Sporty Small Sedans Liven Luxury Market

So you want a car as sophisticated as you are, and not one of those rough-rider sport-utility vehicles.

The next hottest market is "entry luxury" cars - models that combine all the features of a luxury car without the imposing girth or price.

The latest entries are more nimble with taut suspensions. They aim for younger, import-oriented buyers.

In fact, the four cars in this review are all built overseas, even the American nameplate. All four are oriented as much toward performance as luxury.

Cadillac Catera

MARKETED as "the Caddy that zigs," this newcomer steps up to an enormous task - bringing newer, younger customers to Cadillac - and keeping the historic brand alive. Its mission is to lure buyers away from the imports on this page - especially the popular Lexus.

Whether it can succeed is another question.

Unlike Cimarron, Cadillac's failed 1980s effort to lure small-car buyers, Catera has all the qualifications to compete with foreign brands: the same price as Lexus, as much comfort and room, and comparable performance.

To battle the imports, it became one: built and mostly designed in Germany by General Motors' Opel division.

What the little Caddy lacks is the impeccable reputation of its rivals. What it has too much of is noise. The little Opel V-6 is quiet enough on the highway, but ask for any acceleration and the engine gets boomy and rough.

The test car arrived with some problems: a rattling exhaust shield (which accounted for only some of the noise), and faulty electronics for the antilock brake and traction-control systems.

Unlike the Lexus and the Audi, the Catera is rear-wheel-drive, so winter driving is not its forte.

Lexus ES300

THIS car defined the entry-luxury class. The smallest Lexus deserves its reputation for class and reliability - even if it is basically a gussied up Toyota Camry. You have to look hard to see the difference between the redesigned ES300 and the one it replaces.

Lexus starts with a Camry, adds amazingly soft leather seats, a quick power plant (the same size and power rating as the Cadillac), and smooth styling. Back-seat room is plentiful, and the trunk ample.

The most amazing thing about the ES300 is its ride and handling. With the adjustable shock absorbers set on firm, the car can rip through a corner without ruffling its passengers. Dial the setting back to soft, and the car becomes positively pillow-like on the freeway.

Lexus is famous for minding details; even its entry car includes a six-disk CD changer in the glove box and high-tech backlit instruments. The biggest draw of all is resale value: Dealers can't get enough three-year-old ES300s.

Audi A4

THE Audi is the bargain of this group. For a about $1,000 less than the others, it offers the same amenities - and then some. An extra $1,600 buys the A4 Quattro - the only car in the class with full-time all-wheel-drive, leaving it unfazed by snow, sleet, or rain.

It was also unfazed by Audi's crumbling reputation in the US. The A4 single-handedly rescued the German carmaker's US sales, battered by years of unjustified criticism for sudden acceleration and justified criticism for reliability problems. In the A4's year and a half on the market, it has won praise for both looks and reliability.

For the sports-minded, the Audi relishes twisty roads, and its suspension never punishes. It's also the only car in this quartet available with a manual transmission. A logic-controlled five-speed automatic is optional.

This year, Audi introduced an even less-expensive A4: the four-cylinder turbocharged A4 1.8T. For $6,300 less, it packs almost as much wallop, with the same amenities.

Look for an even more powerful V-6 model next year.

Mercedes Benz C230

THE godfather of the entry-luxury class, the "baby Benz" hasn't been updated for more than three years. And it no longer looks like much of a bargain.

The four-cylinder costs more than the six-cylinder Cadillac and Lexus but has fewer standard features and is tighter on back-seat legroom and trunk space.

Still, it has what you'd expect from Mercedes: vault-like solidity and upper crust, traditionalist styling. The four-cylinder is surprisingly powerful, running quickly through its five-speed automatic transmission. And no one has as much practice designing cushy, taut-handling suspensions as Mercedes. The engineering refinement shows.

The C230 has automatic climate control, adjustable-height seat belts, available heated seats and mirrors, sporty performance, attractive resale price - and all the prestige of one of the industry's top luxury car names.

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