IT WAS EITHER poetic justice or a work of rental agency cynicism. Whatever it was, I wound up with a 1991 Pontiac Sunbird GT coupe on a cold, rainy Sunday night in Detroit.

The incongruity of driving anything called "Sunbird" in that dismal urban landscape was highlighted by a wrong turn off I-94 east that took me into the depths of the inner city. It is a place long-abandoned by the muses. Left behind are shards of dreams, broken window panes that glisten in the sodium vapor light.

Under such circumstances, the sharp little Sunbird, with its Batman-flared headlights, seemed both irrelevant and overwhelmingly conspicuous.

The hum of the Sunbird's new 3.1-liter V-6 comforted me, easing my fears about a breakdown in undesirable territory, giving me confidence that I could outrun anything if I had to.

I eventually found my way to the Hotel St. Regis, a relatively grand affair across the street from the massive headquarters building of General Motors Corp., the company that makes the Sunbird, which has poured billions of dollars into new plants and neighborhood projects in a laudable attempt to remake Detroit.

But building cars is a lot easier than building communities. The parts of the front-wheel-drive Sunbird came together right. Judging from the wreckage of the city, Detroit has not.

Background: The Sunbird, one of GM's economy J cars, has been around since 1982. It shares parts and underpinnings with the Chevrolet Cavalier, but has a flippant, sporty flavor that is distinctly different from its generally more conservative sibling.

The tested Sunbird GT, the top of the seven-car Sunbird line, seats four adults in reasonable comfort and carries 14 cubic feet of their stuff. A Sunbird LE convertible is available.

Complaints: It would be wonderful if GM would put standard four-wheel, anti-lock brakes in all of its cars. The absence of that equipment was missed in the Sunbird GT, which pitched and twitched when braked hard on slippery roads.

Also, a bit more work needs to be done on the Sunbird GT's pod-type instrument and gauge cluster. It's been cleaned up a bit from previous iterations, but still remains too cluttered.

Praise: The compact Sunbird GT is fun, even in Detroit. It's a well-made, affordable machine imbued with generally attractive styling and undeniable personality. It starts up without hesitation, too.

Head-turning quotient: Got nods at the hotel. Got enthusiastic nods on the street, too, which is why I'm glad that the hotel had a guarded parking lot.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Very decent all around, although braking (vented discs front, drums rear) could be improved with an anti-lock system. The 1991 Sunbird GT's 3.1-liter V-6 kicks out 140 horsepower at 4,500 rpm. The new engine replaces the two-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder job in previous Sunbird GT cars.

A 96-horsepower, two-liter, four-cylinder engine serves as the standard Sunbird powerplant.

Sound system: Four-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette by GM/Delco. Tops.

Mileage: About 24 to the gallon (13.6-gallon tank, estimated 310-mile range on usable volume of 87-octane unleaded), combined city-highway, driver-only with light cargo. The rental car was equipped with an optional three-speed automatic transmission, which actually gets better mileage than the Sunbird GT's standard five-speed manual transmission (23 mpg).

Price: The base price for the Sunbird GT is $12,444. The dealer's invoice price on that model is $11,249. Price as tested is $13,364, including $465 for the automatic transmission and a $455 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: It's a buy. For those seeking true economy, the reasonably well-equipped and higher mileage Sunbird LE sedan is an even better buy at $9,544 (dealer's invoice: $8,523).

Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.