IT WAS ANOTHER week in Detroit, which meant another time to go humble as far as test cars were concerned.

Expensive cars attract too much attention in that town. Park 'em and lose 'em, unless you're going to park 'em in a guarded garage. But even then, you're taking your chances with precious metal in the City of Light Fingers and Quick Hands, where car theft is a growth industry.

It's better to cruise Detroit in a Chevrolet Cavalier, a super-cheap, 1990 Cavalier VL (Value Leader) if you can get one, or a slightly more expensive 1990 Cavalier Standard Sedan if that is available.

I rented the Cavalier Standard Sedan -- blue, mildly styled -- and lived in peace. Quite surprisingly, I drove in peace, too. I also had fun in that compact car. What a scooter!

By the end of the week, the Cavalier and I had become road buddies of the first order. The only real problem we encountered was at a shopping mall in Troy, Mich., a Detroit suburb.

I stupidly parked the car without noting its tag number. An hour or so later, I came back to the parking lot only to find my car submerged in a sea of blue and gray Cavaliers.

Had it not been for the little green dot that the rental company stuck on my car's rear window, I would've had to wait until the lot emptied to find it -- trusting that it would've still been there.

Background: The Cavalier entered the U.S. market in 1982 as Chevrolet's version of General Motors Corp.'s J cars, which included the Buick Skyhawk, the Pontiac Sunbird and, at one point, the ill-starred Cadillac Cimarron.

The Cavalier and the Sunbird survive in the J-car lineup. Both cars are very decent, very reliable front-wheel-drive compacts capable of seating five people and carrying 13 cubic feet of cargo.

The Cavalier is sold as the VL, Standard and hotrod Z24 Coupe.

Complaints: Very few, actually. Road noise was relatively high, characteristic of most economy compacts. Handling was mildly affected by a light steering feel, which didn't prove problematical in the brutally high-speed, high-volume traffic along Detroit's expressways.

Praise: The tested Cavalier Standard Sedan, which had 15,000 multi-driver miles on the odometer when I picked it up, represents excellent value. It's a solid, well-made economy car that has had most of the bugs worked out over the last eight years of its model-line production.

Head-turning quotient: Zip, zip, hooray!

Ride, acceleration and handling: Good ride. Competent acceleration. Decent handling. Excellent braking -- power front discs and rear-drum brakes.

The test car was equipped with a standard 2.2-liter, four-cylinder, eight-valve, electronically fuel-injected engine rated 95 horsepower at 5,200 rpm. An optional 3.1-liter, 12-valve, 135-horsepower V-6 is available.

Mileage: About 29 to the gallon (13.6-gallon tank, estimated 380-mile range on usable volume), running mostly highway and driver-only with air conditioner in use full time. The test car came with an optional three-speed automatic transmission. The standard five-speed manual gets slightly better mileage.

Sound system: Base four-speaker AM/FM radio by GM/Delco. Good for listening to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

Price: Base price on the Cavalier Standard Sedan is $8,820. Dealer's invoice price on base model is $8,141. Price as tested is $11,123, including $1,858 in options and a $445 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: A very definite buy. People wanting greater savings might try to pick up a used model from a rental company. However, rental companies nowadays are selling used cars back to auto makers, who auction them off to franchised car dealers, who sell them to you. Check current used-car prices before attempting to bargain in that arena.

Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.