THEY did it for the children. No other way to explain the front end of the 1986 Nissan Pulsar NX. It looks like a spaceship, something from a Spielberg movie.

The Nissan people call it "sporty," but the design is kid stuff, Cracker Jacks with an itty- bitty, plastic ray gun inside. It's let's-make-believe, as in: "Three, two, one, zero, blast off!"

Except in this case, away we don't go. The Pulsar looks a lot faster than it is.

A bad car? Nahh. The Nissan folks were just funnin' with this one, that's all. They were tired of those boring econobox bodies, and so they came up with something that is at least worthy of comment.

Your pulse may not quicken in this car, but your temper won't flare, either. The Pulsar does the basics well.

Outstanding complaint: Exterior design. Enough said.

Outstanding praise: An excellent basic car, a superb commuter. Folks looking for a racer will be disappointed. But people who want comfortable, reliable, relatively inexpensive transportation with a little bit of fun will be satisfied.

The craftsmanship is commendable. The Pulsar is made of lightweight metal and composite materials -- the car weighs 2,008 pounds. But the feeling isn't cheap. Structural strength is there where needed. There are no rattles or other gremlins of flimsy construction.

The interior is well-planned. The analog instrumentation is accessible and accurate. Interior carpeting and plastic moldings are of good quality, and they're well-fitted. The paint job is thorough.

The Pulsar's five-speed manual gearbox lacks the fluid motion and precision of some more expensive small cars, but it does work well.

Ride, acceleration, handling: Excellent ride, acceptable acceleration. Power comes from a 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder, gasoline engine.

Handling gets stars. And some of the credit must go to the Pulsar's strange little body. Comparable lightweight cars, particularly the boxy types, tend to get blown about on the road. But the wedgy Pulsar handled highway winds with aplomb.

The brakes also performed well -- no body shimmy or sway in moderate-to-hard stops from speeds of 35 mph.

Sound system: Nissan factory. AM/FM stereo without cassette. Good tonal quality and radio signal retention.

Mileage: About 34 to the gallon, combined city-highway, running driver only and with winter climate-control system operating most of the time.

Price-as-tested: $9,624, including $665 for air conditioner and a $210 delivery charge. A three-speed automatic transmission would cost an additional $400.