1991 car models are offering more for the money

January 10, 1991|By Ken Parker | Ken Parker,Special to The 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.

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