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LeSabre fitting for new millennium

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Happy new year, century, millennium, ice age, eon— Did I miss anything? — to all you lovers of internal combustion out there in car country.

I know, I'm way late with my New Year's wishes, and you're up to here with millennium stuff anyway and wouldn't mind if you never heard the m-word again.

But I vacationed through Y2K, and it doesn't seem right to begin my first auto review of the new (insert m-word here) without wishing all of my faithful readers a happy 2000, hopefully one free of fender benders, speeding tickets, dead batteries and $1.59 regular unleaded.

It occurs to me that this particular new year hits car owners particularly hard. Sure, every year makes Ol' Betsy a year older and thus worth less in the steely eyes of those who determine trade-in values. But while the difference between, say, a '97 Chevy and a '98 Chevy isn't so great, the gulf between a '99 model and a double-ought rig is wide, indeed.

Think of it. There are those who will still be making payments on their 20th century cars, trucks and sport-utes even after the 2002 Winter Olympics are history. The whole millennium thing will be a trivia question on "Who wants to be a millionaire?" and people will still be sending in monthly checks to pay for the Explorer they opted for in the last century. Oh, the humanity!

No doubt the automakers will capitalize on this millennial obsolescence. I can hear "Crocodile Dundee" now in a future TV commercial: "G'day, mate! What, you're still driving that century-old Subaru Outback? Time to trade it in for a new 2001 Kangavan, the world's first sport-utility minivan."

Well, that's enough deep, philosophical reflection. Time to get down to business and review the 2000 Buick LeSabre Limited sedan.

The LeSabre is, for several reasons, an ideal car with which to launch the new year. It's as all-American as a motor vehicle can be in these days when even Detroit imports many of its parts and components from abroad.

It's one of General Motors' most popular vehicles (and for years has been the best selling full-size car in America) in an age when sport-utes and pickups rule. And while it's as luxurious as any rational person could desire, it is still priced below $30,000, a major psychological barrier in the "near-luxury" ranks.

Every time I test drive a Buick, the marque's old advertising jingle, "Wouldn't you really rather drive a Buick?" runs through my mind (and now will likely run through yours; sorry). In the past I would amuse myself by answering a rhetorical "No!" but in recent years I haven't said it with much conviction.

That's because "Buick" has gone from being a punch-line for stand-up comics (comedians love the word because it seems to sum up the American bourgeoisie and its overstuffed lifestyle) to something that deserves more respect.

The popular image of Buicks as oversized, portholed land yachts, simply doesn't work anymore. Buick is now more closely related to Mercedes-Benz and Lexus than the Roadmasters of yore.

I took the new LeSabre on a trip to St. George over the holidays and was impressed with its highway manners. It was as pleasing a road car as any of the pricey German marques.

LeSabre is great for traveling: roomy but not too big, a buttery ride that is just firm enough to keep things well under control and more than sufficient power from its 3.8-liter, 205 horsepower V6 to pass all those triple-trailer semis that clog the freeways.

In most people's minds, Buick is synonymous with gas guzzler but, again, that's the old reality. The new LeSabre gets 19 mpg in city driving and 30 mpg on the highway, pretty remarkable for a car that will seat five adults in comfort and has a trunk only slightly smaller than the Delta Center.

I've made the St. George run in a variety of sport-utes over the years, and the LeSabre sedan does it better. I chatted with a Californian in Cedar City who was heading to Park City in a Ford Excursion, the new mega-size SUV that has been roundly condemned by the "Green" contingent.

The guy bragged that he was getting nine miles per gallon on the trip and it cost more than $60 to fill his tank. He viewed this profligacy as a mark of high status.

Personally, I prefer the lower profile (literally and figuratively) made by the Buick. My top of the line LeSabre Limited tester was base priced at $26,695 and lacked for little in the way of creature comforts. Still, my tester had a half-dozen options, including a "prestige package" that added a variety of convenience gadgets such as auto dimming headlights, a compass in the mirror, upgrades to the sound system and moisture sensing wipers.

It also had heated leather seats, a "Gran Touring" package of suspension upgrades, special tires and wheels and something called "magnetovariable effort steering."

Surprisingly, all these extras (including several left unmentioned) added only $2,110 to the tab. With a $615 delivery charge, the bottom line was $29,420. Not bad considering that I recently drove a Mercedes M-Class in which a sunroof, alone, was a $2,300 option. This strikes me as admirable restraint on Buick's part and makes the LeSabre a bargain in the near- luxo ranks.

Trust me, there is no mega-priced luxury car out there that is going to do more for you than the LeSabre other than impress your neighbors.

Buicks have come a long way, but they're still lagging the pack when it comes to status. But prestige is an overrated commodity. I've driven all of the ultra-luxury cars and have yet to have anyone kow-tow to me just because I'm in an $80,000 car and they're in a rusted-out Chevy. In fact, the reverse seems to be true. Drivers of old beaters seem to delight in cutting off people in high-end rides, often with rude gestures included.

If you want people to love you for your car, you're much better off driving something like a New Beetle. Small and cute trumps big and expensive everywhere but the country club.

E-mail max@desnews.comor fax 801-236-7605. Max Knudson's car column runs each Friday.