Up front, it should be said that the BMW 535i is a fine automobile.

Now that we've got that out of the way, it should also be said that the 535i base-prices at $41,500.That's a lot of money for a car with six cylinders set in a line, fed by one intake and one exhaust valve, and each driven by one cam-shaft.

Again, it is a fine engine. It produces 208 horsepower, which is a healthy slice of horsepower by any measuring stick.

But it's only 32 more horsepower than the 1978 BMW 530i, the current model's progenitor. And guess how much that car cost?


In case the print was blurred, see it again: $14,840.

That means BMW's midlevel model has nearly tripled in price in just over 10 years. Sure, we did have superhigh inflation around 1980, and the mark was making the dollar cry uncle around that time. But times have changed (almost reversed) in both categories, so it's hard to justify that kind of a rise by any measuring stick.

Curb weight is a bit more - 3,640 vs. 3,450 in '78 - not a great deal but, if anything, enough to negate some of the advantage provided by those extra 32 horses.

Another interesting comparison is with the four-door Acura Legend, a car of very similar dimensions and performance. Wheelbase and width are exactly the same; length only a few inches different. Interior space is greater in the Legend.

The 535i is slightly quicker in a straight line, with a 48-horsepower advantage. Ever so slightly - you're splitting hairs here (and seconds). The Legend is 600-plus-pounds lighter. Four-wheel discs and independent suspension with rack-and-pinion steering (BMW still uses recirculating ball) also on the Legend. Standard equipment lists are comparable. And that brings us to the Legend's price.

It's $22,600 for the base 5-speed. Loading it to the teeth with ABS brakes and automatic transmission still peaks you out at $30,410.

But of course, we can't forget the most important ingredient in the recipe.

The driver of the 535i, like the wearer of a Rolex or the carrier of a Leica, has ARRIVED.

His equipment says so. It tells you, in the words of the doorman to homicide detective Al Pacino in "Sea of Love," that this driver is "of weight." In Chicago, said driver would be presumed to be "of clout."

For the second time, in case you missed it earlier, the 535i is a fine automobile. It's a beautifully balanced rear-drive machine that can be throttle-steered with impunity (using the gas pedal to transfer weight from front to rear, preventing the back end from sliding out of control).

But, while the Legend is a nose-heavy front-drive layout, it's no handling slouch. And how many Rolex-wearing, Leica-clicking 535i drivers are going to be throttlesteering along most roads?

Besides delivering in performance, the 535i looks aggressive and mean when parked. More so than the boxy Legend. And it is comfortable and luxurious inside.

Standard equipment includes air, AM-FM stereo cassette-radio, power for the sunroof, windows, seats, mirrors and central locks, leather seats, cruise, driver's side air bag and automatic transmission. The 5-speed is a no-cost option.

Options that cost include $400 for a limited-slip differential, $250 for heated front seats, $780 for CD player, $160 for a ski sack, $515 for a remote-controlled alarm, and $810 to turn the solid sunroof into glass.

There's also a $650 gas guzzler tax. The best I could do at a freeway-steady 65 was 17-plus miles per gallon. It would be a lot less on the new M5, the super-performance version of this car produced by BMW Motorsports. That car's 24-valve straight six is rated at 310 horses.

The 535i of 1990 kind of reminds me of the Porsche 944. For its type, it's right at the top of the list. But you'll need instant replay, or at least a still-photo finish, to determine that in a heat the 944 might run with an RX-7. The 535i does beat a Legend sedan, but by thismuch.

And how many buyers are going to think thismuch is worth more than $10,000?