THERE IS a religion that believes no good deed should go unpunished. It's chief practitioners are in Congress and the media and, of course, in the proliferation of groups best described as the Responsible Citizens for This and That.

Members of this secular church thrive on crisis and controversy, which means they are at their best when something is wrong, such as the current oil shock caused by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

It doesn't matter that auto companies have vastly improved their fuel efficiency since the oil crises of 1973 and 1979; nor does it matter that fuel-sipping small to mid-size machines constitute the majority of cars on sale today. What we're hearing from the No Good Deeders is that the car companies have been caught short again, their wheels mired in high-performance sludge in the middle of a Mid-East oil war. Total rot!

As proof, I offer the excellent 1991 Mercury Tracer LTS, a honey of an economy car in terms of gas usage, an absolute demon on high-speed highways and a reasonably safe compact four-seater that also has loads of personality.

The Tracer LTS won't please people who are looking for an argument or their version of heaven on earth. But for those of us who appreciate the art of compromise in an imperfect world, this little car is as good as it gets.

Background: The Tracer shares identical platforms and components with the Ford Escort and Mazda Protege. That's the way things are done in this age of soaring product development and manufacturing costs -- $1.9 billion for the 1991 Tracer/Escort.

The trick is to sell you a discernibly different car, in terms of personality and feel, using the same body. Ford and partner Mazda have done that with these three cars -- each with its own distinctive look and feel.

The 1991 Tracer is sold as the LTS (Luxury Touring Sedan), Standard sedan, and Tracer Wagon.

Complaints: The test Tracer LTS, which had under 100 miles of use at delivery, tended to buzz and jump when shifting to high speeds. But the roughness practically disappeared as the car accumulated more miles.

Praise: Extremely comfortable compact-car interior, excellent vehicle construction, good fuel economy and excellent road manners. So good, I conned Ford's Lincoln-Mercury people into letting me keep the Tracer LTS a few extra days. I didn't want to give this one up.

Head-turning quotient: Dressed in black with red body stripes, the test Tracer LTS got nods everywhere. It's proof that economy does not have to be boring.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Top marks in ride and handling. The front-drive car has independent McPherson struts and coil springs at all four wheels, which help to eliminate the traditional bumpiness of small-car rides.

The car was equipped with an inline four-cylinder, 1.8-liter, 16-valve, double-overhead-cam engine rated 127 horsepower at 6,500 rpm. It hummed, even though it had to clear its throat to get up to speed.

Sound system: AM/FM stereo radio and cassette. Ford Premium. Excellent.

Mileage: About 29 to the gallon (11.9-gallon tank, estimated 335-mile range on usable volume), mostly highway and driver only with air conditioner in use.

Price: Base price on the Tracer LTS is $11,219. Dealer's invoice price on the base model is $10,134. Price as tested is $14,248, including $2,674 in options and a $355 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: It's a buy, but it's a better buy as the Tracer Standard ($8,969 base price and $8,131 dealer's invoice.) Overloading an economy car with options makes about as much sense as whipping someone for doing good work.

Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.