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This Diamond's a Jewel of a Bargain in Any Setting


The 1997 Mitsubishi Diamante is advertised as a near-luxury car. Whatever that means. Could be similar to being a little bit pregnant, wearing a pot-metal eternity ring or buying a home in Beverly Hills adjacent.

For our money--which means about $27,000 for a pleasantly laden ES to around $35,000 for an LS packed with everything but geraniums in window boxes--a Diamante contains most of the splendid fixtures and all the delightful options of full-blown luxury cars.

Maybe Cadillac and Lincoln lovers will claim Diamante's dimensions and roominess fall closer to commoner levels; but the ride and handling are as quiet and effortless as up-market motoring gets.

And don't be off-put by knowing this is a sedan by Mitsubishi, a car builder whose sales are sagging in the gloom way behind Honda, Toyota, Nissan and even Mazda.

Think, instead, of the spunky Eclipse sports coupe, and the twin-turbocharged, all-wheel driving, four-wheel steering 3000GT VR4. Now accept that Mitsubishi is a most underrated maker of some very serious motor cars.

Mitsubishi also makes ships, trucks, scooters, beer, cameras, computers, locomotives, earth-movers, big-screen TVs and airplanes. Especially airplanes. Any World War II fighter pilot who thought the Mitsubishi Zero was a pushover usually wound up in the Pacific.

It is this high heritage of proficiency and thoroughness that Mitsubishi--serving global transportation needs since 1873--brings to the completely redesigned and thoughtfully improved 1997 Diamante.

The efficient but under-perky V-6 has been enlarged from 3.0 to 3.5 liters with horsepower pumped from 185 to 210. Torque has been improved by 20% and these upgrades combine to shave a full second off a 0-60 mph acceleration time that drops to 8.2 seconds.

Uninterpreted numbers, unless attached to grade-point averages and legacies, are generally meaningless. So Diamante's data translates to a fine ability in low and mid ranges for slicing quickly through freeway clutter to where there is breathing room.

Wheelbase remains unchanged, but the car is 4 inches longer and higher, and a smidge wider. So front and rear headroom are improved and legroom is extended for driver and front passenger.

But pity poor stiffs in back. With an inch less knee room--it was given to the folk up front--rear passengers will remain stiff. Trunk space, however, has been expanded a little.

Again, in translation, the numbers show a car with space for five souls rubbing shoulders in relative comfort without questioning their deodorant. There's actually more head- and legroom in a Diamante than in the BMW 3-Series, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, even the LS400 flagship from Lexus.

And that brings a feeling of roominess to the Mitsubishi that falls somewhere between intermediate car and luxo-barge--not mid-size and kid-size.

In this age of value packaging, the bargain-basement Diamante ES comes value wrapped. There's the usual stuff--two air bags, automatic transmission, power steering and a six-speaker sound system. But also a goodly sprinkling of the highly desirable--power windows and doors, disc brakes, security system and automatic climate control.

A fully dressed Diamante LS is value crammed--even aristocratic with its gathered-and-tucked leather door linings and broad, supple cowhide seats; faux but feasible wood trim; seven-spoke chrome alloy wheels that are better looking than Brad Pitt; power sunroof and anti-lock brakes; CD player and three-button remote linking driver to home electronic devices.

Sunroof and windows have a 30-second power reserve for closing after the ignition has been switched off. Instruments are backlighted for driving through dark parking garages and deep thunderstorms. Which, again, is the stuff of the very slickest of luxury cars.

As is the automatic air. Just hit "auto," turn a knob to whatever temperature you want in the viewing window, the system determines fan speed and air flow and does exactly what it's told.

One Diamante standout is a cerebral management system mated to the four-speed automatic. It goes one further than thinking automatics with their menu of profiles that match shift points to our driving habits.

They involve guesswork and approximation. In Mitsubishi's system, the left side of the brainy transmission matches gear selections to driver needs under all road conditions. Then the right side of this neural network actually learns driver habits and modifies the timing of shifts in precise response to that personal pattern.

The thinking isn't perfect, because few corners are alike. On unfamiliar roads with many surprises, enthusiast drivers modify techniques to meet frequent miscalculations and, like most humans, this Adaptive Transmission Control Management doesn't respond well or quickly to change.

But with a God-fearer at the wheel, the system never leaves a driver hanging while the transmission makes up its mind and is wrong 50% of the time.

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