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Prestige and performance round-up

THE curious thing about the three major French manufacturers is that they persevere in building right-hand drive versions of their largest executive cars, and yet these models seem to sell in quite modest numbers here.

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Certainly, the Citroen XM is an executive car apart from the rest. It provides top-class carrying capacity but its major attraction may be its long wheelbase and hydro-pneumatic suspension. Very few large cars approach its sense of wafting along, almost regardless of surface. With the three-litre V6 engine it is a fast motorway cruiser, while the 2.5-litre turbo diesel provides masses of mid-range pull. Renault is the Scottish market leader, and the Laguna is in the top ten. The revised versions in the showrooms are a step ahead of the previous designs. Specifically named Executive models come with plush leather interior trim, but the flagship of the Laguna range is the brand new three-litre V6 RTi. This is a high performance variant, and Renault claims there is nothing faster on sale today to match its price of #18,620. Biggest saloon car in the Renault catalogue, the Safrane continues unobtrusively. The most expensive versions are lavishly equipped, and this is a car designed for fast cruising down an outer autoroute lane. The Peugeot 406 is very attractive looking, in both saloon and estate form. In fact, this Peugeot is one of the best looking cars in its class world-wide. But when you come to the Pininfarina-styled 406 coupe, here is something else again. As the response of other road users makes clear, it is simply drop dead gorgeous. The top rated three-litre V6 SE is the kind of car motoring writers have to be pulled out of, screaming in frustration, at the end of a road test. Ford is about to stop producing its executive-class Scorpio, a car which turned off many potential buyers because of its clumsy exterior appearance. However, the Scorpio, especially in Ultima form, is an exceptionally roomy car with limousine-like rear cabin space, as well as being very well equipped. In the run-out period, some highly attractive deals on Scorpios will be offered. Next year, Ford will fill the space at the top of its UK market range with a premium Lincoln brought in from the States. Lincolns were first sold in Europe back in 1925. Three-litre V6 and 3.9-litre V8 engines will be available. Before it arrives here, the most highly specified versions of the Mondeo will play the executive role. With the 2.5-litre V6 engine, they should be able to do the business, especially in Ghia X form. Probably the most impressive Mondeo, though, is the V6-engined ST24. Thanks to simple styling tricks, it ends up looking much more imposing on the road than lesser models in the range. Within the last few weeks, the ST24 has appeared in estate car form too. Uprated mechanical specifications and more luxuriously equipped interiors can elevate a mass-market car towards the executive class. That is the case with the Vauxhall Vectra, especially in 2.5-litre V6 form. However, the company's main contender in the executive class is the larger-scale Omega. This is a handsome and well proportioned car in both saloon and estate body styles. It is not always the case that a high-volume manufacturer's executive cars have a strong presence on the road, but the Omega certainly manages that. As a two-litre, the Omega is roomier than most of the same-capacity opposition, and a decent enough machine in its class. The 2.5-litre turbo diesel offers a strong pull, but to punch its weight in the executive category the Omega has a more appropriate engine in the three-litre V6. Top-ranked Omegas, in Elite trim, are very well equipped, and Vauxhalls generally score well on security and anti-theft measures. The company is also right up with the opposition when it comes to on-board navigation systems. People who have not used these systems often laugh them off as toys, but when the UK mapping coverage is extended to Scotland, later this year, the advantages they offer will become obvious. Much of Honda's world-wide production is of small cars. However, a company so obsessed with high technology needs more ambitious designs through which to demonstrate its expertise. The 3.5-litre Legend, a car with high engineering standards and notably low noise levels, is the assumed executive saloon, but there are also some suitable examples in the much wider Accord range, one size lower and upgraded in detail for 1998. The 2.2i VTEC-engined Accord rates highly for both engine specification and general standards of finish. The variable valve-timing engine also appears in the top Prelude model. Its 185bhp power output plus an effective degree of rear-wheel steering and a variety of technical options make the 2.2-litre Prelude a formidable road car. It effortlessly raises its own game to suit a fast driver's requirements, and yet it feels very refined. In Honda's sports and GT catalogue the Integra Type-R, rawer in approach, comes with the most powerful unblown 1.8-litre engine on general sale. But Honda also offers a composed higher performance car in the form of the 3.2-litre V6 NSX, a virtually hand-built machine produced in its own ring-fenced department within a mainstream Honda factory. Coupe and targa body styles are offered on this vivid performer with low fuss levels. For a business high-flyer, the NSX is a genuine Japanese alternative to some of the most famous European names. The ''family'' front of the Nissan QX may make it look, at a very casual glance, like a Primera or Almera, but it is a much grander car altogether, and a genuine contender in the executive category. All four QX variants are powered by lightweight and compact V6 engines bristling with Nissan's own patented features. Three models use two-litre engines, while the SEL has the benefit of a smooth-running 193bhp V6. The QX's multi-link suspension lets it hug the road, and cope with cambers, better than many other cars in its class, for whose designers road holding is not always a priority. Applied to the mid-range Primera, the benefits of the suspension layout are perhaps even more obvious, and the top-level cars in this range - particularly the SRi - have very fine handling as well as excellent standards of finish. The two-litre 200 SX coupe, as some people forget, comes with a turbocharged engine as standard. Elsewhere, there are some really notable Nissan-badged high performers. If there are any left, the Skyline GT-R, with a strictly limited import programme, is one of the most blisteringly fast road cars on the market, with tremendous traction and road holding. And, from the very well heeled, Nissan can take orders for the $1m road-going version of the R390 GT1 Le Mans car built by TWR. While three Japanese manufacturers have well established production facilities in this country, others must rely for much of their UK sales turnover on imports from the homeland, Holland and the United States. Struggling for quota, as the import restrictions on Japanese-built cars continue, Mitsubishi also has to find room in its allocation for 4x4s, people carriers, Colt hatchbacks and the occasional 3000 GT, as well as the executive-class Galant, which comes with a choice of two-litre four-cylinder or 2.5-litre V6 engines.The Galant was a pioneer in featuring an automatic transmission which alters the way it operates according to road conditions and the driver's attitude on the throttle and brakes. Even under its current Ford control, which is pledged to curtail some of the company's more peripheral activities, Mazda has a remarkable number of model lines in its UK catalogue. The most expensive cars in the 626 range are on the fringes of the executive class, and it is worth bearing in mind that the recently introduced 626 estate is built on a longer wheelbase than its saloon equivalent. Mazda's top saloons, the Xedos 6 and the Xedos 9, were among the first cars in their class to risk a certain amount of retro styling around the front end. While the Xedos 6 looks bigger than it actually is, the Xedos 9 is closer to executive car scale. It is a neat handling, well proportioned saloon which comes in just one specification, with the company's sophisticated 2.5-litre V6 engine. The same engine layout is used on the Xedos 6, though with a two-litre capacity. Quirkiest of the Japanese manufacturers in its design principles, Subaru provides most of the cars in its portfolio with mechanical features off at a tangent from the usual industry run of things. Flat-four engines and four-wheel drive are taken for granted in the Impreza and Legacy. Especially in the case of the turbo saloon and estate, the Impreza has conquered early feelings of ''iffyness'' about its styling. These models do have a certain aura about them, as the everyday versions of the cars Colin McRae hurls around in the World Rally Championship. The recently freshened-up Legacy is perhaps more in the country businessman's league. Estates vastly outnumber the saloons in showroom sales. With the familiar low centre of gravity, and generous load space, the Legacy estate is an agile and practical car. When specified with the 2.5-litre four-cam engine it is also a strong performer. Top of the estate range in price terms is the Outback. This high ground clearance car is a decent rough-roader when conditions demand, although naturally not an all-terrain vehicle in the manner of a full-whack 4x4.

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