HANDLING

When it came to steering, handling and braking, the three cars performed well - but again, the Toyota had a clear edge over the competition.

For a small car, the Tercel is uncommonly quiet over rough pavement and bumps. Its suspension system - McPherson struts up front and a rear torsion beam - helps to contain noise as well as make the car agile, nimble and easy to drive.

Our Tercel did not have power steering, as the other two cars did, but it was fairly easy to maneuver in tight spaces. And once the Tercel is moving, I didn't notice the lack of power steering.

All three cars came with front disc/rear drum brakes. The Tercel was the only one outfitted with anti-lock brakes, an $825 option that pushed the price past that of the Escort and Accent.

The Tercel can handle most driving situations with ease. However, its rather skinny 13-inch tires can be made to squeal and loset heir grip in fast cornering, such as would be done to avoid an accident.

The Escort felt a bit stiff compared with the Tercel and the Accent. But our test Escort, delivered with just 35 miles on the odometer, had yet to be broken in. After 300 miles it had loosened up a bit; the brakes and clutch began working smoother, and the car felt a bit easier to drive.

The Escort's greater weight - it is the heaviest of the trio by more than 200 pounds - robbed it of any sporty feeling. Rather, the Escort delivers a solid and smooth ride. Its four-wheel independent suspension system enables the car to handle competently.

The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system has a weighted feel, but it responds quickly and crisply.

I would rate the Escort's brakes as the best of the group; they provide excellent stopping power.

Over the road, Hyundai's Accent proved to be a cut above average. The car, which also has a four-wheel independent suspension system, handled cleanly and without surprises in most driving situations. However, it bounced quite a bit when driven quickly over something such as a speed bump.

The Accent was the easiest of the trio to turn. Also, the Hyundai can turn a very tight corner.

The containment of road noise is the one major area in which the Accent could be improved. On rough pavement you hear a constant muffled roar. Yet I am tempted to forgive the Accent for this in light of its very agreeable price.

The Accent may not be as smooth and refined as the Tercel and Escort, but it comes with a generous amount of equipment, and it costs less. Think of it as a Timex, not a Rolex.

In a very close race, the Tercel tops the list again in handling, followed by the Escort and the Accent.

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