The Pontiac Bonneville SSE is a compromise car-a vehicle for those who need the roominess and comfort of a four-door sedan but who want the ride, handling and performance of something sporty.

For years the family with a small child or two suffered in a station wagon until the kids reached puberty, when mom and dad could get into a civilized machine sans potty chair.

In recent years, many of those families have turned to mini-vans, but despite their styling appeal, off-the-line power and around-the-corner performance just aren`t there.

The front-wheel-drive SSE solves the problem. It`s one of the best cars on the market. Credit Michael Losh, Pontiac general manager, for taking a staid, nearly invisible Bonneville and transforming it into an eye catching, heart-throbbing sports sedan.

Rather than use mirrors, the SSE uses lots of plastic for the deck lid spoiler, rockers and wheel well extensions and front air dam. The body-colored grille with gold Pontiac emblem adds just the right touch.

Looking sporty is one thing; acting like it is the trick. With the SSE, the 3.8-liter, 165 horsepower V-6 teamed with 4-speed automatic transmission packs plenty of punch. Antilock brakes are standard, to bring everything under control if and when needed. The EPA rating is 19 miles per gallon city, 29 highway.

Ride and handling are a cut above average. The tires grip the road and the body stays in place when taking a tight corner or curve, even at speed. The power steering takes very little input from the driver to direct the car where you want to go, and the thick steering wheel gives a feeling of control. For 1990, Pontiac says there will be a few suspension changes to improve ride and handling and to provide even quieter operation than motorist snow enjoy. It`s difficult to imagine it can get any better than this.

If there is a drawback, it`s the electronic sophistication of the car, which suggests that Pontiac`s biggest parts supplier must be Silicon Valley. For good measure, radio and temperature controls are housed both in the steering wheel hub and the instrument panel. The maze of buttons is a bit overwhelming.

The SSE features no fewer than 39 buttons for the radio and 9 for the temperature controls, most of them in the steering wheel hub. We had to hit the horn quickly when a careless motorist decided to back up when the light changed from red to green. Instead of honking, we ended up changing from AM to FM.

If Pontiac leaves both radio and temperature control buttons in the steering wheel hub, it should use one color for radio, another for temperature. Now they all are gray. By the time you pause, glance and focus before reaching for the right button, you could end up in a fellow motorist`s trunk.

The dash also sports a compass. The American way is to stash a map in the glove box and have a member of the family decipher it while traveli ng at 70 miles an hour along a desolate road. The yelling and screaming at the navigator who can`t read the map passes the time while you`re lost. The compass takes away much of this joy of travel.

One other annoyance is that the Pontiac folks insist the car have so- called European flair, which means putting head rests the size of suitcases on the seat backs, which interferes with rear vision. Perhaps that`s why they put the compass in the dash.

If Pontiac is hell-bent on stuffing the dash with goodies, how about borrowing an idea from Chrysler and putting a dual slide-out cupholder in the dash? It could be removed from the center console, where it now sits back a bit too far to use comfortably.

There are lots of added gadgets in the SSE, such as an air inflator in the trunk; head lamp washers; body-colored mirrors, door handles and window trim; and dual electrical connectors in the console to plug in a portable phone and/or a radar detector.

Standard equipment also includes power brakes and steering, power seats, windows and door locks, and Goodyear Eagle GT Plus 4 all-season radials. About the only options are sunroof, theft deterrent, leather seats and compact disc player.

Base price is $22,879, with freight an extra $505.

>> 1989 Pontiac Bonneville SSE Wheelbase 110.9 inches Length: 198.7 inches Engine: 3.8 liter, 165 h.p. V-6 Transmission: 4-speed automatic Fuel economy: 18/28 m.p.g. Base price: $22,899 Strong point: Family sedan behaves like sports coupe Weak point: Bevy of buttons >>