SAMUEL EE previews some of the models that will be launched here in the next 12 months
Coming to a showroom near you Dodge Nitro: Chrysler will introduce the model in the second quarter of the year

IT has only been seven days into the new year and already the signs are that it will be a lot more interesting than 2005 - as far as new car models are concerned.

Last year saw just a few noteworthy infusions into the local auto scene, and only in fairly niche segments. There will be more of these in 2006, but with important additions to the mainstream market. One potential volume seller - the Honda Civic - was launched just yesterday, and another from Nissan is next. But with technologies maturing and manufacturing standards already high, it is going to be more and more difficult to raise the bar when it comes to making a better car.

After all, how much more efficient can a new engine be? Or how many more ratios can be stuffed into a gearbox? So expect the focus to be on design rather than on groundbreaking technologies.

Over the next 12 months, look out for the following cars which some manufacturers will be driving into a showroom near you.

DaimlerChrysler

2006 will see the entry of a new nameplate in Singapore - Dodge. Chrysler, which owns the Dodge brand, will introduce it in the second quarter of the year with two models - the Dodge Caliber and Dodge Nitro.

Never mind if they sound like American pro wrestlers, these two models will beef up the Chrysler and Jeep range already here by offering relatively smaller bodies and engines - 2.4 litres. The Caliber is a macho-looking five-door hatchback, while the Nitro is a boxy but handsome 4x4.

At the premium end of the spectrum, the three-pointed star will introduce a sporty crossover called the Mercedes-Benz R-Class.

The compact B-Class and M-Class SUV will also be launched this year but the R-Class should be the most intriguing. Like the CLS-Class before it, the R-Class attempts to straddle a couple of well-defined segments. Combining the attributes of an SUV with an MPV, this Grand Sports Tourer has three pairs of seats, four-wheel-drive, and a seven-speed gearbox. Due to arrive in the middle of the year, it will offer a choice of either 3.5-litre V6 or five-litre V8 engine. As for pricing, it is said to be positioned between a CLS-Class and an S-Class.

Toyota/Lexus

Japan's top carmaker - and expected world No 1 by year-end - is also Singapore's most popular make. That means at least one out of three car buyers should be curious about the Toyota Yaris. Authorised distributor Borneo Motors Singapore will be re-entering a segment it withdrew from about five years ago.

The trendy supermini, which used to be offered as the Echo here, is Toyota's top-selling model in Europe. This cute five-door 1.5-litre hatchback will be launched in the latter part of next month. Costing in the mid-$50,000 range, it will be sourced from Toyota Thailand.

Soon after, in mid-March, the Lexus IS250 will eventually debut here. The long-awaited entry model from Toyota's luxury division is expected to spice up the compact sports saloon market with its sleek new styling and engineering refinement. Its new V6 engine and competitive pricing will no doubt entice those who would otherwise consider the BMW 320i.

Nissan

The Nissan Sylphy will be launched this quarter and no, it will not replace the ageing Sunny. Instead, it will be sold alongside the latter - a stalwart which has helped to power Nissan volumes in the last few years and will be facelifted soon.

Originally called the Nissan Bluebird Sylphy when it debuted at last October's Tokyo Motor Show, the Sylphy will be much larger than the Sunny. Better packaging and a long 2,700mm wheelbase mean that interior space is impressive, so in terms of size, the Sylphy is more of a replacement for the Primera.

And like recent new Nissans, the Sylphy will also go upmarket. But the most tantalising aspect of the car has to be its engines. There will be two - 1.5 litres and 2.0. That means one for COE Category A and one for Cat B.

Jaguar

That sexy Continental coupe otherwise known as the Jaguar XK is scheduled to arrive early in the second quarter. No prices have been released yet, but they are likely to be at least comparable to the previous car.

Like the XJ saloon, the all-new XK is all-aluminium. Apart from its stunning looks, the XK will also set the benchmark for safety standards in the sports car segment. It will be the first in the world with a pop-up bonnet that deploys on impact with a pedestrian and rolls him or her away from the hard vehicle areas to minimise injury. Beauty, it seems, is also compassionate.

Audi

The Audi Q7 will arrive in the middle of the year to give the sporty German marque a long-overdue SUV model.

Based on a lengthened platform of the Volkswagen Touareg, the enormous Q7 boasts three rows of seats for amazing cabin space and versatility. There is room for seven normal-sized adults - not hobbits - plus their luggage. It also has quattro all-wheel-drive for confident handling and 3.6 or 4.2-litre direct injection engines for enough power to move it.

Prices are likely to be in the $250,000 region.

Also with the same normally aspirated 4.2-litre V8 but infinitely more breath-taking is the Audi RS4. With 420 hp and the latest generation quattro technology, this souped-up saloon is sensational. Zero to 100 kmh is in the bag at 4.8 seconds and handling is electric.

Who would have thought that an unassuming four-door car could have more sex appeal than Beyonce? The German high-performance sedan segment has a new benchmark.

Volvo

The sensuous new Volvo C70 with its clever retractable hardtop is set for a second-half debut here. This pretty four-seater convertible is shorter and lower than the first-generation car. Its proportions are further enhanced by the three-section rigid roof, which produces a sleeker profile than competitors with conventional two-piece hardtops.

As with all Volvo models, the C70's safety credentials are way up there. It features the world's first door-mounted inflatable curtain. And like the S40 platform it is based on, the C70 will have similar inline five-cylinder engines for its 2.4i and T5 turbocharged versions.

Saab

A bold redesign of the Saab 9-5 will be launched next week. First unveiled in 1997, this large Saab with the spacious cabin and huge boot was showing its age before the extensive nose job. Now, it resembles the recently introduced 9-3 SportCombi and also boasts a mildly reworked interior. The chassis has been uprated for sportier handling, and the rear track slightly widened. Two versions are offered - the 2.0t and 2.3 Aero.

Hyundai

A brand new version of the once popular Hyundai Santa Fe is due in March. It is vastly different in terms of looks - it is prettier and more conventional - and there are now three rows of seats.

The mid-sized SUV will only have one engine option henceforth - a new 2.7-litre unit - and it should to be priced at the higher end of $80,000.

At the height of its popularity three years ago, the Santa Fe represented a lot of car for cost-conscious shoppers. These SUV buyers have since moved on to other models, like the compact Hyundai Tucson, for example.

Another familiar name, the Hyundai Elantra, will appear towards the end of the year.

Kia

The new Kia Magentis has undergone a radical 'modernisation' in the looks department. Known as the Optima in some markets, this two-litre Korean model is longer, wider and taller than its predecessor and has had its wheelbase lengthened. Interior packaging is better and the boot is also larger.

After the Magentis' grand entrance early this year, the third quarter will see an all-new Kia Carnival. This large MPV will be longer and have a bigger engine (2.7 litres, up from 2.5). Previously a seven-seater, it can now take eight passengers.

Porsche

2006 will be the year when a Porsche as large as a terraced house manages to go even faster. The Porsche Cayenne Turbo S will be available in the second half with 520 horses, or 70 hp more than the Cayenne Turbo - until now the fastest Porsche SUV. Acceleration from zero to 100 kmh is 5.2 seconds, or 0.3 seconds less than the Turbo.

But performance is about the only enhancement for this SUV model. It will not be facelifted yet. With the Stuttgart-based sports-car maker closely guarding all information about its upcoming models until very much closer to their launch dates, there is no word yet on when the Cayenne will arrive with a restyled nose and lights to bring it cosmetically closer to the 911 and Boxster.

Another turbocharged model to zoom in will be the Porsche 911 Turbo. One of the last variants of the current 911 coupe to arrive, the new car is rumoured to be more visually exciting compared with the widebody Carrera 4S - unlike with the previous-generation model.