Chrysler's 300M and LHS are fraternal twins: born at the same time, with the same DNA (mechanical underpinnings) and distinct, yet familial, looks.

If they were people, the 300M would be a track star and the LHS would be a violin player. Both spring from the front-wheel-drive Chrysler Concorde, and both are expected to provide a challenge to competitors in the near-luxury segment by virtue of a long list of standard equipment, slick styling and prices that start at $28,895 for the 300M and $28,995 for the LHS. Sales are projected to be 60-70,000 units per year.

Starting with the Concorde's basic body shell and 113-inch wheelbase, the 300M and LHS get a new 253-horsepower engine and individualized interiors that are significantly more plush. A snub nose and large grille defines the LHS, while the 300M gets more dramatic changes. Its short, wedge-shaped snout and chopped-off trunk cut overall length by 10 inches, resulting in a size that is more at home in foreign markets, where it will also be sold.

Inside, however, both cars are the same, and there is room galore. Chrysler's cab-forward architecture places the wheels at the far corners of the vehicle, leaving scads of space in between for a cabin that is unusually spacious considering the car's overall size. The back seat is as comfortable and spacious as the couch in your living room.

Up front, wide bucket seats cradle you nicely. Interior textures are soft and elegant. The instrument panel's leather-like surface is free of seams and cut lines. Chrome-trimmed gauges with cream-colored faces that glow light blue at night recall elegant motor cars of the 1930s. Faux wood trim encircles the dash and door panels and adds a touch of class. Leather is standard fare, as well as heated seats, automatic air conditioning, AM//FM stereo with CD player, tilt wheel, keyless remote, trip computer and an analog clock that mirrors the other gauges.

The 300M has a split-folding back seat, while the LHS does not.

Middle-age folks may recall that Chrysler began its 300 series in 1955 with a powerful sedan that scampered down the road like a sports car. Fast-forward to 1998, and even though the 300M has four doors, front-wheel-drive and a 3.5-liter V6 engine, it embodies the same kind of robust performance as the original. It hits 60 mph in 7.6 seconds and has a top speed of 139 mph. The LHS is fractionally slower.

The single-overhead-cam (SOHC), 24-valve, all-aluminum V6 is completely new. Not only is it smooth and quiet in everyday driving, it has plenty of zip when you want quick acceleration. Befitting the 300M's sporting nature, its transmission is equipped with the AutoStick shifter so the driver can control the gears manually when desired.

Out on the highway, 70-mph cruising is fairly quiet. Some pavement created a fair amount of singing from the tire tread, but nothing too intrusive.

Both the LHS and 300M ride on 17-inch wheels. Although the 300M feels marginally crisp er, and more precise, both cars are responsive and nimble. Sports-car enthusiasts who pick the 300M will want to specify the optional handling package, which includes 16-inch wheels, Michelin tires, externally vented four-wheel disc brakes, tighter springs and shocks and steering with a firmer feel. This package, standard on cars exported overseas, creates a very European feel and excellent handling. Unexpected demand may make it difficult to get a car with this option, so be patient.

Choosing between the two cars is a matter of taste. The LHS has a bigger trunk and a more luxurious personality. The 300M, on the other hand, is aggressive, and athletic, yet it gives up nothing in terms of comfort or sophistication. Both offer a lot of value for the price.

Price
The base price of the LHS is $28,995. Options on our test car included the power moonroof and chrome wheels. Its sticker price was $30,580.

The base price of the 300M is $28,895. Options included the smok s group (ashtray) and chrome wheels. Its sticker price was $29,515.

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

Point: These cars convey similar concepts in a slightly different fashion. The LHS is smooth, quiet and elegant. The 300M is tighter, smaller and agile. The new engine is sweet, the interiors voluminous and styling is cutting-edge.

Counterpoint: I would like to see the 300M's split-folding back seat and AutoStick transmission as option on the LHS as well.


SPECS
ENGINE: 3.5-liter, V6

TRANSMISSION: automatic

WHEELBASE: 113 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,589 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $28,995 (LHS), $28,895 (300M)

PRICE AS DRIVEN: $30,580 (LHS), $29,515 (300M)

MPG RATING: 18 city, 27 hwy.