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Infiniti adds G20 back to lineup

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After a two-year hiatus in which Infiniti tried going without an "entry-level" car, the G20 is back in the stable for 1999.

And that's good. Acura, Lexus, Mercedes and BMW all have semi-affordable models (relatively speaking) that are intended to attract younger buyers into the fold and then move them up to pricier rides as their careers prosper and their lines of credit expand.Infiniti - the upscale division of Japan's Nissan Motors that was created in 1990 - never explained why it abandoned the G20 two years ago, but poor sales are the most obvious reason why there were no '97 or '98 models.

But with Infiniti jettisoning its also slow-selling J30 (the one that looked like a cross between a Jaguar and a Hudson Hornet) the Infiniti lineup was down to the flagship Q45, the I30 and QX4 sport utility, with only the Q45 as a "real" Infiniti since the latter two are gussied-up versions of the Nissan Maxima and Nissan Pathfinder, respectively.

The G20 was badly needed to round out the Infiniti lineup.

I like the new G20 a lot, and I've tried to cut it some slack since it's hard not to compare it to the BMW M3 sports sedan that I reviewed last month, a car that lifted me into automotive nirvana. By comparison with that stormer, the G20 is seriously underpowered.

But that's a totally unfair comparison. You could buy two G20s for the price of one M3 so I shouldn't even bring it up. Still, it's hard not to because the G20 is similar to BMW's 3-series cars and is clearly aimed at the same target audience.

That would be successful 30-somethings who still like to shift for themselves (the G20 is more at home with the 5-speed manual than the power-robbing automatic and you save $800) and make good use of its sporty suspension, particularly with the optional "t" package (for "touring") that includes limited slip differential, fog lights, performance tires, automatic temperature control, sport cloth interior and leather wrapped steering wheel.

Base price of the G20 is a reasonable $20,995, not much more than the first G20 that came out as a 1991 model. The G20t has a base price of $22,495 and includes a pretty long list of standard features. The short list of options includes a leather and convenience package that adds $1,500 to the price of the standard G20 and $1,200 to the G20t.

In case you took a trip overseas and could swear you saw a G20 but with a different name, you are to be congratulated for your powers of observation. The G20 is based on a version called Primera that has been under continual de-velopment in Europe and Japan, including a racing program. The result is a stiff chassis and fine handling.

The new G20 is powered by a 140 horsepower 16-valve dual-cam four-cylinder engine that is rated at 132 foot pounds of torque, a decent power plant that seems anemic only when compared with the hot-rod six-pack found in the M3. Compared to most other cars powered by four cylinders, it's peppy enough.

But for around $22K, there are a lot of cars out there that offer much the same amenities and a six-cylinder engine to boot. And the lines between "normal" cars and "luxury" cars have become so blurred it's hard to know how anyone makes the decision to buy a luxury or near luxury car when they can save thousands with the "normal" nameplate.

The days when you had to buy a Cadillac or Mercedes to get power windows, cruise control and power seats are long gone. On the other hand, Infiniti's repuation for giving its customers superior coddling during the purchase and great main-tenance and service afterward may be reason enough to go Infiniti rather than Nissan.

The G20 is built in Oppama, Japan, in the same plant as the I30, which last year received one of those coveted J.D. Power initial quality awards.

On the outside, the G20 is nice looking, kind of squarish, but there's nothing that really stands out other than the bold orangish-red paint job on my G20t test car. It doesn't look like a luxury car, but it makes a pretty strong statement as a sports sedan.

The interior is also nicely done but in a generic way; again nothing stands out. However, the stereo/

climate control pod on the dash is both handsome and easy to use much more user-friendly that the mishmash of indecipherable buttons on the BMW. Also, Infinity has always had the best sound systems, and the G20's six-speaker Bose setup doesn't disappoint.

Fuel consumption is also a plus for the front-wheel-drive G20. With the manual transmission, it's rated at 23 mpg in city driving and 31 mpg on the highway. The 15.9-gallon fuel tank takes you a long way between fillups.

Question: If the G20 was a slow-seller, and it was, I suspect the main reason was that it just wasn't fast enough to satisfy the urges of its target market.

Ergo, when bringing it back for 1999, why didn't Nissan, oops, I mean Infiniti, correct that oversight and slip their 190 horsepower V6 Maxima power plant under the G20's hood. If they had done that, I'd be falling all over myself telling you about this incredible new car I'd "discovered."

As it is, if shoppers in the market for a small sport sedan check out the G20 and then also take a spin in an Audi A4, Acura Integra GS-R or Ford Contour SVT . . .

As a wise man once said, "There ain't no substitute for horsepower." (If he didn't say that he should have.)