Honda, the first Japanese automaker to sell luxury automobiles through a separate U.S. dealer network five years ago, has redesigned the car that started it all - the Acura Legend.

The 1991 Legend sedan - a coupe version is about to hit showrooms - may be viewed as a microcosm of how the luxury car market has changed since 1986.It is larger, heavier, more powerful and more opulent than its predecessor, mirroring the general trends in this well-to-do class. In fact, it is not much shorter than BMW's largest and most expensive sedan.

But the new Legend is more directly aimed at mid-range offerings from BMW and Mercedes that cost thousands of dollars more, while being neatly slotted in price between Toyota's Lexus ES 250 and LS 400 sedans.

Prices start at $26,800 for a Legend with a five-speed manual gearbox. The posh LS sedan is $34,200 when equipped with an electronically controlled 4-speed automatic. The latter was borrowed for this review and cost $34,260, including a $60 "internal services" fee.

That reflects just how much buyers are willing to pay for such cars and underscores how the Japanese have firmly entrenched themselves in this market, partly by offering cars for much less than competing European marques.

The new Legend is as much as $4,200 more expensive than last year - and a whopping $14,307 more than the 1986 model when base prices of the LS versions are compared.

As expected, every convenience imaginable is found aboard the Legend LS, along with excesses like sumptuous leather seats, burled walnut trim, an electric glass sun roof and Bose stereo cassette player.

Driver and front-passenger air bags, front shoulder belts with height adjusters, anti-lock disc brakes and an anti-theft system are also standard. There are even bubble measures affixed to each headlight assembly to facilitate proper adjustment.

While some say the new Legend has adopted the aggressive looks of its higher priced German competition, others insist it still looks too much like its less expensive sibling, the Honda Accord.

Honda, however, will tell you the second-generation Legend is a much changed car under its skin, as is the coupe version.

A new 3.2 liter, 24-valve V6 engine, for instance, is now mounted in-line instead of transversely as in most front-drive cars, similar to the arrangement used for years by Audi and Subaru.

Horsepower has been boosted by 25 percent, to 200 at 5,500 rpm. Torque is 30 percent greater, at 210 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm. Fuel mileage ranges from 18 to 26 mpg, about even with the 1990 model.

But the more expensive premium unleaded fuel is now recommended because engine compression has been raised to 9.6:1 from 9.0:1.

The 1991 Legend is a perfect example why a short road test can sometimes be misleading about a car's capabilities.

The first few miles left one with the feeling that Honda has traded some of the Legend's agility for a cushier, large car ride. Not surprising, since its wheelbase has been stretched by nearly 6 inches to 114.6, and curb weight is up by 272 pounds (3,486 vs. 3,214).

But several more days of driving found the Legend to come closer to its European rivals, having what can best be described as a high blend of politeness and power.

Its engine, for example, is docile but responsive around town, purring without missing a beat. But once its accelerator is pushed beyond the downshift detent, it is transformed into a startlingly competent performer.

The Legend's leather and walnut cabin is meticulously crafted and rich-looking indeed, with details like soft welting around the door openings. Seat space both front and rear is generous, and Honda's tradition of offering sensible, well positioned driver controls and instrumentation carries on.