IT BELONGED there in front of the junior high school where the kids were pouring out of a yellow bus with their trombones and their clarinets.

It belonged with the Volvo wagons and sensible Saabs, and the few Mercedes-Benz wagons that always seemed to appear in such tableaus of suburban life.

Sleek and white, with the smallest amount of chrome, the 1986 Pontiac 6000 SE wagon took its place in line -- a class act in styling and performance.

I even felt a little smug, parked there waiting for my member of the band, flanked on either side by expensive European vehicles. The 6000 SE had their moves and their image, but not their price.

Some might sniff. But there are those of us who like the idea of cost-effective social climbing.

Outstanding complaints: Dashboard flub. The climate control levers are difficult to see and reach in the test model, regardless of the position of the adjustable steering wheel. This poses a minor inconvenience when the 6000 SE is parked. But trying to operate the levers while the wagon is moving presents a potentially hazardous problem to the driver -- and the wagon's occupants.

I humbly recommend moving the climate control levers farther to the right, away from the wheel.

Also, in as much as General Motors Corp. is considering putting air bags into certain of its 1988 models, I nominate the 6000 SE for a fitting. This is a superb family vehicle. There is no reason why, even its current version, it should not have superior safety. How about it, GM?

Outstanding praise: The 6000 SE is an absolute joy to drive! Indeed, it is hard to believe that this machine is a station wagon. The feel is that of a sports coupe -- solid tracking on the road, quick steering response, nose into curves with no discernible rear-end wag during turns at legal highway speeds.

Overall fit and finish gets praise, too.

Frankly, if there is one reason to get rid of import quotas on Japanese cars, this is it: in the matter of fit and finish, the Americans have caught up with the Japanese. U.S. automakers, in the past, said they needed the trade restrictions to gain time to improve their quality act. They have done so. Now, it is time to let the buyers decide who gets what share of the U.S car market.

Acceleration: Excellent. Power in the test model comes from an optional multiport-fuel-injected, 2.8-liter V-6 gasoline engine. No waiting for expressway admission in this one.

Head-turning quotient: top honors in station-wagon design. Nice, clean lines, albeit with some "Euro-style" pretensions. The test model drew rave reviews in the parking lots.

Sound system: AM/FM stereo radio and cassette with graphic equalizer, by GM/Delco. Verrry good.

Mileage: About 23 to the gallon (15.7-gal. tank), combined city/highway, running with mixed loads (one to five occupants) and with air conditioner operating all of the time.

Price as tested: $15,658, including digital dashboard and every conceivable power option except air bags and sun roof.

Warren Brown writes for the Business section of The Washington Post.