THE 1991 Nissan Sentra proves that mediocrity can rise above itself. It in many ways is an excellent subcompact, far superior to its previous namesake, which was a tinny, insubstantial thing.

Indeed, the old Sentra was insulting in its banality. The new Sentra, particularly the tested SE-R version, has a different attitude. It has a sense of pride, a dignity of purpose -- which is to provide as much fun, quality and practicality as possible in an affordable, attractive family car.

Nissan's designers obviously cared about what they were doing with the two-door, front-wheel-drive Sentra SE-R. Its body is rounded and friendly. The interior is simple and well-designed. Overall, there is a richness about the passenger cabin that belies the Sentra's origins as an economy car.

Background: The Sentra was introduced in the United States in late 1982 as a made-in-Japan econobox, long on fuel economy, but short on everything else.

The new Sentra line is built at Nissan's plant in Smyrna, Tenn. The sporty SE-R tops the line. Other models include the base E two-door and four-door cars, the better-equipped SE, and the more upscale XE and GXE.

Praise: It's nice to climb into an economy car that delights instead of depresses. The doors of the SE-R close with a "thunk." The two front seats are terrifically comfortable. In the rear, there's ample space for two adults.

Complaint: The Sentra SE-R does not come equipped with an air bag, which is ridiculous. Instead, the company took the cheap way out, installing goofy, web-like "automatic" seat belts that aren't the least bit automatic.

Head-turning quotient: Scores high on the wow-factor chart. People could hardly believe that the test-car was a Sentra.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Splendiferous! If you can find a better small-car ride, buy it; my hunch is that you'll be shopping for a long time. The Sentra SE-R, with four-wheel-independent suspension, has a wonderfully smooth ride, better than that found in many larger cars. Braking is excellent. Acceleration is grinning good.

The car is equipped with a two-liter, four-cylinder, 16-valve, 140 horsepower engine -- a darn good zoomer for a vehicle weighing 2,414 pounds. The other Sentra cars come with a base 1.6-liter, four-cylinder, 110-horsepower engine.

Sound system: Four-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette by Nissan. Quite good.

Mileage: About 28 to the gallon (13.2 gallon-tank, estimated 360-mile range on usable volume), city-highway, carrying one to four occupants and light cargo. The test car came with a five-speed manual transmission.

Price: Base price on the tested SE-R is $10,970. Estimated dealer's invoice price is $10,000. Price as tested is $12,745, including $800 for the optional power sunroof, $700 for anti-lock brakes and a $275 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: A good buy. Compare with the Mitsubishi Mirage, Saturn SC, Geo Prizm, Toyota Corolla, Ford Escort/Mercury Tracer and Mazda Protege, to name a few.

Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.