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Coupes Zoom Back Into the Fast Lane

The coupe is dead.

Long live the coupe.

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Just as American manufacturers have axed several coupes from their lineups and slammed the brakes on new ones, a new crop of sporty two-doors is arriving mostly from across the oceans.

Those from Japan are small, economical, and fast. From Europe come larger, more luxurious models - which are very fast. One old American nameplate has been revived with a new European look and feel.

Here's the lowdown on six fun coupes.

Mercedes-Benz CLK320

$39,850 base

21/29 city/highway miles per gallon

This coupe laughs in the face of claims by marketing gurus that coupes are out. Mercedes plans to build 13,000 CLK coupes and convertibles in 1998 at $40,000 to $50,000.

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It undercuts the price of the last Mercedes coupe by $10,000 and epitomizes coupe "essence": style and speed.

Mercedes lowered the price by basing the car on its small C-class sedan, and spicing up the image by borrowing some front-end styling from the elegant mid-size E-class.

The CLK's smaller size emphasizes its power. Mercedes's new 215-horsepower V-6 makes this baby fly, and the five-speed automatic transmission always knows the right gear, so even die-hard driving enthusiasts won't miss the manual shifter.

The small, C-class platform makes no sacrifice in interior room. Front-seaters can stretch as much as they like, and even the rear is roomy enough for adults on trips less than an hour or so. The front seats automatically move out of the way and back for rear-seat passengers to enter.

The CLK comes with all the latest Mercedes safety advances - side air bags, traction and stability control, and brake-assist technology that applies the brakes faster and harder in panic stops.

Next year, Mercedes plans two new versions of this car, a V-8 powered hot rod and a convertible. The convertible is so good that Chrysler chairman Robert Eaton has reportedly chosen one for his next company car.

Volvo C70

$38,995 base

19/25 city/highway miles per gallon

This coupe is designed to smooth Volvo's square image.

In a bright metallic orange Volvo calls saffron, it drew more stares on a test drive than even the new VW Beetle. It looks a bit like an elongated Swedish version of Ford's Mustang.

The C70 sits on Volvo's standard front-wheel-drive chassis, hitched to the company's biggest engine - a 236-horsepower turbocharged five-cylinder (manual or automatic transmission). The price sneaks in just under the Mercedes.

Both cars feel fast, but the CLK accelerates hard anytime at any speed. The turbocharged Volvo accelerates with more character - slower away from a stop, then adding power with a menacing, "get-outta-my-way" wail as speed builds. It feels significantly faster on the freeway.

The two rear seats offer more legroom than in the Mercedes, but access is more difficult. The seats motor out of the way, but you have to hold a lever while the seat crawls up and back.

The interior feels plusher and the seats look better than the Mercedes's. The controls are more logical, too - some of the best in the industry. But the trunk is tiny, even for a coupe.

In convertible dress this fall, the trunk will barely hold two briefcases. The convertible will use Volvo's less powerful 190-horsepower engine, which should make its way to the hardtop coupe then as well.


$39,700 base

20/28 city/highway miles per gallon

Performance-car lovers, this is your last shot at this car for a while. BMW is replacing the 3-series this fall and won't have a new high-performance M3 for the foreseeable future. The current coupes and convertibles will continue another year.

The 240-horsepower, six-cylinder M3 is smaller and faster than either of its European rivals. The $40,000 ticket price for this joy-ride buys more performance and fewer creature comforts. The seats adjust in as many ways as the Volvo and Mercedes - only by hand.

The M3 comes only with a five-speed stick shift. But even the manual feels automatic to drive. The car makes it hard to make a mistake.

The M3's back seat is mostly for kids; front seats are hard to fold. The trunk is smaller than those in the Mercedes and Volvo.

An M3 convertible is new this year but heavier and slower than the coupe. It also wobbles over bumps and may develop a bad case of rattles in a few years.

The 3-series coupes have sold well since their introduction in 1977. But for those on a somewhat lower budget, BMW offers the less powerful, but still easy-driving 328i and 323i coupes for about $6,500 and $9,000 less, respectively.

Mercury Cougar

$16,195 base

24/34 city/highway miles per gallon

Cougar is an old name on an all-new car this year. And it's a gem - a four-seat two-door hatchback with precise manners and a bargain price.

The first thing you'll notice about the new Cougar is its looks. It stands out and polarizes on-lookers. Ford (Mercury's parent company) calls it New Edge styling, a blend of soft curves that meet at razor-like edges.

The new Cougar represents Mercury's effort to reach younger, hipper buyers who have avoided the division in droves since its heyday in the '50s. It just relocated its headquarters to Los Angeles, so its stodgy, gray-suited managers can get a regular first hand look at what makes trend-setting Angelinos roll.

New Edge styling started in Europe, and will appear exclusively on Mercurys in the United States.

The Cougar is based on the critically acclaimed but slow-selling Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique sedans. The main drawback of the sedans is short legroom in the back seat. But in the Cougar coupe it's not missed.

Cougar also serves as a replacement for the sporty front-wheel-drive Ford Probe, which Ford decided competed too much with the Mustang.

The Cougar comes with either a four-cylinder or V-6, and the V-6 offers an automatic. The steering is sharp, the handling smooth, and the ride comfortable. The V-6 is also fast.

Honda Prelude

$23,300 base

23/27 city/highway miles per gallon

While it hasn't set any sales records, the Honda Prelude, redesigned last year, is an impressive performer.

With almost 200 horsepower, the small two-door scorches pavement when lights turn green.

The Prelude has always been Honda's technological showcase. And this new version, introduced last year, offers the latest innovation. Called ATTS (automatic torque transfer system), it directs more power to the outside wheel than the inside one in a corner.

Most drivers will never notice, but the system does improve steering, handling, and traction in very hard, high-speed turns. On public roads, it's difficult to drive fast enough to use the system.

The good news: Few people need to spend the extra $2,500 for the option; the base car is just as much fun without it.

With this model, Honda erased the old version's rakish, cramped body style and returned the Prelude to its more traditional two-door sedan styling. That means the two back seats are good for more than luggage. Kids will fit, as long as they aren't in rear-facing car seats. But don't cram adults back there.

The front leaves plenty of room to stretch out. The Prelude makes a comfortable personal commuter, if you don't mind the noise from the high-revving engine on the freeway.

Maybe that's why the Prelude hasn't lit up the sales charts. It's a high-performance sports car in economy clothing. And those who appreciate its more comfortable design won't pay the premium for its excellent performance.

But if you appreciate laserlike responses in your daily commute or enough room for two of you to stretch out on a long trip, the Prelude could be for you.

Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS

$19,195 base

22/28 city/highway miles per gallon

Another slow-selling, lively-driving ride, the 2.5 RS is the outgrowth of Subaru's experience in off-road, World Cup rallying.

This sport takes sports cars or racing derivatives of ordinary sedans, races them through forest and back country at blinding speeds, in any weather.

It's been been slower than soccer to penetrate the US, which might explain Impreza's limited appeal here. But on the road, the Impreza shows the frisky character of the car that has won Subaru two World Cup Rally championships.

It's made from an old recipe: Drop a company's biggest engine into its smallest car. Add bigger tires and brakes and the little car stops and corners as well as it goes. Huge gold wheels and monotone paint give Impreza a Hot Wheels look to appeal to Gen-Xers whose automotive taste grew up with the racy toys.

The Impreza feels solid, nimble, fun, and even practical. It's an entry-level econobox with gobs of character.

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