MOTOR TREND magazine has been presenting "Car of the Year" awards for the past three decades. This nonsense oughtta stop.

Look at this year's domestic choice -- the 1988 Pontiac Grand Prix. It's a good car. But is it the car of the year? That raises a question asked among acquaintances by an Arkansas new car dealer at the magazine's recent "Car of the Year" luncheon in New York.

"Geez," the gentleman said, whispering over his salad. "How do you suppose they came up with this award? That Grand Prix is the same as the Cutlass Supreme and Buick Regal, ain't it?"

The gentleman, a longtime General Motors dealer, has a point.

The Grand Prix, Supreme and Regal are members of GM's "GM-10" family. They share identical components and have similar performance characteristics.

The only real difference among the GM-10 cars is that they look different, inside and out. They have different "feels" that appeal to different buyers. The Grand Prix, for example, is slick, smooth, flip, and sexy -- my kind of machine.

But it boggles the mind how Motor Trend can pit these three cars against one another, in a field of seven cars, to produce its 1988 domestic "Car of the Year" trophy. That amounts to a three-to-one advantage -- running three of the same cars, in different dress, against each of the other four models. Is that stacking the deck, or what?

And what's this foolishness about separating the domestic "Car of the Year" from the import version? Imagine this showroom scene:

"I'd like to buy the car of the year, please."

"Import or domestic?"

"Ah, uhmmm, which is better?"

I hope the Grand Prix escapes the ignominy that befell other Motor Trend "Car of the Year" selections, such as the much- maligned Chevrolet Citation and the greatly ignored AMC/Renault Alliance.

The Grand Prix has some faults. But it's a decent car that deserves better than a Motor Trend jinx.

Complaints: I drove two Grand Prix cars -- a pre-production and a production model. The pre-production model had a number of ill-fitting interior seams and other fit-and- finish glitches, all of which I forgave because the car was a rough draft.

The production model, the real, commercially available McCoy, was darn near perfect. But the production car's trunk-lid support mechanism -- the thing that keeps the lid aloft while you're loading groceries or luggage -- was just as flimsy as the one in the pre-production model.

Praise: The Grand Prix gets top marks in overall execution, with special credit going to the car's designers. That terrifically swooping body and well-conceived, futuristic interior drew rave on-the-spot reviews at every filling station and parking lot.

It's been a long time since I've had that much unsolicited, favorable commentary on a test vehicle.

Ride, acceleration, handling: The front-wheel-drive, four-seat Grand Prix again gets high marks. But there's not much here that distinguishes the test car from its other GM-10 siblings. The Grand Prix is equipped with GM's widely used 2.8-liter, fuel-injected, V-6 engine, which is rated 130 hp at 4,800 rpm.

Sound system: GM/Delco AM/FM radio and cassette with electronic seek and scan functions -- excellent.

Mileage: About 24 to the gallon (16.6-gallon tank, estimated 390-mile range on usable volume), running driver only and mostly highway in the Great State of Virginia.

Price: $16,722 on the tested Grand Prix SE, including $1,043 in options and $430 transportation charge. Base price is $15,249, and dealer's invoice price without options is $13,159.89, according to Automobile Invoice Service in San Jose, California.

Purse-strings warning: Some dealers doubtless will tout the "Car of the Year" award in an attempt to maximize profits on this model. Don't fall for it. Remember the Alliance and the Citation. What's the resale value of those cars today?

Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.