What I'm Driving At: King, Knight, Bishop

It's all a game anyway, right? This whole best-selling car of the year business, if you really think about it, is just a frothy marketing imbroglio intended to tap into the year-end Bowl Game psyche and to give everyone the automotive equivalent of a home team to root for.For '97, the story line goes something like this: Ford's fabled Taurus sees the moment of its greatness flicker in the face of Toyota Camry's slow, steady march up the field. But, what ho! Honda executes a delayed but brilliant flanking maneuver, made necessary by the midyear makeover of its self-confident Accord -- just when Toyota experiences production snafus at its old Kentucky home, no less. Hurriedly, Toyota dispenses with any pretense of all-American patriotism and commandeers every possible cargo vessel in its Japanese ports to bear foreign-made Camrys stateside.As you read this, December's deed is done. Toyota is wearing the crown for the first time ever with Camry sales of 397,156 to Accord's 384,609. Just the same, Accord is already being hailed heir-apparent for '98, when it should regain the crown it lost in '92 -- the year Ford's Taurus embarked upon an uninterrupted five-year reign. (Ford Motor Co., meanwhile, weeps crocodile tears in smug satisfaction that the combined sales of its fraternal-twin Taurus and Sable models have outpaced this year's winner by some 90,000 units, or almost 25 percent. A case of Japanese automakers having their cake while Ford was eating them for breakfast, perhaps?)Aside from inspiring certain year-end sales incentives meant to ensnare impulsive consumers, what does all this best-sellerism accomplish? Two things, actually. The obvious effect is to crown the sales winner and runners-up with halos of plaudits, which in turn lead to test drives and, hopefully, to transactions. More fundamentally, from an industry perspective at least, a benchmark is established beside which other, less vaunted contenders can be measured and, occasionally, shine.Honda Accord LXThere is simply no gainsaying Honda in its single-minded determination to build THE car that Americans want at THE price they want to afford. Like water polishing a rock in a stream, Honda has slowly, patiently smoothed over any conceivable rough edges of its flagship sedan to produce a monument to competence.The '98 Accord is the sixth generation of this storied car. Everything works. Every important interior convenience is accounted for, within reach and without frills. With its 2.3-liter four-cylinder, the Accord LX is the mid-level model of the line, wearing an as-tested sticker price of $19,414. Decorum informs the styling of both exterior and interior. The car's shape is calm, stately, Zen-like in simplicity. The car's five-passenger seating is spacious, supportive, tastefully upholstered without ostentation. Trunk space is 14.1 cubic feet of boxy hugeness. The LX's 150-horsepower, low-emission vehicle (LEV) engine is atmospherically correct and impressively fuel-efficient with EPA ratings of 25 miles-per-gallon/city, 31/highway.The car's four-wheel independent, double-wishbone suspension is stable, predictable. The operation of its five-speed manual shifter is predictable too, maybe a bit notchy. Kings are customarily a bit notchy, of course. They are correct, formal, not given to an easy casualness. The longevity and success of their reigns depend on a competence of action and demeanor that earns respect and eschews flamboyance. Long live Accord, once and future King of Sales.Mazda 626 ES-V6Now, let's get out of this stuffy penguin suit and have some fun, shall we? Slap back that sunroof in Mazda's spanking-new 626 ES sport sedan. Goose that twin-cam V6 up through redline in all five slick-shifting gears. Feel that 170 front-drive horsepower clawing at the steering wheel as you wrestle to control a dash of torque steer. Toss the sporty, capsule-shaped lozenge of a sport sedan through the twisties at the fairly accessible limits of its strut-type independent suspension.Note the implications here: Mazda's new-for-'98 626 isn't quite the engineering equal of Honda's Accord. The suspension is a little less sophisticated, a little quicker to reach its max. The front-drive transaxle is a little more raucous, a little more willy-nilly in its acceleration feel. The leather interior is, on the contrary, quite a bit nicer. Sumptuous even, maybe extravagant. So, too, the $24,445 price tag -- although it does account for an upscale V6. The stereo radio/cassette/CD is a sinful sound garden, pure and simple.The Mazda does, however, overlook thoughtful responsibilities in a way that Accord never could: It won't warn you if you leave your parking lamps or headlights on, for example. When you need to defrost the front windscreen of the 626, you have to set vents, temperature, and compressor, or you'll wind up with a foggy, humid mess inside. Not so with the Honda: Because the compressor is also your dehumidifier, the Accord links it irrevocably with the defrost vent selector. Of course.But the Mazda 626 is such fun, so gallant, so devil-may-care. Let others reign while there are switchbacks to skirmish, jousts to tilt, ladies to woo. A grand imperfectibility can still be glorious -- a tantalizing expression of joie de vivre, a swaggering bravado that leaves competence to its cautious ministrations and dull duties.Chevrolet Prizm LSiTsk, tsk, tsk. Such willful extravagance. Such heedless abandon. If it isn't sinful to enjoy one's car and driving so much, it should be. Why, if nothing else, just think of the money you'd save slipping behind the wheel of an all-new Chevrolet (nŽe Geo) Prizm LSi. The LSi is the more expensive of two Prizm models in Chevy's line; it bears the $14,614 base price. Goodies add up: sunroof here ($675), alloy wheels and ABS there ($335 + $645) -- even a lowly tachometer is a line-item at $70. Air conditioning, sporty suspension bits, radio/CD, and power windows are a part of an option package for just $550. Best of all, there are optional, independently operating side airbags for $295 that represent a "first" in the subcompact car category. All told, the total for the Prizm LSi tested here tallies $17,748. So much for the accretive power of our All-American obsession with ˆ la carte options.But wait. Can a car designed by Toyota and built side-by-side the Corolla in that company's California "transplant" factory really be all-American? No real matter, of course. Even in Prizm garb, this car is free to define its own, solid character. An updated, 1.8-liter, 120-horsepower engine mates to a rubbery but smooth-shifting 5-speed. "NVH enhancements" have noticeably dampened noise, vibration, and harshness and, therefore, interior noise. Performance is zesty, nimble even, especially when the driver is alone in the car. Five can sit inside, but the rear bench becomes a pew if three squeeze onto it. Interior appointments incline toward the Puritan: Fabric upholstery is a tier below the Accord's, and frilly amenities are, well, to be prayed for. But waste-not-want-not fuel economy rates an excellent 31 MPG/city and 37 MPG/highway.Of course, the Prizm is a compact amidst these other two midsize sedans. But it is a worshipful alternative just the same. What with Honda's magisterial Accord and Mazda's swashbuckling 626, Chevrolet's Prizm provides a humbler but no less worthy option for traveling the long-and-winding road in a straight-and-narrow manner.

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