THE DAY WAS plump with moisture. Had it fallen from time, it would have splattered into a billion specks of green and brown, the colors of grass, leaves -- and mud.

It was hot, too; and maybe it was that wicked combination of heat and wetness that turned a beautiful car into a disappointingly tacky thing.

Oh, for the love of real wood and good glue! There was none in the tested 1991 Buick Regal Limited Sedan. Instead, attached to its dashboard and interior door panels were pieces of polyurethane forestry that buckled and pulled away from their backings.

I tried to push the fake wood grain back into place; I succeeded in that endeavor on the left rear and the driver's-side doors, and in certain corners of the dashboard. But the veneer strip near the top of the front passenger door was incorrigible. I'd push it in and it would pop out.

I know that, in the larger scheme of things, unruly wood grain is of minute importance. But that is beside the point.

People don't buy engines and transmissions when they buy new cars, and they don't buy air bags and anti-lock brakes. What they buy, at least, what they think they are buying, is a total car, something that will make them proud, make them smile and feel good as they move down life's road.

It's hard enough to make that journey in lousy weather. It's darned depressing to try it in a spanking brand-new car that, judging from the shabbiness of the test model's interior panels, appears to be falling apart.

Background: The Buick Regal is a front-wheel-drive, five-passenger, mid-size car, comparable to GM's Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and Pontiac's Grand Prix models. The Regals are sold as the tested, upscale Limited, the sporty Gran Sport, and the base Regal Custom.

Complaints: Substandard interior fit and finish. In addition to the buckle-prone plastic wood, there was the matter of poorly tucked leather-covered seats in the test car. Ugly off-white seat supports displayed themselves when the backrests were moved to reclining positions.

Praise: The Regal Limited's optional 3.8-liter, 12-valve, V-6 engine, rated 170 horsepower at 4,800 rpm, is a wonder to behold. It hums and runs as well as any multi-valve (four valves per cylinder versus the standard two) on sale.

The standard Regal engine is a 3.1-liter, 135-horsepower V-6, which is also pretty decent.

Head-turning quotient: Externally, the Regal Limited is quite attractive with its graceful, flowing lines. The body gets thumbs up. The passenger cabin gets thumbs down.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Thumbs up all around. Generally, this is an excellent car. All it needs is a deforestation program.

Sound system: AM/FM stereo radio and compact disc player by GM/Delco. Super boogie, but kooky music-storage layout. The slots in the center console are designed to hold tapes, not discs.

Mileage: About 23 miles per gallon (16.5-gallon tank, estimated 368-mile range on usable volume), mostly highway, running with one to four occupants and 175 lbs. of luggage. Regals are equipped with standard four-speed automatic-overdrive transmissions.

Price: Base price for the Regal Limited sedan is $16,120. Dealer's invoice price for that model is $13,911. Price as tested is $21,525, including $4,930 in options and a $475 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: I hope that the pop-away wood-grain fiasco in the test car was a fluke. If so, the Regal Limited is a buy. If not, well, this car's sales will fall like timber.

Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.