The Geo Prizm is more than just an attractive little sedan at a decent price.

It's actually a pretty good deal.

What you get with the Prizm, which you buy at the local Chevy dealer, is a car with a strong reputation for reliability, durability and longevity.

That's simply because the Prizm is a mechanical clone of the highly regarded Toyota Corolla, built side by side by General Motors and Toyota at their joint-venture plant in Fremont, Calif.

It's even slightly cheaper than the Corolla, with a well-equipped model available in the $15,000 range. Even our fully loaded version didn't reach $18,000.

In our scary world of sticker-shock victims saving up for their next car payments, the Prizm at least gives you something of value. It consistently rates excellent grades in reliability surveys and, like its Toyota twin, should provide plenty of years of hassle-free transportation.

The Prizm doesn't rate as high on the excitement scale, with fairly generic jelly-bean styling and a competent-but-not-real-thrilling driving attitude.

The Prizm has decent outside dimensions for a small family conveyance and manages a roomy interior for four - five in a pinch - with a voluminous trunk.

The interior in the upscale LSi is very fine, well-finished and properly designed, with supportive seats covered in a high-quality fabric. This car was loaded up with options including power windows, locks, mirrors, steering, etc. The dashboard is handsome for this class of vehicle, with a complete set of no-nonsense gauges, including an optional tachometer and simple, straightforward controls.

And, of utmost importance, the upgraded stereo can rattle your fillings.

Two engines are available for the Prizm, a base 1.6-liter four that delivers 105 horsepower and a 1.8-liter upgrade that also delivers 105 horsepower. Once you're done scratching your head, I'll explain.

Ready? It's the torque, stupid. The difference in muscle quotient may not seem that big a deal either - 100 pound-feet vs. 117 - until you see that the 1.8 engine hits its stride at a very low 2,800 rpm, compared with 4,800 rpm, making the 1.8 feel stronger and easier to drive at the low engine speeds used in everyday driving.

Our test car was equipped with the 1.8, and although it didn't act a drag racer, neither did it feel like a slug. Equipped with the five-speed stick shift, this engine shines in urban settings and provides smooth, quiet cruising at highway speeds.

This would also be an appropriate choice with automatic transmission, which would benefit from the extra low-speed torque.

Actually, the whole car is exceptionally quiet at highway speeds, thanks to some extra sound insulation and good chassis engineering. This is a great little car for a long trip, providing low-stress driving comparable with bigger, more expensive vehicles.

Cornering is stable, accompanied by moderate body sway, and the steering is fairly quick, though numb to t he touch. Very driveableall around, but lacking the edge of a sports sedan.

Anti-lock brakes are a $600 option, which seems shoddy especially since General Motors has been a pioneer in putting anti-lock systems as standard equipment on inexpensive cars, such as the Chevrolet Cavalier.

One advantage the Corolla has over the Prizm is its availability as a station wagon, which is a significant space advantage in this size and price range. The Ford Escort and Saturn have wagon versions, both nice cars.

Actually, this small-car segment is where I've seen the most improvement over the past couple years.

It's nice to know that the automakers have deemed it favorable to endow this range of cars with the same care and attention to detail they give their more profitable up-market vehicles.

1997 Geo Prizm

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel-drive. Base price: $13,145. Price as tested: $17,397. Engine: 1.8-liter inline four,105 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, 117 pound-feet of torque at 2,800 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed stick shift. Curb weight: 2,370 pounds. Length: 173 inches. Wheelbase: 97.1 inches. Safety features: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes. EPA fuel economy: 29 mpg city, 34 mpg highway.