Talk about giving your competition a head start.

In the midsize car race, Saturn spotted the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord a nine-year lead before creating the LS sedan to give chase.

This week, the 2000 Saturn LS sedan finally arrives in showrooms to give loyal owners of its compact S model sedans an alternative to Camry, Accord and, for that matter, the Chevrolet Malibu.

The midsize LS is the automaker's first venture out of compacts since it began selling cars in the 1991 model year.

While Saturn boasts that the LS is one of those new-from-the-ground-up machines, it used the Opel Vectra platform from GM of Europe to come up with the newest addition to the lineup.

Saturn had three choices in building a midsize car--start with an all-new platform, build it off the Malibu or build it off an Opel platform.

An all-new platform would have been too expensive; a Malibu derivative would have given it a vehicle with the ride, handling and performance of a domestic to battle its target market--imports; and an Opel derivative would provide import ride and handling qualities--and could be done inexpensively. Opel won, especially since the front-wheel-drive Vectra has just undergone a remake.

What Saturn didn't get was flashy styling. Like import rivals, the look is conservative. Not Camry or Accord drab, but not Chrysler 300M dynamic. And though the design doesn't set a fashion pace, it won't go out of style in a couple of years, either.

Why did Saturn wait so long for a midsize car? Saturn was fathered by now-retired GM Chairman Roger Smith, under whose reign from 1980 to 1990 that GM market share went from dominance to dumper. Among surviving GM executives, Smith is persona non grata.

Since two-thirds of Saturn's 300,000 annual buyers say they wouldn't have set foot in a GM showroom had it not been for this division, you'd have to say Saturn has been a success.

To direct money and engineering energy into a midsize Saturn sooner than now would have been an admission that Smith got one right, though based on the money GM made off Smith's acquisitions of Hughes Electronics Corp. and Electronic Data Systems, the retired chairman got at least three right.

Has Saturn been a profit center? Nope. A few coins at best, which isn't bad considering it built only compacts and the most profitable segment is midsize cars, where the Camry, Accord and Ford Taurus vie for the title of best-selling auto in the country.

A midsize entry should erase years of red ink. Of course, a few other factors will contribute to Saturn's long-term popularity and profitability: new cosmetics for the compact sedan/wagon for 2000; ditto for the compact coupe for 2001 after a January debut at the Detroit Auto Show; the arrival of a compact sport-ute in 2002 followed by a midsize SUV built off the LS platform soon after that. As SUVs arrive, wagons will be dropped.

But we digress. For 2000, Saturn adds midsi ze front-wheel-drive LS, LS1 and LS2 sedans and LW1/LW2 station wagons.

In Saturn's compact lineup, the "1" designation means a smaller engine and black bumpers, the "2" means a larger engine and body-colored bumpers. With the midsize LS sedans, Saturn continues to use 1 or 2 to designate the engine choice, but no longer saddles the cheaper car with black bumpers. All Saturns, top shelf and bottom drawer, sport body-colored bumpers. Nice touch. Hopefully, the compacts will get the same non-discriminatory treatment.

Without black/body-colored bumpers, the way to tell an LS or LW1 from an LS or LW2 is to look for dual exhaust tips, a V-6 decklid badge and chrome wheels on the 2 models.

As for engines, the LS, LS1 and LW1 offer a new 2.2-liter, 137-horsepower 4-cylinder (look for it in other GM small cars soon) with a choice of a very smooth-shifting 5-speed manual (from Saab, in sedans only) or 4-speed automatic.

The uplevel LS and LW2 models borrow a modified 3 -liter, 182-h.p. V-6 from the Cadillac Catera (also from Opel) that comes with 4-speed automatic only.

The 4 is a tad noisy at initial acceleration until you reach cruising speed; the V-6 is pleasantly smooth and quiet.

While testing all LS variations, we spent the most seat time in the LS2 sedan because it should be the vehicle of choice, and with a V-6 it was nice to experience a sprightly, yet quiet sedan carrying a Saturn nameplate. Since Day 1, the nagging problem at Saturn has been noisy 4-cylinder engines in its compacts.

At 75 m.p.h. on the open road, there was no shimmy or shake or gasping for air as if the V-6 was on the verge of exhaustion. The V-6 has the strength and endurance the 4-cylinder lacks in the Saturn compacts. The 2.2-liter 4 in the midsize LS is designed to give buyers a lower-cost Saturn alternative.

Fuel economy with 4 or V-6 is exceptional: 24 m.p.g. city/32 m.p.g. highway from the 4 and manual, 23/32 from the 4 and automatic; 20/26 from the V-6 with automatic.

The suspension on the midsize LS is more sophisticated than that on the S models. There's four-wheel independent suspension, gas-pressurized shocks and front and rear stabilizer bars. The choice of tires gives each car a distinct character.

The LS1 and LW1 come with 15-inch tires that focus on delivering a cushioned ride, the uplevel LS2 and LW2 comes with wider-profile 15-inch radials for optimum, sure-footed handling.

The uplevel radials follow directions better as well as isolating road noise from the cabin. You also enjoy quicker, more precise steering response, whereas with the smaller radials, there's a tendency to wander and float.

As with all Saturns, anti-lock brakes teamed with traction control are a $695 option. The LS traction control system limits fuel flow and/or applies ABS to the slipping wheel when sensors detect a problem. In the smaller S compacts, only ABS is used.

The LS sedan is longer, wider, smoother, quieter and better equipped than its compact S model stablemate while retaining Saturn's signature dent-resistant and rust-free plastic body panels (except rear quarter panels, roof and hood) and above-average fuel economy.

The cabin is spacious, trunk room more than ample and if not, the rear seat backs fold to allow you to hold more. Controls are easy to see and reach. Not a lot of whiz-bang high-tech complexity as there is simplicity and function.

Of note, the cloth seats on the midsize LS are wide and supportive and seat bottoms long enough to offer excellent thigh support to keep the legs from tiring on long trips. While the cloth seats on the compact S models are a bit stiff and tiresome for long-distance travel, the seats on the LS are comfy and cozy and easy-chair like. Those with back problems should find a cure in the LS. No need for lumbar controls.

Base prices start at $15,010 for the LS with manual, $15,870 with automatic; $16,750 for the LS1 with ma nual, $17,610 with automatic; $18,835 for the LW1; $21,360 for the LW2; and $20,135 for the LS2 sedan we tested.

Standard equipment in the LS2, in addition to that noted, includes air conditioning with dust/pollen filter; power disc brakes; power steering; power/heated mirrors; power windows and locks that won't function if you leave the car with the key in the ignition; AM/FM stereo with CD and cassette players; cruise control; tilt wheel; remote keyless entry; tinted glass; foglamps; daytime running lamps; floor mats; oil life monitor; and 100,000-mile coolant.

Dual front air bags are standard, but side-impact bags aren't offered. Saturn officials instead are developing an air-bag curtain for 2001 that drops from the roof to protect occupants' upper torso and head.

Other noteworthy features include a black-dot matrix in the glass around the rear-view mirror to block out sun glare; a fuel gauge arrow to advise what side the filler door is on; hug e outside mirro rs; body-colored protective moldings and flush-mounted door handles; dual cupholders in the center console and rear-seat fold-down armrest; dual power plugs; and, on the wagon, a cargo net plus pullout security shade as well as a rear window wiper that sweeps at the same time as the front wipers.

>> 2000 Saturn LS sedan
© 1999 Chicago Tribune Wheelbase: 106.5 inches Length: 190.4 inches Engine: 3-liter, 182-h.p. V-6 Transmission: 4-speed automatic Fuel economy: 20 m.p.g. city/26 m.p.g. highway Base price: $20,135 Price as tested: $22,000. Includes $695 for ABS; $725 for power sunroof; $220 for audio-system upgrade; and $225 rear spoiler. Add $440 for freight. Pluses: Much needed larger Saturn finally available. All the goodies from the compact, such as plastic body panels, ABS and traction control, carried over to the midsize model. Wagon offered, which sets the stage for a sport-ute. Minuses: SUV needed more than a wagon, but compact SUV comes out for 2002, midsize SUV off this sedan platform could come after that. >>