Where plain vanilla is a virtue.

by Bob Markovich

If mid-size sedans sold on looks alone, conservatively styled favorites like Honda's Accord, Toyota's Camry and Ford's last-generation Taurus probably wouldn't have made it into so many driveways. All three compete with the Chevrolet Lumina in the largest, highest-volume hunk of the U.S. car market. It's a place where success is measured less on animal attraction than it is on the inner virtues of space and comfort at an attractive price. And in that sense, Chevy's Lumina rates as one of the most successful mid-size sedans of all.

Consider these specs: At just $16,895 (including a standard $540 destination charge) to start, the front-drive Lumina comes with over 100 cubic feet of passenger space, a beefy V-6 and a four-speed automatic. That's about $100 less than a smaller four-cylinder Accord with an automatic, and some $300 south of a basic Camry with a five-speed you shift yourself. It's also more than $1000 less than Ford's new entry-level Taurus G. Yet the Lumina offers similar overall space and standard equipment, along with an extra 15 hp over the standard Taurus V-6.

Walkaround

Except for three new color choices, the 1996 Lumina looks just like the redesigned '95 version. The four-door Lumina also shares its chassis, its hardware and most of its body panels with Chevy's sportier Monte Carlo coupe, which starts at $17,225. True to its family-sedan mission, however, the Lumina is taller, for added head room, and has rear doors that stretch way back over the wheels to make getting in and out easier.

Like its high-volume competitors, the Lumina breaks no new ground in styling. Its semi-jellybean shape looks as subdued as Newt Gingrich's gray flannel suit next to the new Taurus and even the three-year-old Dodge Intrepid. But like a good suit that's comfy on the inside, the Lumina's low beltline and rear deck help drivers face the world outside, view the landscape and maneuver into tight spots without undue neck-stretching.

Trim options are also suitably basic and uncomplicated. There's the base Lumina Sedan, which includes air conditioning, power locks, intermittent wipers and a raft of other accessories. Then there's the LS, which adds such key items as power windows and mirrors, antilock brakes and a cassette radio.

While you can add those upgrades to base Luminas, the $18,595 LS includes them for less. It also allows you to opt for rear disc brakes instead of the standard drums, along with a 3.4-liter twin-camshaft V-6 that pumps out 55 hp more than the standard pushrod engine and another 15 hp over the optional twin-cam V-6 in Ford's Taurus.

The Inside Story

Luminas are also spacious where it counts. Two wide bench seats provide more shoulder room front and rear than you'll find in any of the Lumina's competitors save for the larger Intrepid, which wins by a smidgeon up front. There's also more front head room than the Intrepid, and more in back than all but Honda's Accord, which is far smaller nearly everywhere else. Result: even though the Lumina isn't long on rear seat legroom, it's one of the few that can seat six adults for anywhere near the price.

Sit in the driver's seat, and you face a clear, compact instrument cluster with large round gauges. You also face a sea of gray plastic, though nearly everything on it -- from the high-mounted rotary climate dials to the large radio knobs and buttons -- is right where it should be.

An exception is the Lumina's horn, which requires both a stretch to reach and a firm push to activate. Another exception is the optional new dual temperature tabs for the driver and front passenger. Both are tougher to adjust at speed than dials. We also wonder why Luminas still lack a flash-to-pass feature for the high beams.

In back, even the center "hump" seat is reasonably comfy, thanks to the Lumina's generous headroom. Open the trunk, and you get equally generous cargo space that's within one cubic foot of the full-size Dodge Intrepid's. While both the base and Lumina LS offer a new integral rear child seat, you can swap it on LS editions for a center armrest that opens a small pass-through to the trunk. Oddly enough, a fold-down split rear seat comes only on the less-utilitarian Monte Carlo.

Ride & Drive

Instead of the solid rear beam axles on some front-drive sedans, all Luminas get a fully independent suspension that prevents bumps beneath the left wheel from jouncing the one on the right. Supple springs and shock absorbers also contribute to the base Lumina's smooth ride. The penalty for those soft settings is considerable lean through tight turns and a fair amount of wallow over dips.

That's where the optional FE3 suspension comes in. Available only on the LS, this add-on includes firmer springs and shocks that greatly reduce the floatiness base cars exhibit without ruining the ride. Along with the firmer suspension, our LS test car had wider, grippier P225/60-16 Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires that sharpen the Lumina's response to emergency maneuvers and work surprisingly well in the wet. Those are probably the best reasons to opt for the uplevel LS.

Then there's the twin-camshaft V-6 -- a $1095 LS-only option. While the base engine pulls smartly off the line, the bigger engine size and two more valves per cylinder help the larger V-6 breathe deeper and rev higher for added power. The result is an instant, reassuring thrust at the highway speeds where the basic V-6 runs out of breath. And unlike some multi-valve engines, the Lumina's is relatively smooth and quiet, pulls powerfully around town and purrs contentedly on plain old 87-octane gas.

What's more, both powertrains now have 100,000-mile platinum spark plugs, five-year coolant and lifetime transmission fluid for the maintenance-averse.

Extended seat time in both the base and LS Lumina also revealed what may be this car's one drawback -- its front seats. Even the up-level buckets on the LS are too soft in the center, and offer little side support through deer-in-the-road manuevers. We tried raising, lowering, tilting and reclining the $300 power driver's seat to compensate -- all to little avail. But considering the Lumina's low price, you should have enough left over for a lifetime supply of foam seat wedges.

Final Word

The mid-size sedan segment is also getting more crowded and competitive each year. And that can mean an often-bewildering array of picks. Still, some meet specific needs better than others.

Honda's relatively short, nimble Accord is the logical choice for those who value sporty handling over space. Toyota Camrys offer added room and a more potent optional V-6. Unfortunately, pricing for Camrys so equipped begin where many of their competitors top out.

Perhaps the ultimate combination of space and handling at a reasonable price is Dodge's Intrepid and -- with the new $18,545 G model --Ford's revamped Taurus. The jury's still out on whether the new Taurus will be the long-ball home run the old model was. Nevertheless, it's a bold statement in a market where safe is more prevalent than sexy.

Then there are those who prefer a car that's good in many areas, instead of great in one or two. A sedan that's big and roomy without being hard to park, and tasteful without being conspicuous. If that's you, Chevy's got your favorite flavor.

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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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