It’s getting interesting out there. No longer are fleet buyers presented with a lineup of cars which, even though they sport different badges on their grilles, are essentially similar in looks, driving feel, and equipment. Slowly, subtly, fleet-targeted models are becoming interesting, fun-to-drive vehicles. Manufacturers are offering a wider selection, plus more standard equipment, on current models. The 2002-model year buyer, fleet or retail, is presented with a growing number of choices from which to make a selection.

New platforms, new models on ex-isting platforms, and dramatic new styling are part of the offerings. In an effort to attract buyers in a year of slowing economic growth, content and value have been increased on many models.

There are new offerings in every vehicle category, from compact and mid-size sedans, through minivans and SUVs, to the most exotic luxury and sports/specialty vehicles. Here is a brief look at some of the new car models that will bring more utility, more comfort, and more pleasure, to fleet drivers.

Cadillac CTS

Although it is called a 2003-model, the CTS will be offered for sale in early 2002, and as such it represents an extremely important move by General Motors. This is the first car to be devel-oped from the new Sigma platform. This new platform is designed for vehicles with rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive, and will be used for other GM models in the near future. In the Cadillac CTS, a 3.2L DOHC V-6 is mated to a choice of five-speed automatic or manual transmission to provide the level of performance desired by the driver. This is the first manual transmission offered by Cadillac since 1951. Suspension is independent all around. The car was benchmarked against BMW models during development, and testing was carried out on Germany’s historic Nurburgring road race course.

Toyota Camry

After several years as the best-selling car in the U.S., Toyota decided not to leave well enough alone, and has launched the 5th generation Camry for the 2002-model year. Except for the V-6 engine, which has been substantially improved, the rest of the 2002 Camry is all-new. The four-cylinder engine is truly all-new, developing more power and using less fuel to do it. Wheelbase has been extended, and most of the extra length has been used for increased leg-room in the cabin. Base-level LE models, which will make up 65 percent of the model mix, ride on 15-inch wheels, while upper-level XLE, which will make an additional 15 percent of the mix, and sporty SE models, which will comprise 20 percent of 2002 Camrys, use 16-inch rubber. Suspension on the SE model is firmed up for sportier handling. All models offer a GPS navigation system as an option.

Nissan Altima

All-new truly describes the 2002 Nissan Altima, which has been repositioned in the marketplace to compete more directly with Accord, Camry, and Taurus. The car is built on a new platform, which gives it a 7-inch longer wheelbase and 5 inches greater overall length. New engines include a 2.5L DOHC I-4 that develops 175 horsepower, and a 3.5L V-6 producing 240 horsepower. The 4 is equipped with a balance shaft to smooth its output, and carries a ULEV emissions rating. Nissan’s strategy is to replace the former entry-level Maxima with the Altima, while moving the rest of the Maxima range upscale to slot in just be-low the Infiniti lineup.

Mitsubishi Lancer

Mitsubishi has replaced its entry-level subcompact Mirage with the Lancer. Lancer is an all-new vehicle, offered in three trim levels, and with a new, more powerful engine. Previous-generation Lancers have been available in the Euro-pean and Asian markets, but this is the first time the Lancer badge has been offered in the U.S. Wheelbase and overall length are increased by 4 inches over the Mirage, which benefits both ride and interior space. Power windows, power door locks, and air conditioning are standard on all trim levels, as is a 100-watt stereo receiver with CD player. An 8-way adjustable driver’s seat and a height adjustable steering column are also part of the standard equipment. Options include ABS brakes.

Jaguar X-Type

Jaguar, after casting an eye over other luxury car makers who have entry-level models, decided to go that route as well. The result is the X-Type, slotting into the market alongside the 3 Series BMW and the Lexus IS models. Since a front-wheel-drive Jaguar would be anathema to tradition, Jaguar engineers took the platform offered them, the European Ford Mondeo, and converted it to all-wheel-drive. They then massaged the suspension to make sure that none of what the company calls “Jaguarishness” would be left out. The result is a car that feels, performs, and handles like a Jaguar, without the enormous cost load caused from development of a whole new platform. Styling evokes past Jaguar models, while interiors are slathered with polished walnut and fine leather.

Ford Focus ZX5

For the 2002-model year, Ford is adding the Focus ZX5 five-door hatch-back to the Focus range. The ZX5 is a sedan version of the successful ZX3 hatchback coupe. It is similar to the model which was voted car of the year for MY-2000 by European automotive editors. A split folding rear seat allows combinations of passengers and cargo to be carried easily, and it offers more rear seat comfort than the three-door ZX3 model. The twin-cam 2-liter engine can be coupled to a 4-speed automatic or a 5-speed manual transmission. Options include power windows and mirrors, and a six-disc CD changer in the dash.

Acura RSX

Acura has been going through a process of converting its model names to alpha-numeric designations. The latest version of this change is its entry-level model, which left 2001 as the Integra, and enters 2002 as the all-new RSX. RSX is offered as a hatchback coupe only, in two trim and performance levels. The RSX has a 2.0L DOHC I-4 that delivers 160 horsepower at 6,500 rpm. Im-provements to the valve timing system in the RSX Type S allow the engine to put out 200 horsepower at 7,400 rpm. RSX delivers its power through a 5-speed manual transmission or a 5-speed automatic with optional manual control. The RSX Type S uses a 6-speed manual transmission to deliver its power. Automatic climate control and an audio sys-tem with CD player are standard on both versions. Leather upholstery is standard on the Type S.

Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix

A collaboration between General Motors and Toyota, will be rolling out the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix wagons in early 2002. While not quite identical twins, they are built on the same new Toyota Corolla platform. The Vibe will roll off the line at the joint GM/Toyota plant in Fremont, CA, while the Matrix will be built at Toyota’s plant in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. The two vehicles offer a choice of front- or all-wheel drive systems, with manual or automatic transmissions. Top-line versions will incorporate the 180 horsepower engine used in the Toyota Celica GTS, while less sporty models will have 130 horsepower.

Mazda Protege 5

The Mazda Protégé 5 looks like a wagon, works like a wagon, and sure enough, the company calls it a Sport Wagon. Based on the Protégé platform, it gives buyers who want an economical vehicle but need extra carrying capacity an alternative to a small SUV. Power comes from a 2.0L I-4 which is coupled to a standard 5-speed manual transmis-sion, with a 4-speed automatic optional. Suspension is independent all around, with 16-inch wheels and disc brakes at each corner. A roof rack is standard.