HONDA MOTOR CO. Ltd. has come up with a new division, a new sales organization and a new car in pursuit of what it thinks is a better image.

The company could have saved itself two-thirds of the trouble.

The new car is a Honda.

Oh, the Honda people don't call it that. They're into social climbing nowadays, and they've chosen a name to match their mood: the Acura Legend, distributed in the United States by Honda's Acura Automobile Division.

The Legend is supposed to be upscale, see? Like BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Audi. It's supposed to be several cuts above the other marvelous cars produced by Honda and, as a result, too good to be sold with them.


The Legend is good, all right. But not good enough to be sold separately from Honda Preludes and Accords and at considerably higher prices.

Outstanding complaint: The Honda people spent much time tutoring the media on the whys and wherefores of the Acura Division. But their explanations always left me in the dark. And driving the car didn't shed any new light.

The Legend falls right in line with the Prelude and Accord -- all excellent cars, all indisputably Honda in character, feel and execution.

Outstanding praise: The Legend is, perhaps, the best Honda ever made. And that's saying a lot.

Honda long has enjoyed a good reputation for fit and finish. That reputation stays intact here. Everything fits snugly. The soft, brown, moquette interior of the test car is plush -- true cushmobile stuff. Five adults can ride comfortably, as they can in the top-end Accords.

Acceleration and handling: Here is where the Legend legitimately pokes its nose into the upscale performance league. It is equipped with a 2.5-liter, 24-valve, fuel-injected, 151-horsepower, V-6 engine. Translation: The engine does a superb job of mixing air and fuel, burning both, and delivering a heck of a lot of power to the front drive wheels. This car sails!

Handling is enhanced by several factors: "speed sensitive" power steering that provides greater steering assistance in low-speed situations, such as parking; a very smooth five-speed manual gearbox; and a fully independent suspension system that takes you over bumps and around curves with complete confidence.

Head-turning-quotient: Honda seems to have borrowed something from Ford Motor Co.'s Taurus-Sable program in designing the Legend's exterior. That rounded, aerodynamic front with flush headlamps, accompanied by some rounding of the sides and a slightly sassy rear end, looks sort of familiar.

Sound system: Four-speaker, AM/FM stereo cassette with graphic equalizer, by Honda. High quality, practically identical to that found in the Prelude and Accord.

Mileage: About 23 to the gallon (18 gal. tank), combined city highway, running with mixed loads (from three to six occupants on several occasions, driver only on others) and minimum use of climate control system.

Price-as-tested: $19,298, with all options, including sunroof. Does not include any additional dealer markups.