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ACHIEVA TAKES ON JAPANESE DRAGON

If you have seen the TV commercials, you know that Oldsmobile is marketing its new 1992 Achieva line of cars directly into the teeth of the Japanese dragon Hondatoyotanissan.

You have to admire Oldsmobile's courage, for the dragon is a fearsome beast who has already devoured millions of car sales that once fed its American cousin, Bigthree. But Bigthree is now fighting back and Achieva is one of its newest weapons.It is worth noting that Bigthree has decided that Hondatoyotanissan may be on to something by giving its cars names that are essentially meaningless (computer generated?) but have a positive, upbeat sound - Lexus, Acura, Infiniti, Integra, Accord, among others. "Achieva" is clearly in this tradition.

It is too soon to say whether Achieva will make a dent in the dragon's thick hide but, aided by the latest upsurge in Buy American fervor, it could help Olds win back some of the compact car market share that it has lost in recent years.

"We intend to stop the defection of Oldsmobile owners to the imports," division General Manager Michael Losh declared during Achieva's debut at the Lansing, Mich., plant where it is built.

Oldsmobile held about 10 percent of the total U.S. car market in the early 1980s. Near the end of 1991, its share was down to 5.3 percent. Losh said he hopes Oldsmobile can increase that share by a half-point a year.

No one will mistake the Achieva for an import, it has an all-American look about it. Its clean, simple lines and overall restraint in design should attract people who may have never before entered an Olds showroom.

The wrap-around instrument cluster, available split-folding rear seat, multiple interior storage bins and cupholders also should appeal to import buyers who love such amenities.

For the safety minded, anti-lock brakes and automatic door locks are standard on all Achieva models. I found the door locks a bit annoying. They automatically engage when the car's speed exceeds 8 mph (manual transmission) or when the driver shifts out of park or neutral. I never could remember to unlock them before trying to exit the car, resulting in some momentary frustration.

One safety feature the Achieva does not yet have is an air bag. By law, driver-side air bags must be on all cars built after Sept. 1, 1993.

On the other hand, the door-mounted front seat belts make exiting the two-door model's back seat easier when passengers don't have to fight their way past them to get out.

The car I evaluated this past week was a "bright aqua metallic" SC coupe with a five-speed manual transmission and the 2.3 liter DOHC H.O Quad 4 engine. All of those letters make it seem faster than it is. Acceleration is adequate, but . . . .

I would also choose the automatic transmission. Clutch effort was quite high on my car and the manual transmission was balkier than import buyers have come to expect. The Achieva is not a boy-racer (despite the large spoiler on the trunk lid that makes it appear otherwise) and I think most buyers would be happier going shiftless.

There are four engine choices for the Achieva, three of them variations on the 2.3-liter Quad 4 four cylinder. The Quad OHC is a single-overhead cam version of the Quad 4, with 120 horsepower. There are two versions of the double-overhead-cam Quad 4, one with 160 horsepower and one with 180. The 3.3-liter V-6 with 160 horsepower is the fourth choice.

Achieva comes with two or four doors, with three models built on the same 103.4-inch wheelbase as the Pontiac Grand Am and Buick Skylark - the basic Achieva S, the SC sport coupe I drove, and the high-end SL coupe or sedan.

An SCX version of the coupe with 190 horsepower will be out later this year.

Base prices range from $12,715 to $14,610, but options can run them up in a hurry. The SC Coupe I evaluated had the $12,715 base price but two option packages (AC, power windows, seats, mirrors, stereo cassette, auto wipers, etc.) and a split-rear seat that gives access to the trunk, pushed its bottom line to $17,651.

Thanks to its relatively light weight - the coupe has a base curb weight of 2,690 pounds, about 50 less than a Honda Accord coupe - EPA mileage ratings range from 25 mpg city and 35 mpg highway for the base engine and five-speed, to 19 mpg city, 29 mpg highway for the V-6.

Olds engineers used a one-piece body-side frame that aids structural integrity as well as proper door fit. Two-sided galvanized steel is used on doors, fenders, under-body panels, rear quarter panels and decklids to reduce corrosion.

The basic suspension affords a ride that is softer than you get in most imports. An optional electronically controlled suspension, called Computer Control Ride (CCR), is available on the Sport Coupe and SL models.

On the inside, the wrap-around instrument cluster gives the feeling you're in an airplane cockpit. Instruments are analog gauges, with an 8,000-rpm tachometer and a 120-mph speedometer.

You may have noticed that Olds has dropped its "New Generation of Olds" ad campaign - the Achieva could never be mistaken for your father's Oldsmobile - in favor of "The Power of Intelligent Engineering."

The 1992 Achieva is a major step in making that slogan a reality.