It's not an easy task to make a sporting proposition out of a family automobile, but Chrysler has done it with its 1996 Chrysler Cirrus sedan.

Winning such automotive recognition as Motor Trend's "Car Of The Year" and Car and Driver's "Ten Best" awards in its first year of production (1995), the '96 Cirrus reaches into new territory.

The four- door is designed to attract younger buyers who have need of a back seat but still want a car that offers some driving excitement.

Base price on the standard LX model is $17,560. On the top-flight LXi, it's $19,630.

"Our sales are pretty well split between the two models," said Kevin O'Brien, president of Tom O'Brien Chrysler-Plmouth-Jeep-Eagle. "The customer base definitely is a younger buyer than, say, with the (Chrysler) Concord."

The 1996 of the Cirrus contains engineering upgrades, such as a revised torque converter on V-6 models for more responsive performance, a third- generation powertrain control module, an on-board diagnostic system for all powertrains, and enhanced evaporative emission controls.

In both versions, the Cirrus can be many things to many people. Not all drivers want to fly low, so there is a variety of personal accouterments that range from premium stereo systems to convenient cup holders. There's also air, power, leather interior, speed control, anti-lock brakes, dual air bags and the like, all of which contribute to the delights of motoring.

If you really want to go, there is an optional sport package for the LXi that offers a stiffer suspension and higher-speed tires. However, you're going to have to go with a four-speed automatic. There is no manual gearbox available.

The Cirrus is a five-seater, carrying two in the front and three in the back. This dictates a center console for the shift quadrant, with climate and stereo control mounted in the middle of the dashboard.

Chrysler has done something really interesting in its engine department by making two motors almost the same size, but available in two different valve-train and cylinder configurations.

The LX has a standard four-cylinder, 2.4-liters (148.2- cubic-inch) engine. The LXi has a standard V-6, 2.5-liters (152.3-cubic-inch) engine. You can swap engines by putting the V-6 in the LX or the four in the LXi, but the six is the engine of preference.

"Even at an extra $800, we sell more sixes than fours," O'Brien said.

With both motors featuring the high-tech four-valves-per-cylinder design, the four utilizes double-overhead cams and puts out 150-horsepower, just a touch above the performance benchmark of 1-horsepower per cubic inch.

The V-6 also has two overhead cams. The valve action is produced by rocker arms, with the engine producing 168-horsepower at a fairly rapid engine speed of 5,800 rpm. That's a good 600 rpm faster than the peak power speed of the four cylinder.