FOR SEVERAL YEARS, Peugeot cars have been troubled guests in the U.S. auto market. Some consumer advocates attacked the cars for not having air bags, ignoring other less well-constructed models that also lacked the inflatable safety devices. Some auto dealers of multi-car lines relegated their Peugeot vehicles to back lots, preferring instead to push Hondas and Toyotas.

Peugeot officials, in turn, seemed to conspire against themselves in the United States. Heady with success in France, their home market, they appeared more willing to snicker at griping Americans than to understand them.

Until now. The launch of the 1991 Peugeot models demonstrates the French auto maker's intent to put its best wheel forward and make a go of it in this country. A case in point is the 1991 Peugeot 405 Mi 16 sedan, the first version of which we looked at in 1988. The Mi 16 is still without air bags; but it does have a good motorized seatbelt system, which is legal under U.S. auto safety laws. The car also has wider-than-average side-door steel beams to protect vehicle occupants in side-impact collisions. Anti-lock brakes are standard on the new Mi 16, which also has a more rigid passenger cabin surrounded by a body purposely designed to accept as much crash energy as possible before passing it to the car's occupants.

Whether any of this will help Peugeot boost its minuscule share of the American car market remains to be seen. However, the company should be commended for its perseverance.

Background: The 405 Mi 16 was introduced on these shores in 1988 as a 1989 model. The front-wheel-drive 405 models ran into lots of lousy economic weather, marked by declining vehicle sales, especially for European cars.

The current 405 is offered in three sedan versions: the economy DL, the more upscale S and the top-line Mi 16. DL and S station wagons are also available.

Complaints: An idiopathic, almost whisper-like rattle emanating from the right side of the test car's dashboard. It might have been a leaf or something trapped in one of the air vents. I couldn't figure it out.

Praise: The car has very good overall design and engineering. The Mi 16 is a very solid compact sedan with appropriate touches of luxury (leather seats, leather-covered steering wheel), and comfortable space for four adults. Trunk space is decent, 13.7 cubic feet.

Head-turning quotient: A good looker.

Ride, acceleration and handling: No problems anywhere in these three categories. Back-seat passengers praised the smoothness of the ride, a testament to the Mi 16's four-wheel independent suspension system.

The car is equipped with a two-liter, four-cylinder, double-overhead-cam, 16-valve, 160 horsepower engine. Tre`s good zoom!

Sound system: Six-speaker AM/FM electronic stereo radio and cassette by Alpine. Tre`s good boom!

Mileage: About 24 to the gallon (17.2-gallon tank, an estimated 400-mile range on usable volume), mostly highway with four occupants and light luggage.

Price: Hurrah! The base price on the tested Mi 16 is $21,700 and the dealer invoice price on that model is $18,582. Price as tested is $22,950, including $850 for an optional power sunroof and a $400 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: Compare with Honda Accord LX, Mazda 929, Nissan Maxima, Pontiac Bonneville and Mercury Sable, and top-line Toyota Camry models. This car holds up -- a very nice product at a reasonable price.

Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.