A Sporty Car And A Sensible Family Value

In the past two years, every Japanese carmaker has come up with a distinct strategy for its move into the biggest and most lucrative part of the car business, the market for $15,000-to-$20,000 practical, down-to-earth family sedans. Toyota shot for the high end with its Camry, using luxury touches liberally borrowed from its elegant Lexus. Nissan fielded the smaller but spirited Altima, with a sticker price clearly geared for tough economic times.

The latest entry is Mitsubishi's 1994 Galant, and it's aimed squarely between the two. Its exterior dimensions and interior roominess are close to those of the midsize Camry or Mazda 626, yet its price is more like that of the compact Altima. A compromise, perhaps, but an eminently sensible one.

The completely revamped Galant has grown nearly three inches in length and is wider and higher as well. It has shed its boxiness for fluid curves and an aggressive sloped hood reminiscent of the Diamante, its upscale stablemate. Prices start at $13,600 for the bare-bones S version and top out at $20,000 for the sporty GS model, whose sprightly 160-horsepower engine requires a bump on the driver's side of the hood that will undoubtedly become the Galant's distinguishing mark.

The middle-of-the-line $16,775 ES model probably will be the biggest seller, though, and here Mitsubishi hasn't stinted at all. Controls and displays are simple and straightforward. Mirrors and windows are powered, and--a nice touch--they work even after you turn off the ignition. Air-conditioning is standard.

FUZZY LOGIC. The company's engineers have come up with an innovative automatic transmission controlled by a computer technology called fuzzy logic, which closely imitates how a human would drive the car. Going downhill, for example, it will downshift if you're braking yet still gaining speed, just as you would do if you were using a stick shift. And on twisty uphill grades, the transmission will lock into the optimum gear instead of continually shifting up and down according to the more usual, annoying formula.

The Galant has few pretensions to luxury. You can hear the powerful four-cylinder engine, and the steering and suspension let you feel the road. Oddly, even the top-of-the-line model lacks the option of power seats or a leather interior. But dual air bags come standard on every model, and antilock brakes are available on all but the base car, for $924 extra. That's as it should be for a car aimed at families, where luxury inevitably takes a back seat to safety.

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