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JAPAN'S PUSH IN UPSCALE AUTOS

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DETROIT, March 2— The new luxury, high-performance model that the American Honda Motor Company will introduce later this month is likely to raise the eyebrows of current Honda owners used to more Spartan cars. It comes with a high-tech 151-horsepower V-6 engine, a racing style suspension, plush interior and a sticker price close to $20,000. It is not even called a Honda.

The company's new Acura line -which centers on the top-of-the-line V-6 Legend but will also include the smaller four-cylinder Integra - is the strongest indication yet that the Japanese auto makers are determined to push into the highly profitable and growing American market for luxury performance cars. With the Acura, a new 200-horsepower Toyota Supra, Mazda's RX-7 Turbo and Nissan's 300 ZX, the Japanese are going after the market now dominated by such European manufacturers as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Porsche and Saab. The few American entries in this category include the Chevrolet Corvette and Lincoln Mark 7 LSC, although others are under development.

''The Legend is a legitimate competitor for BMW,'' said Ann C. Knight, an auto industry analyst with Paine Webber Inc. ''The question is whether they can break through the cult-like loyalty to the German products. They probably can't do it on price. The more Mercedes-Benz charges, the more people seem to like it.''

Search for an Image

Honda officials acknowledge that the need to create the proper image for the cars was a major factor in their decision to establish a new division and a separate franchise to market the new models. Acura dealerships - 60 to begin with - are free-standing operations unrelated to other Honda outlets, although there is some common ownership. The goal is to break away from Honda's reputation for utilitarian, but not very exciting, automobiles.

''Customers in upscale market segments do not include current Honda products in their purchase considerations,'' the company said, because of its ''reputation for low-priced, high-fuel economy cars.'' But with the Acura, Honda hopes to change that thinking. It expects to sell 50,000 Acura models this year, and is projecting sales in the hundreds of thousands by the end of the decade.

Other Japanese companies are watching the Acura experiment closely. Officials of the Toyota Motor Corporation, Japan's leading auto maker, have said they might introduce a new brand name in the United States if Honda was successful. Different Lines

Selling different lines of cars through separate distribution networks is common in Japan, and is what the General Motors Corporation has been doing for decades with its Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac franchises.

With their new models, it is clear the leading Japanese companies are determined to grab a piece of the so-called yuppiemobile market segment as well as sell high-performance sports cars to compete with Corvette and Porsche models.

''The Japanese made the decision to go upscale when they thought Congress was going to turn on them violently,'' said David E. Davis Jr., editor of Automobile magazine. ''The idea was to move to a more profitable segment, so they could keep up their profits with fewer units. Now, with the Koreans in the market, and the Chinese probably only a decade behind, they are staking their claim to the upper end of the market.'' Alfred P. Sloan's Dictum

Executives of Japanese companies insist that they do not plan to abandon the low-priced, economical market segment that first established them in the American market. But they also make it clear they have taken to heart the advice of the longtime chief executive of G.M., Alfred P. Sloan. G.M. should have a car for ''every purse and purpose,'' was his dictum.

''We have customers who started out with a Toyota truck, but are moving upward and will soon graduate to another manufacturer's product,'' said Jim Perkins, a former G.M. executive who is Toyota's vice president for sales in this country. ''We want to keep those people in the Toyota family.''

Toyota's new Supra model, which is priced at $17,990, was designed largely with the American sports car market in mind, Toyota officials said. They are projecting sales this year of 50,000 Supras, or about twice as many as the previous model. If past practice is followed, the additional 25,000 Supras will take the place of lower- priced models, since import restraints remain in effect on Japanese cars.

Mazda's new RX7 Turbo carries an even steeper price tag than the Supra, at $19,345, and is a good example of the lengths that automotive engineers are going to these days to make their products appear more sophisticated than their competitors. The rear suspension on the car is designed to allow the wheels to pivot slightly in and out during cornering, braking and hard acceleration. The claim is that an ''active'' suspension of this sort improves handling. Mazda Sale Expectations

Mazda officials say they only expect to sell 10,000 Turbos this year, out of a quota for Mazda cars of about 230,000 cars, but admit other plans are afoot. The company's largest car, the 929 model, is currently not exported to the United States because Mazda, like the other Japanese car companies, did not think it could compete with big American cars. But American cars are a lot smaller these days, and the Japanese are more confident of their abilities. ''We'll bring in the 929 when it is reconfigured'' in a few years, said Rod Hayden, a sales vice president for Mazda.

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