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PLYMOUTH LASER'S AN INCREDIBLE BARGAIN

If evaluating new cars were like deep-sea diving, I'd have a case of the bends.

Spending a week in a Buick Roadmaster and the following week in a Plymouth Laser was a bit wrenching, but it was a vivid reminder as to just how wide the spectrum of automobiles is today. Not the range of 3-cylinder puddle jumpers vs. Italian exotics, but just "normal" cars that you can find at any intersection.The Roadmaster is a large, rear-wheel-drive boulevard cruiser in the best (or worst, depending on your point of view) Detroit tradition. The Laser is a small, great-handling, front-wheel-drive sports coupe in the best Japanese tradition.

Yes, Japanese. I know that Plymouth is a time-honored domestic nameplate, but the Laser is American in name and place-of-origin only. It is a product of Diamond Star Motors, the Normal, Ill., 50-50 partnership between Chrysler and Mitsubishi. But the power train is all Mitsubishi and there's nothing Detroitish about the rest of the car, either.

I don't mean to sound unpatriotic, but the fact is that the Big Three have had little success, left to their own devices, in producing cars that are truly competitive with Japanese models, whether the latter are built in this country or overseas.

That's why the Mitsubishi/Chrysler marriage is made in heaven. While Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca has been the leader of the "Japan Bashers," the Diamond Star products are among the best vehicles, in my view, to ever carry a Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth label.

Certainly the Plymouth Laser ranks in that category. The factory model I recently evaluated for a few days was stickered at a refreshing (by today's standards) $12,809, including AC and an excellent cassette stereo.

At that price, this car is an incredible bargain. If you enjoy the act of driving, as opposed to simply getting from Point A to Point B, and you have no problem with a marginal "2+2" back seat, I recommend you stop whatever you're doing, dash down to your nearest Plymouth dealer, and scarf one up. Do it before the denizens of Detroit's executive suite get their way with Congress and have a punitive tariff clamped on any cars whose genealogy can't be traced directly back to Henry Ford.

If your Plymouth dealer is sold out of Lasers, try a Mitsubishi dealer; the Eclipse is basically the same car. If no luck there, go for an Eagle Talon, a 4wd version of the other two (the Eclipse GSX is also 4wd).

The Laser is built on the Mitsubishi Gallant platform, but its looks and feel belie its sedan heritage. Quite simply, both are stunning, particularly at a price that is now virtually entry level.

The Laser I evaluated was a bottom of the line model, but that doesn't mean it was a stripper. The Laser has a lot of goodies standard, particularly the kind driver's really need like a decent "dead" pedal for the left foot, an item that can't be had at any price in a lot of "luxury" cars.

Other standard features are front and rear disc brakes, retractable headlights, passenger and cargo area carpeting, tinted glass on all windows, dual remote outside mirrors, tilt steering column, stainless steel exhaust, variable wipers, high bucket seats with fold-down seatbacks.

There are also three new exterior colors, including Turquoise Metallic, the color of my test car, which is a knockout. If memory serves, it is very close to the color of James Dean's customised 1950 Mercury in "Rebel Without A Cause," a vehicle I attempted to duplicate in 1957.

Up the line from the base three-door hatchback Laser are the RS model with a twin-cam, 16-valve engine, and the top-line RS Turbo. If the upscale models are as much better than the base car as I think they are, I hope the folks at Diamond Star let me try one on in the near future. If they do, you'll have to put up with my singing the Laser's praises yet again.

The base engine is a 1.8 liter, overhead cam, 4-cylinder with a five-speed manual transmission, a very nice package that is not blindingly fast but more than adequate for playing boy racer while keeping one's driver's license unsuspended.

An automatic transmission is available. Take my advice and pass. This is a sports car . . . for people who have a couple of kids. Incidentally, my kids voted the back seat of the Laser a lot more comfortable than it looks. They wouldn't want to ride back there to, say, Chicago, but for quick jaunts around town - no problem.