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LUMINA SPARKLES WITH PLENTY OF ZIP, STYLE FOR MONEY

Chevrolet's Lumina coupe gets a twin-cam, 24-valve engine that transforms it into a European-style performance car. It's called the Z34.

No longer is the performance Lumina just a nameplate. Now it's a bonafide performance car that goes, stops and handles with all the promise of an upgrade - not unlike its rival from Ford, the Taurus SHO.A first-class redesign of the dash would make the transformation complete. The engine, officially called the 3.4-liter Twin Dual Cam V6, is the heart of the package. Although it cranks out some 200 horsepower with an automatic transmission, the engine's high output doesn't make the Lumina a racer's car. Just the opposite. It is tractable, even from low speed, responsive and fun to drive. It reacts instinctively to the driver.

The V-6 has dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, direct ignition coils for each two cylinders, maintenance-free hydraulic valve lifters and dual-spray fuel-injectors.

One of the admirable qualities of this new engine is that it's smooth and strong without being radical. Vibration is minimal, throttle response instant and fuel economy reasonable.

I had a chance to put the Z34 through its paces in a few laps around a race track and it acquitted itself well there, too. The Z34 excels because of the way it combines a balanced suspension, upgraded seats and redesigned body with the added zip that comes from the new engine.

Our bright red test car drew admiring glances. Dressed up in new lower body panels, the more aggressive bodywork fleshes out the original car's design with a sauciness not present before. It looks tough without being garish.

Looks aside, the real measure of the Z34 is how it runs, since that's its mission. With a 24-valve engine that revs to 7,000 rpms, the Z34 compares to Ford's Taurus.

Both are American family cars with a touch of European style, and their specifications match up well. The Chevrolet may be a tad slower, due to its electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission, but the general performance is on par. The Z34 suspension isnot quite as well-balanced as the SHO.

The Lumina's engine produces slightly more torque at a lower engine speed, and that makes it more suitable for the automatic. In fact, there won't be a five-speed for the Lumina until next model year.

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Chased by the buzz-saw rip of its exhaust note, the Z34 gets down the road with plenty of spunk.

The Z34 has a beefed-up suspension and 16-inch alloy wheels. It rides more firmly than standard, but the handling is more precise. It doesn't have the jarring, crashing ride found in some performance cars.

The biggest letdown of the whole package is the dash design, which has analog instruments that look more suited for an economy sedan.

One other area where the Lumina excels is price. It has a base price of $17,275. Equipped with automatic transmission, rear window defogger, Delco/Base AM and FM stereo cassette, power door locks, power windows and power trunk, the sticker price is $18,895. That makes it more than competitive with the other cars in this performance class.