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Honda's Acura division delivers a `driver's car'

``What kind of car is that?'' the gas-pump jockey asks as he untwists the fuel cap and begins filling the tank. ``An Acura Integra,'' I reply, not surprised by the puzzled look on his face.

``A what?'' he retorts. ``It's made by Honda,'' I respond. Still puzzled, he goes on filling the gas tank.

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Long accustomed to Civic simplicity, Accord value, and the flair of the Prelude, the average car buyer is likely to be surprised by Honda's Acura (AK-yura) division. Acura is Honda's effort to move upscale from the Accord. Simply put, the company wants to create a brand-new image and attract buyers who, up to now, have never included Honda as a purchase option.

To succeed, the aggressive, innovative Japanese carmaker will have to convince car buyers that an Acura division automobile is worth more than a Honda.

At the base of the new line is the Integra (In-TEG-ra) with a starting price of around $10,000, plus options, while at the other end of the line sits the Legend, a $20,000 sport sedan aimed at such long-established brand names as BMW, Audi, and Volvo.

An example of their innovative engineering and design is the fact that both the Integra and Legend use 4-valves-per-cylinder engines -- the sporty Integra a 1.6-liter, double-overhead-cam ``4,'' and the Legend a 2.5-liter, single-overhead-cam V-6. The Integra 16-valve engine weighs an ultralight 207 pounds, about half the weight of most 4-cylinder engines. Both engines use an aluminum block and head.

The test car, a top-of-the-line 5-door Integra, is equipped with cruise control, sunroof, and a super stereo/cassette deck, plus power windows and door locks.

Because Honda's engineers and designers drew on the company's Formula 1 racing experience, they know a lot about competitive car handling, road feel, and feed-through from the vehicle to the hands on the steering wheel. The car has almost flush glass for reduced air flow, in keeping with today's aerodynamic designs.

Almost everything, including the seating, is well laid out. The dashboard is low and visibility top rate. Even so, I wish the heater didn't direct a flow of hot air at my right foot. If you need a lot of heat on a cold winter day, your foot is likely to simmer. Also, I don't like the angle of the left-side footrest.

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While the Integra engine has plenty of low-end torque, under heavy load at higher elevations the engine's performance may drop off. ``You don't have the sheer horsepower in there,'' explains Clifford Schmillen, executive vice-president for Honda of America Inc.

No matter, the Integra is obviously designed and engineered with a whole lot of thought. Figure on mileage in the top end of the 20s.

The Honda management sees the new Integra as a true driver's car. It's tight, highly responsive on a winding road, and fits snugly into the carmaker's plans for the future.

The Acura Legend is the largest, most luxurious car to come out of Honda in its quarter-century history. With a 108.7-inch wheelbase, the car can carry five riders with all the comfort that most people might demand. Technologically, the Legend is breaking new ground for the Japanese carmaker. The transmission is either a 4-speed automatic or 5-speed manual with overdrive in the top two gears. Performance lags, however, if the r.p.m.'s drop too low.

The front-end suspension employs a race-car-proven double wishbone, the same as the Honda Prelude and Accord, with struts and coil springs in the rear.

The analog instrument layout is commendable -- no gimmickry and no flashing lights.

The Honda management predicts it'll sell at least 55,000 Integras and Legends this year alone, far more than such companies as Peugeot or Saab. By 1990, says Mr. Schmillen, ``we could sell as many as 250,000 a year.'' If that happens, Honda could start building at least some of the cars in its Marysville, Ohio,assembly complex where it now assembles the Accord and soon will be producing Civics and Civic engines as well.

What's ahead for the new Acura division? Would you believe a turbo? Despite Honda's longstanding chill toward the turbo, ``I think some day we will definitely have a turbo,'' asserts Honda of America president T. Chino. Being the realist that it is, Honda will respond to market demand. Mr. Chino also hints at a mid-engine sports car using the Legend's 24-valve V-6.

Honda is a very young company as carmakers go. It is dynamic, has curiosity, and employs an aggressive technological staff. If its new Acura division makes the grade, other Japanese carmakers are likely to expand their upscale car offerings in the United States. The new business will come out of not only the Europeans' market share, but the domestic carmakers' as well.

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