EXPERT REVIEW

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It looked like a police car. It scared other motorists, many of whom slowed when it showed in their rearview mirrors. It made me feel powerful.

The 1997 Chevrolet Monte Carlo Z34. Chevy’s publicists call it a “personal, mid-size coupe” — because it has two doors. But the description is wrong. “Personal, mid-size” sounds warm, fuzzy. There’s nothing fuzzy about the Z34. Nothing warm, either. It’s hot.

Which seems odd. The Z34 is a two-door version of the Chevrolet Lumina sedan, which is a four-door family hauler. The Lumina’s a nice car. But when you see it, you think church, PTA,shopping mall.

But the Z34, geez! It’s in your face. Beau coup attitude. Like, ” `Ahm badd. Ahm badd,’ ” that sort of thing.

The test model was black-on-black — black body with black side molding, black “Z34” badging and a black grille with a red-on-black Chevy bow tie insignia. It had 16-inch diameter wheels — aluminum, shod with grippy Goodyear Eagle rubber.

The interior was High Detroit– a style incorporating leather, vinyl and industrial carpeting in an attempt to look luxurious. To that end, Chevrolet also added walnut wood grain strips along the Z34’s dashboard and interior door panels. The inside job was a bit campy, but it worked.

Overall, the car was a hoot, the perfect vehicle for long runs on Interstate 95 North and South. I never got so much respect. I mean, wow! People just got the heck out of my way.

Background: The Chevy Monte Carlo’s rivals are dying in a market that is abandoning mid-size and larger coupes in favor of high-end two-seaters, such as the1997 Corvette, BMW Z3 and Mercedes-Benz SLK.

The Monte Carlo’s two biggest competitors, the Ford Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar, are going out of production at the end of the 1997-model year. Ford sources say the Thunderbird probably will come back as a two-seater in model-year 2000, and that the Thunderbird platform also might be used to build a two-seat Lincoln Mark IX as a successor to the current five-seat Lincoln Mark VIII.

Other Monte Carlo rivals include Chrysler Corp.’s Dodge Avenger and Chrysler Sebring, both five-seat coupes, which seem to sell well only when they’re spiced up with customer incentives, such as the $1,000 rebate applicable to the 1997 models through April 7 of this year.

But Monte Carlo sales are rising, up 7.6 percent toward the end of last year and 2.8percent in January 1997. At this writing, the only incentives on the car are its quality and performance, both of which are commendable.

The current generation Monte Carlo was introduced in 1995. There are two versions — base LS and the tested, upscale Z34.

The LS comes with a standard 3.1-liter, sequentially fuel-injected V-6 rated 160 horsepower at 5,200 rpm with torque rated 185 pound-feet at4,000 rpm.

The Z34 gets a standard 3.4-liter, double overhead-cam, sequentially fuel injected V-6 rated 215 horsepower at 5,200 rpm with torque rated 220 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm.

Both cars are front-wheel drive. Other standard equipment on both include four-wheel anti-lock brakes, an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel independent suspension, a stainless steel exhaust system, daytime running lamps, and dual-front air bags.

Besides the upgraded engine, other Z34 spiffs include power four-wheel disc brakes (compared with front discs-rear drums for the LS), remote keyless entry system, 16-inch aluminum wheels, cruise control, power trunk release, 16-inch aluminum wheels — and lots of attitude.

’97 Chevrolet Monte Carlo Z34

Complaints: Several, including poor rear visibility because of the overly fat and wide “C” pillars that enclose the rear window, heavy-as-heck doors and seats that become somewhat tiring on long road trips.

Praise: Styling, overall construction quality, overall performance and, yeah, attitude.

Head-turning quotient: Wonderfully menacing. Nobody messes with you in this car.

Ride, acceleration, handling: Excellent ride. But the Z34’s turning radius is a joke. You’ve got to file an application to make a U-turn in this one. Quite decent acceleration. You can go 0 to 60 miles per hour in just under 9 seconds. Braking was excellent.

Mileage: Not impressive. About 21 miles per gallon (16.6-gallon tank, estimated 335-mile range on usable volume of recommended regular unleaded), combined city-highway with three occupants and light cargo (trunk space, 15.5 cubic feet).

Price: Base price for the 1997 Z34 is $19,945. Dealer invoice on base model is $18,050. Price as tested is $22,348, including $1,853 in options (such as the leather-faced seats and the power sunroof) and a $550 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: This is the best of the affordable big coupes. But you might be able to find a good deal on the last of the Ford Thunderbirds and Cougars, and the Dodge Avenger and Chrysler Sebring with the sales incentives.

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