IT WAS fire-engine red with side air dams. There was an air foil on the roof. The front was snub-nosed with goo-goo-eyed headlamps. It was ugly and cute.

And golly, Miss Molly, the little car could move! Throw it in second. Zip! Shove it in fourth. Zip! Zip! Slide it in fifth and roll to glory.

Hyperbole? Unh, unh. Mitsubishi Motors Corp. has got something here -- the Mirage Turbo, a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder bit of almost unmitigated automotive joy.

Almost? Of course. You can't be an objective journalist unless you complain about something, which is why the Mirage is dangerous. A car like this could ruin an auto writer's career.

Outstanding complaint(s): Disgustingly few. And I tried to find something to dislike. The closest I could come was a nitpick about interior space. The Mirage is a subcompact, which means that it has a short wheelbase -- the centerline distance between the front and rear wheels. Tall types complained about being cramped. One even said he wouldn't want to ride a long distance in this buggy. But we of the shorter variety said nary a thing.

What the heck? If you're really lanky, buy something else.

Outstanding praise: Where to start. The acceleration is really good. Safe movement in and out of high-speed lanes. No wiggle. Lots of giggle, particularly when the jokers in the higher-priced jobs strain their engines and egos to catch up with you. Ta, ta. They should've thought with their minds instead of their wallets.

Braking action matches acceleration. No long slides. Excellent braking stability even on wet roads when coming down from street- legal speeds -- 25 mph to 35 mph.

General craftsmanship -- metal-to-metal seams, paint, interior treatment -- is superior. Everything fits. This is the Japan that got the U.S. car industry running toward better quality. Competition ain't all bad, huh, Lee?

Another thing. The five-speed manual gearbox in this machine is so easy to operate, it inspires confidence and builds competence where none existed before.

And another: The seats in this car are made for bottoms.

Head-turning-quotient: Has the appeal of a newborn babe. You love it as soon as you see it, even if it is kind of ugly. It gets better looking with age.

Against the trend: Other Japanese car companies, as well as some of their American counterparts, are going crazy with Star Wars instrument panels. High technology is a welcome thing. High technology that confuses is not. The Mirage comes with easily readable analog instrumentation -- indicators and numbers that mean what they say. Give Mitsubishi credit for common sense.

Sound system: Very good. You can boogie in this buggy as long as you keep your eyes on the road.

Mileage: Mitsubishi claims 25 miles per gallon combined city and highway. I got about 22 combined, running lightly loaded most of the time with windows open and sunroof back. Engineering types say all of that ventilation also increased air drag and reduced fuel economy. Use unleaded fuel only. Some engineers recommend high-test unleaded for turbos.

Price as tested: $7,749. Warning: That's the manufacturer's suggested retail price, but dealers have had a field day adding additional costs.

Warren Brown writes for the Business & Finance Section of The Washington Post.