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Leganza is nice but not exceptional

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That sardine can called the U.S. car market is about to become even more crowded.

So squeeze together a little more tightly, all you automotive fishies, and make room for Daewoo.Who? Daewoo Motor America.

Daewoo Motor America is a new subsidiary of the Daewoo Group, a muscular Korean conglomerate that has its multinational fingers in cars, finance, construction, shipbuilding, telecommunications, electronics, textiles and machine tools.

Daewoo, which cut its U.S. automotive teeth in the late '80s when it built the Opel-designed LeMans for Pontiac, now produces 10 passenger cars for a global market, ranging from a 0.8-liter minicar to a 3.2-liter luxury sedan. It also builds a couple of sport-utility vehicles, as well as buses and trucks.

This fall, it will start its marketing efforts in this country with three passenger cars that have been for sale in Britain for the past two years: the subcompact Lanos, the compact Nubira, and the midsize Leganza sedan that I've been test-driving.

"Leganza" is a name cobbled together from fragments of the Italian words "Elegante" (elegant) and "forza" (power).

"Leganza" strikes me as awfully close to "lasagna." I would guess that it means about as much to an Italian as it does to me.

From what I can tell, Daewoo is better at building cars than naming them. The Leganza is an attractive, reasonably sophisticated automobile with decent power, a good ride and acceptable handling.

The company got help styling the Leganza from Giorgetto Giugiaro, of ItalDesign. The result is a soft design that's stylish in a conservative and elegant way. The car looks as if it costs more than the $15,000 Daewoo expects to start it at.

Like the other cars Daewoo will introduce, the Leganza has a nifty, three-segment signature chrome grille. The center section contains vertical tines that flow out of the hood design, while those in the flanking sections are horizontal.

The test car's body was nicely realized from a manufacturing standpoint, as well. Except for a little orange peel on one of the rear roof pillars, the paint work was right on the money. And except for the hood fits, which were a hair high in relation to the front fenders, the car was accurately assembled.

Like its body, the tester's interior was handsome and nicely constructed.

Daewoo calls the Leganza a midsize sedan. Actually, it's one of those cars like the Mazda 626 and Plymouth Breeze that dwell near the compact/midsize border. It does offer good rear-seat legroom, however, and boasts a generous trunk.

Motivation is courtesy of a 2.2-liter, 131-horsepower four. This engine doesn't exactly turn the Leganza into a Lamborghini, but it does move the car along at an acceptable rate. This high-winding 16-valver also keeps its voice down unless you really flog it.

The car's ride and handling are a cut above its engine power. The Leganza rides well and corners competently. It shows some body lean when you push it in the turns, but that roll is hardly excessive.

My only quibble was with the car's air conditioner, which takes its time cooling down on a hot afternoon.

The Leganza ultimately does all the important things reasonably well - but none of them exceptionally. And being exceptional in some way would certainly help, given the high-quality, established competition it faces.

Presumably, Daewoo is going to rely on the Leganza's good-looking body and window sticker - and a unique plan to corral the young buyer by employing college students as marketing advisers.

Base vehicle: Front-drive, 2.2-liter engine, five-speed manual transmission, power steering, power disc brakes, anti-lock braking system, fully independent suspension, dual air bags, air conditioning, power door locks, windows and mirrors.

Test model: Four-speed automatic transmission, leather seats, CD player, climate-control system.

Base price: $15,000 (est.)

Test model: $18,000 (est.)

EPA city rating: N/A

Test mileage: 21