Here's a small Oldsmobile that's worth a second look. The all-new Alero has style, it has content, it has value, and it's going after the big guns in the midsize market - notably Honda Accord.

The only thing it doesn't have is a name. Alero. What's an Alero? Tell people you're driving an Alero, and they'll say, "Huh?"

The marketing people have a big job in front of them.

But for those who know what an Alero is, they'll find the latest Oldsmobile to be a sporty, moderately priced and well-equipped alternative to the mostly mundane conveyances available in this segment.

Alero is the first new car for Oldsmobile, the nation's oldest continuously operated automobile company, as it enters its second century. The compact is also the latest event in Oldsmobile's effort to transform itself from the weak-sister division of General Motors into the stylin' cover girl.

Starting off with the futuristic design of the high-end Aurora sedan, Oldsmobile has been popping off hits, all based loosely on the look of the Aurora, hoping to build a distinctive brand image.

The midsize Intrigue (now that's a name) has been a solid success for Olds, especially this year, when it gets its new, more refined V-6 engine. The Alero keeps the old mill, a 3.4-liter power plant, but it's a good engine with decent performance and proven reliability. It is boomy under acceleration, but what it lacks in sophistication it makes up for in gusto.

Alero shares its basic body structure and architecture with the Pontiac Grand Am, aimed at a younger audience. Yes, Grand Am has the stronger name. But Alero has the better setup.

Matter of fact, Alero has a better ride, more responsive steering, and a nicer interior. The only area in which Grand Am outshines Alero is its sportier image, which most assuredly will attract the greater number of buyers.

In designing the Alero, Oldsmobile folk say, the division's management compelled all the designers, engineers and marketing people to drive an ever-changing collection of imported cars, in a kind of "know the enemy" approach to product planning.

The chassis tuning and interior design are a result of this cultural revolution, which Oldsmobile hopes will steal those pesky import buyers away from their foreign cars.

If nothing else, the Alero demonstrates how much car you can get for about $20,000. The size is considered compact, but it's hardly tiny. And fully equipped with a boatload of performance and convenience options, Alero still comes in several thousands under most of its competitors, such as the ever-popular Accord.

On the road, the Alero feels tight and solid, without any notion of tinniness or cheapness. Handling is good, if not real exciting, and the rack-and-pinion steering provides good response. Acceleration is hardly dazzling, but it will scoot ahead of the pack and perform such chores as highway cruising and hill climbing with minimal effort.

The standard engine is a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine, which puts out 149 horsepower and enough oomph for most purposes.

The four-speed automatic is a particularly nice-shifting slush box, which is a good thing, because no stick shift is available, even with the four. Anti-lock, four-wheel disc brakes and a traction-control system are standard.

The Alero's styling is clean, with strong hints of the streamlined Aurora in the sloping front end. Though it shares its basic shape with Grand Am, it is nowhere near as flamboyant, its subtle lines blending in with traffic. It does look good in the driveway, though, especially the black sedan we tested.

The standard GL interior is comfortable and fairly roomy, with a usable back seat and a good-size trunk. There's a sportier two-door coupe Alero, which has a bit more panache, though it's a less-practical configuration for families.

Alero, which replaces thelackluster Achieva (another ho-hum handle), could build a name for itself as a sporty c ompact that offer s a lot for a little. Which could help boost Oldsmobile's fortunes as it tries to build a new image for itself.

1999 Oldsmobile Alero

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive. Base price $18,220. Price as tested: $20,895. Engine: 3.4-liter V-6, 170 horsepower at 5,600 rpm, 200 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Curb weight: 3,077 pounds. Wheelbase: 107 inches. EPA fuel economy: 20 mpg city, 28 mpg highway. Highs: Good standard features. Moderate price. Nice styling. Lows: Vague image. Engine boom. Weird name.