AUSTIN, TX - Forget the purpleness of the Prowler, the vigor of the Viper. The 1998 Intrepid and Concorde are the cars with which Chrysler Corp. ultimately must win the hearts and minds of American buyers.

Chrysler doesn't particularly want customers to quit buying trucks - something they're doing more of than ever before - it's just that it would be nice if the folks stopping in at the dealership would show a little more interest in cars.

Chrysler, more than either Ford Motor Co. or General Motors Corp., could stand to sell a few more cars in relation to trucks. Detroit's Big Three automakers all are losing market share in passenger-car segments, and it's beginning to get embarrassing, not to mention expensive.

It was just five years ago when the first of Chrysler's brand-new LH-platform cars were launched as 1993 models - and it's easy to forget that the original Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde and Eagle Vision (along with some help from the Jeep Div.) are the cars that truly pulled Chrysler back from the brink: The first-generation LHs were daringly styled, generously and intelligently packaged and, best of all, weren't K-cars.

Those cars' shapes became the pitons in Chrysler's climb to an industry-leading reputation for out-there styling, and sales the first few years proved satisfying. But then Americans found fascination with light trucks and sport/utility vehicles (SUVs) - and the LH's numbers tapered off.

Now its up to the second-generation models to test the waters, to see if customers want to return to cars. To see if assertive styling can sway a public bent on buying trucks.

The look of the new LHs (Chrysler would prefer, by the way, if we didn't lump the new cars under the catch-all LH platform designation) certainly won't hurt. The Dodge Intrepid comes to production the effective twin of the gorgeous and aggressive Intrepid ESX concept car. The Chrysler Concorde haunts with suggestions of Jaguar and even Ferrari.

Okay, then. Most will agree there's winning styling here. What about the package?

Chrysler's engineers didn't fiddle with the 113-in. (287-cm) wheel-base, but there's more room inside, most of it for rear seat passengers - there's 2.5 ins. (6 cm) more rear legroom for the Concorde, which employs a longer body that will be shared with the upcoming LHS model - but slight decreases in front and rear headroom and front legroom. You can have a party in the back seat, but the overall profile is a bit lower.

Most laudable, however, is that the 1998 Concorde weighs 95 lbs. (43 kg) less than the first-generation car. In these times of ever-escalating curb weights, we must take comfort in any reduction at all.

Chrysler engineers say there are virtually no carryover parts in the chassis of both cars, but the front suspension remains MacPherson struts and coil springs and a single transverse lower link. At the rear there are struts, coils and two lateral links and a single trailing link. Thankfully, too, there are disc brakes at each corner with fancy new calipers engineers say reduce wear.

The family of overhead cam V-6 engines is entirely new and all-aluminum (see WAW - Dec.'96, p.101). The base powerplant is the 2.7L DOHC V-6, which exerts a healthy, if high-revving, 200 hp at 5,800 rpm; it's in the Concorde LX and the Intrepid. A 3.2L SOHC V-6, based on the outgoing iron-block 3.5L V-6, makes 225 hp at 6,300 rpm and 225 ft.-lbs. (305 Nm) of torque at 4,000 rpm for the Concorde LXi and Intrepid ES. Power is carried to the front wheels by a standard 4-speed electronically controlled automatic. Chrysler's shift-it-U-self Autostick can be had with the Intrepid ES.

Both cars handle in a benign if somewhat blase manner - they never really let the driver forget they're large cars. But Chrysler admits the main goals for the '98 models were better refinement and more of a "quality" driving experience.

To improve those attributes, engineers went after body structure. The $2.1 billion program delivered a 20% increase in bending strength and a 37% boost in torsional rigidity. It's apparent in how stable the cars feel while turning and while traversing rutty pavement. No moreshaking steering columns, thanks very much.

Chrysler had made only preliminary runs at pricing at the press preview, but promised, as we've come to expect in this model year, pricing close to that of the outgoing models, which sits the cars roughly in the $21,000 to $27,000 range. As with the previous-generation LHs, that's a lotta metal for the money.

Buyers are laying out similar green for Accords and Camrys, significantly smaller and noticeably less stylish cars. The new Chryslers beat those midsizers on power, too. How well Chrysler's new twins sell may be a bellwether of near-future domestic competitiveness in the large and midsize passenger car segments.

Here's some insight into how important the light truck market is to the Big Three. Chrysler Corp. launches its all-new LH cars - which would be a blow-out preview by almost any automaker's standard - and they have to share the limelight with the similarly all-new Dodge Durango sport/utility vehicle (SUV). The ultimate hedge bet.

During the twin press previews, Chrysler President Robert Lutz told a reporter that Chrysler wasn't worried about trucks accounting for a disproportionate share of Chrysler's production mix. In fact, he asserted, Chrysler might just start cutting back on cars - which he in essence admits are loss leaders - and throw that money at bringing out even more types of trucks/SUVs.

If they're as spot-on for the market as the Durango, we can see the reason for this philosophy.

Durango's based on the bigger-than-compact-but-smaller-than-fullsize Dakota pickup. The shape is deadly good, with the Dakota's aggressive front end and a mini-Land Cruiser look to the rest. Inside, there's seating for as many as eight (optionally). And honestly, eight adults could fit - at least for brief trips.

The size, bigger than a Blazer and smaller than an Expedition, is bound to appeal and it combines with the hunky but hip looks for an instantaneous feeling of just-rightness.

To finish off this case study in perfectly executed and precisely timed market evaluation, the first Durangos will be offered only with V-8 engines - which will only ensure the dealership feeding frenzy. The base unit for Durango SLT is 5.2L of good 'ol OHV V-8 that delivers 230 hp and a satisfying 300 ft.-lbs. (407 Nm) of torque. Optional for SLT and standard for SLT+ (Chrysler's nomenclature, not ours), is a punched out 5.9L good for 245 hp and 335 ft.-lbs. (454 Nm) of torque.

The only available transmission is a 4-speed electronically controlled automatic. There are no fewer than three different transfer cases to transmit either full-time 4-wheel-drive or part-time 4-wheel-drive. There currently is no 2-wheel-drive-only model. In mid-'98, Chrysler says, there will be a 3.9L 6-cyl. ST model, and presumably this is where 2-wheel-drive will be available.

Price apparently won't be a hangup. The SLT+ base prices at $29,175, and many a buyer could be perfectly happy with that and nothing else. Of course there's plenty with which to adorn the Durango, including leather and separate rear air conditioning.

The Durango is a superbly packaged and equipped product, right from the start. About the only potential glitch we see is the messiness of the transfer case shift lever sticking out of the floor in a manner that seems so unnecessary in this era - and the fact that shifting between 2WD and 4WD high and low must be done at all. But Dodge Truck marketing folks say that's the way Dodge buyers want it and wouldn't have anything as namby-pamby as a pushbutton to engage 4WD. But just in case, a pushbutton could be added.

If ever there was a vehicle right for this very moment, Durango surely must be it. The only question is how many Chrysler dares commit to make.