A SUDDEN BURST of Puritan zeal seized the Senate this week as it contemplated the future of the American automobile.What, wasteful and sinful cars in the United States? Intolerable. Merely to tax them is not enough, for then the rich would drive them, and the automobile might turn into a symbol of conspicuous consumption, violating all of our national traditions and tenets. The Senate decided that there is only one way to deal with the threat: prohibit grossly inefficient cars by law.

As a practical matter, it makes very little difference whether the Senate's prohibition gets enacted. Because of legislation passed two years ago, there are going to be exceedingly few American cars produced in 1980 that will get less than the Senate's minimum of 16 miles to a gallon of gasoline. The Senate was doing a little grandstanding, a harmless form of public amusement. But the Senate vote illustrated a choice that is turning up repeatedly in the energy bills now moving through Congress.

It is the qld quarrel between the regulators and the taxers. Wasting gasoline can be discouraged by laws that try to forbid it. Or it can be permitted at a cost in taxes that rises with the degree of the waste. The House energy bill relies on precisely that kind of a graduated scale of taxes on fat cars. It's a model of good sense. The House's taxes are sufficiently severe that no buyer is going to ignore them. By 1980 the car that got less than 16 miles to a gallon would be hit with a special purchase tax of $333, under the House bill, and two years later that tax would rise to $809.

The House takes the worldly and utterly realistic view that there were always a lot of special situations - and there are always a certain number of people who will perversely try to do the unhelpful thing, such as buying a wasteful car. It is better to let them do it, as long as they are prepared to pay the social cost of it. The Senate's passion for a flat prohibition is going to push the government into new and unexplored depths of the regulatory jungle in return for only the most trivial benefits.

What, for example, constitutes a car? The question gets less obvious when you consider the current fashions in vans, campers and pickup trucks. What about racing cars? What about limousines for Presidents, ambassadors, governors and other grandees? The trouble with regulation is that it puts a premium on artful evasion. The House, in its purposeful way, proposes merely to tax the premium away.

Quite aside from the spiritual perils of PuritanisnM incidentally, the House bill is preferable simply as a matter of tactics. The House's taxes would heavily reinforce the present law that requires the automobile manufacturers to keep steadily improving the average fuel efficiency of their cars. A good many people in the House suspect that the industry may be tempted to indulge in the same kind of heel-dragging on efficiency that it demonstrated on the air-pollution standards.The tax penalties will serve to discourage any slippage on the fuel-efficiency schedules. Certainly the Senate's prohibition on inefficient cars is no substitute for the House's tax. The prohibition will affect too few cars to serve as anything more than an ideological issue and a torment to the regulators.