No wonder automakers far and wide are pushing to squeeze months, if not years, out of product development cycles and moving swiftly -- if they already haven't -- toward "flexible" assembly plants that can build a variety of vehicles: Buyer tastes are changing quickly, and if you can't build the right iron at the right time in the right plant, you've got troubles.

Just look at what happened in the 1995 model year that ends this month. Small cars as a group took a 16% hit, with small sporty cars practically dying on the vine.

Luxury cars, hurt in part by the threat of 100% U.S. tariffs on Japanese imports, barely held their own. But some luxury segments were battered. Only the huge, 4-million-plus middle market showed strength, gaining nearly 8% over 1994.

It's no secret where the action has shifted: To what used to be called "trucks," but are really vehicles that are replanning traditional passengers cars at a lightning pace. From 39.8% of total U.S. light-vehicle market in '94, trucks captured a 41.3% in '95.

Looking ahead to the '96 model year, expect that trend to continue as yuppies and boomers opt for what they perceive to be more macho, version, functional and politically correct "trucks" that take on more car-like features (see Rating the '96 Trucks, p.43) as offerings proliferate, especially on the low and upper ends of the sport/utility vehicle markets.

It's a far different story on the car side as the '96 parade begins. Indeed, it may be a year when more models head for Boot Hill than bow as "all-new" cars. Gone is the entire Alfa Romeo lineup plus MR-2, all but one Porsche, the Chrysler New Yorker and Dodge Stealth, several Audi models, the Mazda 929 and MX3 and those still to be announced.

On the endangered list are Ford's Probe and practically all others in the once-hot sporty subcompact group, and such former heavyweights as Nissan's 309ZX and Acura's NSX, whose days seemingly have trickled down to a precious few.

Heading for their last roundup in '96 are General Motors Corp.'s trio of rear-drive behemoths: Chevrolet Caprice, Buick Roadmaster and Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, with others to be revealed.

Now for the brighter side. The survivors, by almost anyone's measure, are much improved over the '95 versions. Nearly all feature dual airbags, tweaked engines and transmissions, superior interiors, and spilled up exterior styling.

Prices, as usual, are going up, flying directly in the face of growing affordability issues as the average car's sticker hovers at $20,000 by federal government estimates. Japanese automakers, who've been forced to raise prices in line with the strengthening yen to the point where they now suffer a $2,000 disadvantage versus the Big Three, may get some relief in '96 if the yen's strength continues to drop as it has in recent weeks.

So what's new for '96? Here's how Ward's editorial staff rates the '96s, starting with the U.S. Big Three:

GM: Wait'll '97

G. Richard (Rick) Wagoner, General Motors Corp. executive vice president who heads North American Operations, tells reporters he finally sees Gm's market-share erosion ending.

If so, it won't be new models that do the trick. Except for Saturn, which is re-designed for the first time since its intro five years ago, it's tough to see much difference between the '95 and '96 GM lines.

The Oldsmobile Achieva, Pontiac Grand Am and Buick Skylark get new interiors and exterior tweaking as they head for major changes in 1998. Chevy's Camaro and Corvette and Buick's Riviera and Regal, among others, get more powerful engines.

But when you scrutinize Gm's huge lineup, little else stands out.

Potential GM winners for '96: Chevy Lumina (midsize price leader), despite its lackluster styling; and the J-cars, getting a fresh start. Potential losers: Cadillac ("They're getting their lunches eaten by everyone," says one editor), as the luxury market continues to deteriorate and even some of Gm's own models chew into Cadillac's share.

Wait'll '97, GM seems to be saying, because entire fleets of new-generation vehicles start phasing in next year, starting with replacements for the W-body midsize cars and re-engineered, re-designed minivans.

Ford: '96 is our year

As our cover story underscores, it's Ford's year to grab headlines -- if nothing more than by default -- as die all-new Taurus and Sable go up against a batch of midsize carryover cars. Taurus will get a mid-year lift when the new high-performance SHO arrives with a Yamaha-built 240 hpV-8 spun off Ford's new 32-valve modular V-8.

Elsewhere in Ford's empire, few cars stand out as grabbers for '96. The current-generation Escort gives way to a new model for 1997, and Thunderbird and Cougar also will soon be phased out and replaced.

Sales of the new-for-'95 Lincoln Continental move smartly ahead of the old model, but Ward's editors aren't convinced it's a trend-setter. And like other luxury models, Mark VIII is hurting; a new special edition LSC with a more powerful engine may help.

Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique, unchanged except for some wand-waving to create a bit more rear-seat legroom for '96, begin to make some movement after a slow start, but their numbers come nowhere near matching the models they replaced, Tempo and Topaz.

Chrysler: A breather in '96

After a new-product barrage that began four years ago with launch of the new-generation LH midsize cars and continued with the JA compacts last spring, '96 comes on as a ho-hum year at Chrysler and the timing may be just right: Chrysler is forced to devote considerable attention to staving off a continuing takeover bid by Kirk Kerkorian.

Chrysler's cupboard isn't bare, however. There's a snappy new Mitsubishi-derived Sebring convertible that, though no technical marvel, has plenty of visual appeal for an affordable 20-grand. And coming soon is the Plymouth Breeze, a price-leader spinoff of the JA-platform Dodge Stratus and Chrysler Cirrus.

Upscale models of the Eagle Vision and Dodge Intrepid also offer "Autostick" for '96, a 4-speed automatic that can be shifted like a manual gearbox. And the Jeep line benefits from a variety of detail and drivetrain changes, including a nice new interior for Grand Cherokee.

But overall, says one Ward's editor, "They've shot their wad .... for now."

Japanese: Year of the tweak

Honda's re-engineered Civic (see sidebar) is the biggest news from the Japanese automakers for '96. Accord gets a facelift by adding the grille treatment of the upscale V-6 to lower-level models, and the Acura TL replaces the sluggish-selling Vigor in Honda's luxury lineup.

Mazda's 626 borrows front and rear styling cues from the upscale Millennia and, reacting to the affordability issue, Mazda trims 1996 prices by an average $195. It's an off year for Toyota as well after a new-product fusillade during the past few years that has included a new Corolia, Avalon and Tercel. Celica gets what one Ward's editor ungraciously describes as a "butt-tuck," and Camry gets ready for a major overhaul in '97.

Lexus makes few changes for '96, but then why should it? It is, as they say, as good as it gets. A new lightweight 5-speed autotrans on the GS 300, however, is said to be the lightest, smoothest most compact automatic in the world.

It's a quiet year for Nissan, too; it has introduced a spate of new models recently and settles for an all-new 130t in its Infiniti luxury line, with a revamped Q45 coming in '97.

Mitsubishi spins off a convertible from the Eclipse platform shared by Chrysler's Sebring, but beyond that it's mostly a year of refinements.

Among the smaller Japanese marques, Subaru sports a new Outback vehicle it claims is a crossover between a station wagon and SUV, and Suzuki intros an all-new Esteem subcompact.

The Europeans: Plenty of action

European automakers, led by BMW, are launching a variety of new

or considerably revamped models for '96. BMW starts with the chopped off, entry-level 318Ti and the limited edition Z3 roadster, followed next spring by an all-new 5 Series. Mercedes' big news is the new E-class coming shortly; Saab has a new 5-door 900 SE Turbo; Porsche narrows its U.S. range to one offering, the 91 1, and Volkswagen offers a price-leader 4-cyl. Passat stickered at $17,990.

Over at VW's Audi Div. the news gets hotter with entry of the all-new autobahn cruiser A4. Ward's editors hail the A4 as the pacesetter for an Audi revival in the U.S.

Koreans: Elantra says it all

Hyundai, with the Accent revamped for '95, gears up for a new, more powerful Elantra next March, while Kia's sole U.S. entry, Sephia, also adds more power and cosmetic improvements for '96.

Meantime, the clock keeps ticking ...

Some evolution, some revolution

EAST LIBERTY, OH -- Honda Motor Co. Ltd. isn't accustomed to making too many mistakes (well, maybe the Del Sol) and it appears to have all the bases covered with the 1996 Civic.

How about bigger, stronger, faster, cleaner and more fuel efficient? That's a modest summation of the new Civic from Koichi Amemiya, president of American Honda and chief operating officer, Honda Americas.

Mr. Amemiya's not boasting. The new Civics -- a 4-door sedan, 2-door coupe and 3-door hatchback -- are bigger, although the previous model's 103.2-in. (262-cm) wheelbase is carried over, including for the hatch, which used to roll on a shorter wheelbase. The new cars are longer, wider and taller, with legroom and headroom increased for all passengers. Always listed by the EPA as a sub-compact car, the '96 Civic has grown into full-fledged compact status.

The new Civic line is faster, without doubt. Credit the move to 1.6L 4-cyl. engines throughout the line (the 1.5L 4-cyl. previously used in some models is canned). Most impressive is the bump in power for the mid-level engine, the lean-burning VTEC-E, a handy 23 hp stronger than its 92-hp predecessor. The VTEC-E achieves California's Transitional Low Emissions Vehicle (TLEV) emissions standard and the 103-hp base engine is the world's first gasoline engine certified to the really rigid Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV) California spec.

If that's not enough, Honda will go where only the brave dare tread by offering a continuously variable transmission (CVT) automatic transmission option on Civic HX models (see p.51). Sold alongside a standard 4-speed automatic transaxle, Honda hopes for 5,000 CVT sales when the unique transmission is available in the first quarter of 1996.

Honda is quietly watching its assembly plant here to become one of the world's most efficient. It's one of three plants worldwide that will phase out the old and begin building new Civics without a single hour of lost production time.

At East Liberty, the new and old Civics were assembled simultaneously. More remarkably, the plant is actually ramping up production -- by 30% -- while it completes the running model change to build the '96 models.