Rep. Cecil Heftel (D-Hawaii), who was seriously injured when his car hit a tree two years ago near the Lincoln Memorial, sued General Motors yesterday for $5 million, claiming the company was liable for his injuries because the car was not equipped with air bags or other passive restraints. The suit, filed here in U.S. District Court, also says the brakes in the car were defective.

Heftel, now 60, was driving a 1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, part of GM's family of A-cars, when the accident occurred on a rainy Sunday afternoon in May 1983.

According to the suit, the car was leased by Pohanka Leasing, of Marlow Heights, to "Friends of Cec Heftel," an "unincorporated association formed for the purpose, among other things, of leasing automobiles for use" by Heftel.

Yesterday John Hartnett, a spokesman for General Motors, said company officials had not yet seen the lawsuit, but he added, "We are going to defend it vigorously."

Heftel could not be reached for comment.

The suit says that, as a result of the accident, Heftel suffers from "permanent" physical injuries and pain and suffering.

According to press accounts in 1983, an aide to the congressman said Heftel was driving on a wet street when a car cut in front of him; Heftel slammed on his brakes and swerved, crashing into a tree.

The suit says that Heftel applied the brakes "without effect." It adds that GM also was liable because it "failed to equip the auto with passive seat or passenger restraints . . . which would have protected [Heftel] from all or substantially all the injuries" he suffered.

Auto makers must begin equipping cars with air bags, automatic seat belts or other passive restraints in 1987.

The newspaper accounts in 1983 said Heftel broke his left hip, right wrist, right ankle and nose in the accident and cut his tongue. The suit says he had to undergo "repeated surgery, and long-term hospitalization [and] physical therapy."

Pohanka Leasing and its parent company, Pohanka Oldsmobile, also are named as defendants in the suit.