The 1991 model year could use a little counseling. It's all mixed up. Consider:

Its biggest stars are big cars introduced at a time of soaring gasoline prices.

Much of the year's best technology is dedicated to speed and safety, perpetuating a split personality that first surfaced in the late 1980s.

Fuel-efficient small cars abound this year, but lots of 'em are deceitful little rascals. They look innocent in the driveway, but they're hellions on the highway, where they run so fast they give state troopers fits.

And then there's the matter of the Mazda Navajo. It's not really a Mazda. It's certainly not Japanese. And American Indians had nothing to do with building it. It's a U.S.-made Ford product that will be sold by a Japanese company using Native Americans in its sales pitch. Talk about an identity crisis!

The confusion stems largely from the inability of auto makers to divine the future. The 1991 cars and trucks began their conceptual lives three to six years ago, when gasoline in America was cheaper-than-real, the economy was booming, and American consumers were demanding bigger, faster and safer rides. Econocars in those days were boxy little nothings that did okay at the gas pump but did nothing for the libido. Nor, for that matter, did they do anything for auto makers' profits. As soon as the gas lines of the 1970s disappeared, sales of those cars dropped faster than the public standings of politicians pushing for tax hikes.

Thus we have today's models -- big cars in hard times and small cars tricked up to deliver big-time performance. Their saving grace: Most are quality machines loaded with new technology.

This year's products are also numerous -- 500 different car models and 50 or so vans, sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks, according to industry figures.

Commenting on all of them is neither possible nor necessary. Some are works of marginal annual change. Others are the same vehicles being sold with different nameplates by the same manufacturer. Some are so milquetoast they will be ignored in the marketplace regardless of what's said, or not said, about them here.

So, I've rounded up a group of 1991 cars and trucks that are either bumper-to-bumper new or loaded with enough new technology to warrant citation. The exception is the Mazda Navajo, which is exactly the same as the two-door version of the Ford Explorer. The Navajo gets the nod for the Marketing Chutzpah of the Year Award.

But enough of that. You came here to check out wheels. Let's do it. BOATMOBILES

Just when you thought they'd gone away, never to return, just when you figured you'd never again use a rear car seat for anything other than carrying groceries, they're back! Big cars, big American cars, rolling land yachts!

Members of Responsible Citizens for This and That may grimace. Those who enjoy attacking power symbols may rally the troops. But for anyone who never wanted big cars to disappear in the first place, it's time to cheer.

General Motors Corp. is launching a fleet of big wheels, led by the 1991 Buick Park Avenue Ultra. The front-wheel-drive car is huge -- 17 feet long -- a little more than half a foot longer than its predecessors, and it's more than six feet wide. It's a 3,600-pound hunka rolling technology designed to carry six people in absolute comfort.

The car's beautiful too, folks. It's a better looking Jaguar than a Jaguar, especially in the rear, where it's rounded off with a hint of naughtiness. The Ultra's interior is extremely well-designed, with the exception of the gauge panel, which is too linear and uptight for the soft-leather sumptuousness that surrounds it.

Technological innovation is everywhere in the Ultra. The best of it, the new electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission, is seductively smooth -- a welcome departure from the notchy shifting of previous big Buick transmissions.

GM is using its excellent 3.8-liter, fuel-injected V-6 in the Ultra and its less-expensive Park Avenue model. The engine is rated 170 horsepower at 4,800 rpm. A supercharged, 195-horsepower V-6 is in the works for mid-1991.

However, the like-bodied 1991 Buick Roadmaster -- a name from our heavy-iron, road-hogging days -- is running with a base 5-liter, 170-horsepower V-8. A fuel-injected, 180-horsepower, 5.7-liter V-8 is available in the Roadmaster as an option.

Comparable cars in the 1970s got an average 12 miles per gallon. The new Park Avenue Ultra gets an average 23 mpg; the Roadmaster gets 19 or 22 mpg, depending on the engine.

Similar models in the 1991 GM lineup include the Oldsmobile 98 and Chevrolet Caprice.

Of course, you'd expect cars like these to have air bags and anti-lock brakes as standard equipment, and they do. You'd expect them to have high prices too, and you're right -- about $17,000 to $30,000, with the Caprice at the low end.

Buick, Chevrolet and Oldsmobile all have new 1991 station wagons built on their new big-car platforms. The wagons include the Buick Roadmaster Estate, Chevrolet Caprice Wagon and the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, with prices ranging from $18,000 to $22,000.

Ford will show us its big, remodeled Crown Victoria in mid-1991, but that rear-drive car, selling for around $20,000, actually will be marketed as a 1992 model.

Foreign auto makers also are going big-time. Honda Motor Co. Ltd. will introduce a larger version of its Acura Legend sedan in 1991, replete with air bag, anti-lock brakes and traction control (to reduce wheel spin on slippery roads), according to industry sources. It'll cost in the neighborhood of $25,000.

It remains to be seen how all of these big cars will fare in a hostile gas-price environment, but their makers are optimistic. Because today's big cars are more fuel-efficient than previous models, and because big cars generally mean better highway safety, the car companies believe they have a fighting chance to make a buck in this segment, despite Saddam Hussein and the sagging U.S. economy. SCREAMERS Yeeeooowww!

Most cars in this segment are so hot they're selling themselves. Take Honda's new Acura NSX two-seater, a $60,000 to $64,000 job, depending on whether you go with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox. Of the 5,000 NSX cars to be available in the new model year, 3,000 are slotted for the United States. No one seems to have trouble selling them, not even with today's concern over gasoline costs. (The NSX gets an average 22 mpg -- very decent for a car of this type.) Indeed, unconfirmed reports indicate that people are selling their slots on NSX waiting lists at premium prices.

That performance is a tribute to Honda's common sense.

Honda has figured out that many people want "livable" sports cars, exotic machines that can be used every day without neurotic mechanical attention or the requirement that their drivers be in top athletic shape. Thus the notion of "painless power" -- high performance without high anxiety.

The NSX is aimed at the best that Ferrari, Porsche, Corvette, Lamborghini and Lotus have to offer. Correction. It's aimed at a higher target -- going those cars several steps better in terms of highway performance, safety, overall aesthetic design and utility. Remarkably, the rear-drive, mid-engine, 270-horsepower NSX hits its mark in almost every instance.

Other screamers include the 300-horsepower Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4, the Mitsubishi Galant VR-4, the all-new Infiniti G20, the substantially improved Infiniti Q45, the BMW 318i and the 200-horsepower Lumina Z34.

The 3000GT VR-4 is a Mitsu- bishi/Chrysler Corp. hybrid car, represented on the Chrysler side by the Dodge Stealth R/T Turbo. Both of those models cost about $31,000 but have less expensive cousins for under $20,000.

The 3000GT VR-4 and Stealth R/T Turbo come equipped with 300-horsepower, twin-turbo- charged, V-6 engines. That means they get their boost from two exhaust-gas driven turbines that force air into engine combustion chambers. Mileage? About 18 mpg in the city and 24 mpg on the highway.

Both seat four people, two of them comfortably. Both are four-wheel-drive machines, but the 3000GT VR-4 also has four-wheel steering.

Four-wheel steering allows all four wheels to turn in the same direction at high speeds and in mildly opposite directions at low speeds, thereby increasing maneuverability on the highway and in tight parking spaces. It's an expensive option (about $1,500) that makes more sense in congested Japan than it does in most U.S. communities.

You'd think that with a rowdy like the 3000GT VR-4, Mitsubishi would have satisfied its appetite for speed and performance. It didn't. Instead, in an attempt to bring in hot-footed drivers who prefer conservative styling, Mitsubishi is also offering its 195-horsepower Galant VR-4 -- an executive sedan-turned-muscle- car. It will sell for about $20,000.

The front-drive Infiniti G20 and rear-drive BMW 318i come in at around $20,000, a bit of a bargain in light of quality, performance and equipment --

which, in the G20's case, includes a nimble, multi-link suspension.

An aside: I recently had a chance to test-drive the G20 and 318i at the Pocono International Raceway near Allentown, Pa. The two cars, which get about 30 mpg on the highway, behaved with aplomb at high speeds and in tight curves. But the G20 just felt better -- lighter, tighter and more fun to drive.

I also took a spin in the 1991 Infiniti Q45, the $35,000-plus flagship of the Infiniti line. Suffice it to say that the rear-drive Q45's new computer-controlled suspension system takes the bumps out of bad roads without undermining ride feel -- that is, without degenerating into the squishy, amorphous ride that characterizes some luxury sport sedans.

That brings us to the 1991 Chevrolet Lumina Z34, the American entry in the painless power league. It's a blue-collar runner with a relatively blue-collar base price, $17,000. The front-drive Z34 is equipped with a 3.4-liter, 24-valve, twin-camshaft, 200-horsepower V-6 and gets an estimated 19 mpg in the city, 30 mpg on the open road.

GM is hoping this bread-and-butter dragster gets a boost from the racing movie "Days of Thunder," which featured Tom Cruise behind the wheel of a Lumina stock car. HOT TOTS

What else can you call these cars? They are small things that use relatively little fuel, but they're hot to trot in the design department, and they're hot rods on the highway.

Those seeming contradictions stem from the pursuit of profit. It costs nearly as much money to make a small car as it does to make a large one, but small cars bring small profits, while big cars bring big bucks. To get people to pay more for small cars, auto makers must sell more than fuel-sipping boredom. They've got to sell sensation, excitement, extraordinary small-car performance and ride.

That is what Saturn Corp., GM's brand-new auto-making subsidiary, is out to do in 1991, its first model year. The company is rolling out four front-wheel-drive Saturn models -- the truly economical SL sedan, the slightly better-outfitted SL1, the upscale SL2 sedan and the pocket-rocket Coupe SC.

All Saturns have rakish, aerodynamic bodies, more akin to race cars than economobiles. The plastic-body cars use a base 1.9-liter, four-cylinder, 85-horsepower engine, an adequate power plant. But the 16-valve, twin-cam, 123-horsepower version of that engine is a first-class zoomer, especially considering that the Saturn cars weigh less than 2,500 pounds.

Saturn fuel economy ranges from 23 to 27 mpg in the city and from 32 to 37 on the highway, with the low-end models getting the best mileage. Base prices will run from $8,000 to $12,000.

The Saturns are aimed at Japanese subcompacts and compacts, which means that GM could wind up shooting itself in the foot. Currently, two of GM's bestsellers in the small-car wars are the Geo Storm from its partnership with Isuzu Motor Co. Ltd. and the Geo Prizm from its partnership with Toyota Motor Corp.

Any way you look at it, though, the Saturns are running into heavy traffic. Toyota, for example, is rolling out its redesigned Tercel subcompact for 1991 -- a rounder, sportier, faster and quieter version of previous models. An upgraded 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine yields 82 horsepower, 5 percent more than the previous model. It's expected to sell for approximately $11,000.

Isuzu is bringing forth its all-new Stylus, a five-passenger sport sedan that will replace the company's aged I-Mark in the U.S. market. The Stylus looks formidable, particularly in its racy XS dress, which comes with a 130-horsepower, 1.6-liter, twin-cam, four-cylinder, 16-valve engine. Stylus prices will range from an estimated $9,000 to $14,000.

Subaru too is serving up an all-new car in the hot-economy category -- the Legacy Sport Sedan. It's equipped with a turbocharged 2.2-liter, four-cylinder, 16-valve, 160-horsepower (yep) engine.

The five-passenger sedan gets 20 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway. The car's prices will run from $13,000 to $20,000, which Subaru's people prefer to call "affordable" instead of "economy."

Ditto Nissan, which is introducing a totally restyled Sentra, available in two-door and four-door body styles. The SE-R version clearly shows where auto makers are going in what was once the entry-level auto segment. The SE-R comes with anti-lock brakes and a two-liter, four-cylinder, 16-valve, 140-horsepower engine. Top speed on its speedometer is 150 miles per hour. Its top price is a bit above $14,000. No wonder they no longer call this an "economy" car.

Even Hyundai, yes, Hyundai, is trying to get into the Hot Tots act. The South Korean auto maker, which soared and nearly crashed in the U.S. market with its Excel and Sonata cars, is coming out this time with the Scoupe, a thing of swooping lines and aerodynamic flair. But the scoop on the the Scoupe is that it shares an 81-horsepower, 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine with the slowpoke Excel. That means the Scoupe's not fast. It's just built to look that way. Scoupe prices range from $8,500 to $10,000.

And then there are the new triplets -- the 1991 Ford Escort, Mercury Tracer and Mazda Protege, which share many of the same body and mechanical parts. Credit this development to a partner- ship between Ford Motor Co. and Mazda Motor Corp.

The Escort and Tracer use a base 90-horsepower, 1.9-liter, four-cylinder engine, and the Protege runs with a multivalve, 1.8-liter, 103-horsepower version. Escort/Tracer buyers wanting the zippier Protege engine can order it.

The triplets get an average 30 mpg and come with price tags ranging from $10,000 to $15,000, which is yet more proof that "entry-level" sure ain't what it used to be.

Whoaaa! Hold on! What's this? The 1991 Dodge Spirit R/T from Chrysler? You gotta be kidding. What happened to that fuddy-duddy, slugmobile compact that was the Spirit of old? This new Spirit R/T is nothing like that. For starters, it's got a 225-horsepower, 2.5-liter, four-cylinder, 16-valve, turbocharged engine. And it's got an air bag and anti-lock brakes and all kinds of other stuff not found on economy cars -- like the price, which starts at $17,800.

On the other hand, Chrysler is trying to provide some relief from entry-level price creep. Maybe it feels guilty over what it's done to the Spirit. For $7,995, Chrysler will sell you a base 1991 Dodge Shadow America or Plymouth Sundance America subcompact, equipped with a standard driver's-side air bag and a nice 2.2-liter, 93-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. Not a bad deal. Chrysler will also sell you new convertible versions of those cars for considerably more.

Ford's Lincoln/Mercury Division will also offer you a new convertible in this category, the Australian-made, front-wheel-drive Capri, from $12,500 to $15,000. But anyone looking at the Capri would do well to look at its chief competitor, Mazda's Miata convertible, which this year carries an anti-lock brake system as standard equipment. MOM-POPS

Welcome to the mommy-daddy track, where more and more people are jumping out of passenger cars and into minivans. Led by the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, which were introduced by Chrysler in the summer of 1983, minivans are fast becoming the vehicles of choice for families nationwide.

Key to the minivans' attractiveness is their abundance of anti-squabble space -- demilitarized zones that allow siblings to plop down their feet or their "stuff" without invading one another's territory and provoking hostilities.

The value of such space will become readily apparent on any cross-country trip involving two or more children.

However, as a group, minivans average about 23 mpg, compared with nearly 28 mpg for cars. And they are a matter of controversy in Washington's regulatory circles. Minivans tend not to be in as many accidents as cars, primarily because they are carefully driven by parents carrying children, according to insurance companies. But, unlike cars, minivans tend not to have side-impact barrier and roof-crush protection devices because of exemptions in current federal laws.

However, Chrysler officials say that their newest minivans have roof-crush protection and offer good protection in side crashes because of their high, rigid floor beams.

Chrysler's minivans hold 55 percent of the U.S. minivan market, by far the largest share. And its much improved 1991 models show the company isn't sitting on its lead.

The new Chrysler minis are prettier inside and out. The Caravan/Voyager's exteriors have been smoothed and rounded, and their interiors have been redesigned to make more sense. For example, in the earlier Chrysler minivans, you had to hunt for cup holders. Now, they're all over the place. The levers and the buttons on the instrument panels are easier and friendlier to use too. Also, there are three-point seat belts for all seven occupants, which is terrific. Before, you got the impression that Chrysler thought some members of your family were more expendable than others.

Four-wheel anti-lock brakes are available on both Chrysler vans, and are recommended. Indeed, it's worth sacrificing other options to get those brakes, which reduce the possibility of losing control in panic stops. Several engines are avail- able -- a 100-horsepower, four-cylinder job and two V-6 models of 141 and 150 horsepower. The 141-horsepower V-6 would meet most family needs.

Base prices on the Chrysler minivans go from $12,000 to $18,000. Those prices are below the costs for Toyota's 1991 Previa minivans, which range from $14,000 to $21,000. But Toyota believes it has the goods to command the cash.

Certainly the new Previas are impressive, with their super-rounded exterior design and space-age, but non-gimmicky, interiors. The Previa vans can seat up to seven people. They are outfitted with a 2.4-liter, 138-horsepower, four-cylinder engine -- which won't take you to the races, but will pull a 3,500-pound trailer. ROCKBUSTERS

Big is in here too. Real big. Like the humongous 1991 Toyota Land Cruiser and the big ol' Silver Anniversary Ford Bronco. Both four-wheel-drive, sport-utility trucks are more than any suburbanite will need on a normal Saturday afternoon, but that's missing the point.

What's important here are power and potential, the ability to haul lots of heavy stuff, should the need arise, or to cross rugged terrain, should the urge hit you.

But you'd better bring along a filling station in either case. The 155-horsepower, straight-six-cylinder Land Cruiser swallows gasoline at the rate of 13 mpg, and the 185-horsepower V-8 Bronco has a big-time drinking problem too -- 14 mpg.

The two-door Bronco has a $17,000 base price, compared with a $21,000 base tag on the four-door Land Cruiser. Toyota and Ford have smaller versions of both bruisers -- the 4-Runner for Toyota, and the Explorer, in two-door and four-door models, for Ford.

The Explorer also will be sold as the Mazda Navajo, but only with two doors. Ford owns 25 percent of Mazda and is doing its Japanese partner a favor by giving it a needed product in the lucrative sport-utility segment.

The difference between the Navajo and Explorer? The Explorer uses lots of light interior touches, some chrome brightwork and occasional strips of fake woodgrain. The Navajo employs blacked-out trim and a more Euro-style interior. Both get 15 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway.

Isuzu, meanwhile, is offering its all-new Rodeo. (What's this with Japanese auto makers and Old West names?) The Rodeo comes in two-wheel- and four-wheel-drive, and looks and feels like a smaller version of the Nissan Pathfinder, for about $6,000 less -- around $14,000 for the Rodeo versus $20,000 for the Pathfinder.

Suzuki also has a Wild West entry in the sport-utility truck sweepstakes, the all-new, four-door 1991 Sidekick. Power steering is standard on this new model. Thank goodness! Previous Sidekicks left you with aching arms after long drives. Also standard on the new Sidekick are rear anti-lock brakes and an AM/FM stereo cassette.

But, hey, lookee here! The new Sidekick, with its 1.6-liter, 80-horsepower, four-cylinder engine, gets 23 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway when linked to a manual transmission; and it costs $11,999.

Hmmmm. How do you say "Yaaahooo!" in Japanese?

Warren Brown covers the auto industry for The Post's Business section.