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We've always thought the Chevy Lumina would be the perfect illustration for the generic "car" entry in an encyclopedia. The Lumina has all of the basics and none of the frills. It is sturdy, reliable, roomy, and inexpensive. It scores at 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-10 cars in sales last year. A solid car at a solid price will always have a market.
For 1998, the Lumina continues in its honest ways, although it has picked up a few frills. OnStar, GM's nifty navigation, security and personal service system, can be added as an option. And the performance-oriented LTZ model, which debuted last year, has a better, more reliable powertrain package this year.
At 201 inches, the Lumina is 13 inches longer than a Toyota Camry and 4 inches longer than a Ford Taurus, putting it at the large end of the midsize category. The front and rear overhangs are unfashionably long but the shape does deliver such benefits as an extra-large 15.5-cubic-foot trunk.
The Lumina comes in three trim levels: base, LS and LTZ. The base and LS models are indistinguishable in appearance except for the LS's larger wheels. The LTZ, on the other hand, sports a rear decklid spoiler, more stylish front and rear fascia, fancier wheels and body-colored side mirrors.
Under the sleepy sheetmetal, though, lies one of the Lumina's best features: good crash protection. In collision tests conducted by both the government and the insurance industry, the Lumina scored very well in protecting its occupants.
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 crashworthiness.
The Lumina has one of the lowest theft rates, as well. All Luminas have as standard equipment 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. If you live or work in a neighborhood with theft problems, the modest and well-protected Lumina makes a lot of sense.
The Lumina, as do most GM vehicles nowadays, has daytime running lights, which are lighted whenever the ignition is on. For '98, these lights burn at a lower intensity to help the bulbs last longer. An automatic sensor turns them up to full strength when night comes.
The Lumina's interior is noteworthy for its plain simplicity and its roominess. The standard seating capacity is six passengers; the LTZ has bucket seats up front and, therefore, can carry five passengers. The back seat fits three real adults. A $125 optional integrated child seat is a convenient and space-efficient way to carry a youngster.
The minimal controls are clear and easy to use. Round, analog gauges are housed in the instrument panel, while large, rotary knobs control the heating system. Everything is within easy reach, but it would be better if the more frequently used radio controls were located above the heating controls. Extensive sound-deadening has produced a pleasantly quiet interior.
The $17,795 base Lumina has a solid menu of standard features: dual air bags, air conditioning, automatic transmission, power door 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.
An oil wear indicator alerts the driver when it's time to change the oil. More than just an oil odometer, it calculates wear based on 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-riding highway miles? You can stretch out the time between oil changes.
Stepping up to the LS trim level we tested adds $2000 to the base price and many good features: antilock brakes (ABS), power windows and mirrors, cruise control, a better radio with a cassette player, 16-inch wheels, trip odometer, cargo net and a higher quality of cloth on the seats.
OnStar, previously found only on Cadillacs, is an intriguing new option this year for the Lumina. With this system, you are linked via cellular phone to a 24-service center that can identify your location and perform many services.
Among other things, the OnStar advisors can give you directions, tell you where the nearest gas station or ATM is, make hotel reservations, unlock your car doors remotely, and even diagnose some car troubles. If you are in an accident and the airbags deploy, the center will receive a signal and can call for an ambulance even if you are unconscious.
OnStar isn't cheap. It costs about $1,000 to purchase and install, plus a monthly service charge of $22.50. But the idea of always being able to reach a human being for help can be comforting.
In keeping with its stick-to-the-basics design philosophy, the Lumina provides competent ride and handling. Ride quality leans to the soft side, but body roll has been reduced in the '98 models, thanks to thicker front stabilizer bars.
The exceptionally rigid body structure contributes a solid confidence to the handling. 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 typical 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 melodrama.
The standard engine is the same as last year's, a 160-horsepower 3.1-liter V6 that delivers plenty of power for comfortable passing and maneuvering. It is mated with GM's smooth 4T60-E four-speed automatic transmission.
The LTZ package, which suffered some launch pains in '97, is finally looking like a real option. The LTZ package debuted last year with a 215-horsepower 3.4-liter V6, but production problems emerged fitting the engine to the car. Chevy finally abandoned the 3.4-liter and went with the trusty 3.8-liter 3800 Series II V6.
The 3800 Series II is a superior choice. It makes 15 less horsepower than the 3.4, but it has more torque. Overall, it is a more reliable, better-performing powerplant. It is the same engine used in the Buick LeSabre, Oldsmobile Intrigue, and Pontiac Grand Prix GT and Bonneville.
Complementing the LTZ's larger engine is a suspension designed for a firmer, more controlled ride. Premium P225/60R-16 Goodyear Eagle RS-A blackwall touring tires improve grip, while four-wheel disc brakes with ABS provide better stopping power.
The LTZ is priced in two steps. The base LTZ price of $20,295 includes the appearance items. For $500 more, you get the 3800 engine, firmer suspension, and heavy-duty 4T65-E four-speed transmission, options we highly recommend.
Both engines feature money-saving maintenance aspects such as 100,000-mile spark plugs and 5-year/100,000-mile coolant. The stainless steel exhaust system reduces corrosion and replacement costs.
There is no denying that on the pizzazz meter, the standard Lumina scores just one step above a resting heart rate. The LTZ performance package boosts the excitement level, but it still won't be mistaken for a Bavarian sports sedan.
Nonetheless, there is a lot to be said for a solid, well-designed, intelligently equipped, reliable, modestly priced car. The Lumina fits that bill. Buyers looking for roomy transportation who prefer to spend their money on things other than a car would do well to take a close look at the Lumina.
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