1991 car models are offering more for the money

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New and improved, and it costs less: the eternal car buyer's dream and seller's promise.

This year it's true. In almost every class, there are totally new cars that are better than ever. List prices are higher, but real selling prices are lower.

Leading the glamour group is the mid-engined, rear-wheel drive Acura NSX, a $60,000 two-seater with a multivalve 3.0-liter aluminum 270-hp V6, variable valve timing, limited slip differential, traction control, anti-lock disk brakes and a driver's air bag. The NSX is a stunning bubble-topped attention-getter.

Filling the NSX's power mirrors is the Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4, almost a look-alike in size and shape, but costing only $31,000.

And for this you get a 3.0-liter multivalve V6 with twin turbochargers and intercooling that turns out 300 hp. Plus, there's four-wheel drive, four-wheel steering, anti-lock disk brakes, driver-adjustable suspension, speed-sensitive chin and rear spoilers to minimize lift at speed, adjustable exhaust, and a driver's air bag.

Although the 3000GT has Mitsu mechanicals, it was styled by Dodge, and a Dodge version is called the Stealth. Best buy of the bunch is a basic version of the Stealth, with front-wheel drive, no turbos, spoilers or adjustable suspension/exhaust, just front-wheel steering and optional anti-lock brakes.

It lists for just over $16,600 and still looks as sexy as the others.

The BMW 850i, a sleek four-passenger coupe, replaces the 633csi as the premium car of the line. It blasts away with the power of a 5.0-liter V-12 engine driving its rear wheels and tamed by stability control and traction control. And it only costs $73,600.

Now to reality. Subcompacts are the most nearly affordable, and the tough kids on this block are the Nissan Sentra, the Ford/Mercury Escort/Tracer, GM's Saturn, the Isuzu Stylus and Mitsubishi's Mirage (same as the Eagle Summit).

All these are in the $7,000 to $12,000 class, depending on equipment level. These five are all tighter, better handling and peppier than their predecessors.

Saturn is the totally new one, of course. In addition to its 1.9-liter aluminum engine, it has a pressed steel space frame with composite side, front and rear body panels. The hood, roof and trunk lid are steel, reportedly used because horizontal plastic panels tend to sag.

Designed like Japanese competitors rather than like GM domestics, Saturn has such features as one double-edged key for all locks, a flip-to-flash function on the directional stalk, and the coupe has concealed headlights that may be left up and off in anticipation of unpleasant winter weather.

A brake package with four-wheel anti-lock disks is available on all models for $875. Except for their names, Sentra and Escort are also all new. Like Saturn, both are full car lines.

Without its nameplate, the Sentra would not be recognized. It's a smart-looking little car, more graceful and more solid than its boxy and often tinny ancestor.

All but a top-line sports coupe come with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. The coupe has a 2.0-liter unit also used in the Infiniti G20. Both power plants have aluminum heads, 16 valves and dual overhead camshafts driven by chains rather than by rubber belts.

The coupe has four-wheel disk brakes, the others, front disk/rear drum. Anti-lock brakes are optional on the coupe and a high line sedan. All have a viscous limited slip differential in the transaxle, improving traction in poor conditions and minimizing torque steer.

Sentra, especially the coupe (designated SE-R), looks like the benchmark subcompact of the year.

Not to be ignored, though, are the Escort and Tracer, now based on that little sleeper, the Mazda 323. Doors thunk, outside mirrors adjust electrically and the cars run quietly. The Escort looks like a runner-up to the Sentra as subcompact value of 1991.

Mirage and Stylus come only as four-door sedans, but both are well styled, with new engines and suspensions, the Stylus underpinning having been engineered by Lotus.

Sporty economy cars, offshoots of subcompact sedans, include the already mentioned Sentra SE-R and Saturn coupe, plus an Escort GT, Hyundai's saucy Scoupe and Isuzu's Impulse.

Escort's GT has a 1.8-liter 16-valve Mazda four with five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel disk brakes, power steering, 15-inch alloy wheels and sports suspension.

The Scoupe is cute and quick, with a single overhead cam 1.5-liter four and a rear spoiler. It's priced at only $8,395, and may be what Hyundai needs to get back its former luster as a quality bargain.

Plagued by a lack of dealers, the Impulse may not receive the attention it deserves. Its 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with balanced moving parts is used in the Lotus Elan, and Lotus also designed the Impulse suspension.

Restyled into an almost bubble-top coupe, the Impulse is also offered with four-wheel drive and a turbocharged, intercooled engine with air induction varied by engine rpm.

Maybe because it doesn't play in the league with Toyota, Honda and Nissan, the Impulse will become a bargain for a few discerning enthusiasts.

Moving up to the compact segment, the Infiniti G20 is the only really completely new sedan, but Mitsubishi's Galant has a VR-4 model with four-wheel drive and other niceties of the 3000GT, but with room for relatives and friends. Also, Subaru has introduced a high-revving Sports Sedan version of its Legacy, with standard full-time four-wheel drive, anti-lock disk brakes and an exclusive suspension to match.

Newest full size car is the just introduced Acura Legend sedan, which has been completely redone on a 114-inch wheelbase and 71 inches wide. Still front-wheel drive, it has a 3.2-liter 24-valve V6 engine with variable induction. Four-wheel anti-lock disk brakes and a driver's air bag are standard. Starting price is $26,800. A coupe with the same equipment will be introduced in a few weeks. Its price is not yet available.

The rest of the full size field still belongs to the Americans, with the huge, somewhat bulbous Chevrolet Caprice, introduced +V earlier this year, to be followed in the spring by a Buick Roadmaster sedan on the same platform.

Both have a 5.7-liter V8, rear-wheel drive and hold six passengers in roomy comfort. New full size sedans with front-wheel drive are the Buick Park Avenue and the Oldsmobile 98 Regency. On the same platform, both have a 3.8-liter V6 engine.

Lincoln's Town Car is not new this year, but it does have a new engine, a 4.6-liter single overhead cam V8 with much more authority than the former 5.0-liter push rod engine. The 4.6 is the first of several modular engines planned by Ford. Modular means they will have many common components, contributing to ease of manufacture and consistent quality.

The only new wagons for 1991 are the three nameplates based on the new Caprice chassis and the midsize Honda Accord.

Besides the Caprice itself, Buick and Olds have introduced a pair of handsome wagons (Roadmaster and Custom Cruiser) with 5.7-liter V8 engines, anti-lock braking, driver's air-bag, air conditioning, rear-facing third seats, two-way door-gates, room for 4x8 panels and big glass roof panels.

They have real family room, stretch-out comfort and, properly equipped, will tow 5,000 pounds.

Base prices are, Chevy, $16,515; Olds, $20,495, and Buick, $21,445.

Long awaited by Accord fans, the Honda wagon has a 2.2-liter 16-valve four-cylinder engine and room for five. Designed and built in Ohio, its styling does not match the Toyota Camry, which offers an optional V6 engine and four-wheel drive. Bottom price of the Accord is $12,345.

The passenger van segment is still dominated by the Plymouth/Dodge/Chrysler minivans, which have been redone so extensively they are practically new vehicles. Suspension and steering have been modernized, a three-speed automatic transmission is standard,a four-speed is optional and so is a V6 engine.

Also completely new is the Toyota Previa, a 1991 that was introduced last spring. It has a midship-mounted 2.4-liter twin-cam four-cylinder engine tilted 75 degrees, permitting a flat floor.

It's available in rear-wheel drive or full-time four-wheel drive, both offered with four-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission. Prices start at $14,398.

Among sports utility vehicles, the Ford Explorer is really new. It's wider, with a longer wheel base even in the two-door, lower, offers only one engine (4.0-liter V6), an optional bench front seat for the four-door and a column-mounted shift lever with the optional automatic transmission, providing room for the three people the bench seat will hold. The full size spare tire is mounted on the frame, like all trucks, taking no space in the cargo area.

Oldsmobile's Bravada is based on the Chevy S-10 Blazer, but the Bravada has its own full-time four-wheel drive system.

Also new is the Isuzu Rodeo, a four-door with 108.7-inch wheel base and room for six with a front bench seat. The engine is a 2.6-liter four, but a 3.1 V6 is available, with either five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.

Isuzu expects to sell 60 percent in rear-wheel drive and 40 percent in four-wheel drive with automatic locking front hubs. Base price will be less than $13,000.

All the others are offering four-door models this year, trying to catch up with the family popularity of the Jeep Cherokee.

The Toyota Land Cruiser has been restyled and considerably refined, but is just as rugged as ever. Wheel base has been lengthened five inches to 112.2 and the track has been made two inches wider (now 60.6). A 4.0-liter in-line six drives full-time four-wheel drive through a standard four-speed automatic transmission. Prices start at $22,788.

There are four new convertibles this year, and one (Toyota Celica) returning after a year's absence.

Olds' Cutlass Supreme has a top bar which the company emphasizes is not a roll bar. It was designed to hide the rear door pillar, which had to be retained to keep the door-anchored passive seat belts. The convertible comes with just the standard 3.1-liter V6 and automatic transmission. It's about $20,000.

The other ragtops are all subcompacts, and the only completely new car among them is the Mercury Capri, built by Ford of Australia with Mazda 323 mechanicals. Its top is easily raised and lowered by one person and is concealed by a neat and simple rigid panel.

A standard Capri has a 1.6-liter 16-valve engine, front-wheel drive, power steering, four-wheel disc brakes and a driver's air bag. Amenities include a height-adjustable driver's seat, folding rear seat with trunk pass-through, power outside mirrors and AM/FM stereo.

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