- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

The calendar has moved ahead a few pages as automakers engage in the rush to introduce new 2009 models before they officially go on sale this fall.

Automakers used to conceal their new products until fall, when they paraded shiny new cars into showrooms beneath mounds of balloons and streamers.

Now, pictures of new models appear months ahead of time in magazines and on Web sites, and media previews are held months before the sale dates.

Why the rush?

Chalk it up to the brutally competitive market. Nobody wants to risk having a competing brand steal its thunder, and most companies want to have excitement and anticipation build up over a number a months to strengthen interest - and sales.

Here’s a glimpse at two new products:

Audi A4

This is arguably Audi‘s most important “bread-and-butter” model, which competes in the cutthroat entry-level sports sedan market.

The new model is somewhat larger than the current one, with a much stronger emphasis on performance driving and a heavy dose of technology. The A4 competes with the BMW 3 Series, Infiniti G35 sedan, Cadillac CTS and similar cars. But let’s face it: The big gun in this market segment is the BMW 3 Series.

I would have liked less softness and play in the Audi’s steering system. The other concern with the new A4 is the sheer complexity of all the new technology. While the controls are easy to operate, they aren’t intuitive. This is one car where the owner who skips reading the owner’s manual will not be able to get the most out of what is a pretty terrific sedan.

Power comes from an all-new 2.0-liter, turbo, four-cylinder engine producing 211 horsepower that is expected to offer up to 15 percent better fuel economy, or a 265-horsepower, 3.2-liter V-6.

The new model corners and handles quite aggressively - better than the Audi 4 sedans of last year, excepting special models such as the S4.

The overall performance, handling and enjoyment of the car are greatly enhanced by the all-new Drive Select system that is optional on the A4. The system uses adjustable engine/ throttle mapping, suspension damping and dynamic steering to vary the car’s characteristics to suit the driver’s preferences. You dial in what you want, and away you go.

The interior is contemporary and sophisticated, as Audi always has been, with supportive, supple leather seats that hold you gently in place, along with an adjustable center armrest.

Audi has developed a new trademark for the styling of its models that is being carried on the new A4: the use of daytime Halogen running lights that underline each headlight for a dramatic look.

Honda Pilot

Honda’s midsize crossover has some important changes that owners will appreciate.

First among them is how easy it is now to reach the third-row seat thanks to a wider door opening. There is almost 2 inches more legroom in the new Pilot.

There also is an awful lot more small storage space in the new Pilot, including a nifty center console that is split into three spaces.

You also will see a number of new cup holders, power outlets, tie-down hooks and bins.

And there’s now plenty of room behind the third-row seat for groceries.

Power in the Pilot comes from a 250-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6.

Outside, the Pilot has strengthened its look a bit with some Honda Element-like styling and bolder grill and rear end.

A greater emphasis on styling would help if the Pilot is to compete with the likes of the GMC Acadia, Saturn Outlook, and Mazda CX9, sexy crossovers all. The Pilot comes off as boxy and uninteresting by comparison.

The wheelbase is almost 3 inches longer than the previous model, and the body is much more rigid, making for a safer, more stable product.

Another nifty new feature is “hill start assist,” which keeps the car from rolling backward when a driver switches from the brake pedal to the accelerator pedal.

It includes such things as a new navigation system with voice recognition and rearview camera, a premium sound system, memory seats and mirrors, chrome accent body side moldings, power tailgate and multi-information display with programmable settings, and other items.

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