Ford Motor Co./ford.com
Everybody we've spoken with who has driven this loves it (ourselves included). They're amazed by the handling and performance, amazed even by the standards you'd expect for such an obviously super car. From the aluminum chassis to the supercharged 500-hp V8, the GT screams performance. We can even see the $135,000 sticker as a bargain, as if any dealer in the world will sell you one for that price after the half-million-dollar-plus sale of a GT at the Christie's auction in Pebble Beach.
Base price: $135,000 (est.)
What's next: Le Mans? Production could end in '06.
In our opinion: The return of the American supercar. If only they'd given it a new look. Or maybe not.
Highlights: The 40th Anniversary 'Stang gets special badging, three power levels, 193-hp V6, 260-hp V8 and 310-hp Mach 1 V8.
Base price: $18,345
What's next: The '05 model gets all the ink. It arrives next fall.
In our opinion: Wait for the '05-all-new, even better.
* SVT Focus
Highlights: New blue paint, 17-inch Euro wheel design.
Base price: $19,135
What's next: Big changes come next fall (turbo?).
In our opinion: One of our favorites regardless of price or pomp.
American Honda Motor Co./hondacars.com
* Civic Si
Highlights: New head- and taillights, 16-inch wheels.
Base price: $20,000 (est.)
What's next: The Civic gets redesigned for '06.
In our opinion: We're big fans of this little 160-hp pocket rocket.
Highlights: Engine bumped up to 2.2 liters for improved power delivery; revised suspension tuning and tranny gearing.
Base price: $33,500 (est.)
What's next: Few changes due for a couple of years.
In our opinion: We love this great little sportster with its horsepower peaking right before redline.
Hyundai Motor America/hyundaiusa.com
Highlights: The 2.0-liter gets a CVVT upgrade; GTV6 model gets a 17-inch wheel-and-tire package.
Base price: $17,539
What's next: No major changes 'til '06.
In our opinion: An easy, pretty entry into the sports car market.
Nissan North America/infiniti.com
* G35 Sport Coupe
Highlights: Minor updates include revised center console for manual transmission models, standard tire-pressure monitor.
Base price: $29,795
What's next: May get a facelift in a couple of years.
In our opinion: Only the quality of the interior materials mars (and only barely) this otherwise impeccable driver's car.
Jaguar North America/jaguarusa.com
Aluminum is at the core of every improvement in the XJ. The car is 40 percent lighter and 60 percent stiffer than the car it replaces, ripping from a standstill to 60 mph in five seconds, thanks to its supercharged 390-hp, 400-lb-ft V8. Styling changes may seem minimal upon initial glance, but full inspection reveals a rounder body, a higher beltline, and sleeker arches and fender lines-a more graceful sedan all around.
Base price: $74,995
What's next: Nothing on the horizon.
In our opinion: The XJR's supercharged engine really gives this otherwise stately sedan an edge.
* S-Type R
Highlights: Adaptive cruise control now available.
Base price: $63,120
What's next: A slight facelift may come next year.
In our opinion: This is one of the best platforms within Ford Motor's vast fleet, and the R is its most preferable interpretation.
Highlights: Limited-edition ``Portfolio'' XKR includes 20-inch wheels, Recaro seats and exclusive colors.
Base price: $69,995
What's next: Redesigned XK slated for '05.
In our opinion: Little was done to freshen this car. No bother, this remains one of the sexiest rides on the planet.
Highlights: New for '04, with a 5.0-liter, 500-hp 576-lb-ft V10 and awd.
Base price: $165,900 (est.)
What's next: Roadster version debuts late '05 or early '06.
In our opinion: Not a classic beauty, but classic Lamborghini performance. 360 Modena owners beware.
Highlights: Big Lambo carries over from last year.
Base price: $290,805 (est.)
What's next: Expect the roadster in mid-'04.
In our opinion: A supercar icon with intimidating looks and pants-wetting performance.
Toyota Motor Sales/lexus.com
* SC 430
Highlights: No changes for '04.
Base price: $63,200
What's next: An all-new SC bows in about three years.
In our opinion: Uniquely designed, and priced well below the competition; a gentleman's hardtop convertible.
Lotus Cars USA/lotuscars.com
Highlights: Lotus says it will finally bring a federalized Elise to the States this spring. The lightweight (under-2000-pound) ride will feature a new engine with more horses (vs. 156) than the Euro version.
Base price: $40,000 (est.)
What's next: You must be joking.
In our opinion: We've waited long enough.
Highlights: Stiffer suspension, new trim and lowered shift knob carry over to '04 model, the last year for the current car.
Base price: $94,000 (est.)
What's next: An all-new Esprit should appear by '07.
In our opinion: A sports car classic whose time came and went long ago.
Maserati North America/www.maserati.com
Highlights: Carryover from '03.
Base price: $85,561 (est.)
What's next: '03 marked the company's U.S. return after a 12-year absence, so don't expect changes for some time.
In our opinion: The next-best Italian GT-to Ferrari, of course.
Mazda Motor of America/mazdausa.com
Does the world really need a four-door, four-seat, rotary-powered sporty car? Heck, yes! Even if you don't like the funky longitudinal styling, even if you never put anyone in the back seats, even if Mazda overpromised on horsepower by nine or 10 ponies... This car is fun to drive and we need all the fun-to-drive cars we can get. Also, its new Renesis engine's peripheral exhaust ports are just the tip of the increased reliability iceberg compared to the 13B rotary in the old RX-7. So they tell us.
Base price: $25,700
What's next: A two-door and a convertible model (a new RX-7?) could arrive in '06.
In our opinion: Fun, reliable, practical and fun.
* Mazda 3
Highlights: The new Mazda 3 will replace the Protege and Protege5 in December in four- and five-door forms, sharing platforms with the next Euro Ford Focus and Volvo S40.
Base price: $14,000 (est.)
What's next: There has to be a MazdaSpeed out there sometime.
In our opinion: The Protege is fun; this should be even better.
Highlights: Miata carries over for '04.
Base price: $22,388
What's next: Turbocharged MazdaSpeed version arrives early spring '04. After that, an all-new Miata might share the RX-8 platform (and engine?) when it's redesigned for '06.
In our opinion: Still great fun well into its second decade.
Highlights: The CL500 gets the seven-speed automatic.
Base price: $92,370
What's next: Coming late in '04 is the AMG-tuned CL65, upping the ante put down by the 493-hp CL600.
In our opinion: The ultimate supercoupe-that is, until the SLR bows in summer '04.
Highlights: The second-generation CLK coupe made its debut in '03, with its pillar-less hardtop body design.
Base price: $45,070
What's next: For '04 we get cabrio versions of the CLK55 as well as the CLK320 and 500.
In our opinion: Though we prefer the old design (the new one is a little too polished for us), the CLK is the elegant choice for those looking for a luxury coupe.
Highlights: The fifth-gen SL bowed last year; for '04 the SL gets new 18-inch wheels and the addition of an SL600 to the lineup.
Base price: $86,710
What's next: The SL should get a facelift next year, which may include some SLR design cues.
In our opinion: Beverly Hillers' proof of citizenship.
Highlights: A special-edition model is being produced for '04.
Base price: $40,320
What's next: This is the last model year for the SLK before a redesign.
In our opinion: This stylish little ride was once a must-have for young 90210ers, but avoid the Kompressor at all costs.
Highlights: A 600-hp supercharged 5.4-liter V8 should propel this McLaren-built supercar from 0 to 60 mph in under four seconds.
Base price: $350,000 (est.)
What's next: Plans for a convertible to follow seem to have been dropped.
In our opinion: We've been waiting since 1999 to climb in through those scissor doors and try one on for size. With only 500 slated to be built a year, we hope we'll still get that chance.