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The word for top cars on the 2002 Hispanic Business® Buyer Satisfaction Index is "eclectic." The list includes luxury sedans, sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks, sports cars, and retro coupes.

When CEOs of the Hispanic Business 500® companies were asked to rate cars they currently own, their answers yielded the models on the Buyer Satisfaction Index (see table). Despite CEOsí differing preferences in their vehicle selections, they showed consistency in the qualities they value. Responsive handling ranked as the first priority, followed by "fun to drive," dealer service, and styling.

The surprise front-runner on this yearís Buyers Satisfaction Index is the Nissan Frontier, a compact crew-cab pickup truck. Frontierís styling can be described as "machine shop chic." Faux bolts and screws in the plastic, square lines, and an off-road stance make the Frontier look like a road bully. The two-wheel-drive version sits on the four-wheel-drive elevated suspension. Side mirrors are big, and there are nice little running boards in keeping with the overall big-truck theme.

The crew cab provides four real doors with rear windows that actually go down all the way. The truck needs a supercharged 3.3L V-6 to haul all its bulk. Acceleration to 60 mph comes in a loud 10.9 seconds. Tracking around curves demands caution and the ride feels stern on the road. Frontierís base price is $13,199, but amenities and the supercharged engine raise it to a more realistic $23,199.

Jaguar XK-05
The other top car comes from a completely different styling school. Jaguar XKR Ė the "R" is for rocket Ė now comes with a 390-horsepower supercharged 4.2L V-8 that blasts to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds. It features a 6-speed automatic transmission, and top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph.

The cockpit is compact, favoring drivers of medium build. The back seat has room for briefcases. A computer-run suspension system and stability control deliver a taut, firm ride. A true sports car, the XKR carves through curves with surgical precision.

Sophisticated styling makes it look dashing, even at rest. The coupe comes with a price tag of $81,975; the convertible costs only $5,000 more. >p>The Japanese Lexus LS430 is a rear-wheel-drive sedan equipped with a 4.3L V-8 engine. The LS looks plenty luxurious, with lots of leather and wood and a premium sound system. A luxury package gilds the lily with heating and cooling for front seats, power door closers, a navigation system, and a headlamp washer. All for a base of $54,405 (plus $6,895 more for the extras).

Despite a commendable 0Ė60 mph time of 6.3 seconds, the LS feels more like a comfort cruiser. A "Euro tuned" suspension toughens up the ride over more demanding surfaces. The 2003 model has larger tires to help with the handling.

The Chevrolet Suburban, Toyota Sequoia, and Cadillac Escalade (third, fourth, and tied for eighth, respectively, on the Hispanic Business Buyers Satisfaction Index) are "brute utes," sport utility vehicles derived from pickup trucks. Chevrolet Suburban ranks as the originator of the big SUVs, dating back to 1935. In the past it was fitted with flanged wheels for duty as a railroad car; today it gets to 60 mph in a neat 8.5 seconds while providing a stately ride on highways. The driving position is great and the 5.3L V-8 can tow 8,600 pounds. New for 2003, the Suburban features stability control and four-wheel steering in some models. Base price is $39,726.

Toyota Sequoia springs from the Tundra pickup, with its 4.7L V-8. Sequoia breaks the 10-second barrier to 60 mph with a 9.8-second run. It works well as a cross-country companion, especially in the two-wheel-drive version, which improves fuel economy. The driving position is the usual top Toyota accommodation. The ride is a tad trucky and thereís plenty of lean on corners. For 2003, it has a new load-leveling suspension system.

Sequoia comes at a price of $31,265, but the options are tempting. They include comfy leather power seats, a moonroof, and four-wheel drive.

Lexus RX300 is the vanguard of car-based SUVs that aim to provide the practicality of an SUV with the handling of a car. The car heritage brings high styling as well as a nice ride. Inside, the automatic transmission lever is housed in a center pod that juts out from the instrument panel. The gearshift falls easily to hand and the driving position is first-rate. Outside, the styling looks like a streamlined SUV box.

On the road, the front-drive V-6 heats up to 60 mph in a cool 10.6 seconds. It handles curves like a Toyota Camry, the progenitor of the RX300. No new features for 2003 bring it in with a base price of $33,955.

After years doing duty as a larger vehicle Ė including a stint as a four-door sedan Ė Ford Thunderbird returns to its original configuration as a coupe/convertible.

Styling was the key to the original T-Birdís success, and itís still the best thing about the new version. It has the egg-crate grille and a hood scoop, and thereís a hint of fender louvers. Even the side portholes in the hardtop have made a comeback!

Although the original had vague steering, a mushy ride, and seating like an easy chair, the modern T-bird offers sharper steering and a kind of floating taut suspension. Handling stays flat and true around high-speed curves. But this is still a personal luxury car, not a sportster; it works best cruising the beach, not cruising the continent. And if its beauty is only skin deep, thatís deep enough for many car buyers.

The 3.9L V-8 gets to 60 mph in a respectable 7.2 seconds. In keeping with its roots as a luxury coupe, the Thunderbird has a base price of $35,945.

Mercedes S-500
This year the Mercedes-Benz S Class continues its long-winning streak as a top CEO car, tying for sixth on the Buyer Satisfaction Index. Itís a nigh-perfect blend of luxury and performance, going from 0 to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds. The S Class cooperates fully with the driver Ė zipping around curves effortlessly and sliding unruffled over rough roads. The sedan has outstanding legroom, and the 12-way seat makes for a great driving position. In 2003, the styling gets a face-lift and all-wheel drive becomes an option. The M-B S430 retails for $72,515, while the CLK430 (a two-door convertible tied for eighth place on the Buyer Satisfaction Index) sells for a suggested price of $58,315.

Volvo S80ís motto might be "Let us entertain you." The 75th anniversary edition adds a DVD player with two video screens in the front headrests, a refrigerator in the rear shelf (with Swedish crystal glasses), a pop-up navigation screen, an electric rear sunshade, and an umbrella holder.

All this comes in a pretty competent car, too. Twin turbos churn the 272-horsepower engine to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds. Front-wheel drive limits road handling to competent but not exciting. The S80 is another long-distance comfort cruiser, unchanged for 2003, weighing in at $38,450 without options.

Tied for eighth place on the Buyer Satisfaction Index, Cadillac Escalade has a chunky, neo-industrial front end with retro vertically stacked headlights. Inside, thereís leather and wood aplenty; seating is commendably high and handsome. The Escaladeís 6L V-6 gets to 60 mph in a refined 8.4 seconds. The ride is firm, and this SUV comports itself decently on curves. A luxury vehicle based on the Chevrolet Suburban, the Escalade retails for a base of $47,990.

For drivers who liked previous versions of Lincoln Navigator, 2003 will be a very good year. Except for a return of the massive Lincoln chrome, the 2003 model SUV looks nearly the same on the outside Ė itís still the same brute ute. The interior, however, is brand new. Walnut burl trim abounds, and the second-row seating retains bucket seats, a big center console, and entertainment gear. Behind the wheel, the handling gets better this year with four-wheel independent suspension and rack-and-pinion steering. The 5.4L V-8 gets to 60 mph in just under 10 seconds. At a base price of $48,775, itís the top-priced Lincoln on the market.

Since owner satisfaction translates to future sales for an automotive brand, all the cars on the Buyers Satisfaction Index should fare well in the future among upscale Hispanics. (For a look at what CEOs currently own, see table: "Hispanic Business 500 CEO Cars"). As long as manufacturers continue to produce an eclectic assortment of models, CEOs should find a vehicle for every fancy in a nearby showroom.

Ralph Gray is auto editor for "Hispanic Business."

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