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Racing to Market

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General Motors has caught and passed Ford Motor Company for the number-one selling vehicle to Hispanics at least so far this year. Ford and General Motors historically run neck-and-neck for top-vehicle honors. That duel is fought with full-size pickup trucks.

Ford held the lead by 2,000 units in calendar year 2004. And so far in 2005, through June, the GM entries (Chevrolet and GMC) lead Ford by some 4,000 units. The figures are from automotive data analysis firm R. L. Polk & Co.

The Ford F-series the best-selling full-size pickup for nearly 30 years is the single-most popular nameplate among Hispanics, as well as all buyers. But the picture changes when numbers for the GM twins (Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra) are combined, based on the reasoning that they are the same truck differing only in the trim.

Nipping at the heels of these leaders are Dodge, with its Ram full-size pickup, and Toyota, with the compact Corolla sedan.

The most popular vehicles among Hispanics run the gamut, from small sedans to brawny pickup trucks. But all have something in common: They are fun to drive, offer solid value for the money (including fuel economy), and feature visually appealing style.

The top vehicles also share another important trait. From the front-wheel drive smaller cars to the larger rear-wheel drive cars and trucks, these favorites are honest vehicles they fulfill their automotive promises minus tricks and tomfoolery.

How the top picks supply that fun-to-drive feeling can vary widely. Sports cars swoop around corners effortlessly. Subcompacts are nimble in traffic and parking lots. Their fuel-sipping can add to driving pleasure as well. Big pickup trucks are satisfying because they are so functional, and most handle relatively well. Like their SUV brethren, the big pickup trucks come with high, wide, and handsome driving positions.

The top vehicles in the Hispanic market also do what they are supposed to do, whether it's economical transportation, mini hot-rodding, load carrying, or people moving. There are no false airs, no empty sizzle it's all steak.

How the Favorites Perform

Here's how these favorites stack up on the road not on the test track but in real-world driving:

Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra

Of the GM twins, the Silverado is Chevrolet's top seller with prices starting around $19,000. The Sierra begins there, too. All-new versions for both are coming in 2006, and spinoff SUVs also will get the new truck underpinnings.

For 2006, Silverado gets tweaks like a "power dome" raised hood and revised grille, nationwide availability of the hybrid model, a new 6.6L diesel, and the combination of OnStar and XM Satellite radio antennas in one unit. The SS hotshot model now comes in two- as well as four-wheel drive, powered by a 6L V-8 of 345 horsepower.

What hasn't changed is the great four-spoke steering wheel and good road manners. Silverado tracks accurately around curves. On straights, it holds the course well. Together with the comfortable seats and fine driving position, the Silverado makes a pleasant cross-country vehicle.

There's plenty of room for passengers in the back seat of the crew cab. Acceleration to 60 mph varies, with extended cabs doing it in 8.7 seconds and crew cabs in 10.9. Base prices range to $38,000 and change.
Naturally all this applies equally to the GMC Sierra.

Ford F-150

The full-size Ford pickup truck comes in a wide variety of flavors. There's one for the youth market, another for off-roaders, one for mainstream truckers, and a posh, top-of-the line Lariat.
The line is versatile enough for the sister Lincoln brand to take an F-150 and turn it into the Mark LT luxury truck starting around $40,000.

Ford's Lariat crew cab is pretty upscale by itself in the $36,515 King Ranch model. It comes with a leather console with floor shift, running boards, power-folding heated mirrors with signal lamps, a leather-wrapped steering wheel that matches the leather of the seats, and lots of fake wood trim. Even the instrument clusters are upgraded to black letters on a cream background with chrome trim around the air ducts.

Beneath the glitter is the basic truck, which despite its heft still drives like a smaller vehicle. It takes high-speed sweeper curves well if not eagerly. Front seats are nicely bolstered with oceans of front leg room. The 10.5 seconds it takes to achieve 60 mph is respectable. The 5.4.L V-8 gets 15 miles per gallon in the city and 19 on the road.

The F-150 has decent room for three in the back seat of the four-door vehicle, making it a spacious and comfortable family vehicle with a large trunk.

Prices start around $21,000 another reason it's a best seller.

Chevrolet Tahoe

The Tahoe full-size SUV from Chevy is built off the Silverado, which is where it gets its muscle. The Tahoe keeps those on-the-road virtues and adds more creature comforts with lots of bins and cubbyholes. There's three-row seating for nine. There's power everything and a multilingual driver information center. The base price for a two-wheel drive starts around $35,000.

Best of all, the StabiliTrak backs up driver input by automatically braking to maintain the intended path. For instance, if the vehicle starts to snowplow or understeer, the inside rear brake is applied. For fishtailing or oversteering, it's the outside front brake. It inherits Silverado's leisurely jaunt to 60 mph in 10 or 11 seconds.

Toyota Corolla XRS

With the sporty XRS, it isn't a contradiction in terms to talk about a racy Toyota Corolla. For a base price just under $18,000, the 1.8L four cylinder comes alive with 164 horsepower. That gets it to 60 mph in a dashing 7.2 seconds via a six-speed manual transmission. No automatic is offered.

To squeeze that kind of brisk performance requires revving the four-banger to a high 7,600 rpm. That's where the real power joins in. Actually that 7.2 seconds came in second gear. The manual transmission requires a firm hand it's a little notchy going into gear. The suspension is commendably firm via front and rear stabilizer bars. Firm also is the ride, which like the rear spoiler and front ground effects, cater to youthful drivers. The XRS is a pocket rocket.

Nissan Altima

The mid-size Altima is much improved over its predecessors.

Acceleration seems brisk partly because of the smaller, race-car styled steering wheel enhances the performance feel. Its 0-60 mph in 8.8 seconds is accompanied by front-wheel drive wheel spin. That's a commendable performance from a 2.5L four cylinder of 175 horsepower. The optional 3.5L V-6 trumps that.

The ride is taut. It's not a comfort cruiser but a sporty one. The driving position is good you can even see a large part of the hood. Prices range upward from about $19,000.

Honda Civic

The Honda Civic may come in a plain vanilla shape, but it earns kudos for its hybrid model that mates gas and electric engines. The result is stunning gas economy: it gets 47 miles per gallon in the city and 48 on the highway.

The 93 horsepower, 1.3L four-cylinder gas engine, even with "integrated motor assist" from the electric, meanders to 60 mph in nearly 15 seconds not quite a record. The hybrid goes for about $20,000 while the regular gas versions start at $14,000 plus.

Inside, the four-door Civic demonstrates its functionality. The gas pedal, despite the 14.9 seconds to 60 mph, is not a dead pedal. Front seats are bolstered and leg room is adequate. Every dip in the road is felt but well controlled. Civic signals its reluctance to zoom around corners with high understeer.

The continuously variable transmission (CVT) provides adequate punch for mid-range acceleration. For the all-new 2006, there are three new four-cylinder engines, 1.3L, 1.8 L, and 2L. The biggest engine turns 160 horsepower and fits the "tuner" hot rod Si Coupe like a glove.

Like the Corolla-Camry, the Civic also points the way to brother Accord with more room, power, and handling, but without the fine tuning.

Dodge Ram

High atop the Ram lineup is the 2006 Dodge Ram 2500 SLT Mega Cab 4x4.

The 5.7L V-8 of 345 horsepower hauls all of this to 60 mph in just under 10.2 seconds. It's a really big truck with 15 more inches of length in the crew cab hence Mega Cab. That allows a first: the back seats recline from 22 to 37 degrees. Other features include anti-lock braking on the disc brakes, power sunroof, fog lamps, navigation screen, leather steering, and power adjustable pedals.

All this is on a 160.5-inch wheelbase that makes U-turns adventuresome. The Ram holds its course well on curves as well as straight runs. With the reclining seats, the back seating feels limousine like. But the jouncy ride (even on smooth roads) isn't like a limo.

The Ram SRT-10 Quad Cab (minus the Mega) goes to 60 in 6.8 seconds using the Dodge Viper V-10 engine. Dodge says if really pressed, that can cut to an "estimated" 5.2 seconds. That's swift in either case. Both are via a six-speed manual transmission. The SRT is started from a red button on the dash labeled "engine start" just like in 1950. Despite its performance-tuned suspension, the SRT is a straight-ahead rocket. Gas mileage is on a par with a 1976 Dodge Monaco V-8: 9 city and 12 highway.

All Rams share the aggressive, 18-wheeler styling that is another strong point. The Mega is priced at $37,280 base and the SRT at around $50,000 with virtually no additional optional equipment. Rams start at $21,500 or so.
Meanwhile, Chrysler Group's own sales figures show distinct differences and similarities between ethnic buying groups.

For Hispanics, the Dodge Ram pickup is by far the favorite: 22 percent of the auto group's sales to the Hispanic market go to this model. The Jeep Liberty, a compact SUV, is second at 12 percent, followed by the Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs at 7 percent. The Chrysler 300 is next at 6 percent and the Dodge Neon, a subcompact, at 5 percent tied with a heavy duty Ram.

Others Making Gains

In the Hispanic auto market, other contenders are entering the fray. For Hyundai, a new sedan, the Sonata, and SUVs are leading the brand's gains. The new, U.S.-made Sonata is outrunning the brand's entry-level subcompacts like the Accent in percentage increases. Elantra, a compact sedan, still leads in absolute numbers.

Also gaining favor are Hyundai's SUVs, such as the Tucson. The Santa Fe, growing larger and more upmarket, is also growing in popularity. Hyundai ranked the most improved nameplate in a recent national quality study.
Showing gains from 2004 into this year are a pair of full-size pickup trucks: the Toyota Tundra and the Nissan Titan.

Regardless of brand, buyers in the burgeoning Hispanic market seem to be sticking to their guns when it comes to what's important: fun-to-drive, good styling, value, and quality.

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