Several auto makers say ’05 is the “Year of the Car,” which, we think, is code for “truck sales are off.” But by Ward’s count, ’05’s new-car launches outnumber new truck rollouts by about three to one – and that hasn’t happened for a long time.

Ford Motor Co. officially proclaims 2005 as the year of the car, but stops short of giving employees a new Monday holiday to commemorate the occasion. Instead, Ford delivers a one-two punch of new models in two important mainstream segments.

The all-new Five Hundred sedan – not a replacement for the Taurus, Ford insists, but it might as well be seen as such – shares the premium-targeted Volvo P2 platform with Volvo’s S80 and the ’05 Freestyle CUV.

Ford’s critical new entry is launched with a trio of handicaps: unoriginal styling (fat Volkswagen Passat, many critics say); an undernourished powertrain (203-hp 3L V-6 coupled to either a new 6-speed automatic or continuously variable transmission); and the brashly styled, indulgently powered Chrysler 300 series.

The asset side of Five Hundred’s ledger includes gargantuan interior space, quality interior materials and the Ford dealer network, which could sell gumballs in a lockjaw clinic. The best feature may be pricing, however, particularly when compared with Chrysler’s 300, which is a direct competitor.

A base Five Hundred starts at $22,795, and one can be set up with the optional all-wheel-drive system starting at $24,495, much less than an AWD Chrysler 300, not to mention 6-cyl./all-wheel-drive variants of Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.’s nice-but-overpriced and smaller Subaru Legacy and Outback, also all-new for ’05.

Ford’s “other” major car launch is, of course, the new Mustang, replete with brilliantly executed neo-retro styling and nicely revitalized 4L V-6 and 4.6L V-8 engines. Early reports from Ward’s scouts say the Mustang is the real deal, holding out the pony car legacy in fine fashion.

All-new Cadillac STS rear-drive for first time.

General Motors Corp. lays claim to a car year of its own, with three important new entries, one each for the Pontiac, Chevrolet and Cadillac divisions.

Pontiac’s new G6 sedan replaces the longstanding and strong-selling Grand Am. G6 is larger, roomier and more substantial-looking, while adamantly proving Pontiac means to rid itself of its once brand-defining bodywork tack-ons.

Power, unfortunately, comes from one of GM’s weathered overhead-valve mills, this a 3.5L V-6 making 200 hp. The “performance” division’s all-new sedan will have to wait awhile, it appears, for salvation in the form of GM Powertrain’s excellent 3.6L, variable valve timing DOHC V-6.

At Chevrolet, hopes are riding high for the all-new Cobalt, which supplants the hoary Cavalier. Cobalt is on the global Delta front-wheel-drive underpinnings, which already have bowed to reasonable acclaim in Europe. If Cobalt can’t make the grade, GM may let Daewoo and Suzuki take up the global compact-car fight.

And don’t forget Chevy’s all-new Corvette 2-seater. We hear dealer books already are filled for the new ’Vette and its stunning 6L, 400-hp OHV V-8.

GM’s Cadillac tries to slay the European lions in their dens with the intro of the totally redesigned STS sedan, now sporting the outstanding Sigma rear-wheel-drive architecture that gives it parity with the BMW and Mercedes-Benz class stalwarts. In addition to the burly Northstar 4.6L DOHC V-8, the STS can be had with optional AWD. The new STS’ exterior styling is a less edgy but less-memorable variation of the CTS.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. jumps further into the hybrid-electric vehicle game this year with an HEV version of the top-selling Accord. Honda’s latest interpretation – as is Toyota Motor Corp.’s with its upcoming Lexus 400h – is a “power” sell, combining the Accord’s standard V-6 with hybrid “boost” when required.

Honda’s Acura upscale division and Audi AG both introduce new sedans for ’05, the RL flagship for Acura and the A6 midsizer for Audi.

Acura’s RL adds some sorely needed spice to what had become one of the most bland upscale sedans in the market. In addition to a 3.5L SOHC V-6 with a smoldering 300 hp, the RL features a highly advanced, stability-influencing AWD system as standard.

With Audi’s all-new A6, AWD is assumed, but intriguing new hardware includes the first North American look at Audi/VW’s “FSI” direct gasoline injection (DGI) technology for the A6’s 3.2L DOHC V-6. Audi promises increased torque and improved fuel consumption with FSI, which also soon will be seen for other Audi/VW gasoline engines.

bvisnic@primediabusiness.com