I DIDN'T think much of the Chevrolet Nova two years ago. The subcompact was then in its infancy, the joint-venture progeny of General Motors and Toyota, a car wrapped in enough hoopla to make it appear to be the savior of the western automotive world.

It wasn't.

It was just an ordinary little car, in reality, a Toyota Corolla in American clothing. Maybe it was because of the press conferences and trips to California to talk to the people who assembled the car. And maybe it was because I was downright tired of all of the gooey, goody, you're-gonna-like-this-car stuff that I wound up not liking the Nova at all.

Until my most recent trip to Detroit.

I was at a car rental counter asking for a Camaro when these two women showed up. These women were tough, no-foolin-around types, and they started beating the car rental agent about the ears with questions about a "good, reliable car" that wasn't too big and that wasn't gonna run out of gas before they left town in a day or so.

I don't know how it happened. But, suddenly I felt my mouth open and I heard words shoot out in machine-gun fashion -- Nova this, Nova that, yeah Nova, great little Nova, yep, uhmm-humm, good on gas, you're gonna like this car.

The women stared at me in disbelief. The rental agent stared, too; but she wasn't about to let me rain on her parade.

"Say," asked the agent. "Weren't you just standing up here a few minutes ago demanding a Camaro?"

I took the 1987 Nova sedan.

Complaints: My inability to shut my mouth when I oughtta know better. The car? It had a lousy two-speaker, AM/FM "stereo" radio, which was all the more disappointing because it was produced by GM/Delco, which has some of the best factory sound systems on the market. That's it.

Praise: The Nova appears to be a star after all. I really pounded the test model, which had under 2,000 miles on the odometer at time of pickup. I drove it over every Detroit street bump I could find, and I worked it hard in frequent highway runs between Detroit and neighboring communities.

The Nova's 1.6-liter overhead cam, 4-cylinder engine puffed a bit as it moved from 50 mph to median highway speeds of about 65 mph. But the 74-hp car ran like a hummer after catching its breath.

The Nova also handled reasonably well under pressure. Maneuverability in heavy traffic was excellent, as was braking in panic stops. Rainstorms did not upset this little front-wheel-drive machine. It did not slip, slide, stop, or stall in the downpours.

Note: Recent surveys -- notably those done by J.D. Power and Associates of Westlake Village, Calif. -- show that the Nova gets the highest quality and consumer-satisfaction marks in the GM empire. On fit-and-finish alone, I agree. After being brutalized by many miles of potholes and bumps, the Nova rolled into the rental-car return lot without a rattle.

Head-turning-quotient: Test model was a fire-engine red notchback sedan with grey vinyl/cloth interior. Clean-cut. Pleasant.

Mileage: About 28 to the gallon (13.2- gallon tank, 370-mile range), traveling mostly highway, driver only, and with air conditioner operating fulltime. Test model was optional three-speed automatic. Standard five-speed-manual version gets 29 mpg.

Price: $10,078, including $1,530 in options and $290 destination charge. Dealer invoice price is $8,756.97, according to Automobile Invoice Service in San Jose.

Warren Brown covers the auto industry for The Washington Post.