As 2001 winds down, the prospect of a new model year is not its typically hopeful time: The economy, as a whole — which did not look promising before September's terrorist actions — appears unable to support much in the way of bright auto industry forecasts.

The cross/utility vehicle (CUV) segment will be one of the few rays of hope for 2002. For the coming year alone, the segment is forecast to grow by more than 200,000 units. As a rash of new vehicles hits and will continue to enter the segment, the action will be hotter than Las Vegas on the eve of the Super Bowl.

The gambling analogy is not a careless one. Several automakers who have “crapped out” in more traditional segments have big schemes to recover their bankroll in one of the market's only growing sectors. Anyone who doubts CUVs now are the highest-stakes game going need only note that there have been no less than seven completely new CUV nameplates launched in just the past year — and several more are imminent as '02 or early '03 models. New models already launched include the Acura MDX; Audi allroad; Buick Rendezvous; Hyundai Santa Fe; Jeep Liberty; Isuzu Axiom and Toyota Highlander.

So although the CUV segment is forecast for serious growth in a slowing market, the plethora of new models either already launched or coming soon means that gains — or even holding on to existing share — will be hard-fought.

As an example, consider what Honda Motor Co. Ltd. faces with its all-new 2002 CR-V. This car-based CUV, launched in '97 as one of the original “cute utes” that started the CUV movement, was in the PFE (Pre Ford Escape) era the 800-lb. gorilla of the segment: the clear leader with sales easily exceeding 100,000 units year after year.

For 2002, the CR-V is all-new, better than the outgoing model in nearly every measure, and launching into a segment poised for strong growth. Honda's sales expectation for the '02 CRV? About the same as always. No gain.

That's because Ford's Escape entered late last year to the tune of around 180,000 annual units, and Toyota's RAV4 (also one of the segment's progenitors, preceding even the CR-V), which was redesigned for '01, has increased sales this year by more than 100% (through August). Nor is DaimlerChrysler AG's Jeep Liberty to be ignored: After launching this spring, the Liberty snared more than 32,000 sales in just a few months.

Thus even an all-new model of an established favorite doesn't guarantee gains in the ultra-competitive CUV market.

That said, expect the '02 CR-V to make an impact nonetheless. Honda engineers have fitted an impressive new 2.4L DOHC I-4, complete with the new “intelligent” continuously adjustable version of the company's well-known VTEC variable valve-timing system. The new 4-cyl. thumps out 160 hp, a solid 14-hp gain over the whining 2L I-4 it replaces — but more importantly, the larger engine generates 162 lb.-ft. (220 Nm) of torque, which is an immediately recognizable improvement over the old engine's measly 133 lb.-ft. (180 Nm).

Honda also claims a 50% gain in the body's torsional rigidity and a 30% bending improvement. Moreover, the '02 CR-V offers more passenger space in every dimension except front legroom, while the new package trumps even the Escape in all critical interior-volume measurements except front legroom. In fact, the new CR-V offers a considerable 5 cu. ft. (142 L) more total interior volume than Escape, which is no matchbox in that regard (we'll provide an in-depth look at CR-V, including driving impressions, next month).

The other major CUV introduction to watch is the last-quarter release of General Motors Corp.'s 2002 Saturn Vue. There's so much going on with Vue that it's difficult to summarize in the space provided.

In short, a lot's riding on Vue. It's nothing less than: GM's first genuine entry into this import-dominated segment; the first use of the company's all-new Epsilon platform (upon which many future global models are based); Saturn's first-ever product that isn't a sedan or coupe and finally, the new Vue will introduce GM's first continuously variable transmission (CVT) for a production vehicle.

Vue's launch is going to be a highly visible crucible to test whether GM can reverse the perception it's losing touch with contemporary customers. If the Vue fails to make an impact in one of the market's most rapidly expanding and competitive segments, GM has all but exhausted its supply of “why-we-can't-compete” excuses.

Vue appears to be a tall-roofed wagon as much as a sport/utility vehicle — a body style that will gain prominence in this segment — and by most measures should be the packaging equivalent of the already successful Toyota Motor Corp. Highlander, the Toyota-badged front- or all-wheel drive variant of the critically acclaimed and customer-pleasing Lexus RX300.

Vue doesn't just mimic Highlander's basic appearance. Like Highlander, Vue also offers front- or all-wheel-drive layouts and a choice of 4-cyl. or V-6 power. The 4-cyl. is GM's capable and probably underappreciated 2.2L DOHC “global” unit (138 hp here), while the 181-hp, 3L DOHC V-6, like the I-4, is borrowed from Saturn's existing L-series midsizers.

Go for the 4-cyl. Vue and the “automatic” you get is GM's all-new CVT, designed to maximize fuel economy — as much as 11% better, we're told — and eradicate a lot of the gear “hunting” common to 4-cyl. CUVs — particularly when they're loaded up. The CVT incorporates an electronically locking torque converter and a wide ratio spread of 0.44:1 to 2.61:1.

In all, Vue looks to be a thoroughly contemporary CUV package, with the added intrigue of the available CVT. Pricing, of course, will be key, and in this respect it must be assumed that GM won't apply the same disastrously overconfident criterion that helped to torpedo the Pontiac Aztek. In other words, if GM expects to get Highlander money for the Vue, Saturn executives may be seen heading back to their Spring Hill, TN, enclave with tails between legs. After swallowing the bitter Aztek pill, we're confident Vue will be realistically priced, but we'll let you know once we drive it and get the full marketing orders.

Those who might be advised to watch their backs in the CUV segment include Subaru of America Inc., the company that arguably started this whole trend with the acutely timed and executed Outback line of car-cum-SUVs. Subaru pricing has climbed along with the Outbacks' popularity — to the point where $30,000 can be spent. History has proven that if Subaru strays from one of its prime brand qualities — affordability — it does not fare well.

In addition, new, larger packages like the CR-V, the Highlander and the Vue (not to mention the segment's comparative behemoths, Acura MD-X and Aztek/Rendezvous) have dated the tidy Subarus to the point where the combination of tight packages and dear pricing are conspiring against this segment's innovator. Subie's once-popular Forester, for example, was losing ground to the tune of 3% through August.

The remaining question seems to be how fractionalized this segment will become. We were somewhat astonished when Dan Bonawitz, Honda's vice president-corporate planning and logistics, told us that although the new CR-V probably wouldn't gain much volume in the obviously growing CUV segment, it isn't because newcomers like Escape and Liberty will steal it. Mr. Bonawitz asserts that for most CR-V buyers, Escape and Liberty aren't even on their consideration list. It's a situation that mimics, for instance, the midsize car segment, in which import and domestic buyers have divided firmly into two distinct camps.

Price ultimately may prove the other CUV market-differentiator. Those spending for the big-money players in the CUV segment, such as the MD-X, the allroad or the RX300, may consider larger, truck-based packages — that handle more passengers and cargo — if CUV prices continue to escalate too far out of reason.