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G20 COSTS BIG BUCKS FOR THE BANG

Where is it written that a car priced on the north side of $25,000 must have at least a six-cylinder engine before potential buyers will consider signing up for a zillion months of payments?

Nowhere in my reading material.Still, how many carmakers do you know who dare to venture into the "near-luxury" war zone with a smallish sedan propelled by a 2-liter four-banger when the enemy is firing away with larger cars armed with potent V-6s, many of which can be bought or borrowed for less money?

Darn few.

One of those brave souls is Infiniti, upscale big brother of Nissan Motor Corp., and the model in question is the 1995 G20t (for "touring"), Infiniti's "entry-level" player that it hopes will lure young urban professionals into the Infiniti ranks.

Now that I have made it clear that the "Silver Crystal" G20t I've been driving this past week is a David surrounded by Goliaths, I will tell you that it is not as big a mismatch as it sounds.

The G20 is a meticulously assembled little sedan with a gorgeous silver finish (as nice as a BMW, which has long been my standard for paint quality), black leather seats, all the luxury bells and whistles, and it handles like a sports car should but seldom does. It also feels quicker than some V6s I've driven, proving that extra cylinders don't always mean extra fun.

Still, it's easy to like a car if it doesn't cost you anything. If I had to pony up $26,425 (the test car's bottom line) of my own money, I'd want to look at all the other great cars selling in that price range or below.

For example, do I buy the 140-horsepower G20 four-banger or do I go for a loaded Toyota Camry XLE, which is roomier, has a bulletproof reputation, world-class resale value and a 185-horsepower V-6? Or maybe a Ford Taurus SHO with its Yamaha-built 220-horsepower V-6 and more pas-sen-ger/-trunk room? Or how about a BMW 318i, a near-luxury with decades more tradition (code for resale value) than the newcomer Infiniti.

For that matter, I would have to seriously consider the Infiniti's sister ship, the Nissan Maxima, which is roomier, faster and is priced well below the G20. All it lacks is the Infiniti monicker.

Which begs the question: What constitutes a luxury car? Or, more precisely, what makes an expensive car worth the money? Power antennas, cruise control and self-closing trunks? Big V-8 engines, large trunks and seating for six? Is a prestigious name enough? Let me know when you decide.

The concept of the G20 is easy enough to fathom. Back in the days when the choices among cars were comparatively limited, the upwardly mobile General Motors customer was expected to work his way up through the ranks of Chevy, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac.

Same thing applies at Infiniti. The young executive starts out with a G20. As the career prospers, he or she moves up to the new I-30 (a Maxima in Infiniti duds) or maybe the $30,000 J30. With ultimate success comes the ultimate Infiniti, the magnificent Q45, Nissan's equivalent of a Cadillac Seville or BMW 750il.

Trouble is, there are so many choices today, particularly in the G20's price segment, that it's tough even to decide which family of cars to adopt, never mind which specific model.

Oh well, let's assume you have decided to hitch your monthly payments to Infiniti's star, and your income is not yet up to the demands of a J30 or Q45, so you opt for the G20. What do you get? Just about everything except raw speed and excess space.

My tester came with the sweet-shifting five-speed manual, and I highly recommend it. But most G20 buyers will opt for the automatic because there are only two rational reasons to buy a stickshift car: 1. You are a very economical person and want the best gas mileage you can get, or 2. You are a speed freak and want to squeeze every last ounce of power out of the engine.

The first type would be much better off buying a Honda Civic VTEC (although the five-speed G20's 24 mpg city and 32 highway is not too shabby), and the second would be much better off with a Chevy Camaro Z28 with a six-speed manual.

While I have been touting the joys of bigness, I should tell you that I'm partial to smaller cars. They are more fun to drive and park, and I spend most of my motoring time alone in the car anyway, so a 100.4-inch wheelbase machine that will seat four adults - although the back seat passengers will be squeezed for head and knee room - doesn't put me out.

Same with the G20's trunk. At 14.2 cubic feet, it is neither small nor large, although it would not hold the clubs and luggage of four golfers or even the toys, sporting goods and luggage of a family of four. Get the picture? The G20 is kind of a specialty car for people who think sporty but don't want to commit to a two-seater.

A word about the G20's 160-watt sound system: awesome. The Q45 just may have the best factory stereo I've heard, and the G20 isn't far behind. My test car had both a cassette tape player and an in-dash CD player.

Infiniti needs to do something to lift the G-car out of the large pool of compact sedans with maxed-out options. How about making it the fastest car in its class by installing a turbo, or big V-6 or a small V-8. Yeah, that's it. A Japanese version of BMW's M3.

The current G20 is basically the same car as the first one introduced five years ago, but Infiniti harkened to the government's call and added dual air bags and the new non-CFC air conditioning, as well as alloy wheels, body-color bumpers and moldings and a few other minor changes.

Also, the suspension was retuned for a firmer ride - some would say too firm for a luxury car but maybe just right for a "sports sedan." Incidentally, the Recaro-like seats in my test car are the most heavily bolstered I have encountered this side of a Dodge Viper. These babies will hold you in place while you do 360s around the parking lot, but they take some getting used to during the morning commute. The space between the bolsters is quite narrow and very firm.

My test car included the new "t" package, formerly reserved for its pricier siblings. Base price of the G20 is $22,875 - up from just under $20,000 when it was introduced five years ago - but the "t" option added $3,100. It includes leather upholstery, power front sport seats, padded leather armrest, split fold-down rear seat, keyless entry, power sunroof, a serious spoiler on the rear deck and a limited slip differential.

Quality control? As good as it gets. If a car could be carved out of a solid block of titanium it would feel about as well screwed together as the G20.

Infiniti covers the G20 with a very generous four-year, 60,000-mile warranty. The power train is covered for six years or 70,000 miles, and the paint and sheet metal are guaranteed for seven years.