Luxury's High Road With Low End Price Tags

Seems as if every auto maker is crowding into the value end of the luxury class, where cars go for roughly $30,000. While Mercedes-Benz recently swooped down from the stratosphere with its C-class, three new flagship models from Oldsmobile, Mazda, and Buick are stretching upward. Although they don't match the luxury and performance of cars such as the nearly $60,000 BMW 740i or the $52,000-plus Lexus LS400, they come mighty close for a lot less money.

Two of the newcomers, the Olds Aurora and Mazda Millenia S, are rival sedans that offer the convenience of four doors yet have a dose of style. The Buick Riviera, meanwhile, is a traditional American coupe aimed at consumers who prize aesthetics over high performance. All three boast the quiet ride and convenient features you would expect in this class. Each, however, is marred by annoying flaws.

HEAD-TURNER. Beauty is subjective, but the Aurora, with a $32,000 base price, is the clear head-turner in this group. Its swooping roof and muscular stance are miles from the stodgy lines of your father's Oldsmobile. In fact, many people initially think it's a Japanese model. Likewise, the $28,300 Riviera's curvy, sculpted shape has a decidedly international flavor. The more conventional, $32,400 Millenia S stands out less from the automotive clutter.

The Aurora and Millenia are both a kick to drive, if you push them hard. The Millenia accelerates vigorously, jumping from 0 to 60 mph in just eight seconds. Among competing cars, only the BMW 325i is quicker. That's an amazing feat, given the Millenia's small engine--a 2.5-liter V-6. On the down side, it lacks the high-speed oomph for confident passing. The Aurora is a tad slower at reaching 60 mph, even with a 4-liter V-8: Blame its beefy 4,000 pounds. But there's plenty of reserve power for passing.

When it comes to ride, the Aurora is the cushier sedan. On really rough pavement, however, the Aurora pitches and rolls more than the Millenia, whose taut suspension controls body motion better. In hard cornering, the Aurora leans noticeably, but the car handles with confidence-inspiring poise. The Millenia responds with a sportier feel, diving quickly into turns and whipping out with precision.

Both cars pamper passengers with nifty features such as power seats, automatic climate control, and real wood trim. The Aurora has standard leather seats with great back, side, and thigh support. Both cars have ample leg- and headroom up front. But the swooping roof lines may have tall rear-seat passengers bumping their heads.

Behind the wheel, the Aurora has a dramatic, cockpit-like feel. The instrument panel curves toward the driver, and the controls fall easily to hand. But some drivers may find the high, wraparound dash claustrophobic. Most troubling, the radically curved back window badly distorts rear vision. The Millenia's more traditional dash layout gives an open feel and expansive view of the road ahead. Controls such as radio dials are large and easy to use. But some drivers may find other switches hard to locate, notably the cruise control and window defogger--behind the wheel.

The Riviera should appeal to more sedate drivers willing to accept the limitations of two doors. Its base 205-horsepower V-6 launches the Riv to 60 mph in a more leisurely 10 seconds. A supercharged version, though, which costs $1,100 more, is nearly as quick as the Aurora. The Riviera's spongy suspension floats over potholes, but it won't inspire drivers to race around corners. The car shares the Aurora's comfy front seats and tall dash. Most dials on the starkly unadorned instrument panel are large and clearly marked. The turn-signal stalk, however, is overloaded with hard-to-see cruise-control and windshield-wiper switches.

In this group, the Aurora, with its V-8 engine and host of standard features, stands out as a good value. Even fully loaded, it runs $34,400, the same price as a top-of-the-line Millenia S. There's also an entry-level Millenia, starting at $26,400, but its 170-hp engine leaves the car underpowered. For sportier luxury, check the under $32,000 BMW 325i or, for more cachet, the $36,300 Mercedes C280. The Riviera competes most directly with traditional luxury coupes such as the $38,800 Lincoln Mark VIII and the $38,220 Cadillac Eldorado--both equipped with V-8s. Even in the traffic jam of fine, value-priced luxury cars already on the road, this trio certainly holds its own.

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