Mitsubishi has always positioned its Diamante as an luxury car for the

value conscious.

That has never been more clear than with the 1998 ES version, whose base price of $27,650 undercuts many competing models. It offers striking looks, one of the slipperiest exteriors anywhere and a 210-horsepower engine that jumps to attention at the slightest prod of the throttle. Standard equipment includes keyless entry, power windows and locks, cruise control, tilt wheel, power mirrors and an AM/FM stereo cassette.

The Diamante was redesigned a little over a year ago, and it rides on the same 107.1-inch wheelbase as its predecessor, although interior volume is greater because the windshield was pulled forward so the passenger compartment could be bigger. Some of its aerodynamic efficiency no doubt comes from its sharply chiseled tail, which the air reads as being longer than it actually is, and glassed-in headlights. Large taillamps dominate the back view.

Dynamically, the Diamante fits the recipe for a mid-level luxury car because its 3.5-liter single-overhead-cam (SOHC) V6 is larger and more powerful than the previous model. The extra size yield more torque, or pulling power, and that results in low-speed throttle response almost like a small V8.

A lot of attention has been paid to reducing noise, vibration and harshness

(NVH) of the engine through the use of an aluminum oil pan and a forged steel crankshaft. The engine is notably free of high-rpm buzzing that can often be felt through the steering wheel.

The automatic transmission learns your driving habits and shifts the car

accordingly. If you accelerate gently, it shifts quickly and smoothly. If you

drive more aggressively, it adjusts the shift points for more performance. When coasting down hill the transmission will shift down to a lower gear to provide engine braking.

Mitsubishi says its transmission differs from others in that it uses a network like that of the human brain to correlate a variety of signals from the engine and brakes rather than relying on predetermined shift programs, or maps, to tell it when to shift.

All the tech talk means this: The Diamante's transmission "learns" the

driver's habits and shifts according to her style.

The interior is all new as well, with a new gauge cluster that is handsome and easy to read. The optional leather upholstery has vertical seams which are less bothersome that ones which run perpendicular to the driver's body.

On the safety front, anti-lock brakes and dual airbags are standard, as are

seat-belt tensioners that are activated in the event of a crash. There are

three-point seatbelts for all five passengers.

Our test car was equipped with the Premium Package that adds 16-inch alloy

wheels, leather seats, wood trim, a power driver's seat and fog lamps.

A child restraint seat is also offered, which is rare for vehicles in this

segment.

The radio has large, soft-touch buttons, not to mention excellent sound

quality.

Mitsubishi has honed the Diamante's on-road behavior with an improved chassis that uses aluminum components to save weight and improve structural rigidity. The multi-link rear suspension not only provides precise cornering, but it also soaks up bumps without jarring the passengers.

Typical of most Mitsubishi cars, the Diamante has a sporting personality, yet not so much so that it relinquishes its place as a luxury sedan that competes with cars such as the Acura TL, Infiniti I30 and Audi A6.

Price

The base price of our test car was $27,650. Options included a power

sunroof, trunk mat and the Premium package of alloy wheels, leather seats, wood trim, power driver's seat and fog lamps.

The sticker price was $31,905.

Warranty

The basic warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles.

Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the uto manufacturers.

Point: This new Diamante has sharp looks, a well-thought-out interior and a 210-horsepower V-6. Factor in the base price of $27,650 and you have a lot of car for the money.

Counterpoint: Some might think the aerodynamic styling is too bland and too much like others in its class.

SPECIFICATIONS:

ENGINE: 3.5-liter, V6

TRANSMISSION: automatic

WHEELBASE: 107.1 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,417 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $27,650

PRICE AS DRIVEN: $31,905

MPG RATING: 18 city, 24 hwy.