Orlando Sentinel's view

Last week I drove 180 miles through the winding country roads of northernCentral Florida while taking turns behind the wheel of the new ChevroletLumina and Monte Carlo and the cars Chevy says will be their maincompetition.

After a careful comparison, I feel I can predict that Chevrolet will havesolid hits with its new mid-size family sedan and luxury-sports coupe.Initially, however, the1995 Lumina-Monte Carlo may not be a home run, butthey’ll certainly move Chevrolet into scoring position.

I feel that both cars – which are mechanically identical – are just oneminor improvement away from giving Chevrolet a real shot at competing for thetop spot in the mid-size market. All that both cars need are better frontseats.

Both available engines – the 160-horsepower 3.1-liter V-6 and the210-horsepower 24-valve 3.4-liter V-6 – felt great, delivering superblyrefined performance and fuel economy many four-cylinder imports can match butnot beat. I can’t recall driving any car with a smoother automatictransmission. The gearbox in the Lumina and Monte Carlo provides seamlessshifts. You can’t even feel the downshift from fourth to third when you arecruising at highway speeds and you floor the accelerator to pass.

Balance and finesse probably best describe the overall driving and handlingcharacteristics of both cars.

The four-wheel independent suspension in theLumina sedan takes the sharpedge off most bumps while still delivering a very capable and athletic ride.

Both cars are outfitted with disc brakes up front and drums in the rear andpower rack-and-pinion steering. Both systems are well matched to the weightand handling abilities of sedan and coupe.

An attractive interior

The interior doesn’t break any new ground in terms of styling ortechnology, but it is attractive, well laid out and user-friendly. Thecupholders, for instance, have been designed to hold everything from thebiggest cup of soda you can buy to a coffee mug with a handle.

The three rotary air-conditioner switches feel excellent and are extremelyeasy to operate. The analog gauges, with their orange needles, white numbersand black background, are easy to readand nicely placed within the instrumentcluster. Unlike the old Lumina, you can reach the radio and pop in a cassettewithout having to lean forward.

But after driving some of the cars that the Lumina and Monte Carlo willcompete against – such as the Honda Accord, Ford Taurus and Dodge Intrepid – Irealized that Chevy interior designers dropped the ball when it came toseating comfort.

I tried all of the seating options Chevy offers in the Lumina and MonteCarlo – bench and bucket, cloth and leather – and I couldn’t really getcomfortable.

Specifically, it’s the lower portion of thefront seats that need work.There isn’t enough padding and support in the lower cushion. I weigh 172pounds and I felt the lower part of the seats sink slightly as I sat down. Itwas almost as if theseat cushion was touching the floorboard.

Even though the cars I test drove were pre-production models, Chevroletofficials said the seats in production cars would be virtually the same.

With more padding and support in the lower portion of the seat, the carswould have been as close to faultless as you can get in a lower-priced familysedan and sports coupe.

In any case, rear seating isexcellent. And so is the legroom and headroomavailable to rear passengers.

Chevy officials hope to sell 300,000 Lumina sedans and Monte Carlo sportcoupes in the 1995 model year. Chevrolet dealersalready think the MonteCarlo, which went into production Feb. 14, is a real sweetheart. They’vejammed Chevy with more than 90,000 orders for the cars.

Throughout the summer, Chevy dealers will start receiving both cars involume.

No car ever starts out perfect. The new Lumina and Monte Carlo are noexceptions, but Chevrolet is not far off the mark.

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