If you can`t beat `em, join `em.

That`s what we did when we became a cab driver, or maybe we should say driver of a cab, for a few days to check out GM`s new `91 Chevy Caprice dressed up in taxi duds.

Chevy and Ford not only duel when it comes to sports cars, family sedans, vans and pickup trucks, they slug it out over who builds the best and most taxis.

The same competition holds true between GM and Ford for police cars and hearses. But can you imagine the reaction to the commercial break during halftime of the Bears game if some dude in a black suit suddenly appeared on screen and started strumming ``Listen to the Heart Beat`` while loading the dearly departed into a hearse. Worse, picture the wisdom of a commercial in which the choir at a wake posed the musical question: ``Have you driven a Ford lately?``

But we digress.

For 1991, Chevy threw out the boxy look on its Caprice and brought out a rounded version of its full-size, rear-wheel-drive sedan. After spending a few months promoting the new Caprice for consumers, Chevy brought out its commercial version for cab fleets.

Ford will replace its equally boxy full-size, rear-wheel-drive Crown Victoria with a rounded version in the spring. A cab version will follow. Since Chevy beat Ford to market with its new coin-operated commercial version, that`s the car we sought out to test drive.

For starters, if fashion moguls Givenchy, Klein, Lauren or Armani were to spot the big, solid-yellow Caprice with its rooftop coiffure reading ``Taxi,`` they`d probably upchuck. Dressed all in yellow, the rounded Caprice looks bloated. You can spot it a mile away, or roughly the same distance required to recognize the Goodyear blimp.

Once behind the wheel, we realized that while a spin in the Oscar-Mayer Wienermobile (CarTalk/Nov. 4) aroused a strong sense of humility, driving the Caprice cab awakened an even deeper emotion-fear.

The intent wasn`t to pick up fares-even though the test cab was equipped with a meter; it was simply to check out the vehicle. Yet we only had to drive a few blocks from Tribune Tower to find more than a half dozen pedestrians trying to flag us down.

To be blunt, when behind the wheel of a cab, each and every person waving hand or arm to attract the driver`s attention starts to look like an ax murderer. There wasn`t a person on the street we`d welcome sitting behind our unprotected flank. A Plexiglas shield between driver and passenger? We`d want a brick wall.

That tall youth on Rush Street probably has a black belt in some exotic form of mayhem. Hit the accelerator. That elderly lady on Illinois Street no doubt has a lethal hatpin fastened to the lining of her cloth coat. Let her catch a bus. The man wearing the blue suit has a suspicious bulge along his upper breast pocket. Oops. He`s a cop. Oh, well, he`s used to walking.

Anyway, the ground rules were no picking up fares, since we had no City of Chicago license. Besides, while the walking pedestrians may have been fooled by the outward appearance of the Caprice, they would have spotted the phony driver moments after climbing aboard. There were two giveaways: We spoke English and we had failed to obtain one of those beaded seat covers to sit on. Though passengers were verboten, we threw caution to the wind and decided that if we were going to look like a cab driver, we were within our rights to act like one.

First block we didn`t even pause at the stop sign, simply driving through the intersection. At the next intersection, four cars appeared at the stop sign. We arrived last but took off first. Score two for the imposter.

The light turned yellow and quickly flashed red at Orleans Street on the way to the Ontario Street bridge to the Kennedy Expressway. We passed through as if color blind. Our only regret was that we weren`t the third or fourth cab to pass through on the red light, which would have ma de the experience more realistic.

Once on the Kennedy, we disregarded the 55 m.p.h. sign. The speedometer read 75. The 5-liter, 305-cubic inch V-8 generated 170 horsepower, and we cruised 20 m.p.h. above the limit with little or no strain. The V-8 teamed with 4-speed automatic was a responsive combo. We were able to tailgate with ease in order to force those who dared block our path to move. You need only tap the accelerator when the offending car veers aside, and you gain speed without hesitation.

The heavy-duty suspension, which includes front and rear stabilizer bars and larger-diameter shocks, was first rate and allowed us to weave in and out of all four lanes without lots of body roll or lean. The cab has the added advantage of cloth seats in back to hold passengers in place. Had paying customers been aboard, they would have experienced no more discomfort than on a cruise ship on slightly shaky seas. And if discomfort did set in, the seats are Scotchgarded and require no more than a quick swipe with a cloth to be ready for the next customer.

We left the expressway and headed back into city traffic. When a Buick ahead decided to stop without notice, we had the opportunity to check out the antilock brakes, a safety feature new to the `91 Caprice in retail and commercial versions. The Caprice stopped in a straight line without quivering. If a rear-seat passenger had been wearing the safety belts Chevy supplies, he or she might not have even noticed the abrupt stop, except that the driver was laying on the horn.

In addition to ABS, the Caprice cab comes with an air bag in the steering wheel hub, also a first for taxis. In the event of a frontal collision, such as might occur when tailgating down the Kennedy on the way to O`Hare or when the third cab running the red light ahead of you unwisely decides to stop, the bag will save the driver from exiting through the windshield. The paying customer who refuses to use the rear seat belts is on his own.

Despite the leeway the cab gives the driver in terms of setting his or her own rules, we have to admit to a few lapses. For example, on a few occasions, we signaled our intention to turn by using the indicators. And we chose not to pull unannounced into one of those lines of cabs outside the hotels. There`s enough trouble going on in the world without causing an international incident in front of a Holiday Inn.

In fairness to cab drivers, we found fellow motorists have little respect for the men in Yellow or Checker vehicles. Cars that could have backed off and let us pass before they merged onto the highway typically ground the accelerator into the floorboard to race ahead of us. The simple act of passing a slow-moving car on the Edens became an emotional affront to one young woman who suddenly raced to pass us. She triumphantly shot a finger in the air when her aged coupe passed the new cab, apparently signaling that she was now No. 1. Our conclusion was that every motorist who has suffered an indignity at the hands of a taxi driver is eager to get even if the occasion presents itself.

Just how reliable and dependable Caprice will prove to be as a cab is difficult to determine in less than a week`s driving. This was, of course, a new cab. The brakes didn`t squeal; the shocks didn`t go click-click as driver and occupants traveled roller-coaster fashion over each bump; the seats still fit snugly in place, with no separations or tendency to nudge occupants onto the floor; and the thick vinyl floor mats were devoid of cigarette butts or spittle.

Base price of the test car was $16,515.

Because the cab must withstand more punishment than your normal Caprice, it included an $827 taxi package that adds heavier-duty suspension, to withstand potholes or whatever else you might accidentally choose to autogr aph with your steel-belted radials; heavy-duty cooling system and silicone rubber radiator and heater hoses ( 100,000-mile life but $100 cost) made to withstand the heat of prolonged idling; a stiffer heavy-duty rear seat, with thicker foam and springs to withstand constant pounding; and a rear door-open warning light to let the driver know his fare is trying to skip out.

Options included $155 for the special all-yellow finish, $10 for heavy- duty vinyl floor coverings, $10 to cut a hole in the roof for the taxi sign, $21 to reinforce the roof where the hole was cut and $55 for wiring the sign.

With a few other goodies, the sticker read $18,629.

Bob Hapiak, program manager-specialty vehicles for Chevrolet, said the Caprice cab isn`t selling well for a rather novel reason.

The old Caprice was around for a decade, and that means plenty of spare parts are available in junkyards when door, fender or quarter panel get crumpled.

The Caprice is so new, Hapiak said, that there isn`t a sufficient quantity of low-cost replacement parts available, so drivers are resisting the new model.

``It`ll take a few years to fill the boneyards with spare sheet metal parts,`` he said.

While Chevy and Ford are the chief rivals in the cab market, Hapiak said they soon may be joined by others.

``There`s rumblings that now that the imports have come out with big cars, they`re going to get into the cab market, too,`` he said.

By the way, if you`re stuck downtown during a storm this winter, you should know that the fare from Tribune Tower to the Dempster Street exit on the Edens is $19.70, Old Orchard $21.50, Lake Avenue $23.10 and Willow Road $25.30, based on $1.50 to get in the cab and 10 cents for every 1/10th mile thereafter.

1991 Chevrolet Caprice wagon (03/18/91)
Station wagons grew in popularity because they allowed you to haul the entire family, the week`s groceries and the two weeks` vacation luggage all in the same vehicle.

Ugly? Sure, but functional, too.

Then along came mini-vans and suddenly people woke up to the wagon`s shortcomings-truck-like ride and handling, noise from the tunnel effect of the rear passenger cargo compartment, difficulty in parking the lengthy machine and lousy mileage, to name but a few annoyances.

Mini-vans were just the opposite-style and flair, yet still more than ample room for people and their cargo, car-like ride and handling, quietness, easy maneuverability and respectable fuel economy.

The wagon market has been shrinking since the mid-1980s and the advent of the Chrysler mini-vans.

GM is trying to force a rebirth in wagon popularity of sorts in 1991 with a restyled trio of full-size haulers from Chevy, Buick and Olds, all featuring new rounded aerodynamic sheet metal.

We test-drove the `91 Caprice wagon, which brought back memories of when a ` 78 Impala wagon rested in our driveway. Until the `91 arrived on the market, the full-size wagon at Chevy had remained basically unchanged since 1978.

As for looks, the edge goes to the `91, in large part because the `78 and every pre-91 GM wagon was a long slab-sided box on wheels with a rear-end treatment so flat it looked as if the clay model had run into a wall and no one thought to fix it.

The `91 looks like the now discontinued midsize Chevy Celebrity wagon with its rounded roof line and hatchback rear-end treatment-only longer.

The car we drove was two tone, maroon on top, silver along the rocker panels. The combination not only is pleasant to look at, but the two-tone breaks up the monotony of a single color on such a large vehicle and helps camouflauge the sagging jowls of the sheet metal running below the bodyside moldings.

The memories of the past became most vivid when we turned on the key. A 5-liter carbureted V-8 powered the `78 ; a 5-liter, fuel-injected V-8 does the work in the `91.

The carbureted V-8 had an unquenchable thirst for fuel. Teamed with 4- speed automatic, it was rated at a more- generous-than-real 14 m.p.g. city/ 20 m.p.g. highway. The fuel-injected 5 liter in the `91 is rated at 16 m.p.g. city/25 highway, which seems more in line with what you can expect.

The 5 liter in the `91 also is quieter and seems quicker and more responsive moving from the light. In fact, the entire wagon is quieter. Little engine/transmission noise is fed back into the passenger compartment.

The new wagon is also safer. Back in 1978, the steering column didn`t house a driver`s-side air bag, and no one even heard about antilock brakes. Both are standard on the `91. ABS is a godsend, especially considering the length of the wagon and the size and weight you must bring under control in a panic stop or avoidance maneuver.

Then, too, chances are the wagon is going to be filled with little kids using the second and third seats as an indoor playground while Mom or Dad are at the wheel. ABS helps to compensate for mistakes in judgment any driver with frayed nerves might make.

In 1978 the rear window could be powered down and hidden in the tailgate to provide access for packages without fiddling with the tailgate. Lowering the window also provided some added ventilation in back. You could power the window back up to keep the kids from falling out by either using the key in the rear door lock or by pressing a button in the dash. The tailgate would either swing open as a door or fold down flat to load cargo.

The rear window in the `91 is a curved hatch that only swings up, but it comes with a wiper/washer, whereas the flat glass on the `78 didn`t offer that visibility safety feature. You can open the window with a key or push a button in the dash. Unfortunately the button that unlocks the glass is positioned in front of the front-seat passenger, not the driver. And the buttons to both unlock the glass hatch and use the wiper are too difficult to see at night and need illumination.

The tailgate still swings open or folds down. In the `78 a button in the dash would automatically lock or unlock the tailgate. In the `91 the tailgate is tied into the normal power door locks and easier to use.

The `78 had three sets of seats, with the third farthest in back facing rearward. Same with the `91.

The `91 has some rectangular holders built into the plastic side panels in back to hold juice boxes for the kids. Up front, dual cupholders pull from the dash, but directly above the ashtray so that you can drink or smoke but not both at the same time.

If the `78 and `91 have something in common, it`s that the length of both made parking and tight maneuvering a chore. Some things just don`t change.

Base price of the wagon tested is $17,875.

Standard equipment on the four-do or Caprice wagon, in addition to the items mentioned above, includes luggage rack, tinted glass, power brakes and steering, power door locks and windows, air conditioning, intermittent wipers, gas shocks, 15-inch steel-belted all-season radials, AM/FM stereo with digital clock, dual mirrors (but only left-hand remote as standard, which is utterly stupid, since it forces the driver to stop the vehicle to adjust the right mirror) and visor vanity mirrors.

Options included an electric rear- window defogger with heated outside mirrors for $195, automatic leveling suspension for $175, limited slip differential for $100, trailering package for $171 and preferred equipment package No. 2 for $1,800, which included upgraded radio, driver`s-side express-down on the power windows, power seats, cruise control, power door locks with tailgate included, tilt wheel, dual remote mirrors, power antenna and carpeted floor mats. Two-tone paint ran $141 and custom cloth front split- be nch seat $300. The sticker read $20,757 plus a $535 freight charge.

The rebirth of the wagon faces one major stumbling block-vans aren`t proving to be a passing fad, and if anything the numbers are growing. Ford dropped its fu ll-size wagons when it brought out the newly styled `92 Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis. This fall Ford brings out a new Mercury Villager mini-van developed in cooperation with Nissan. Perhaps Ford knows something that GM refuses to acknowledge.

1991 Caprice Classic LTZ
Why should cops have all the fun?

The Chevy Caprice Classic LTZ is the civilian version of the police package offered on that car to the nation`s law enforcement community.

While the Caprice scrambles to get under the Motor Trend Car of the Year blanket, it`s the LTZ that was so named, not the regular Caprice sedan or wagon.

The LTZ is the ride, handling and performance version of the Caprice. The LTZ is to the Caprice what the SSE is to the Bonneville. The idea behind the LTZ was to provide a family sedan that behaved like a sports sedan with firmer ride and more nimble handling.

``People have been asking us why we don`t refine the police car and make it available to civilians,`` said Jim Perkins, Chevy general manager and former stock car racer.

You have to wonder how many people who drive a Caprice during the week are really looking for a sports version on the weekends.

Perhaps there are people out there who want a squad car minus the bubble on top and shotgun hanging from the dash.

Perhaps Chevy only wanted to come up with a special version of the car in order to be considered for Car of the Year honors, since no self-respecting buff book would fawn over a vehicle designed to cart Mom, Dad and the kids to Mickey D`s for Sunday breakfast.

We test drove the LTZ, and consider it more an upgrade of the regular Caprice sedan than a copy of the police special. Chevy hardly could provide the law and the lawless with the same car.

The watchword for the LTZ is ``heavy,`` as in heavy-duty stabilizer bars front and rear, heavy-duty springs, heavy-duty shocks, heavy-duty rear brakes (anti-lock system is standard), heavy-duty radiator and transmission oil cooler, and heavier-gauge frame and body mounts.

All these heavy-duty items serve two purposes. First, they provide above- average road holding and cornering capability with almost none of the road wander or body lean you get in the regular sedan with its softer suspension. Second, they allow you to run the LTZ harder than you would the typical sedan. Almost all the goodies that set the LTZ apart from the base sedan are things you can`t see, feel, smell or taste-but you can enjoy.

Two other items worth noting with the LTZ are the limited slip differential, which provides added traction when the pavement is wet and quicker acceleration when the pav ement is dry; and higher-than-normal-effort power steering so you can take turns at speed without the feeling you`re going to do a 360.

Typically, when an automaker comes up with an out-of-the-ordinary version of a car-like Pontiac did with its SSE Bonneville-it sports different styling, such as deck lid spoiler or plastic rocker panel extensions to distinguish it from the regular model.

Oddly, there are only a few ways for you to tell the Caprice is an LTZ and not the regular sedan. Rather than a stand-up hood ornament, there`s a tiny square Chevy nameplate on the nose of the hood; the letters LTZ appear on a dash nameplate; the exhaust pipe has a stainless steel tip; and the dash features an analog gauge package complete with a nifty digital speedometer with a larger-than-normal number display.

Though the LTZ sports many of the features borrowed from Chevy`s police package, the only ``pursuit`` in this car is of happiness, not a 0-to-60 or quarte r-mile track record. Put in other terms, you won`t outrun the actual Chevy cop car with the 5-liter, fuel-injected, 170-h.p. V-8 under the hood of the LTZ. The 195-h.p. 5.7-liter V-8 available for actual Caprice police cars isn`t offered in the LTZ.

The EPA rating for the 5-liter V-8 i s 17 m.p.g. city/26 m.p.g. highway.

Standard equipment includes anti-lock brakes; power brakes and steering; driver-side air bag; air conditioning; automatic transmission; power windows and door locks with keyless remote function, so all you need do is push the ``lock`` or ``unlock`` button on the key fob to open or close the doors; dual power mirrors; AM/FM stereo with power antenna; 15-inch speed-rated Goodyear Eagle GT+4 steel-belted radials; intermittent wipers; visor vanity mirrors; tinted glass; trip odometer; bodyside moldings; and Scotchgard fabric protection.

Options on the test car included an electric rear-window defogger with heated dual outside rear-view mirrors for $195, and option package No. 2 for $1,683 that included a Bose sound system, power seats, cruise control, tilt steering, twilight sentinel headlamps, illuminated passenger`s vanity mirror, reading lamps, compass in the inside rear-view mirror, color-keyed front and rear floor mats, and inside trunk opener. Two-tone paint ran $141. The sticker read $21,314, plus a $535 freight charge.

A word of warning: The LTZ isn`t for everybody. The bulk of Caprice owners are past the age of 50 and may not relish the stiff suspension and higher-effort power steering. This isn`t the type of car you load your bridge club in for a shopping trip downtown-unless they all are shopping for roller blades.

>> 1991 Caprice Classic LTZ Wheelbase: 115.9 inches Length: 214 inches Engine: 5 liter, 170 h.p. v-8 Transmission: 4-speed automatic Fuel economy: 17m.p.g. city/26 m.p.g. highway Base price: $19,295 Strong point: Ride and handling typically reserved for sporty models, not family sedans. Weak point: Does the typical Caprice owner really want a stiff suspension and high effort power steering? >>