Coupes catch the eye - and checkbook - of upscale car crowd

``Don't mind me,'' says the shopper, bundles in hand. ``I'm just looking at your car.'' ``Go to it,'' I reply as he studies it from headlights to tailpipe.

``Nice, nice,'' he nods, and walks away.

Now he may never buy a Chrysler LeBaron coupe, but at least the car caught his eye, and he took the time to satisfy his curiosity. The LeBaron coupe is getting that kind of response from people I've never met before. So are the other long-on-style coupes - not only those built by Detroit, but those produced by the Europeans and Japanese as well.

Prices are scattered all over the lot. They range from less than $10,000 for a base-level Chevrolet Beretta coupe to $60,000 and more for some of the high-level West German luxo-cars with their European pedigrees.

And now, with the Japanese moving into the upscale market, the competition is going to get a whole lot tougher. Honda already has its upscale car division, Acura. And both Nissan and Toyota are moving swiftly to join the fray.

Indeed, the competition is fierce among carmakers at a time when overcapacity to produce cars is a threat to manufacturers worldwide. Depending on how much you can spend, the choice is enormous.

The sleek, rear-drive Ford Thunderbird turbo coupe, along with the Taurus, is a symbol of Ford's new direction for the late 1980s and beyond. The original two-seat Thunderbird coupe, which hit the road in 1955, was a spontaneous reaction to the national urge for ``fun motoring'' - an urge that goes on today.

Equipped with an automatically adjustable suspension, the ride and handling of the Ford T-Bird are dependable and crisp. A turbocharged, intercooled, 2.3-liter engine, plus antilock braking, gives the T-Bird coupe a commanding position on the highway.

But a larger engine, especially for lower-speed performance, should be on the ``wish list'' for the future. Per gallon mileage is in the low to mid-20s. A problem with most coupes, the T-Bird's rear-seat comfort is marginal at best, and so is the headroom.

The Chrysler LeBaron coupe offers a choice of 2.5-liter power or a turbocharged 2.2, plus standard five-speed manual transmission or optional three-speed automatic. Seat comfort is fine in front but tight in the back, and driver visibility isn't the best on the road. Equipped with Goodyear Eagle GT tires, its traction is tops on a wet roadway.

With a base price of less than $12,500, the LeBaron is elegant and efficient, yet who would guess that beneath its sleek exterior lies one more rendition of Chrysler's many-faceted K-car?

And like any vehicle in the showroom, there are compromises. For one thing, you're likely to pay thousands of dollars more than the posted base price. Also, with automatic overdrive transmission, fuel economy isn't great. And electronic digital dashboard displays are standard.

Honda calls the Acura Legend coupe ``the harmonization of man and machine.'' The car is fast, it's sleek, and it's here. Honda's new coupe is hot on the tail of such competitors as the Nissan 300ZX, Toyota Supra, Cadillac's Allante and Eldorado, and the Ford T-Bird - plus such personal-luxury cars as the formidable Mercedes 560SEC and the BMW 635CSi.

The Ford T-Bird coupe and the Acura Legend coupe were named ``car of the year'' and ``import car of the year,'' respectively, by a popular auto-buff magazine.

The five-passenger Acura coupe, built by Honda, comes in three levels: standard, L, and LS. Honda's own antilock braking system (ABS) is a standard feature in both the L and LS versions.

Why not in the standard coupe as well? Obviously, cost is the answer, but can you put a price on safety? ABS makes a huge difference in swift, straightaway stops on any road surface.

Dashboard instrumentation is logical and comfortable to read. Foot controls are well placed for maximum control.

With a drag coefficient (Cd) of 0.30, the design of Honda's sports/luxury two-door is extremely fluid. Power comes from a 2.7-liter, four-valve V-6 engine, producing 161 horsepower. The Acura coupe's power appears more than enough under most highway conditions. For even quicker pickup, as befits a car of this caliber, a 24-valve system or turbo would help. The smooth underbody and low-profile headlamps, in addition to the aerodynamic shape of the car, help the Acura reach its super-low Cd number.

More and more motorists today are latching onto the sleek, two-door cars, even though they're often hard to get into and shy on space for human cargo.

But the coupes have style! That's STYLE. And that's a big component in the ``time to buy'' decision by a whole lot of motorists these days.

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