CHEVROLET, "the heartbeat of America," is running with a Japanese pacemaker: the 1987 Spectrum Turbo.

The subcompact car is a splendiferously improved version of the original Spectrum introduced Stateside in 1984.

Actually, the Spectrum is an I-Mark made by Isuzu in Japan. General Motors buys the car, sticks on the Chevrolet nameplate, and collects the credit for a job well done.

Some people call that plagiarism. Auto people call it smart, and they have a point: If you can make folks believe you're producing a high-quality small car without incurring the expense of actually producing it, why not?

Anyway, the Spectrum Turbo is one heck of a nice car. Zero to 60 in under 10 seconds! Takes corners with the aplomb of a racer! Cuts through traffic like a laser! Really. I wouldn't lie to you. I mean, who do you think I am? Joe Isuzu? Go on, get outta here.

Concern: This little car moves so fast, it can get you into trouble. That's not a dig at the manufacturer, nor a call for federal intervention. It's just that this 1,923-pounder seems to defy the rules of mass, speed, time and distance when it takes off. Before you know it, you could be riding someone's rear bumper. Twirl this one around a bit in a wide, abandoned spot before you put it on the road. It looks tame. It's not.

Praise: The Spectrum Turbo is a terrific four-passenger car, so much better, in terms of fun, than the regular 1987 Spectrum I bought earlier this year.

Both the Spectrum Turbo and its lesser cousin are fitted with 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engines. But the forced-air, fuel-injected turbo's engine has more guts: 110 hp at 5,400 rpm versus 70 in the non-turbo model. The Turbo also has a tighter suspension and better brakes. Stiffer springs and improved shock absorbers enhance handling. Larger, ventilated front brakes replace the smaller, solid and more wear-prone front brakes found in the non-turbo. The test car rides tight and stops right -- if you pay attention to the speedometer.

Head-turning-quotient: Same exterior body style as the regular Spectrum, with the exception of "Turbo" markings. Cute. But Spectrum Turbo's interior gets a nod over that of the non-turbo, mostly because the instrument panel makes more sense and is more complete (it includes a tachometer).

Sound system: Four-speaker, AM/FM stereo radio and cassette by GM/Delco. Good.

Mileage: About 30 to the gallon (11-gallon tank, approximately 330-mile range), running driver only and with air conditioner operating fulltime. The car is equipped with a nimble, five-speed manual gearbox that contributes to fuel economy.

Personal note: My non-turbo 1987 Spectrum has been on the road for six months and nearly 4,000 miles. It's been in the dealer's repair shop twice for about three days' downtime, because of a power-steering-fluid leak. The matter was corrected the second try. Routine maintenance -- oil change, oil-filter change, fluid level checks and lubrication -- done at 3,200 miles in 10 minutes for under $30 at one of those fast-lube shops. Car is working perfectly.

Would I buy it again? No. Purchase price was about $9,000-plus, which makes it noncompetitive with several superior subcompacts now on the market, especially the Volkswagen Fox and Lincoln/Mercury Tracer.

Test-model price: $11,351, including $912 in options and $290 destination charge. Base price (four-door notchback) is $10,149. Estimated dealer's invoice price is $9,032.61.

Warren Brown covers the auto industry for The Washington Post.