. The VR-X carries about five more horsepower under the hood and 130 more watts in the stereo, along with upgraded wheels and a firmer suspension. All Diamantes share a restyled front end for 2004, but to my eye, it's the trunk, rear deck, and lighting that show some spark of innovation. The front grille and headlights look like they were borrowed from a Pontiac Grand Am or Sunfire.

The four-door sedan is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 with a cast-iron block and aluminum cylinder head. It generates 210 hp at 5,000 rpm and 240 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm, more than enough to accelerate the car to the speed limit with plenty left over to pass or make it up most West Virginia mountains. Part of the performance could be due to adaptive shift control, which changes shift points in the four-speed automatic transmission based on driving conditions and driver behavior. But it's hard to tell exactly what it is doing. I often wish there was a cut-off switch for these new electronic features so I could make direct comparisons between driving with and without it. Regardless, the transmission smoothly accommodates both Walter Mitty racing and more sedate Sunday driving.

The transmission also had clutchless manual shifting, a feature cropping up more and more in upscale cars. The manufacturer says it "offers easy, raceinspired, sport-performance shifting without the burden of having to operate a third pedal." But most people I know who have or had cars with this feature usually tried it out for 10 or 15 minutes, then ignored it. I'd like to hear from readers who have cars with clutchless shifting and how often they use it. Until then, I'm left with the cynical feeling it's a backhanded way to boost profits.

Sixteen-inch alloy wheels, independent suspensions front and back, and speed-sensitive steering give the car a confident feel on wet pavement and tight turns. Up front, the car rides on MacPherson struts with coil springs and a stabilizer bar, and uses rack-and-pinion steering. In the rear, a multilink setup with coil springs and a stabilizer bar carries the load.

Stopping is courtesy of power-assisted disc brakes, complete with ABS and EBD (electronic brake-force distribution), a form of traction control for braking. In my week with the car, I never engaged ABS so EBD was unnoticeable, but braking in the 3,560-lb car was more than adequate.

On the inside, the Diamante carries all the standard perks and powered devices common in luxury cars, such as leather seats, multidisc CD player, heated mirrors, sunroof, and wood trim. And while there is plenty of room up front, the backseat gets rather cramped for legroom once front-seat passengers get comfortable. The trunk, on the other hand, seems large enough to hold church services (14 ft3), and comes complete with a child-release latch.

The manufacturer claims gas mileage of 17/25 city/highway for the Diamante, which matches my estimates for the week I drove it. While the car had an optional $840 leather package (power front seats in leather), all the rest of the equipment was included in the $27,659 price. I can't address maintenance, long-term reliability, or resale, but the Diamante seems a good value, especially when compared to some of other luxury cars in the showrooms.