Describe in one word, suggested the co-driver on our recent whistle around Cabernet country, the strength of the new Acura Legend.


In two words, continued the inquiring mind, report the car's downside.

Unexciting loveliness.

Or in other words: The second-generation Legend that enters showrooms this week, is rather like a favorite son-in-law. Says exactly the right things. Does everything with decorum and the precise amount of hurry and would give you the button-down off his back.

Yet wouldn't it be fun if just once, Freddie Flawless would get real, buy a motorcycle and show up for Thanksgiving dinner in a florescent tank-top?

Buffoonery, however, will never be an option with the Legend. It was born peerless.

Introduced by the Acura Division of Honda in 1986 as the first of Japan's up-market cars, the dignified Legend immediately earned permanent placement on the Top Ten lists of major automotive magazines for superb engineering that provided smoothness of drive and a reputation for endless reliability. From first year to this, Legend has been the Consumer Satisfaction Index (CSI) champion of auto-market analysts J. D. Power & Associates. Some say they should have retired its sheet metal.

Consider the contrasts. On almost all cars--with the definite exceptions of Rolls-Royce and Mercedes--there is a constant sense of small bits of steel moving rapidly against large pieces of hot aluminum and you just know that someday, somewhere, something will break. The sound of a Legend is a maestro's whisper, suggesting the car could be safely delivered with a 25-year warranty on engine and transmission.

Other motor cars are throaty generators of the rush and twitch of hearty driving, and true relaxation usually occurs only when the car is parked and locked. With Legend, polished mechanicals do the manual and mental work.

So while the car goes quickly and very nimbly, thereis time and room for a driver to think of other things, plan ahead and even play license plates with the kids.

This is not simple excellence.

This is absolute perfection.

But then Lassie, the Lakers of the '80s and Mary Worth were perfect, and purity gets a little tedious at times. To flaw is definitely human. Conversely, nobody said that owning a Bentley is as dull as it gets.

So if you thirst for quiet power and a private, muted world once windows hiss shut, the Legend will be your cup of camomile. But for those who consider driving to be an exercise in upper-body strength, may we suggest shopping for a 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona?

Exactly how Acura achieved its position close to zero defects is yet another example of Japan's dedication to what has been called "rapid inch-up"--a program of constant improvement with no pauses to relish success or wait for the competition.

With Legend, said a spokesman, it began soon after the car was launched. The broad goal, he added, "was to make an already excellent automobile better in every way."

So the multivalve, 2.7-liter, V-6 engine has been replaced by a new 3.2-liter V-6. Horsepower has improved from 160 to 200. The engine has been remounted the way God and Henry Ford intended--longitudinally, or north to south, instead of transversely across the engine bay. Despite this mounting, the car retains its front-wheel drive with power transmitted through a differential and drive shafts that actually pass through the oil pan. There are two benefits to this set-up:

Mounting the engine longitudinally gives the car better weight distribution for greater balance, reduces engine vibrations and improves rigidity of the frame.

Front-wheel drive requires no clumsy shafts and joints (to say nothing of interior space lost to the transmission tunnel) running to the rear wheels, which redistributes the overall weight of the car and generally improves trac ion in the slick and slushy.

The 1991 Legend (available in base, L and LS sedans--with a Legend coupe due in February) is longer, wider and lower than the first-born. Because its sheet metal is thicker for a more rigid, safer cabin, the car is also heavier. So the heft of the new Legend, its handling, its squat on the road and even subtleties of its styling are now much closer to European.

The base and L versions still come crammed with the high technology of anti-lock brakes, speed-sensitive power steering, driver-side air bag and quality conveniences bar none. Standard in the LS sedan are leather seats, burled walnut trim--and a passenger-side air bag mounted high in the dash without munching the glove box.

The price, of course, has also grown. Base for the Legend sedan is $26,800, and the ceiling is over $34,000. So in cost, the new Legend is in competition with the Alfa Romeo 164, SAAB 9000 Turbo and the Cadillac Seville. But in technology, comfort and image, claim somewhat ambitious Acurans, it is alongside the $42,000 BMW 535I and the $45,000 Mercedes-Benz 300E.

What Legend is not--despite some expectations from industry watchers--is a contender for the plush and very rapid thrones occupied by Lexus LS400 and the Infiniti Q45. According to Acura insiders, the high-end, high-image luxury car niche is largely overrated verging on the overpopulated.

Styling of the Legend matches the curate's diplomacy when the bishop asked about his breakfast egg: It's good in parts.

By stretching the wheelbase without moving the position of the rear wheels, Acura has reduced the front overhang, and that certainly adds a suggestion of performance and purpose to the front of the car.

Corners and edges have been deeply rounded and softened from earlier and boxier years. Most of the gapes for engine ventilation have been hidden beneath the front fascia, leaving one discreet, chromium-rimmed slot as the only really visible grille.

Wheels beneath wonderfully flared arches fit deeper into the wells, which adds to the low profile of the car. Gaps between panels and doors have been reduced almost 50% to give a fit and finish that Honda-Acura stylists consider "the seamless look."

But the whole is generic and the rear end (right down to the duck tail air dam borrowed from countless other cars) looks more like a CEO's version of the Honda Accord. Nothing startles. Everything suggests aerodynamic data shared with other manufacturers, and one day, swear by it, our cars will come with the styling differences of Brussels sprouts.

Automotive luxury, however, is judged by how an interior is designed. That, after all, is where we work and play, either endure or enjoy. Inside the expanded interior (larger by about 10%) the 1991 Legend is a good room in a finer hotel.

Seats are firm for spirited driving yet comfy enough for the hours we must spend creeping nose-to-trun k and reading bumper stickers. Head and hip room are good up front although leg space seems a little lacking. Yet knee room is better than average out back.

Visibility of white-on-black instruments, the pleasant addition of primary radio controls on the steering wheel, the feel of that wheel and soft leather seats, gearshift position and a long center bank of sound and climate controls are what everyone expects from Acura: Optimum positioning and convenience.

And in insulating this luxury interior from wind and street noises, Acura seems to have borrowed the magnificent quietness that comes with Lexus, Infiniti and Cheops' tomb.

The maturing Legend is very fast, with 0-60 times that out-skedaddle the BMW 535, LexusLS400, most Mercedes and all the Jaguars. Better yet, full power comes on early and is concentrated in the 2,400-4,000-r.p.m. range where we spend approximately 99.97% of our driving time.

The Legend's introduction to the motoring media ook place in San Francisco this month. That allowed full enjoyment of the Legend as a true driver's car and in a region where, to maintain the t heme of things, all vineyards are surrounded by corkscrew roads.

Being a front-driver means the Legend maneuvers with understeer--a tendency of the front tires to lose grip while the rear wheels are still wondering what all the squealing is about. But it is less than last year, a gentle progression, and a handling reaction that occurs only when car and driver are playing Alpine rally.

Off-center, the steering produces heavy castering pressure which did become an effort on the aforementioned twisty bits. But braking is firm and straight. Shifting the 5-speed manual transmission (a 4-speed automatic is an option) can be done by telepathy because Honda/Accord has a patent on cogs and cones of silk and honey.

If only this gentle gymnast weren't so conservative.

Even Legend's body colors are about as dramatic as George Bush's pajamas. Twilight (Last Gleaming) Blue. Rosewood (Jim Beam) Brown. Charcoal (Graybeard) Granite. Cobalt (Black Eye) Blue. Vineyard (Graveyard) Gray. Granada (Boredom) Black.

Pucker-Up Scarlet would do wonders for such a line.

1991 Acura Legend

The Good Superb engineering and heritage. Much dash. Faultless interior. Front half of the car.

The Bad Rear half of the car. Short on stimuli. Excessive steering caster.

The Ugly Body colors by House of Drear.

Cost Base sedan, with manual,: $26,800 LS sedan, $34,200 (includes automatic transmission, leather seats, driver and passenger air bags)

Engine 3.2 liter, 24-valve, V-6 engine developing 200 horsepower.

Type Front-wheel drive, four-door, luxury performance sedan.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., automatic, as tested, 7.7 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 135 m.p.h. Fuel economy, EPA,city-highway, 18-26 m.p.g (manual) and 19/23 m.p.g. (automatic).

Curb Weight 3,486 pounds.