Several auto analysts believe 1997 to be a watershed year for the industry: If the model year sustains strong sales, it could be the first signal that the automotive sector, like a growing snake shedding its skin, is tortuously evolving away from its boom-'n-bust business heritage.

But to maintain the sort of solid, steady sales that could eliminate the past's often ruinous cycles, automakers know they've got to offer consumers more -- more equipment, more power, more refinement, more technology. That's what the '97 model year's really all about.

You Gotta Have a V-8

Once again, the industry is enjoying a glorious year of intriguing powertrain developments. The need to entice ever-demanding buyers has been translated into an almost embarrassing glut of new engines and transmission advances -- and not one of them's a loser.

1997 might be the Year of the Monkey in China, but it's the Year of the V-8 here. There are at least a half-dozen new or substantially revised V-8s to offer this year -- all, as one might surmise, fitted by manufacturers who plan to relieve customers of considerably more than the average $20,000 new-vehicle transaction price.

The Domestic Camp's star-class V-8 is General Motors Corp.'s new LS1 V-8, reserved exclusively -- at least for now -- for Chevrolet's equally all-new 1997 Corvette. The technically challenged will say the LS1's just an all-aluminum interpretation of the evergreen 5.7L small-block V-8 (in itself not a bad idea), but the truth is that the LS1 has only the most basic of design parameters, its 4.4-inch bore spacing, in common with Ed Cole's four-decade-young small-block V-8. Overhead valves remain, but engineers say designing all the valve gear to operate in the same plane allows markedly lighter components.

The LS1's move to aluminum is good for roughly 88 lbs. (40 kg) in block-weight reduction, and the design boasts in-vogue features such as an extremely deep skirt, six-bolt main bearings, a composite manifold and extended head bolts to ensure extraordinarily distortion-free bores. A tantalizing 340 hp at 5,600 rpm and 350 ft.-lbs. (475 Nm) of torque at 4,400 are the net result -- modest but measurable gains over the already potent 1996 LT4 V-8, which the LS1 replaces. Expect the increased power and lighter weight of the LS1 to positively impact the new Corvette's velocities.

Ford Motor Co. has a new V-8 as well, this one a 5.4L SOHC iteration of the 4.6L "Triton" truck modular V-8. The 5.4L version develops 230 hp at 4,250 rpm and 325 ft.-lbs. (441 Nm) of torque at 3,000 rpm. Ford fits the new 5.4L V-8 in the 1997 F-series and the sure-to-be-a-sellout Expedition sport/utility vehicle (SUV). We also understand that the 4.6L Triton soon will find a home with the Explorer -- ushering in final retirement for the still-effective but aged 4.9L OHV V-8.

The importers know as well that V-8s are the formula for success here, and Jaguar Cars has an absolute gem in its DOHC 4L V-8, fitted in the 1997 XK8 coupe and convertible. Compactness and light weight were design priorities for the AJ-V8; this diminutive brute (Jag says it weighs just 441 lbs. [200 kg] fully dressed) barks out 294 hp at 6,100 mm, with at least 80% of the 290 ft.-lbs. (393 Nm) of peak torque available from 1,400 rpm to 6,400 rpm.

The AJ-V8 is just the third all-new engine for Jaguar in its post-1948 "modern" era, so the company didn't hold back on the features. There's a sophisticated, hydraulically actuated variable valve-timing system, the requisite composite manifold, Nikasil-coated bores that eliminate 15 lbs. worth of cast-in cylinder liners and a cooling system incorporating a dual-phase design that diverts half of the coolant immediately to the cylinder heads and the rest to the bore/block surfaces.

The Jag gang says a variety of displacements could be developed from the basic 4L engine, and more power from force induction is a distinct possibility for the future.

Not to be outdone, Lotus, the World's Most-Loved Little Car and Engineering Company That Nobody Wants to Buy, has shoehorned a 3.5L DOHC twin-turbo V-8 into the wedgy Esprit. Up to now, the Esprit's albatross has been its 2L 4-cyl. dual-turbo engine -- a powerplant that despite its savage 125 hp/L, could never truly play in the supercar league because of its cylinder deficit.

As the Brits say, that's now all "been put right" with the 1997 Esprit V-8. At 350 hp and 296 ft.-lbs. (400 Nm) of torque, the 90-degree V-8 produces a solid 100 hp/L, and like Jaguar's AJ-V8, it's both light -- fully dressed: 485 lbs. (220 kg)-and compact. The new engine's most distinguishing feature is perhaps the single-plane "flat" crankshaft, which eliminates a typical V-8's inherently uneven firing pulses.

Lotus says it can build as many as 1,500 of the new Type 918 V-8s, even though it will make just 400 Esprit V-8s annually. That's 1,100 extras. Needy automakers requiring a modern V-8, displacement negotiable, call 1800-LOTUS.

Less is more for Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s new 4.1L DOHC V-8, scaled down from 4.5L for the all-new Infiniti Q45. The '97 Q is about 200 lbs. (91 kg) lighter than the outgoing model and 2 ins. shorter in wheelbase, so Infiniti engineers thought a lighter, low-friction version of the 4.5L was in order. The new 4.1L's operative numbers are 266 hp at 5,600 rpm and 278 ft.-lbs. (377 Nm) of torque, allowing a 1-mpg increase in city/ highway economy with no penalty in performance.

Audi AG and BMW AG both have let out the seams of existing V-8s. Audi's 4.2L DOHC V-8, now developing an even 300 hp, is a derivation of the 3.6L unit that started life in the short-lived V8 model. It'll be found in the long-anticipated, aluminum-intensive 1997 A8 all-wheel-driven sedan.

BMW decided to juice up its award-winning (our award, by the way) 4L V-8, bulging it to 4.4L. The new engine's 282 hp is identical to the old 4L's, the goal of the exercise being to exorcise more mid-range torque. The twist figure rises to 310 ft.-lbs. (420 Nm), a 15 ft.-lbs. (20 Nm) jump, and it peaks at a handier 3,900 rpm, compared with the old torque peak at 5,800 rpm. A great engine gets better.

Other Engines Count, Too

Eights are the year's overwhelming powertrain story, but there are other significant '97 engines out there.

High on the list is Ford's new V-10, even though it's for now available only in the commercial-oriented Econoline full-size van.

The new 6.8L V-10 is another member of the Triton truck engine family, created by ramming two more cylinders onto the 5.4 Lengine, an easy enough task due to thier modular design. A balance shaft smooths out the problem of having an offset crankshaft for 10 cylinders putting out 265 hp and 405 ft.-lbs. (549 Nm) of torque. The new F-series pickup would be a no-brainer application, to compete with Chrysler Corp.'s V-10 toting Ram, but Ford engineers say the V-10 won't fit in the Fs.

Yeah, they said that about the V-8 in the Explorer, too...

Explorer, by the way, enjoys the addition of a new, all-aluminum SOHC 4L V-6, supplementing the iron-blocked OHV 4L that's still offered. Who would want the OHV V-6's piddling 160 hp when the new SOHC engine develops a robust 205 horses? Can you say "entry-level model?"

Rounding out the new-engine entries:

* Audi blesses its gorgeous A4 compact sedan with a 1.8L turbo-charged 4-cyl. with 5-valve-per-cylinder heads. Some European auto writers say the 5-valver is more entertaining than A4's upgrade engine, the narrow-angle 2.8L V-6, which itself gets a long-overdue upgrade from its 2-valve configuration to the 5-valve heads. The resulting 21-hp increase is precisely what the A4 needs (okay, we wouldn't object to less squidgey damping) to be the world-class compact sedan.

* BMW's 3- and 5-series lineup is more alluring with an upgrade of the longstanding iron-block 2.5L I-6 to 2.8L and all-aluminum construction. As with its 4.4L V-8, BMW wanted better midrange torque. Same goes for the bump to 3.2L for the M3-specific 3L I-6. As if that engine needed to get any better.

* Chrysler's getting a little more power out of its Magnum engines in the new Dakota. We offer a big thumbs-up for the V-8/manual transmission availability in the Dakota, the only such combo in compact trucks.

* Mercedes-Benz AG has a genuine head-turner with its SLK roadster. The gritty, 2.3L supercharged and variable valve-timed 4-cyl. almost is a bonus. We've never tried a 4-pot that feels so right.

Hot New Transmissions

The last place we thought we'd see the domestic industry's first 5-speed automatic was in a truck, but that's where Ford's got it, teamed with the above-mentioned 4L SOHC V-6 in the Explorer.

The new 5R55E uses an innovative "swap shift" design -- it basically couples overdrive with first gear -- to create a "new" second gear between the existing 4R55E 4-speeder's first and second gears.

Customers get the 5-speed auto coupled only with the new 4L SOHC V-6.

GM's also created a new tranny from an existing unit, the widely used 4T60E. The new 4T65E has a unique, dual-chain system that, with development help from its manufacturer Borg-Warner, has the two drive chains running slightly out-of-phase with each other. The design is claimed to reduce much of the noise generated by the chains and sprockets. The 4T65E is earmarked for 6-cyl.-equipped front-drivers.

BMW may ring in late in the year with a true sequentially shifting automatic transmission for the M3. The Sequential M Transmission, soon available in Europe, is more than just an automatic fitted with sequential-shift electronics, as with Chrysler's Autostick. The Sequential M allows selection among the available forward ratios of the M3's Getrag-made 6-speed manual transmission, but electronics actuate the clutch and control an astounding array of related shifting activities, even "blipping" the throttle for perfect engagement of downshifts.

Ancillary Tech

Some quick Ward's Yea and Nay votes for 1997's more interesting non-driveline technology:

Yea to Ford's LED "ground light" on the Mark VIII. When the remote-entry button is activated, small light-emitting diodes placed in the underside of the sideview mirrors illuminate the ground immediately around the doors. Some ask "Why?" We say, "Why not?"

Similar kudos for the Expedition's sideview mirrors, which integrate an LED directional arrow tied in with the turn signals. It provides other road users, particularly those traveling at weird angles to the Expedition, an extra opportunity to anticipate the big SW's moves, and it's all transparent to the Expedition driver.

* Yea to Chrysler for the adjustable pedal box assembly in the Viper GTS. Even short drivers can find a comfortable driving position, and this is another of those innovations that cries out for more widespread consideration

* Nay to everybody who's making cupholders that don't hold. We adored BMW's new 5-series-at least until that first speed shift that left us and the 5's gorgeous leather seats wearing 16 ounces of Frozen Coke. C'mon folks, if you're not going to do it right, don't do it.

* Yea to Cadillac, BMW, Mercedes, et. al. for their awesome, ever-improving traction/ stability control systems. Anything that can keep that old gent with the hat from spinning two tons of Caddy has got to be a righteous development.

* Yea, Yea to Toyota Motor Corp. for its contribution to what we hope will become known as The Return of the Manual Transmission. Toyota's once again got a 5-speed manual teamed with its punchy V-6 engine in the 1997 Camry and brings back its 6-speed manual for a return engagement in the Supra. If Toyota sees fit to do it ....