Toyota and Nissan court the sports car buyer

It's easy to warm up to the sporty '86 Toyota Celica GT-S. Far from being just another car from a faraway auto plant in Japan, the all-new '86 version of the nameplate means business. With a switch to front-wheel drive and a new 2-liter, twin-cam power plant under the hood, the power and handling characteristics of the all-new Celica make it far closer to a true sports car than ever before. The 16-valve engine delivers 135 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute -- enough for most drivers, I should think.

Mileage runs in the low to high 20s, depending on manual or automatic transmission as well as conditions of city traffic or the fast lanes of the expressway.

The car catapults from zero to 60 m.p.h. in 8.2 seconds -- at least two seconds faster than last year's model. With 4-wheel independent suspension, it provides crisp response on corners, plus a smooth ride. The car even handled the severe jounce of an unseen pothole with manners that were beyond reproach.

Like the Honda Prelude, the Celica is designed to ``seat four,'' but I wouldn't necessarily take Toyota at its word. The space in the back is tight, and that's being kind. From a couple of six-year-olds, however, there should be no complaint.

Aerodynamic in profile, the car includes retractable headlights, a lower roof line, and a sharply raked front windshield. Despite the fact that the radio is far down on the dash, it is still no hassle to operate because of the clarity of the markings and size of the controls. And if you like digital dash displays, the Celica GT model has them as an option.

Base price of the Celica GT-S sport coupe is $12,348, although the test-model GT-S liftback with 5-speed manual is window-stickered at $16,208, including air conditioning ($725), leather sport seats ($735), sunroof ($620), and upscale radio/cassette ($565). It may pay to shop around for a dealer who wants to sell his cars at somewhere in the neighborhood of the sticker price.

Upscale of the Toyota Celica GT-S, Nissan has restyled its snappy 300-ZX, still powered by a 3-liter, overhead-cam, electronically fuel-injected V-6. The test car, a turbo, develops 200 hp., compared with 160 for the nonturbo version of the engine. The turbo is a highway hotshot of the first order.

Nissan's aim for '86 was to make the car more aggressive looking, yet not lose the basic design that has kept the car on the list of top contenders in the sports-car sweepstakes. To do so, the Japanese carmaker uses flared rocker panels, front air dam, rear spoiler, and color-keyed bumpers. The designers ditched the air scoop for a smoother hood line. To compensate, underhood ventilation is improved.

Both third and fourth gears now have a lockup feature in the turbo for better precision in use of the gearshift. Curb weight of the turbo is 3,267 pounds, compared with 3,129 for the 2-seat coupe. Expectedly, the 2-seater is a tight fit in back.

Since the introduction of the original Datsun 240-Z in 1970, the Nissan Z-series has found a growing community of buyers. Inflation has had its impact on development and production costs, however. The original Z-car hit the market at about $3,500. The '86-model 300-ZX turbo is list-priced at $20,599, even though the nonturbo line starts at $17,499 for the coupe without a T-bar. Leather upholstery lists for $2,350 and automatic transmission, $520. Delivery charge is $210 in the Boston area.

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