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Nashville Scene Grading on the Curve

Honda, Mitsubishi take different approaches with midsize sedans

By Marc Stengel

JANUARY 31, 2000:  At the risk of mixing metaphors, it's fairly plain to see that our present bout of automotive euphoria is a perfect example of the rising tide lifting all boats. Sure the mob is all a-frenzy over trucks and SUVs. Sure the swells have their useless (but exhilarating) little roadsters while the grandees have the creamiest crop of luxury sleds in a generation. Amidst all this froth and blather, you can be excused for not noticing the fat middle part of the automotive bell curve where better and better family cars are costing fewer and fewer dollars.

The so-called "near-luxury" midsize sedan segment is, admittedly, not the one that garners the brashest headlines. But it is the one where manufacturers wage some of their fiercest trench warfare. "How much can you get for $30,000?" seems to be the universal cri de guerre among combatants in this category. As the two following examples vividly attest, the answer is, "Quite a lot."

Mitsubishi Diamante LS

From a rather pedestrian people hauler that once looked, drove, and cost about average, Diamante has evolved into a fetching, comfortable, and modestly spirited "nearly deluxe" sedan that still remains under the magic threshold of 30-grand. Indeed, my tester included the one and only available option--an All-Weather Package incorporating traction control, heated seats/mirrors, and fog lamps--whose $840 cost tipped the as-tested grand total to just $29,207.

For 2000, the car's newly subtle silhouette finds just the right expressive sweet-spot to suggest sophistication without ostentation. Yes, there is an obvious homage to Europe's arbiters of automotive fashion, but there is no crass mimicry of this BMW or that Audi. The Diamante shows up to the party with understated confidence; an exterior styling that once featured a body-builder's rip-and-cut flexion is now elegant and tailored.

A similar transformation has rendered Diamante's interior more discreet and comfortable than flashy and overstuffed. Seating is spacious and leathery; power conveniences abound. Only one false note remains as a holdover from earlier days: An animated display of climate control operation depicts jets of air striking the shins or face of a seated stick figure. Instead of dominating the dash console, this questionable feature would do much better sprucing up someone's circular file.

Underhood, Diamante retains its single-overhead-cam V6, whose 3.5 liters produce the kind of spirited 210 horsepower that is a Mitsubishi trademark--spirited, but not especially refined. The inherently peaky feel of the powerband provides quick acceleration followed by abrupt up-shifts into the next gear. So-called adaptive transmission circuitry is meant to accommodate different driving styles by altering shift patterns. But changing the timing of shifts is not the same as easing from one gear to another in the seamless manner that real luxury requires.

The Diamante boasts independent suspension and disk brakes at all four wheels. This yields a sporty, enjoyable driving feel that nevertheless falls short of what a genuine, purpose-built sport sedan can do. Instead, the chief pleasure of the Diamante is the way it treats its driver and up to four companions to a roomy, agreeable "parlor ride" from one point to the next, as the CD player croons and the climate control blows warm and cool in accordance with the prevailing mood.

Acura 3.2TL NAVI

With its midsize 3.2TL, Acura has taken the bold (if not original) step of chucking out the option list and tossing in all the goodies, no questions asked. For $28,400, the 2000-model 3.2TL is as good as it's gonna get--which is quite good indeed. My tester included the only possible extra: Acura's already famed/now even better GPS navigation system for $2,000. For gadgeteers, this sole option is really no option at all: Acura's new DVD-format map database now blankets the entire U.S. with a single disk, eliminating disk-swapping from region to region, and ensuring one's uninterrupted seduction by the disembodied, lilting voice of a dreamy Djinni who knows just how to take you where you want to go.

For all of her brilliance, however, this satellite psychopomp risks obscuring the more important fact that the 3.2TL is a genuinely superior mechanical achievement for Acura--and indeed for the entire near-luxury segment. In contrast to the Diamante, whose speciality is creature comforts, the 3.2TL is an action-packed performance package featuring truly world-class powertrain and suspension technology.

Topping the list is the 3.2-liter VTEC V6, whose variable valve-timing scheme spins out 225 broad, flat horsepower. A five-speed sequential-shift transmission delivers what is probably the best "clutch-free" shifting performance available this side of Formula One racing. Yes, standard auto shifting is a part of the deal; and unlike Mitsu's design, this Acura transmission noticeably "learns" and accommodates different driving styles with smooth and judicious shifts. But in "pseudo-manual" mode, the shifting is precise, sporty, effective--almost on a par with the best true manuals, and definitely superior in the hands of inexperienced drivers who think double-clutching and heel-and-toe are Fred Astaire dance moves.

The double-wishbone suspension all 'round is race-car precise, and the 3.2TL is light on its feet whether accelerating, cornering, or braking hard. By the same token, the car's interior appointments, while rich with such conveniences as CD sound and climate control, are not for sybarites. This is an office for having fun behind the wheel--where the driver is completely in charge and where everybody else is just tagging along to watch and to learn.

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