Luxury That Won't Bankrupt You

As the market for true luxury cars stagnates, auto makers are focusing on the

growing midrange of near-luxury cars that sell for $25,000 to $35,000. Two impressive all-new models arrive this month. Infiniti's I30 sedan is a dressed-to-the-nines version of Nissan's Maxima, bridging the gap between the $22,875 Infiniti G20 and the sleek $38,550 J30. Acura's new TL series has no counterpart in parent Honda's lineup. Instead, it replaces the Acura Vigor, positioned between the sporty $15,700 Integra and the $36,100 Legend.

While no head-turners these--both hew to the conservative Japanese rounded-off look--there are some nice touches. For the I30, Nissan designers smoothed the Maxima's front and rear and added a formal grille that evokes the Q45, Infiniti's flagship. The similarities don't end there: An aluminum V-6 provides the same quick acceleration, and precise steering and an agile suspension keep the driver firmly in touch with the road. I found Infiniti's touring version, the I30t, with its stiffer suspension and shocks, a bit jittery on some surfaces, particularly concrete. The car will start at just under $29,000 when it hits showrooms at the end of the month, and the fully equipped I30t will top out just shy of $34,000.

With its new TL cars, Acura is emphasizing the brand rather than individual models by dropping names in favor of alphanumerics--the Integra and Legend will also be rebadged when they are replaced. The 2.5TL, with an in-line five-cylinder engine, starts at $27,900 and is available now. A V-6 version, the 3.2TL, will range from $32,950 to $35,500 when it arrives in July. The two Acuras, with softer suspensions and too much power-assist in the steering at lower speeds, don't relay as sporty a feel as the Infiniti, but the well-mannered pair are better at isolating occupants from the road. Their cabins are freer of extraneous sounds, such as wind noise, though the smaller engine tends to roar when pushed.

But for this market, it's the interiors that really matter, the countless features that pamper. These cars have generous headroom and rear-seat legroom, intuitive instrument panels, and enough of a sense of luxury to distinguish them from down-market kin.

While both the Infiniti and the Acuras offer the requisite wood trim--though still simulated at these prices--the Infiniti holds the edge in the details. Its woodgrain ashtray and storage compartments, for example, glide open at the touch of a finger, compared with Acura's conventional spring-loaded plastic lid. I found Acura's dash-mounted clock and hazard-light cluster particularly jarring to the senses, especially the cheap plastic door over the clock controls. Some I30 versions feature HomeLink, three tiny buttons on the driver's visor that can be programmed to open garage and estate doors, turn on the house lights, or do other tasks that use a radio-frequency transmitter.

RED VELVET. By and large, the Japanese still haven't figured out what to offer the increasingly prevalent nonsmoking American driver. Acura ashtrays, which sit just to the right of the cigarette lighter, come with a removable red-velvet liner stamped "coin holder" and "no smoking" in gold. Infiniti leaves the ashtray intact but makes the lighter an option. Instead, the receptacle, covered with a plug that says "12V DC," becomes an outlet for such electronic gizmos as portable phones and radar detectors. Both should learn from some General Motors and Mazda models whose ashtrays convert to cup holders when they're not needed.

Speaking of cup holders, both companies thoughtfully recess them in the center console between the passengers, rather than resorting to the usual contraptions that slide out from the dash--rendering radio and temperature controls inaccessible. The Acura's are designed to accommodate a variety of sizes, while the Infiniti's should be more aptly called can holders.

Despite styling that tends toward the ho-hum, there's a lot of value here. These are both well-bred, well-built vehicles, and even the base models are jam-packed with luxury cues and amenities at prices not that far above more mainstream sedans. They can only raise the ante for carmakers who aspire to the mid-luxury class.

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