If "diesel" to you means a multi-wheeled, smoke-belching behemoth hell-bent for the loading dock -- or at the very least, a high-priced foreign sedan -- consider:

Diesels now come in mini-sizes, smoke and smell included.

Three small-diesel-class sedans are now on the U.S. market -- the Volkswagen diesel Rabbit (the first, in 1977), the Chevrolet diesel Chevette and the Japanese Isuzu I-Mark diesel.

"With cars like these," says Motor Trend magazine, which conducted a month-long comparison road test, "fuel economy is the No. 1 consideration -- and all three performed very well."

They are "decent cars aimed at a special market niche," reports executive editor Jim McCraw in the August issue. "But all of them have room for improvement." If you decide to buy, "choose very carefully. They all are small and they all have diesels, but they are very different automobiles."

Winner in the first "Motor Trend Mini-Diesel Smokeoff": Chevette.

Says McCraw: "The price is right, the mileage is the best of the three, the ride and handling with the optional equipment are superior, and something of a backhanded compliment it has the least diesel-like mein out there on the open road."

On the Motor Trend track, the Chevette, priced from $6,167 to $7,578 for a four-passenger, four-door hatchback, got 50.3 miles per gallon. The Rabbit ("a very close second" in the road test) followed with 47.6 mpg and the Isuzu last with 44.3.

While rating tops overall, the Chevette was outpaced in quick starts by the Isuzu (quickest of the three, according to Motor Trend) and in "packaging" (size and shape) by the Rabbit -- "clearly built for four people's maximum comfort and room, yet aerodynamic and good-looking."

Diesel buyers, warns McCraw, should not expect a vehicle that is "quick, fast or quiet." That's what they give up for money-saving benefits: "lower price of diesel fuel, higher energy content per gallon of diesel fuel compared to gasoline and the inherent stinginess of the diesel's combustion process."

Another advantage is that maintenance costs tend to be lower, consisting, says McCraw, of oil change, oil filter change and air filter change. While this must be done relatively frequently, "with a little education" owners of these "uncomplex" minis should be able to do the job themselves.

And, while "they will have to live with the smell and that smoke for the life of the car," that, by comparison, "tends to be a very long life."