GOLLY, "affordable" has taken on a new meaning. Like the 1991 BMW 318is. It's a heck of an economy car if you've got about $20,000.

Seriously. This is no luxury Bimmer. It has a vinyl interior -- good vinyl, but plastic nonetheless. Its carpet could be used as artificial turf in one of those indoor sports stadiums. T'ain't nothin' fancy about the 318is's dashboard, either. And, of course, there's that little 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine. It's pretty functional, here-you-are stuff.

Hmph. This is a BMW that even the most ascetic member of the Concerned Citizens for This and That could like. It has a driver's-side air bag, anti-lock braking system, good side-impact barrier protection, and automatically tensioning seatbelts and shoulder harnesses.

Yo, Laura Polacheck, ace lawyer for the Center for Auto Safety, you listening? This is not quite the "under $10,000, protect you in a 50-mile-per-hour head-on crash, gets 50 miles per gallon, lasts forever, totally nonpolluting, socially acceptable, morally righteous" car that your group is pushing for, but it's close. Only problem is, it's loads of fun to drive, too.

Anyway, the 318is is a Bimmer for the fiscally immobile. At least, that's the way BMW's managers are selling it. They concede that $20,000 is a little stiff for this class of folk. But, hey, what's a company building in deutsche marks and selling in dollars to do?

Background: BMW is going through an attitude adjustment, redefining the meaning of "ultimate driving machine" (its motto) and "performance" (its watchword). The company's U.S. chief, Karl Gerlinger, says that an "ultimate" car now has to be one that is also ultimately disposable -- made of recyclable parts. Performance, he says, must now combine speed and handling with safety and fuel efficiency. The new BMW 3 series is an attempt to meet the company's reworked view of its products. The 318i and tested 318is are the company's entry-level cars. The spiffier 325s and the super-spiffy M3 Sedan are reserved for those who can afford to have a very big cake and eat it, too.

Complaints: I don't like the notion of having the reverse and first gears located in the same northwest corner of the manual shift pattern. The chances of going backwards when you want to go forward are minimal, but the arrangement is still a bit unnerving.

Also, BMW needs to drop the thermo-plastic air spoiler attached to the bottom of the front bumper. It seems that every teenager in America knows that all you have to do is give the thing a hard pull to rip it off. Besides that, the front spoiler is ugggleee!

Praise: The zip and go of it! If you like driving, you'll love this little five-passenger BMW. Though equipped with rear-wheel drive, it moves in rain, sleet and snow with as much confidence as on dry roads. It's just fun to be in.

Head-turning quotient: Not much. It has a BMW logo and the famous BMW grille, but when all's said and done it's an economy car that looks like an economy car.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Terrific! Except, ahem, it's meant to be more of a sports ride. That means the car rides a little hard for some tastes. Its 1.8-liter, in-line four-cylinder engine is fuel-injected (Bosch Motronic) and has 16-valves and a 134-horsepower rating.

Sound system: Anti-theft AM/FM stereo radio and cassette, BMW installed. Difficult to use (tiny, weird buttons), but nice to hear.

Mileage: About 25 to the gallon (14.5-gallon tank, estimated 352 miles on usable volume of recommended 91-octane unleaded), combined city-highway, one to four occupants.

Price: Base price on the 318is is $21,500. Dealer's invoice price is $18,425. The 318is price as tested is $22,035, including $160 for dealer preparation and a $375 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: Very tough competition here. You can bargain. Compare with the Infiniti G20, Pontiac Grand Prix GT Coupe and STE Sedan, Ford Escort GT, Dodge Spirit R/T Sedan and the Volkswagen Passat GL sedan.

Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.