’s Yaris models, not to mention affordable rivals from Suzuki, Chevrolet, Hyundai and Kia.

Showgoers looking at the minivan segment will be surprised to find one on the Suzuki stand, although at this stage it’s just a concept. The PX is a departure for the company, which has built its reputation mainly on compact SUVs and entry-level hatchback and sedan models like the current Swift+.

Toyota plans a big display and has lots of new products to fill every square foot. The Yaris makes its debut as a four-door sedan, which will please buyers who liked the hatchback version, but preferred more conventional sedan styling. There’s a new 2007 Camry which will also come as a hybrid this time around. The most radical new Toyota is the FJ Cruiser, a true departure for a rather conservative automaker that has not broached the “retro” segment before, but does so with this modern take on its traditional Land Cruiser. Toyota’s luxury affiliate Lexus will also have a few surprises at the show.

Interestingly, both Volvo and Volkswagen will be showing all-new vehicles directly competing with each another. Volvo has axed the ragtop and coupe versions of its C70 sportster and replaced them with one spiffy new convertible hardtop. Almost in unison, VW has launched its 2007 Eos convertible hardtop, so perhaps it’ll be worth taking a stopwatch along to the show and finding which is the fastest to deploy. Both cars are about the same size and have similar passenger capacity.

Volkswagen will also show its Jetta R-GT concept vehicle, which sounds as though it competes in the “sport compact right out of the box” market. It has all-wheel drive and a twin-turbo 3.2-litre VR6 drivetrain.

Of course, there will be several upscale automakers, many of whom will be unveiling products most of us can only dream about. Even so, it’s nice to know what’s out there when that big lottery win comes along. And auto showgoers never seem to tire of checking out those costly exotics, before they come down to earth and take a closer look at vehicles more suited to their budget.

Jaguar has been busy in recent months launching its great new 2007 XK sports coupe and convertible, both of which will be at BC Place. Having been one of the first journalists to drive the car, I’ll say it is probably the best sports model the British automaker has ever built. It’s not just a “looker”, either; the car is built almost entirely of aluminum using aerospace technology. This car’s predecessor was the best-selling Jaguar sports model of all time and I’d expect the new one to beat that record, especially as it’s priced very competitively for its market segment.

Vancouver’s Weissach Performance Ltd. will be displaying two sports cars that will draw substantial crowds, thanks to their well-earned “exotic” status. The new Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder is a convertible version of the awesome Gallardo coupe and brings open-air supercar motoring to those willing to ante up the substantial sticker price. Not quite as costly is the long-awaited Lotus Elise, which comes with a reputation gained on the tracks of Europe. Reportedly, the car carries on the traditions of light weight and unmatched handling that marked the early cars of the late Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus.

Mercedes-Benz has brought us a flurry of new models in recent times and two of them will make a Vancouver debut at BC place. The very desirable new S-Class is the company’s flagship large sedan and boasts an interesting new approach to styling with an almost “competition” look to some elements. The GL-Class is Mercedes’ full-size SUV and comes with more luxury and less of a military look than the old G-Class.

As showtime nears, exhibiting automakers will announce all kinds of additional production and concept cars for display, many of which will be rushed to Vancouver from shows wrapping up in other cities. With its later time slot, the Vancouver International Auto Show is probably the best opportunity anywhere in Canada or the Pacific Northwest to see every available new vehicle on the market under one roof.

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