IF IMITATION is exciting, the 1986 Nissan Maxima SE is a riot. It is, perhaps, the best European car the Japanese ever made. The Maxima SE so thoroughly mimics its more expensive western rivals, it is dfficult to determine if the car's makers are engaging in satire, or if they've completely jettisoned their corporate identity.

Some of you might remember an old movie called "Imitation of Life," about a woman who rejected her ethnicity to pass for something else.

What we have in the Maxima SE is an automotive imitation of life -- a successful, unabashed move into what the car's promoters call the "well-respected classification of 'Euro- sedan.'

Isn't that something? After decades of working to help Japan become the world's leading auto maker, some people at Nissan have decided that their products, at least, would be better off as Europeans.

The next thing you know, they'll be stamping out the nameplates in German, or French.

Outstanding complaints: I get antsy when salesmen describe a car as a "Japanese BMW," as several did in the case of the Maxima SE. I mean, when did you ever hear a BMW salesman call his product a "German Nissan"?

And there's this minor gripe: the sliding "window-blind" underneath the glass sun roof rattled a bit on bumpy roads.

Outstanding praise: European pretender though it may be, the Maxima SE is well- made. Fit and finish generally are excellent. The inexpensive, lightweight brushed aluminum in the car's cabin looks classy. The same stuff in some comparable cars looks cheap.

The car has every conceivable whistle and bell -- and voice. I can live with the Maxima SE voice, which is something I can't say about the voice in Chrysler Corp. products. The voice in the talking Chryslers is a grouchy old thing that barks out warnings, such as: "Your door is ajar." The Maxima SE voice is sexy as all get-out. She says: "Your key is in the ignition." Hey, hey.

Ride, acceleration and handling: The front- wheel-drive Maxima SE has a multiple-choice suspension, one that allows the driver to select a "soft," a "normal" or a "firm" ride at the twist of a console switch.

This borders on high-tech gimcrackery.

The "soft" ride is not all that discernibly soft. The "normal" setting yields excellent handling. The "firm" ride, the one designed to complement the Maxima SE's European posture, has a brittle feel. If only one setting seems to work well, why have three?

Competent acceleration. Power comes from Nissan's 3-liter, V-6 gasoline engine.

Head-turning-quotient: Look, if you really want a BMW, buy it. That way, your neigbors won't have to hunt for the nameplate to tell what it is you're driving.

Sound system: Welcome to supreme boogie, Mozart reproduced at its best and Scott Joplin in all of his lilting, lyrical beauty. Here is where the Maxima SE has its own identity, Nissan Dynamic Sound. It is superb, first class and arguably better than anything out of Europe -- or out of the United States, for that matter.

Mileage: About 24 miles per gallon, combined city-highway, running lightly loaded most of the time. The test model was equipped with a five-speed manual transmission. Automatics tend to drink more. Use unleaded fuels only.

Price-as-tested: $13,699. Real-world buyers can expect to pay an additional $200 delivery fee, as well as other local and state fees and taxes.