Japanese Luxury, Without The Sticker Shock

It wasn't long ago that Japanese cars projected an image of reliable, economical transportation. But Lexus and Infiniti changed that as they charged into the U. S. luxury market two years ago with highly styled cars aimed at breaking the German hammerlock on the high end.

Now, the Japanese are redefining the class between the two, a near-luxury segment of $20,000 to $30,000 family sedans. It's a bridge for baby boomers who've outgrown the Toyota Camry but can't stomach the payments on a $42,000 Lexus LS 400. These image-conscious folks may overlook their father's Oldsmobile or Mercury, cars that traditionally monopolized the class.

Perhaps the best--and most expensive--of the handsome new Japanese entries is the Mazda 929. It starts at $27,800, but that gets you features not available on most cars. The passenger airbag, for example, is standard.

SOLAR COOLING. What really sets the 929 apart is precocious styling. The dashboard curves around the driver with forms that go beyond the so-called organic shapes of today's most advanced cars. Especially note the trapezoidal air-conditioning control panel, with its analog clock, that fits to the contours of the dashboard. Exterior styling is a bit reminiscent of a classic Jag.

Then there are the options. Compact-disk players and heated leather seats are commonplace on all these cars. But for just over $30,000, Mazda throws in a solar ventilation system. In hot weather, solar cells built into the sunroof power tiny exhaust fans that remove hot interior air from a parked car, cutting the time it takes to cool it down by 30%. On cooler days, the cells give the battery a boost.

As opposed to the finesse of the Mazda 929, the Mitsubishi Diamante puts its technology in your face. It starts at $20,000, but the LS version, with a 202 horsepower engine and $25,135 base price, is the true flagship. The impress-your-neighbor gadgets, many of them unnecessary, can boost that to over $30,000.

The Euro-handling package, for example, incorporates a traction-control system, a practical enhancement that keeps the rear wheels from spinning on slippery surfaces. But it also includes "trace" control, which annoyingly cuts back the power during hard cornering. Another button switches the suspension to "sport," changing the Diamante's velvety ride to one that's uncomfortably harsh.

The new aspirants from established luxury brands Acura and Lexus take a more conservative tack. Both adapt styling cues from their upscale brethren.

The Lexus ES 300 is a copy in miniature of the LS 400. The $25,000 sedan mimics the LS 400's electroluminescent display with a less expensive version and uses the same type of key, with its tiny remote-control button that unlocks all the doors before you reach your car. Performance and handling are similar, as is the interior silence. Miniaturization shows, however, in the lack of front-seat headroom and the cramped rear seat.

NO TILT. Against these cars, the new $23,265 Acura Vigor GS--a notch below the pioneering Legend, which last year moved up closer to Lexus-land in size and price -- is downright Spartan. It has the famous fit and finish you expect of Honda products, and its zebrawood interior trim outshines the Legend's simulated walnut. But it has the Legend's undesirable features: a lurching automatic transmission and a windy sunroof that lacks a tilt setting.

Japanese forays into the near-luxury class are having an effect. BMW has responded with an overhauled 325i, the first European attempt to reclaim the segment. And American carmakers are fighting back with improved Pontiac Bonnevilles and Buick Park Avenues. Either way, customers are coming out ahead.

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