THE CAR was electric blue, a loud, shocking blue -- the kind of blue acceptable at a Mardi Gras party. But there it sat, the 1988 Pontiac Sunbird GT Coupe, fresh from the General Motors division that "builds excitement."

I was hysterical, laughing uncontrollably. How could any sane person make or buy a car this color?

Luckily, the Sunbird's body was nice -- attractive lines front and rear, very sporty stuff. I could live with it for a week.

Hmph. The week passed, and the Pontiac folks asked for their machine. I stalled 'em, even though several other test cars crowded the schedule.

Somewhere between initial scorn and the return deadline, the Sunbird and I became serious friends. The car had an engaging personality. I liked that. It was fun, and I liked that, too, a lot.

I guess what it all comes down to is a reworked cliche: You can't judge a car by its paint.

Complaints: The test car's awful color leads the list. Heck, even heavy metal bands have better taste. There's also the matter of product proliferation. There are six models of the Pontiac Sunbird, which, itself, is one of five representatives of GM's J-car line.

The J cars, introduced in 1982, include the Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac Sunbird, Oldsmobile Firenza, Buick Skyhawk and Cadillac Cimarron -- all of which share many of the same mechanical components.

Through the magic of computer-assisted design, the J cars look different from each other. But their numbers and options are bewildering.

Pontiac contends that the myriad versions are necessary to serve many customers. For example, the Sunbird GT coupe and convertible are "for the high performance enthusiast." The more modest Sunbird sedan is for "the budget conscious." And, "for the person who wants aggressive styling but who is also interested in value," there are the Sunbird SE coupe and the SE sedan and wagon, Pontiac says.

Baloney! There are just too many choices here. It's time to simplify things, GM.

Praise: The test model Sunbird GT Coupe, despite its ill-considered tint, was a masterpiece of craftsmanship. Everything fit properly. All the controls were visible and easily accessible. The car -- a four-seat, three-speed automatic -- was easy to operate.

Ride, acceleration, handling: Riding comfort was competitive with that of more expensive front-wheel-drive compacts -- better than some pricier models, in fact. Handling was a cinch, particularly in urban traffic.

Acceleration? The snippy Virginia driver of a BMW three-series machine was embarrassed. The lightweight Sunbird GT, with its 165 hp, 2-liter, turbocharged, fuel-injected engine, left him communicating in ignoble sign language somewhere along Interstate 66. Same to you, fella!

Sound system: AM/FM electronic stereo radio and cassette, by GM/Delco. Excellent, as usual.

Mileage: Easily 30 to the gallon (13.6-gallon tank, estimated 400-mile range on usable volume), combined city highway, windows up, heater on, running mostly driver only in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Price: $13,717, including $1,670.09 in options and a $400 transportation charge. Base price is $11,646.91, and the dealers' invoice price without options $10,899.

Warren Brown covers the auto industry for The Washington Post.