EXPERT REVIEW

Los Angeles Times's view

Shop for an imported car and you will fit a snooty buyer profile that measures combined family income, number of sport utilities in the garage, your occupational status and college education.

Those who purchase mid-size Chevys demographically slip into something more comfortable. They conceivably have a lifetime bowling average of 155, log workweeks by hours, are on their first wife and third digital watch, still thirst for Utica Club, prefer Leno to Letterman and trust all appliances by Kenmore.

This is not talking down.

This is going eyeball to eyeball with mighty Middle America, the economic core of this nation and a significant corps of millions that daily spends billions on high-value generics by JC Penney, Sears, Radio Shack and General Motors.

The Big Three and Big Macs, in fact, couldn’t survive without ’em. High technology and low production are not for these buyers. High value and low price certainly are.

So is Chevrolet’s 1995 Lumina series, a typical mass-market lineup stretching from a four-door sedan that could snore on any shelf alongside Wonderbread, to a Monte Carlo redux that is livelier and much sportier than the lengthy, luxurious Montes of the ’70s and ’80s.

The Luminas are good, honest cars with base prices starting at $16,000, which is lower than the median price of a new import. Included in that cost is V-6 power, automatic transmission, disc brakes, air conditioning, power steering and dual air bags. Also quiet room for six and anti-lock brakes that are a basement bargain at $386.

Even an uplevel Lumina LS with a heftier sound system, ABS and power windows still starts at only $17,495.

What one doesn’t get in the base Lumina sedan is anything to stir the spirit. This is an automobile for those who really don’t care what they drive as long as it gets them there. It adds nothing but a boring lump of metal to your driveway, features minimalist tweed upholstery and fuzzy liners, and is about as predictable as a tract home.

It also gets quite alarmed if asked to do anything dramatic involving steering, gas pedal or brakes over 73 m.p.h.

On the other hand, a Lumina is safe, trustworthy transportation that does get you there and in complete comfort. The speed of its passage is acceptable. Controls are huge, of rubberized industrial build and can be operated while wearing boxing gloves. The refrigeration will chill a side of beef and the sturdy little 3.1-liter V-6 with 160 horsepower will easily live out this century.

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The Monte Carlo shows much more vitality and charm.

It also bears no more resemblance to earlier generations than actor Wyatt Earp does to his fast-fingered ancestor.

Thank heavens. For although a certain sentiment lingers for Montes and their18-year ministry that ended in 1988, they were never quite the car you would take everywhere.

Sure, they had V-8 power and up to 360 horsepower at times–but blew most of it budging a car that weighed close to two tons. Yup, the name had a continental flourish–but at 18 feet long with Ruebenesque fenders, this was nothing you’d want to try parking on the narrow and clotted streets of Monte Carlo.

One model worth a durn was the lighter, shorter SS of 1983. Everybody got to play NASCAR racer in this one. Three years later the speedy SS begat the Aero Coupe and sucked in more disciples.

Still, about the only holdovers for Monte Carlo’s 1995 reincarnation are two doors and a modicum of distinction.

It now is a front-drive vehicle in two flavors, the Monte Carlo LS and Monte Carlo Z34. The SS is replaced at the top of the line by the Z34 with a sticker of $19,495. The cast-iron V-8 is no more and the available engines are both V-6s with aluminum heads: the 160-horsepower version and a 3.4 liter producing 210 horsepower.

The heftier engine was standard power on our test car, a Mont Carlo Z34 in ace of hearts scarlet and distinguished by a discreet rear deck badge. It shares new hoofs–conventional but quite handsome five-spoke, 16-inch aluminum wheels–with the Monte Carlo LS. Both models have gaps for grilles, rather than the horizontal slits of the Lumina.

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Such touches of spiffiness–which nicely elevate the two Montes from the Lumina’s domestic, mill-run styling–are carried to the insides.

A tachometer improves the visuals of the instrument cluster, although one could question its worth to the driver of any vehicle where shifting is by a four-speed automatic and mostly out of our hands. But the padded center console with cubby and cup holder have definite purpose. A centrally mounted gearshift has the feel of sportiness, if not essential function.

Vinyls appear richer than those in the Lumina. Seat fabrics–with leather an option–are of higher quality. And the front corners of the cabin are a very pleasing arc of walnut–albeit faux–curving from door to dashboard and framing door and window controls.

But save the Z34’s rear seats for ill-tempered in-laws. Even with front chairs at a mid-point setting, it’s a knee cruncher back there.

And use both eyes, all three mirrors and a double shoulder glance before changing lanes. Then repeat the scan. Because the car’s broad, solid C-pillars will reduce vision better than a poke in the eye.

There is nothing superb about the performance and handling of the Z34. There also is nothing to hate about it either. Margins of speed and maneuvering precision are up to the level of some of the mid-size competition–such as Ford Thunderbird–and only a turn or two below very high standards set by the rest: Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Chrysler’s LH cars.

The trunk is large. Good sealing and insulation keep road noises and engine roar from disturbing the conversations and daydreams of occupants. Seating support is balanced nicely between bun-nipping buckets and slippery sofa. The Monte Carlo drinks regular unleaded and delivers about 23 m.p.g.

And if that sounds solid but average, capable but ordinary, so be it. There may, indeed, be high wisdom in designing in generalities and building populist. There’s certainly a fiscal safety in the numbers of building a series such as the Chevrolet Lumina/Monte Carlo–then rebadging and recycling it as Buick Regal, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and Pontiac Grand Prix.

Last year, Volvo sold 72,000 cars in the United States.

In the same 12 months, GM sold more than 500,000 Regals, Grand Prix, Cutlasses and Luminas.

As some ordinary guy once noted: In the average man is curled, the hero stuff that rules the world.

1995 Chevrolet Monte Carlo Z34

Price: $19,495 as tested

The Good: Return of solid mid-size coupe with luxo-sporty accents. Sensibly aimed at Middle America, Midwest, Mid-everything. High value, ho wever.

The Bad: Rear visibilty is limited. No back-seat room.

The Ugly: Depends on how you feel about Billy Ray Cyrus?

Cost As tested, $20,091 (includes anti-lock brakes, two air bags, automatic transmission, air conditioning, power windows as standard equipment. Plus optional AM/FM cassette sound system, power driver seat and rear window defogger.)

Engine 3.4-liter V-6 developing 210 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, front-drive, five-place, mid-size coupe.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, with automatic, 9.5 seconds. Top speed, electronically limited, 120 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 17 and 26 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 3,436 pounds.

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