Why a Camry coupe when for $7,000 less you can get a Pontiac Grand Am sedan?

Grand Am has been a consumer darling since it first appeared in the 1985 model year. Exceptional styling, above-average performance yet excellent mileage, and a price that doesn't put the new grad or the newlywed in debt until their retirement years.

Grand Am lacked one feature. It was penalized by GM's insistence that consumers wanted anti-lock brakes more than they wanted an air bag. The insistence was based on the fact GM makes its own ABS, but has to buy air bags from outside suppliers. So GM was guided by profitability rather than practicality.

For 1994, the bean counters have been overruled and a driver-side air bag is standard in all Grand Ams, along with anti-lock brakes. No passenger-side air bag as yet, but at least GM is halfway home in offering what consumers want and not just what GM wants to give them.

We test drove the 1994 Grand Am SE sedan. The Grand Am growled when the accelerator was given a kick in comparison to the whisper-quiet Camry coupe. Ironic that a decade ago coupes growled and sedans purred.

The Camry sports coupe is covered in a plain wrapper, the Grand Am sports sedan features stylish louvers in the plastic body cladding along the doors and in the body-colored bumpers. A pair of fog lamps peek out from either side of the front air dam.

The performance edge, in terms of off-the-line power, goes to the Camry coupe's 188-h.p., 3-liter, V-6 versus the 155-h.p., 3.1-liter, V-6 in the Grand Am sedan. In fact, some of the growl at initial acceleration is sound effects to make you think the Grand Am is stepping out more quickly than it is.

Still, despite a more than respectable efficient 20 m.p.g. city/29 m.p.g. highway rating with four-speed automatic, the 3.1, V-6 is no slouch. If your idea of performance is to grip the wheel at the 11 a.m./1 p.m. position until the knuckles turn white and set the cruise control at 45 m.p.h. as you travel the length of the Edens Expressway, the Grand Am is out of your league. And please stay off the Edens.

The suspension is firm without being stiff or harsh. There's minimum body sway or lean and very little jostling over bumps. Grand Am sits flat in maneuvers and allows you to accelerate when entering or exiting those bends in the road rather than having to back off the pedal and wait for the pavement to straighten. The 16-inch radials contribute to road-hugging ability.

Camry has dual bags as standard, Grand Am but one. But Camry adds $950 for ABS, Grand Am includes it as standard.

The interior is as stylish as the exterior. All controls are easy to see and use. Noteworthy small items include a cupholder/ashtray in the center console (if you don't smoke, it's a cupholder, if you do smoke you'll have to settle for two cupholders in the glove box door); coinholders in the center console; an overhead console to hold garage door opener or glasses; and a cassette holder under the center armrest.

The Grand Am features power door locks that automatically lock when you put the gear shift lever in "D" and then unlock only after you put the lever back into "P" and turn off the key. Until the key is turned off, you can only unlock the doors manually.

If we could change some items, we would enlarge the sideview mirrors to help eliminate blind spots; extend bucket seat bottoms for more thigh support; and slim down the door armrests that eat into arm/thigh room.

Base price of the front-wheel-drive SE sedan we tested was $12,614. Standard equipment included power brakes and steering, stainless steel exhaust, double-sided galvanized steel body panels (except roof), tinted glass, power door locks, dual visor vanity mirrors, AM/FM stereo with clock, floor mats and remote fuel/tr nk releases.

Options included a $1,575 package consisting of air conditioning, tilt steering, intermittent wipers, cruise control, rear window defogger, and radio upgrade to include cassette. The 3.1-liter, V-6 runs $410, the four-speed automatic $755, the 16-inch tires and cast aluminum wheels $523, and sport gauges $111. With a $485 freight charge, the sticker came to $16,813.

Grand Am is a peformance car for the small family before the tykes grow-or multiply-and you have to move into a larger Grand Prix or Bonneville sedan.

The Grand Am SE is the car to check out when you want to look like a million without spending one.