IT WAS A motorized bubble, dark blue metallic, kind of pleasant to look at inside and out. And it had a little engine, 1.5 liters, that would go "Voom!" if you stomped too hard on the gas pedal in first gear with the clutch not fully released.

And the clutch? My goodness! The thing would wiggle a bit if you bumped it the wrong way with your left foot, or it would make a boing-yong-yeng noise like some kind of toy from Mattel instead of a car from Toyota.

But it was a car from Toyota, the 1991 Tercel LE, a rounded, high-rear, snub-nosed, front-wheel-drive econocar made to look more expensive than it was. That was okay, though. The car was more real than pretentious, even though it did prove to be dangerously phony in one respect -- more on that later.

I mostly loved the little Tercel and had lots of fun with it, scooting through urban traffic and buzzing along the highway. It made me laugh occasionally, but it never let me down.

Background: The 1991-model year marks the fourth generation of Tercels, once noisome fuel sippers that bespoke more cheapness than economy. The newer Tercels are much, much better. They are quieter, smoother operating cars -- better on the senses and better on the road than their predecessors.

The new Tercels include the base two-door Sedan, a two-door Deluxe Sedan, a four-door Deluxe Sedan and the top-line, tested LE Sedan. All Tercel models have base prices under $10,000.

Complaints: "Automatic" seat belts that aren't the least bit automatic. The shoulder-harnesses of the belts are attached to the interior of the front doors. When the doors open, the harnesses open; when the doors close, the harnesses close. But the lap-belt portions of these "automatic" belts still must be attached manually. Problem is, most front-seat occupants, bamboozled by the "closed" shoulder harnesses, often forget to attach the lap belts. Verrry dangerous. Toyota ought to know better.

Praise: Overall, the Tercel LE is one of the best-built subcompact cars on the market. Its doors close with a "tonk" -- a pleasant medium between a "tink" and a "thonk." The Tercel comfortably seats four adults of modest size, though the company claims that the car can seat five.

You wouldn't want to be the fifth person.

Trunk space in this car is a respectable 10.7-cubic feet, enough to handle Christmas shopping and supermarket visits.

Head-turning quotient: A very attractive little car. Heads turned everywhere.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Pretty decent in all respects for a subcompact. However, the car runs with 13-inch wheels, which means that potholes and road-bumps can be a problem.

The Tercel LE's fuel-injected, 1.5-liter, four-cylinder, 12-valve, single overhead cam engine is rated 82 horsepower at 5,200 rpm -- enough to get you safely into high-speed traffic without filing an application for admission.

Sound system: Four-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette, installed by Toyota. Surprisingly good.

Mileage: About 26 per gallon (11.9-gallon tank, estimated 300-mile range on usable volume), combined city-highway, running with one to four occupants and light cargo.

Price: Base price on the tested Tercel LE with standard five-speed manual transmission is $9,478. Dealer's invoice price is $8,150. Price as tested is $10,023, including $270 for the sound system and a $275 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: It's a buy, particularly if you can avoid the silly behavior of loading down an economy car with costly options. Compare with Geo Metro, Subaru Justy, Ford Festiva, Mazda Protege, Nissan Sentra and Chrysler's Sundance and Shadow cars, which have the laudable distinction of carrying driver's-side air bags as standard equipment.

Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.