Nighttime. Interstate 95 between Providence and Boston. The traffic outside slides by noiselessly. Inside this BMW 733i, Mahler's Second (''Resurrection'') Symphony is erupting into a final, explosive paean of orchestral colors. The shimmering brass and stormy strings are punctuated by sharp strokes on the timpani. The full power of Mahler's masterpiece seems to be summoned up in the cockpit of this West German-built automobile. It's easy to get lost in the experience and forget you are piloting a potentially lethal machine (which may be one of the shortcomings of these wall-to-wall car-stereo systems.)m
In one of the funnier sight gags from the movie, ''High Anxiety,'' Mel Brooks is riding along in a chauffered limousine, when a thundering musical score suddenly fills the air. Brooks looks around, puzzled, only to find a bus going by with the entire Los Angeles Philharmonic playing in it.
Manufacturers of luxury cars are trying to go Mel Brooks one better. They're trying to squeeze the whole orchestra into a single car.
Of course, it's been tried before. Many car-stereo systems on the market promise to deliver the full range of symphonic sounds. But the race to build a movable concert hall has become more interesting with the 1983 models. A number of top-price, premium stereos, such as the Alpine system in the BMW, are offering some pretty impressive alternatives to the flash-and-glamour of pop-rock-oriented car stereos.
In this race, the clear leader is General Motors, which has effected a marriage in sound between its in-house radio component, Delco, and the Bose Corporation of Framingham, Mass.
Given the current technology, there is no way to reproduce the concert-hall experience, a fact the Bose Corporation's founder - Dr. Amar G. Bose, a lanky and loquacious fellow who got into the stereo-speaker business because he is an avid concertgoer - is quick to acknowledge. The best that car stereos, or any stereo, can do is to come up with a commercially acceptable substitute, one that gives the illusion of concert-hall quality.
The new GM Delco-Bose system seems to be winning the race to simulate this experience in an automobile. The system - available as a $895 option on Cadillac Eldorado and Seville, Buick Riviera, Oldsmobile Toronado, and Chevrolet Corvette - is custom-designed for each car model, assuring a tight match between car acoustics and the whole complex of speaker-amplifier-tuner configurations.
In a way, it is unfair to compare the GM Delco-Bose with other factory-installed systems because the GM system has literally broken through the sound barrier that other systems seem to be fighting. Nothing I've heard from the factory-installed market approaches the excitement and precision of the Bose system. The radio is not as technically versatile as the one in the BMW, but that is small potatoes compared to what the Bose has to offer.
The system does not ''change how you feel about driving,'' as the promotion promises. Rather, it delivers sound that, from the first tremor, captures the imagination. Color, brilliance, and power are all there, matched with the kind of separation and fidelity that can leave a tremulous string passage hovering in the air while it delivers the full spectacle of brass and percussion underneath.
The demonstration tape, which is a creation unto itself, parades the system's versatility across the sound spectrum with guitar solos, orchestral fireworks, traffic noises, solo voice, sea sounds, trumpet concertos, and jazz riffs. In no particular, among these manifold tests, does the Bose system fail to delight the ear.
The danger inherent in this system, as in other car stereos, is unintentionally pointed up on this ''demo'' tape, which says the system allows you to shut out the noise of traffic and ''create a world of your own chosing.'' Of course, the inescapable fact is that one cannot ''create a world'' without the dangers inherent in traffic and the noises that tend to warn one of them. These systems need to be used with the kind of caution one applies to an accelerator pedal.
There are at least several dozen reasons why the Bose system sounds as good as it does, among them speaker placement, separate amplifiers for each speaker, individual housing for each speaker-amplifier module, a series of literally hundreds of tests on microphone-eared dummies, and a variety of instruments, but the real story of the GM Delco-Bose sound system is the way it performs in comparison to the models in similar cars on the road today.
All of the premium systems available in 1983 luxury-model automobiles deliver the super-electronic waves of sound currently pumped into the pop-rock music programmed on FM radio stations. This is the sine qua non of car stereos, including much less expensive systems available as standard options on less pricey models. But the Alpine BMW system is after something more sophisticated, and it almost hits its mark.
The Alpine system in BMW automobiles (available as standard equipment on 5-, 6-, and 7-series BMWs - optional on the 320i as part of a $1,685 air-conditioning/fog-lights/stereo package - comes closest among the five competitors sampled to the GM Delco-Bose system as a serious music-listener stereo.
The first impression of the BMW system is one of omnidirectional sound. There is no obvious source or heavy rear emphasis as there is with the Chrysler system and, to a lesser degree, the Bose. BMW has been careful to install a stereo that doesn't obtrude itself on the listener with flashy dynamics.
The BMW cockpit doesn't cuddle you the way a Cadillac does. Its comforts are more utilitarian, although admittedly, with a $34,300 sticker price, we're not talking ''Army jeep utilitarian'' here. We're talking about a car that holds you in steady, correctm comfort.
All of this shows up in the stereo system, which does not sacrifice fidelity for glamorous, lush sound. The system can put out color and glitter, but it is at its best in giving solid and reliable sound. There are a few drawbacks, however. The highs and lows are not as bright and earthy, respectively, as one might want; at high volumes the system overmodulates, and more important, it tends to flatten out some big orchestral sounds.
On many symphonic recordings the system performs brilliantly, but on those works that really challenge the system, small weaknesses show up. (There is, for instance, a deadness in some midrange sounds.)
This is not to say that the BMW cannot perform musical wonders. Quite the contrary. The pristine clarity of chamber works is a joy to hear on this system, and the smaller orchestral pieces come off with a perfectly articulated resonance - the lyrically spacious third movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, for instance.
But as soon as the sound gets big and complicated, important elements start to get lost.
This isn't a deficiency that you would notice on the Chrysler system with its heavily dominant rear speakers. This $400 stereo (a similar system is available on all Chrysler cars) has a natural, brilliant sound at midrange with somewhat muffled tops and bottoms. If I hadn't listened to the BMW and the Bose systems, I'd be impressed, although I'd say you would have to buy the $126 premium-speaker package to bring the system up to optimum performance.
Let's face it, we're talking about high-quality sound here. Beethoven's Ninth erupts with gorgeous excitement. Prokofiev's ''Classical'' symphony bangs merrily along. The first surge of Mahler's Second Symphony sounds impressive on this system, with the orchestral colors splashing up in pretty coruscations, only it's not allm the colors. What ism there is deep-hued and realistic sounding; it's just that everything isn't there. The myriad little details aren't separated enough to be identified. And some of the musical spectrum is lost altogether.
What the Chrysler system loses, the Lincoln Continental has yet to find.
This $194 Premium Sound system wraps you in luxurious sound, all right. But the presence, clarity, and charisma of the better systems are just not there. Besides, this system is mechanically clumsy, asking the driver to hold onto the fast-forward and rewind levers until these functions are completed.
On this latter score, the $443 system available as standard equipment on the Mercedes 380 SEC and SEL (it will become standard equipment on every Mercedes-Benz automobile now being built, except the 240D) makes much more functional sense. But this system just doesn't put out the high-quality sound that you find in the best premium-car stereos.
This is a shame because, when it comes to the sheer joy of driving, no automobile I tested could touch the Mercedes 380 SEC.