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01With the debilitating effects of the economic crisis firmly in the nation’s rearview mirror and new-car sales firing on all cylinders, the 2014 model year is serving up an engaging array of new and fully redesigned models, ranging from family sedans and plush luxury cars to hot sport coupes and utilitarian pickup trucks. We’re featuring 15 of the most noteworthy new models in the accompanying slide show and in the text below. While all are significant, two new breakthrough autos will likely dominate the discussion for several months to come, namely the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

Long known as “America’s sports car,” the iconic Chevrolet Corvette is a big story if for no other reason because new versions are so few and far between. It’s entering only the seventh generation in its storied 60-year history with a major 2014 redesign. Said to share only two components with the outgoing model, the re-imagined ‘Vette brings back a revered name from the car’s Golden Age: Stingray.

Coming in both coupe and convertible versions, the 2014 Stingray’s exterior is radically recast with composite and carbon fiber body panels, yet it bears a certain familiarity that makes it instantly recognizable as a Corvette. Low slung and with the requisite curves and creases it looks like a Hot Wheels toy car come to life, but with performance that should give some exotic sports cars a workout for far less money, starting at just $51,000. A revamped 6.2-liter V8 engine puts an estimated 450 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque to the pavement through the rear wheels via a six-speed manual or seven-speed automatic transmission. When equipped with the available Z51 Performance Package, Chevy says the Stingray is good for a 0-60 mph run in just 3.8 seconds, and that’s only a few tenths slower than the Corvette’s previous ZR1 version that was priced at well over $100,000.

Otherwise, the 2014 Corvette Stingray is lighter in weight but is more structurally rigid than before, with an ideal 50/50 front-to-rear weight ratio that, combined with updated steering and suspension systems and the latest chassis control systems, promise truly tenacious handling. A new Drive Mode Selector allows the driver to tune 12 separate performance attributes according to five different driving situations, including one for use on wet roads and another that enables the engine to run on only four cylinders to garner maximum fuel economy. Shoring up one traditional weakness from the previous generation, the 2014 Corvette Stingray’s revamped interior is driver focused and makes extensive use of high quality materials for a far richer look and feel.

While the new Corvette Stingray solidifies Chevrolet’s presence in the world’s sports car market, the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class virtually redefines the luxury sedan. With the automaker having shuttered its ultra-opulent Maybach line last year Mercedes moves its flagship model considerably farther upscale to fill the gap. Coming wrapped in styling that is both bold and sufficiently stately, the new S Class debuts with a 455-horsepower twin-turbo V8-equipped S550 version and a higher-performance S63 AMG 4MATIC with a 5.5-liter twin-turbo 577-horsepower V8. Perhaps more noteworthy is that Mercedes engineers have managed to pack so many bleeding edge features into the latest S-Class that it’s impossible to list and explain them all in just a handful of sentences.

For starters, the 2014 S-Class is the first production vehicle that can nearly drive itself under certain circumstances. Equipped with a stereoscopic video camera at the front of the vehicle, the car can literally “see” the road ahead and react accordingly to help avoid collisions, adjust the suspension in anticipation of bumps and pavement imperfections in its path and automatically keep the car centered between highway lane markers. The car’s Distronic Plus cruise control affords the closest thing yet to autonomous driving, particularly in slow stop-and-go traffic situations. The car’s gorgeous interior coddles its occupants with an insane list of available over-the-top amenities that include rear seats that mimic a hot stone massage, heated armrests and an ionizing and perfuming feature for the climate control system.

03While much of the new-model-year chatter will be focused on the Corvette and S-Class, there’s no shortage of drama unfolding elsewhere in the auto business for 2014. For example, Acura recently rolled out its own new flagship luxury sedan, the RLX, which replaced the largely overlooked RL. Though it’s a nice enough car in its own right, we’re doubtful buyers will find the new model to be up to the standards of similar models from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. In a good news/bad news situation, Acura sold just 499 RLX units in June (outpacing only the dismal ZDX in the lineup), though that translates into an encouraging 1,459 percent increase over RL transactions in the same period a year earlier.

Similarly, Kia is reaching farther upscale for 2014 with its new top-of-the-line Cadenza sedan. Based on the Hyundai Azera, this is the costliest Kia to date, starting at just over $35,000. Though it comes with a more luxurious interior and offers a few opulent options its showroom sibling lacks, the Cadenza may not make a compelling case for itself as a major upgrade over the less-expensive and similarly sized Optima sedan. Albeit just being introduced to consumers, Kia sold only 1,001 Cadenzas in June, which made it the brand’s slowest selling model (by comparison, buyers snapped up 14,599 Optimas last month).

Jeep brings back the Cherokee for 2014 as a replacement for the former Liberty SUV; perhaps unfortunately it comes wrapped in a dynamically cast exterior that seems to be polarizing among Jeep loyalists who might otherwise expect a somewhat boxier look. Under its power-domed hood the new Cherokee offers a choice of a Fiat-supplied four-cylinder engine or a new 271-horsepower 3.2-liter V6, an advanced nine-speed automatic transmission; no less than three separate four-wheel-drive systems are optional that promise exceptional off-road abilities.

Likewise, Toyota redesigns its popular Corolla compact sedan for 2014 with uncharacteristically fluid exterior styling to help silence critics who have long found the car’s appearance to be too bland. Buyers, however never seemed to mind, as the outgoing-version Corolla continues to outsell all other compact cars during the first half of 2013, and that’s despite lingering in its current form since the 2009 model year.

04Other questions that remain unanswered regarding the freshman new-car class of 2014 include:

  • Is the U.S. market is ready for a compact front-drive Mercedes-Benz, namely the coupe-like CLA sedan?
  • Are the styling and engineering changes made to the redesigned Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size pickups sufficient to surpass their rivals at Ford and Ram?
  • Should the rear-drive full-size Chevrolet SS sedan – coming courtesy of GM’s Australian Holden division – have been the 2014 replacement for the Impala instead of the current front-drive Buick LaCrosse-derived model?
  • Will Jaguar’s seductive new F-Type sports coupe (with a convertible to follow) only serve to make buyers forget about the larger and costlier XK series?
  • Will the new crossover-like four-door Fiat 500L steal the sales thunder away from the similarly cast MINI Countryman?
  • Will Cadillac lose a chunk of sales volume with the steep price increase imposed on its 2014 CTS makeover?
  • Will Infiniti only serve to confuse shoppers by renaming virtually its entire model line, beginning with the new Q50 sedan, or is it a sign of desperation?
  • And finally, how long will it take automotive journalists to stop mindlessly typing “3 Series” when referring to BMW’s renamed 4 Series coupes and convertibles

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