B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
This year General Motors is getting serious with its Lumina LTZ sport sedan. Last year, the LTZ package consisted primarily of a few exterior badges and some exclusive wheels, nothing in the powerplant or underpinnings seriously suggesting that this vehicle was any different than the garden variety Lumina favored by homemakers and rental fleets. Perhaps because its in-house competition, the Pontiac Grand Prix, Oldsmobile Intrigue, and Buick Regal, has gotten so much stiffer in the last year, or maybe because Chevrolet is sick of being disregarded when the term "sport sedan" comes up, they have finally infused the LTZ with the equipment that it needs to go fast.
The primary responsibility for this vehicle's metamorphosis lies with the Series II 3800 V-6 engine that is now an optional addition to the LTZ's engine compartment. This engine is the same one that we've raved about in the powerful Pontiac Grand Prix GT, Oldsmobile Intrigue, and Buick Regal LS. Producing 200 horsepower and 225 lbs./ft. of torque, this motor gives any car lucky enough to be equipped with it neck-snapping acceleration and strong mid-range passing power. Transferring that power from the engine to the front axle is an improved 4-speed automatic transmission. While we prefer a manual tranny, this automatic does a decent enough job of selecting the appropriate gear when we were climbing hills or passing on a two-lane road.
To help the Lumina LTZ exploit its newfound energy the bowtie boys have beefed up the car's suspension and braking systems. The LTZ's suspension, referred to as the Ride and Handling Suspension in Chevy parlance, receives 4-stage valving in the front struts to help control ride motion. Also new this year are 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes that resist fading more than last year's front disc/rear drum setup.
All of this work has certainly changed the personality of the Lumina LTZ. What was forgettable and almost laughable last year becomes a serious contender this year in the macho arena of stoplight drags and freeway on-ramp merges. Although we appreciate the Lumina's speed, we wish that Chevrolet had put a bit more effort into the car's suspension and chassis. We have complained about the Lumina's harsh ride and steering in the past, and these problems persist on this model as well. Expansion joints and small potholes send a serious shudder through this vehicle's steering column, and the suspension crashes on medium-sized dips in the road. These would not be major complaints if we were evaluating a typical mom-mobile, but this car is supposed to appeal to the enthusiast in the family. We don't know of any enthusiast that would be comfortable with these sensations at the high speeds that the LTZ is capable of travelling at.
The Lumina LTZ's interior is a bit of a disappointment as well. Although it is comfortable and functional, there are no interior differences to distinguish the LTZ from the Lumina LS that Hertz is renting to your Uncle Phil and his family at the airport. Looking at that bland dashboard and uninspired instrument panel gives no clue as to how quickly this car will blast down the freeway. Our other gripe about the Lumina also center on the interior. Although it has spacious seating for five, the LTZ's chairs do not offer the driver or passengers the kind of support needed for comfortable negotiation of winding roads.
On the plus side of the ledger, the Lumina LTZ does have an attractive shape that will undoubtedly wear better than the obnoxious Ford Taurus SHO and look-at-me Pontiac Grand Prix GTP as the years roll by. A true stealthmobile, there is nothing about this car's exterior that would make a police officer want to point his radar gun at you rather than the Honda Prelude in the next lane. Other things we like about this car are its 15.5 cu.ft. trunk and high level of standard equipment that includes things like air conditioning, alloy wheels, stereo with cassette, power windows and door locks, power outside mirrors, and 6-way power driver's seat.
The Lumina LTZ is getting closer to what Americans want in a performance sedan. If this car had been introduced three years ago, we would have undoubtedly sung its praises to high heaven. The fact remains, however, that while Chevrolet has slowly been fiddling with the Lumina's recipe, other marques, including others within the GM family, have reinvented how we think of the sport sedan. More than fast-with-four-doors, the new entrants in this crowded field include highly refined cars like the Oldsmobile Intrigue and Buick Regal, and sophisticated vehicles like the Nissan Maxima and Toyota Camry. The Lumina offers one of our favorite engines in a nice shape with a functional interior. So do the Buick Regal and Oldsmobile Intrigue, with the added benefit of improved chassis rigidity and more refined suspension and steering components. At the end of this century there are plenty of cars that can whisk the family away quickly and stylishly. If we were choosing one for ourselves, we would take a pass on the Lumina in favor of one of GM's newer designs..
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