A genuine family value. by Marcia Ruff
The Chevy Lumina would be the perfect illustration for the "car" entry in an encyclopedia. Forthright and foursquare, the standard Lumina has all of the basics and none of the frills. It is sturdy, reliable, roomy, and inexpensive. It scores near the top of the charts in crashworthiness and at the bottom in theft rates.
With traits like those, you won't be surprised to learn that the Lumina gets little respect from car buffs. Neither will you be surprised to learn that the Lumina was among the top ten in sales last year. A good honest car at a good honest price will always have a market.
But another thing that never fades away is the desire of engineers to add performance. This year, Lumina engineers pieced together the new Lumina LTZ, a high-powered sporty edition for buyers who need the room of a Lumina but yearn for a little more verve.
The Lumina won't turn heads but its smooth, clean styling won't offend anyone, either, and the sloping hood, large glass area, and low package shelf provide good visibility for the driver.
The Lumina is almost 201 inches long, which puts it on the large end of the mid-size category. The long overhang front and rear looks a little old-fashioned compared to some other sedans such as the Ford Taurus and Dodge Intrepid, but the shape does deliver such benefits as an extra-large trunk.
The new LTZ package, scheduled for spring arrival, is a little jazzier. It sports body-colored side mirrors, a rear decklid spoiler, exclusive aluminum wheels, and heavily styled front and rear fascias and side molding. Inside, LTZ graphics have been added to the dashboard and embroidered into the rear center seat cushion.
The sportiness of the LTZ aside, one of the core attributes of the Lumina is safety. In offset crash tests conducted by the insurance industry, the Lumina scored very well in protecting its occupants. An offset crash test is one that simulates a collision on the left front corner. The test is controversial since the federal government has never set standards for carmakers in this area, but buyers looking for another way to assess crashworthiness could consider these results.
In real-world numbers the Lumina does well too, with injury rates well below average among all sedans. These rates reflect to some degree the generally conservative drivers Lumina attracts, but they also reflect the vehicle's good structure and crashworthiness.
Theft, too, is hardly an issue for Lumina owners. According to the insurance industry, the Lumina has the lowest theft rate among non-luxury sedans. All Luminas have the effective PASS-Key II anti-theft system that disables the engine if someone tries to start the car without the correct key. All radios above the base system include a TheftLock security feature.
Like most General Motors vehicles, the Lumina has daytime running lights (DRL), which illuminates the headlights at a low intensity whenever the ignition is turned on. New for '97 is a feature that corrects a common problem with DRL: forgetting to turn the lights up to full strength when darkness falls. An automatic sensor now turns up the headlights when it gets dark and turns them down when it's light.
The Inside Story
Once inside our basic Lumina tester, we were struck by the roominess and plain simplicity of interior. If the Amish liked cars, they would like this one. There is plenty of room all around; the standard seating capacity is six passengers, and the back seat can even fit three real adults. An integrated child seat is available ($195).
The minimal controls are clear and easy to use. The instrument panel consists of large round analog gauges, and the heating controls employ large rotary knobs. It would be better if the more-frequently-used radio controls were above the heating controls, but everything is within easy reach. Extensive sound-deadening has produced a pleasantly quiet interior.
New for 1997 is a clever indicator that tells you when it's time to change the oil. It calculates wear based on your driving habits by tracking engine temperatures and engine speeds. Lots of short, cold hops around town? The light will come on sooner. Scores of easy highway miles? You can stretch out the time between oil changes.
The Lumina has a sound menu of basics as standard features: dual airbags, air conditioning, automatic transmission, power locks, rear child locks, height-adjustable seat belts up front and child comfort adjustment loops on the rear belts. It has a short, thoughtful list of amenities including a gas cap tether, intermittent wipers, and a lined storage cubby to the left of the steering wheel handy for toll tickets.
Stepping up to the LS trim level adds about $2200 to the base price and a good selection of features: anti-lock brakes, power windows and mirrors, cruise control, a better radio with a cassette player, 16-inch wheels instead of 15, trip odometer, cargo net in the trunk and a higher quality of cloth on the seats. The LTZ has all of the above -- except cruise control -- for about $2500 more than the base Lumina.
Several options are only available on the LS and LTZ, including a power sunroof (new this year), front bucket seats, dual-zone temperature controls, and steering wheel controls for the radio (also new this year).
The fact that 80 percent prefer the base Lumina says a lot about how value-conscious its buyers are. Many prefer to add only the specific features they desire. Key options and their prices include anti-lock brakes ($575), uplevel radio/cassette player ($232), rear window defogger ($170), upgraded seat cloth ($100), and an equipment group that includes power windows and mirrors, cruise control, remote trunk release, floor mats, and cargo net ($758).
Ride & Drive
In keeping with its "stick-to-the-basics" design philosphy, the Lumina provides competent ride and handling. Ride quality leans to the soft side, but not egregiously so. The standard power steering gives the driver a reasonably accurate steering feel. The standard suspension soaks up bumps without adding too much floatiness.
This generation Lumina, which appeared in the 1995 model year, was originally engineered to replace the Caprice, so the engineers went out of their way to give it the substantial, somewhat isolated feel of a traditional full-size domestic sedan. The handling will seem slightly remote to someone used to more nimble imports, but it is predictable and gets the job done without any complaints or melodrama.
The standard engine is the same as last year's, a 160-horsepower 3.1-liter V-6 that delivers enough power for comfortable passing and maneuvering. It is mated with GM's smooth 4T60-E four-speed automatic transmission.
Those looking for more performance can opt for the new LTZ. The complete LTZ package includes a 215-hp 3.4-liter V-6, paired with the new 4T65-E four-speed transmission, designed to accommodate the extra power.
Complementing the larger engine is a suspension package for a firmer, more controlled ride. The LTZ also features premium P225/60R-16 touring tires for more traction, as well as the better stopping power of ABS with four-wheel disc brakes, instead of the basic disc/drum combination.
The LTZ is priced in two steps. The base price of $19,995 includes the appearance and convenience items. Add in the 3.4-liter engine, heavier transmission, sport suspension and tires, and the price rises to $22,241.
Both engines feature money-saving maintenance aspects such as 100,000-mile spark plugs and 5-year/100,000-mile coolant.
There is no denying that on the pizzazz-o-meter, the standard Lumina scores about one step above a resting heart rate. The LTZ performance package boosts the excitment level, but it still won't be mistaken for a Bavarian sport sedan.
Nonetheless, there is a lot to be said for a solid, intelligently equipped, reliable, modestly priced car. The Lumina fits that bill very nicely.
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