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CHRYSLER CORP. SETS ITS SIGHTS ON SPORTY LUXURY WITH EAGLE VISION

SHARE CHRYSLER CORP. SETS ITS SIGHTS ON SPORTY LUXURY WITH EAGLE VISION

Whoever said the auto business is fair?

For years General Motors took big hits from the motoring press for building "cookie cutter" cars. Buicks, Chevys, Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles - even Cadillacs - were bashed as being basically the same cars. Save for a grille here or a tail light there, it was said, you couldn't tell them apart - even under the hood.Then along comes Chrysler with its three new "cab-forward" LH sedans - the Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid and Eagle Vision - and scarcely a word is heard about "cloned" cars.

Not that Chrysler has anything to apologize for. Despite the fact that the three cars differ only in such subtleties as grilles, tail lights and wheel treatments, Chrysler asserts it is "auto marketing myopia to suggest Chrysler Corp. is expanding into the massive family sedan segment with three new cars that essentially are reflections of each other."

No argument here. In an era when every manufacturer has to march to the regulatory drummer - which means they all have to shoot at the same target - and when the average econobox is better built than most luxury cars were a decade ago, niche marketing is now the name of the game.

According to Chrysler's marketing mavens, the Dodge Intrepid is aimed at the broad, middle sector of the family sedan market while the Chrysler Concorde zeroes in on the "entry-level luxury" segment. The Eagle Vision is positioned in the upper portion as well "but is aimed at the more individualistic and sporting buyer."

Which leads this individualistic and sporting newspaper writer into a discussion of the 1993 Eagle Vision TSi I've been driving this past week.

Faithful readers may recall my review in November of the Dodge Intrepid. Chrysler's marketing people would no doubt be gratified to hear that the Vision really does seem like a different car than the Intrepid.

For one thing, the Intrepid was white and the Vision is black, creating two distinctly separate personalities right there. Also, the Vision has luxurious gray leather seats that create a very upscale ambience interior-wise.

But the best thing about the Vision is the 3.5-liter, 24-valve OHC V6 engine churning out 246 horsepower. (A 3.3-liter, 153-hp V6 is the standard Intrepid powerplant; the 3.5 is optional.)

While the 3.5 will not pin you to the seat back in the manner of, say, the Saab 9000 Turbo, it turns the TSi into a very sporting ride, especially for a large sedan that can carry five linebackers in comfort plus all their gear in the enormous trunk.

Eagle is the new division created when Chrysler acquired the former American Motors. The principal target in that acquisition was AMC's Jeep line, not Eagle, but it is interesting to note that Chrysler chose Eagle, not Plymouth, for its third LH model, thus adding further fuel to rumors that the days of the venerable Plymouth marque are numbered (notwithstanding Chrysler's denials).

It has been said by pundits wittier than I that LH stands for "Last Hope," a reference to Chrysler's financial woes. I don't know if the trio has to challenge the Ford Taurus for sales supremacy in order to be deemed a success, but it's safe to say that Chrysler can't afford for the LH triplets to bomb.

They won't. There was a long period in which the Detroit troika were making claims that they had caught up with the Japanese in the area of quality, fit and finish, and those hard-to-define niceties such as the way a switch feels to the finger. I didn't believe it then but now I'm coming around.

Everything about the Eagle Vision - from the nifty hidden cup holders to the canted angle of the shift lever - suggests that Chrysler has really sweated the details on this one. If the Big Three had been churning out cars this good a decade or two ago, the Japanese invasion of U.S. markets would have been limited to cameras and TV sets.

In an odd way, the Eagle Vision - for that matter all of the LH cars - are hard to write about. They have no glaring faults about which one can poke fun and generally show what a clever fellow one is, but neither do they have one or two stand-out attributes around which one can exult that the automotive art has been pushed to another level.

Oh, well. While the car's avoidance of extremes poses problems to car reviewers, it is no doubt a blessing to car owners, overall goodness being so easy to live with in daily driving. In fact, it should probably be Goal One for the vast majority of car buyers.

If they can afford it, that is. While the LH siblings are being marketed as sedans for Everyman (and Everywoman) they are pricier than, say, a Honda Accord, the former No. 1 best-seller recently relegated to fourth place behind Ford Taurus, Toyota Camry and Chevrolet Cavalier as America's most popular ride.

The Vision TSi has a base price of $21,404 but $2,701 worth of "customer preferred options" (upgraded stereo/power-leather seats/power windows/remote door lock/conventional spare tire) and some other options such as "performance handling group" and traction control, that push the bottom line to $24,590.

Nissan's new Altima, priced in the range of $16,000 to $18,000 for well-equipped models (there's supposedly a $13,000 stripper, but don't expect to find many of those), is being marketed as "the affordable luxury car" and, guess what, it's working big time. If you can get a luxury car for $16K, a regular ol' family sedan for nine grand more may be a hard sell.

But the Vision is a much larger car and, truth be told, is about as luxurious as any car sold today. There was a time when it was easy to tell the luxo rides from the everyday stuff. Other than marketing image, that's no longer true. Virtually anything you find on today's most expensive cars can be optioned onto their more plebeian siblings, and the Vision is no exception.

Some final random thoughts and observations on the Eagle Vision:

- Gas mileage is rate at 18 mpg city and 26 mpg highway, nothing to brag about but not too many years ago a car of the Vision's size and weight would have turned in figures half as good. The smaller 3.3 liter engine gets 20/28.

- The car had standard anti-lock, four-wheel disc brakes and both driver's and passenger side airbags - state-of-the-art safety-wise.

- Beauty is in the eye of the looker (I don't know any beholders) but this looker thinks the Vision is one good-looking automobile.

- The instrument panel is laid out about as nicely as any car on the road, price no object, and the "spatial imaging" sound system turns the Vision into a mini Symphony Hall.

- The $625 extra you will have to pay for the larger engine will be money well-spent. Honest. You'll thank me later.