The Big Three. Think of it: for decades, the journalist's best friend - a shorthand method to refer to the country's major automakers, Chrysler Corp., Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. Only you didn't have to take up an entire line naming them all. Just say, "Big Three."

And every year, people would talk about the new cars from The Big Three.

But the new models for 1999 are the last we'll be able to refer to as such. Next year, now that the Daimler-Benz AG/Chrysler merger is churning closer to reality, we'll have, depending on your perspective, cars and trucks from the Big Two. Or Big Two-and-One-Half. Or The Big Four.

So here are the highlights of the Big Three products, circa 1999.

Some might deem it a relatively quiet year. A new sport/utility vehicle (SUV) from Chrysler, GM's most important product of the decade, movement from all three automakers to spiff up the minivan segment. And as expected, practically nothing of note in just plain passenger cars.

Whatever one's assessment of the historical significance of 1999's new vehicles, it is an extremely noteworthy model year: The last from the Big Three.

C ars? Puhleeese. If you haven't noticed, Ford happens to be in the truck business.

Sure, the '99 Mercury Cougar, already on sale, has launched to favorable reviews. And next year's Focus might be killer. But this year, cars aren't the story.

Except for the Mustang. The new-and-improved '99 doesn't come until later this fall, but it features a substantive restyling enhanced by some retro touches, up graded engines and, for the Cobra - hold your breath, now - an independent rear suspension (and it's only 1999!).

The folks at Ford Public Affairs, terrified we'd upset its idolatrous relationship with the "buff" magazines, refused to let us near its chassis people to provide you with an early idea of what's going on with the Stang's new independent rear-end. That's even though we promised we wouldn't use photos. See you in November for Mustang details.

Meantime, on to the trucks. There's a new grille on the Expedition, an eggcrate-like job that mirrors the minor restyling of the '99 F-Series.

OPEC alert: Midyear, Navigator gets jazzed with an engine upgrade. Navvy ditches its Triton 5.4L SOHC V-8 for a newly created Intech 5.4L DOHC V-8. The 5.4L Intech delivers a resounding 300 hp, a 70-hp leap over the Triton that makes the '99 Navigator the most powerful SUV on the market.

Everybody seems to be searching for new minivan niches, too. Problem is, the new 4-door Windstar's nestled into a niche where others have long been bedded (see sidebar). The Villager is substantially redesigned and gets a much-needed power boost from the new 3.3L SOHC V-6.

For the safety-niks, several Ford/Lincoln/Mercury vehicles, like the Explorer, Continental, Town Car, Mountaineer and Cougar, enjoy the addition of either standard or optional front-rider side air bags. Ford says other car lines eventually will get the bags, too.

Finally, Ford says all 50 states will see SUVs that breathe cleaner - to Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV) truck standards. A California Windstar will emit at Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) levels.

The construction crew is ready to hang that new DaimlerChrysler logo on the House That Lido Built, but not before the assembled might in Auburn Hills spit out a new Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The '99 Grand (see sidebar) doesn't come a moment too soon, either. Cadillac's got a new SUV, Lincoln's throwing some serious power in the Navigator, and Mercedes is weighing in with a V-8 M-Class to boot.

Chysler appears ready. The new Grand Cherokee gets its optional grunt from a new, 4.7L SOHC V-8 bringing 230 hp and 295 ft.-lbs. (400 Nm) to all four wheels through an equally new 4-speed automatic transmission and a new-era all-wheel-drive system, Quadra-Drive.

Another notable Chrysler '99 model is the Euro-sized 300M, the last of the new-in-'98 LH trio that includes the Dodge Intrepid and Chrysler Concorde. The 300M is the snazziest of the group, features the tightest handling and carries a time-honored name. Power comes from the new 3.5L SOHC that barks out a V-8-like 253 hp.

Plymouth Prowler, selling like tofu at a Texas barbecue, gets a desperately needed shot at credibility by having its limp old 3.5L V-6 replaced by the LHS/300M's new-generation 3.5L, producing the same 253 hp. But engineers claim they did a lot of tweaking to make those 253 horses respond in a more Prowler-like demeanor.

And Chrysler's not sitting on its hands watching its best-selling minivans continue to merely best-sell. There's an engaging new Dodge Caravan ES, a model attempting to bridge the all-too-wide gap between the terms "minivan" and "performance."

Visually, the ES treats with a newly styled grille, a rear spoiler and 17-in. tires as standard. Then you get the largest available engine - although Methuselah was the chief engineer, I think - the 3.8L OHV V-6, developing 180 hp. Now hook up the AutoStick manual-automatic

4-speed transmission, and have as much fun as you can in a minivan.

In The Headlights: Driving the '99 Grand Cherokee

I didn't drive the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee on the Paris-Dakar rally, but a few hours on the axle-rattling off-road course at Chrysler Corp.'s Chelsea, MI, Proving Grounds wasn't a bad way to break it in.

To think that this chariot has become the preferred conveyance of suburban mall mavens and upscale soccer moms. What a waste of automotive agility. At least splash through that mud hole in the next subdivision beyond yours.

We definitely scraped bottom more than once at Chelsea. And it took me the third try to negotiate the mud-caked logs piled at about a 60-degree incline.

But the Grand Cherokee took its lickin' and kept on tickin'. Sentencing this vehicle to life imprisonment in suburbia is a serious miscarriage of automotive justice.

It's not just the new 4.7L aluminum headed V-8 that impresses. There is part of the course where you take the left front tire into a hole deep enough to swallow the whole corner of the truck. Because of Grand Cherokee's new Vari-Lok differential system - which maximizes the traction of the wheel with the most traction - we dipped into, dropped, climbed over and out.

As it happens, the Jeep engineering team had a Mercedes-Benz ML320 to conveniently aim at the same mammoth sinkhole. By the time the front tire bottomed out, the M-Class was nearly standing on its nose. The message to Mercedes intenders was clear. Don't try this at home.

The message to Grand Cherokee shoppers: Don't buy this vehicle to keep up with the Joneses. It's capable of so much more than that.

A small assortment of '99-model details:

n The '99 Windstar's self-sealing tires seem like a good idea. Who wants the hassle of those expensive run-flats?

n The new GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado's Driver Message Center displays 18 different messages on a 3-line LCD display just like those newfangled traffic-alert message boards. Cooler still: Hold down the trip odometer stem for four seconds for a display of how many hours the engine's been in operation. Just like the big-rig guys!

n Will someone please fix those rattling sliding doors on every GM minivan we've tried?

n The '99 Ford Expedition/Lincoln Navigator offer a market first with electrically adjustable throttle and brake pedals. A good idea a long time in coming.

n Sometimes, you just gotta love Chrysler. What's the first thing they tell you in the press kit for the new 300M? It's got an "unlimited top speed" powertrain control module. Chalk one up for human independence from the microchip.