Most automakers are sharpening the tactic of sprinkling new-vehicle launches here and there throughout the calendar year -- making it more difficult than ever to place a definitive date on the start of the new model year.

Rather than wait for every maker's "embargo" date for releasing detailed '97-model information to come (Hey, folks, about these traditional autumn embargo dates: considering your own escalating predilection for launches throughout the year -- aren't most embargoes akin to closing the barn door after the cows got loose?) we believe a brief "overview" of domestic offerings for '97, with detailed looks later on at all automakers' '97 products, better serves our readers.

Chrysler Corp. folks can usually be found these days on line waiting to make a deposit at the bank, so they've only got time for a few significant launches this year.

* The compact (formerly "midsize") Dakota pickup, long overdue for a remake since its '87 intro, is beefed up with Ram-style sheetmetal, a friendlier, roomier interior and the best suspension and handling we've yet experienced on a compact pickup.

* The Viper RT/10 becomes a coupe for '97 and it's dubbed GTS. As if the 415 hp available from the RT/10's 8L all-aluminum V-10 weren't enough, the GTS goes to 450 hp. The Viper's OEM tire supplier reportedly is ecstatic.

* The company doesn't need any help selling minivans, but we'll see an all-wheel-drive (AWD) option available this year. Some wonder why Chrysler bothers, but the truth is they did pretty well with AWD penetration with the previous-generation minivan.

Ford Motor Co.'s a little peeved that General Motors Corp. bought the downtown Detroit skyscraper that houses a goodly number of Ford's marketing and PR staffs, so Ford's hitting GM where it hurts, in the Suburbs. Suburbans, that is, into whose sales Ford plans to chew with the all-new Expedition sport/utility vehicle (SUV).

Ford's new SUV is sized closer to GM's Yukon/Tahoe, truth be told, but Ford would prefer customers perceive it as a Suburban competitor. Expedition is based largely on the new F-250 heavy-duty pickup and is motivated by a fresh new line of engines, also available for the F-series -- 4.6L and 5.4L SOHC V-8s from the company's new truck modular engine range.

* Ford rather quietly introduced as a '96 its high-performance SHO (Super High Output) version of the Taurus. The SHO was a latercoming '96, so we're treating it like a '97. The little 3.4L DOHC V-8, based on the 2.5L Duratec V-6 and developed in conjunction with Yamaha, is a gem, but we wish the pudgy SHO could shed some of the mass that blunts the new V-8's appeal.

* Ford's not messing around with the best-selling Explorer. It aims to keep it at the front with a new 4L SOHC V-6 that develops 205 hp, a 45-hp grunt injection over the 160-hp 4L OHV V-6 that's still offered. What's more, the SOHC is hooked to a 5-speed automatic transmission, the first 5-speed autobox from a domestic automaker.

GM must make the most of its current truck range, as none are due to be updated for a few years. Last year's Vortec enhancement for the General's light-truck/SUV V-6s and V-8s kept them competitive.

No, GM's focus in '97 is on passenger cars, namely its midsizers, and on its replacement for the APV minivans, perpetual also-rans in the people-hauler segment.

* Chevy, Olds, Pontiac and Buick all enjoy fresh new midsize sedans/coupes. Engines range from the 2.4L Twin Cam in the Chevy Malibu and Olds Cutlass to the supercharged 3800 V-6 in the Pontiac Gran Prix. This new lineup, while not exactly envelope-stretching, is a solid opening move toward recovering precious market share in this vital segment.

* The APVs are history, replaced by the "global" minivan platform that sees GM's Doraville, GA, assembly plant also producing an Opel variant for export. The Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac TransSport and Oldsmobile Silhouette get a solid 180 hp from the standard 3.4L V-6, open up with the two sliding doors that Ford forgot with the Windstar and envelop something like 73 cupholders.

* GM's high line also gets some attention. We all know, of course, about Cadillac's Catera, coming later this year. But Buick has moved the Park Avenue/Ultra to the G-body platform, and the LeSabre, while clutching to the old underpinnings, at least has some new, rounded metal.

* Saturn, the division subject to much discussion of late, soldiers on with the same beginning-to-get-tired running gear, although the SC1/SC2 coupes retire their current plastic skins in favor of improved contours similar to those enjoyed last year by the Saturn sedans.