2009 Kia Optima

  • Competes with: Honda Accord, Toyota Camry
  • Looks like: Honda Accord, Toyota Camry
  • Drivetrain: 175-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder with five-speed manual or five-speed automatic, or 190-hp, 2.7-liter V-6 with five-speed automatic; front-wheel drive
  • Hits dealerships: Late 2008

Not two months after sister company Hyundai debuted a freshened Sonata, Kia followed suit with the midsize Optima. Though the cars shared architecture in previous years, they've been on divergent paths for some time now, Kia says. Where the upgraded Sonata's new face found general acceptance, our reaction to the Optima is lukewarm. The car's sheet metal went from Plane Jane to Frank Caliendo, meaning you can find a good impression of a lot of cars here: the grille and taillights look like those on the new and two-generations-old Accord, respectively; the headlights are all Camry; and the trunk and rear bumper remind us of the Malibu.

Both engines have been upgraded, but the cabin remains mostly the same, save for some cooler electroluminescent gauges in the sporty SX trim level. ("Sporty" is a relative term here, as in, whoa, check out that sporty Camry SE!) Other SX features include 17-inch rims, a sport-tuned suspension and mirrors with integrated turn signals. The LX and EX trims remain, and new standard features include a USB port, which takes iPod compatibility beyond what simpler auxiliary jacks allow. Six airbags and active head restraints are also standard, but we wish ABS and stability control were, too. They're optional, but product strategy manager Ralph Tjoa said that may change before the car arrives at dealerships.

2009 Mercedes-Benz M-Class

  • Competes with: Acura MDX, BMW X5, Land Rover Range Rover Sport
  • Looks like: The current M-Class after a few shots of botox
  • Drivetrain: V-6 or V-8 with seven-speed automatic
  • Hits dealerships: Fall 2008

When we recently tested the 2008 Mercedes-Benz ML550, we were surprised by how good an SUV the M-Class still is in a very competitive segment. In New York next week, Mercedes-Benz will unveil an updated version of the M-Class that promises to improve upon this sleeper of an SUV.

The 2009 model will come in the same trim levels — ML350, ML550 and ML63 AMG — as well as the diesel ML320 Bluetec. All three gasoline engines, however, will get boosts in power and fuel-efficiency, though Mercedes hasn't provided exact figures at this time. As for the mileage claims, our ML550 tester was already surprisingly economical considering the power in its V-8 engine.

Outside, the design gets a little curvier, especially around the front grille. The look is more menacing and more organic. Inside there are slight changes to the design, including a new steering wheel. Most importantly, Mercedes says it has changed the old version's abysmal infotainment unit to a new array of three different choices. We're hoping the new systems are more akin to the ones in the new C-Class.

2009 Pontiac G8 GXP

  • Competes with: Chrysler 300 SRT8, Dodge Charger SRT8
  • Looks like: A meaner G8
  • Drivetrain: 402-hp, 6.2-liter V-8 with six-speed manual or automatic
  • Hits dealerships: Late 2008

Every car really should have a Corvette engine wedged into it. Imagine your daily driver, whatever it is, with the vroom-vroom of a 402-horsepower V-8. Pontiac's engineers live in this world; they've taken the V-8 engine that graced the 2007 Chevy Corvette — the '08 'Vette gets 430 hp — and dropped it into the newly on-sale Pontiac G8 sedan.

Dubbed the 2009 G8 GXP, this rear-wheel-drive sedan comes with either a manual or an automatic transmission, and GM says it'll hit 60 mph in "about" 4.7 seconds. Or, as we like to say, fast.

There's more, of course: 14-inch Brembo brakes rest behind some nice-looking 19-inch wheels. GM also says the suspension has been revised to offer better grip.

The GXP's looks aren't too over-the-top; it has the customary lowered stance, extra body cladding and interior touches. The big news is that you can finally get the wheels that were on the original G8 GT concept car.

The currently top-of-the-line G8 GT, with a 361-hp V-8, starts at $29,310. We'd expect the GXP to have a considerable "upgrade" cost. We'll have to wait for a test drive before we decide if it's worth it.

2009 Dodge Challenger R/T, SE

  • Competes with: Ford Mustang, Nissan 350Z
  • Looks like: A less angry Dodge Challenger SRT8
  • Drivetrain: 370-375-hp, 5.7-liter V-8 with six-speed manual or five-speed automatic, or 250-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 with four-speed automatic
  • Hits dealerships: Fall 2008

It was just a month ago that Dodge rolled out the high-powered Challenger SRT8 production car. Since that car was first shown as a concept, Dodge has said it would keep it low-volume and V-8-powered. We expected the R/T model's 370-hp engine, but we're surprised the company has now decided to produce a less-powerful V-6 trim level, the SE.

The good news is that the Challenger R/T will be the first of the modern-day Hemi-powered muscle cars — the Chrysler 300C, Dodge Magnum and Dodge Charger — to sport a manual transmission. It will have a six-speed manual that bumps power to 375 hp (up from 370), with a 0-60 mph time under 6 seconds. The Challenger SRT8 will also get a six-speed manual for the 2009 model year, as well as a limited-slip differential.

The bad news? We're disappointed Dodge decided it had to produce a V-6-powered Challenger. The new SE will feature the same 250-hp V-6 found in the Avenger R/T. The problem is that the Challenger's weight will bog down what is already a pretty hum-drum power plant and transmission.

Mitsubishi i

  • Looks like: Something a meter maid would drive
  • Defining characteristics: Small size, electric power plant
  • Ridiculous features: "Minority Report" looks
  • Chance of being mass-produced: These are already on sale in Japan, but the chance they'll come to the U.S. is less than 50 percent

Mitsubishi's tiny i minicar has been on sale in Japan since 2006, but the company will display it at a U.S. auto show for the first time next week at the 2008 New York International Auto Show. The gasoline version isn't a concept but a production model, while an electric-powered version called the i MiEV (Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle) is a concept.

The concept i MiEV will sit next to the i at the show and has a small electric motor that the company says is a better performer than the small, 64-horsepower gasoline engine already on sale. It has a lithium-ion battery, and Mitsubishi says it can travel 100 miles on a single charge. The kicker is, the i MiEV will go on sale in Japan in 2009.

The i car (133.7 inches) is a couple feet longer than a Smart ForTwo (106.1 inches) and about a foot shorter than a Mini Cooper (146.2 inches). We'd guess it could pass U.S. safety regulations, but Mitsubishi is pretty mum on its intentions when it comes to putting it on sale in the U.S. That makes us wonder why the company would bother showing the cars at the New York show. Perhaps it just wants some green-friendly publicity.

Kia Koup

  • Looks like: A flashy Honda Civic coupe
  • Defining characteristics: Wedge styling; 290-hp, turbocharged four-cylinder
  • Ridiculous features: Silicone seat implants, neoprene floor, six-speed automatic transmission
  • Chance of being mass-produced: It sure looks ready to go, and we think Kia would be smart to give it the green light

The Kia Koup is a sporty-looking two-door concept that features its share of show-car elements, like a neoprene floor, but it wouldn't take much in terms of styling tweaks to turn the Koup into a production car.

The Koup's front end has a bit of a scowl to it. It has thin, angled headlights, a large lower grille and bumper intakes. Under the domed hood is a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that features direct injection and makes 290 horsepower and 289 pounds-feet of torque, all to the front wheels. Potential production versions would likely offer normally aspirated engines, but it's nice to see Kia going big by putting a turbo engine in the concept. Rather than a traditional manual transmission, Kia has saddled the concept with a six-speed automatic that features shift paddles ahead of the steering wheel.

The cabin has four bucket seats, with white accents for the front seats and rear seats that are completely black. The backrests have silicone padding to enhance occupant comfort, according to Kia.