First USA Inc. is playing follow the leader with MBNA Corp.

Dallas-based First USA is marketing a platinum Visa card in a pilot program. MBNA, based in Wilmington, Del., had rolled out its Platinum Plus card in March - and now has one million cardholders.

First USA's card is meant for "the top 10% of U.S. incomes," said Gary Marino, the card specialist's executive vice president for credit policy and marketing. These are people "who are very experienced credit users, who have real need for a product like this, and have the capacity to use it and pay it," he said.

Credit lines on these bank card platinum products are meant for high- volume users and range from $5,000 to $100,000.

"I'm surprised it took them so long," said David W. Spartin, senior executive vice president, MBNA Corp. "They copy everything we do. We've been expecting it."

First USA said its platinum card is not a response to MBNA, but rather an evolution of the Select card, which it has been marketing for two years to upscale users who can get credit lines of up to $50,000. The two programs will coexist, Mr. Marino said.

The First USA Platinum card has no annual fee and offers a five-month, 5.9% introductory rate that bumps to a fixed 12.99% rate. Cardholders also qualify for the Value Miles program, in which they earn one point for every dollar they spend, redeemable after 6,000 points. This feature costs $24 a year, but the fee is waived for the first year.

The MBNA Platinum Plus has no annual fee as well and offers an introductory rate of 5.9%, which bumps to 15.9% fixed or 16.9% after five months.

Cardholders pay $35 each year to participate in the Plus Miles program, under which they earn one point for every mile spent and 1.5 points for revolving balances.

Mr. Spartin said MBNA expects to have two million Platinum Plus cardholders by yearend. He said the bank is going after people who earn $57,000 a year, have held the same job for 14 years, and have maintained a good credit file for 12 years.

But bank platinum cards still can't compete with the American Express products, some industry experts say.

"There is no comparison to what American Express is doing on the Visa and MasterCard side," said Robert McKinley, president RAM Research Group, Frederick, Md. "It's in a class by itself."

American Express, which has had a platinum card since 1984, charges $300 a year for what many say is the premiere platinum product. It has between 250,000 and 300,000 cardholders and caters to a more select base than either of the bank platinum cards, according to Moshe Orenbuch, senior research analyst, Sanford & Bernstein & Co.

Mr. Orenbuch said platinum cardholders are looking both for higher credit limits and a higher level of service.

"MBNA is in a class of its own on the service score," he said."First USA is extraordinary for low-cost management."

Mr. McKinley said that while the First USA platinum card is being marketed in response to the MBNA card, it is also a response to the "mainstreaming of the gold card."

He said gold cards now account for 40% of all Visas and MasterCards.

The average credit line for the gold card is between $5,000 and $10,000. The First USA and MBNA platinum cards both offer credit limits between $5,000 and $100,000.

"These higher credit lines on the eve of a recession are a potential risk if the job has not been done on underwriting," Mr. Orenbuch said.

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