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BEHIND THE WHEEL / 1994 CHRYSLER LHS

For a Younger Crowd

April 02, 1993|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RUTHERFORD, Calif. — Bob Lutz, president of Chrysler Corp., was out of the board room and in his element: thrashing a good car around empty mountain roads.

On this high-speed wriggle across the foggy tops and damp bottoms of Central Napa--made trickier by runoff dribbling across the tougher corners, and usually at the apexes--there was little room for whoops.

But Lutz, ever the unemployed fighter pilot, always the hard competitor, BMWbiker and European-schooled racer of fiery sports cars, displayed no difficulties.

He trail braked into turns because slower entry produces a better balanced car and quicker exits from tighter corners. On fast, sweeping bends, maintaining the speed limit was excess enough and required responses quicker than the radar detector on the dash of Lutz' 1994 Chrysler LHS.

The Swiss-born Silver Fox grinned through it all.

But not entirely from the moment's exhilaration.

Lutz's full pleasure came from proving to the motoring media--at least those who could stay with him--that Chrysler finally has built a weighty, well-padded, five-passenger, fully-loaded luxury car without sacrificing response, agility, pace or faith in your deodorant.

A current series of commercials reveals Chrysler's new promise. No more wallow. No float and roll. All references to battleships, barges and yachts are henceforth torpedoed.

And no whitewalls or padded vinyl roofs of the Landau look.

Steve Torok, general manager of the Chrysler-Plymouth division, says plush and lavishness, the very essence of old Chrysler, even old Detroit, have been redefined: "Luxury is now . . . the function of the driver's needs."

Chrysler's need, of course, is survival. It wasn't making it with minivans and sport utility vehicles, and with stodgy sedans purchased by a dwindling, older population who prefer to drive living rooms. Demographics demanded more sophisticated vehicles for younger buyers--the ubiquitous, now graying baby boomers weaned on sportier, tighter Japanese cars.

And whether investing in homes, Dalmatians or matrix printers, this practical lot prefers functional design over flashy styles. It is no longer interested in size, mechanical trinkets and being conspicuous. These are Clinton folk. George Bush was your father's politician.

Last fall, Chrysler went from one generation to the next with its line of cab-forward, mid-size LH sedans: Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision and Chrysler Concorde. Sales have been off the page--and heavy among those 40-somethings.

Next month, the upmarket Chrysler New Yorker and Chrysler LHS luxury sedans enter American showrooms as 1994 models. They are longer, lower and spiffier than the LH cars, but are based on their 214-horsepower, 3.5 liter V-6 engine.

Although Chrysler is targeting the front-driving New Yorker and LHS against the slowpoke Buick Roadmaster and 2-year-old Mercury Grand Marquis, its new line conceivably could create a world of hurt for Cadillac and Lincoln. It may even cause Lexus and Infiniti to squint over their shoulders.

Price is Chrysler's huge advantage.

Granted, we're comparing the apples of V-8 power in Cadillac and Lincoln with the oranges of Chrysler's V-6.

But when equipment is at par, handling is better and value and engineering levels are higher, just how much is one second of initial acceleration and a slightly heftier top speed worth to the average luxury car buyer?

Entry-level Cadillacs and Lincolns start around $34,000.

Base price on the Chrysler New Yorker is $10,000 less.

An Infiniti J30 or Lexus GS300--both with a V-6 engine, double air bags, leather interior, automatic transmission, touring suspension package, anti-lock brakes, CD player and all power trinkets--cost uncomfortably close to $40,000.

A Chrysler LHS with the same equipment is $11,000 less.

Flanktoflank, there are zero differences between the New Yorker and the LHS, bar their badging.

Both have the cab-forward look of the LH--a sharply raked windshield mounted further ahead of the dashboard for extra interior room--and the same wheelbase. But the longer Chrysler twins have all extra metal built into front and rear overhangs so typical of big car styling.

The cars show rounded and reduced rear windows reminiscent of the Jaguar Mk VIIs through IXs of the '50s and '60s, and minimal touches of chrome creating a discreet, contemporary exterior well suited to arriving at Chasen's in a tux.

The standard New Yorker, with front and rear bench seating for six, is geared for the traditional Chrysler buyer, right down to its column-mounted shifter. It provides a softer ride on a milder suspension and noise-deadening, all-season tires on 15-inch pressed steel wheels.

Therefore, the car fusses and rolls a little when slung around challenging corners. But the result is a lazy, predictable understeer with equally deliberate recovery.

The LHS, on the other hand, is the letterman.

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