THE 1991 SUBARU Legacy Sport Sedan is the kid with the high SAT scores who can't make the cut at Harvard. It's the super-duper office worker routinely passed over for promotions. It's a backup singer for Milli Vanilli.

In short, the car is everyone who has put a best foot forward only to discover that competence -- even excellence -- is not enough. It gets the Yes-But Trophy in the 1991 "car of the year" contest.

Consider:

The Legacy Sport Sedan is a well-styled compact car, but it looks so much like a pint-sized Acura Legend, it has the icky aura of a wannabe.

The test car has an excellent automatic four-wheel-drive system, but such systems are no longer exclusive to Subaru, once the undisputed ruler of the four-wheel-drive auto market.

The Legacy Sport Sedan is fast, too, but so are many other cars, including those driven by police officers issuing traffic tickets under quota systems.

As a result, the Legacy Sport Sedan probably will spend 1991 begging for customers. Fair? Nope. But, hey, when was the last time you got a promotion?

Background: Subaru is having a rough time trying to please a world in which virtue has become a prop on a stage of greed. Its cars are as reliable and dependable as they have always been, but they are not selling well in a market where buyers are also demanding lots of flash. Subaru just can't seem to break away from its homespun, sensible, boring image -- even though it has tried mightily, especially with its Legacy mobiles.

The 1991 Legacy Sport Sedan is the company's latest, and perhaps its best attempt to add some lightening to its lineup. Other Legacy models include the base L and the better-appointed LS sedan (also available as a station wagon), and the uppercrust LSi sedan. The Sport Sedan is the line's "performance" model.

Complaints: The interior sun-roof shade, a louvered plastic cover, rattles too much when it's pulled back. Shifting in the test car was a bit notchy.

Praise: The Legacy Sport Sedan is a very decent, well-equipped compact family car, one that's a pleasure to drive in inclement weather. It seats four people comfortably, but could handle five if one of them is skinny. Compact-car trunk capacity is excellent at 14 cubic feet.

Head-turning quotient: Equally adept at getting nods and yawns.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent in all areas. The car is equipped with a turbocharged, 16-valve, 2.2-liter, four-cylinder engine rated 160 horsepower at 5,600 rpm. The car is fast. Kudos also go to the brakes -- ventilated, four-wheel discs backed up by a four-wheel, Bosch-made anti-lock system.

Sound system: AM/FM electronic stereo radio and cassette, 80-watt system installed by Subaru. Excellent.

Mileage: About 25 to the gallon (15.9-gallon tank, estimated 390-mile range on usable volume of recommended 89-octane unleaded).

Price: Base price of Legacy Sport Sedan is $18,899 ($19,669 with automatic). Dealer's invoice price is $16,446 ($17,116 automatic). Price as tested is $19,563, including $269 in options and a $395 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: Buyers of the Legacy Sport Sedan, or any Legacy model, could probably get a good deal. The cars are much better than their rather disappointing sales numbers.

Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.