Bigger is better may by something of a byword at the Ford Motor Co., but not always.

Sometimes smaller is better, as with Ford's new subcompact, the Aspire.

In addition to having a catchy name, and being the replacement for the Ford Festiva, the 1994 Aspire takes the subcompact-automobile concept several steps further and offers a small car with big-car aspirations.

Far from being an econobox that offers basic transportation and little else, the Aspire comes to market with standard air bags, optional anti-lock brakes and an automatic transmission, as well as optional comfort and convenience features found in larger automobiles.

On balance, there is much to be said for thinking small, if you are in the market for this type of motor car. The Aspire obviously doesn't match the performance characteristics of a big V-8, but then neither does its entry-level price of $8,240.

The overall objective of Ford's three-door and five-door Korean-built subcompact is to improve roominess, comfort, safety and durability, and to maximize fuel efficiency. This latter item is of primary importance to small-car buyers, and the Aspire achieves its goal through a host of engineering improvements over those offered by the Festiva.

The Aspire's 1.3-liter, single-overhead-cam engine is more efficient. Larger tires on 13-inch wheels offer 20 percent lower rolling resistance. The co-efficient of drag has been reduced to 0.36 from the Festiva's 0.39. And with a three-speed automatic transmission, a set of six small centrifugal clutches gradually lock up the torque converter at higher engine speeds to eliminate slippage.

Of course, the manual five-speed offers better fuel mileage. The manual gearbox gives 36 miles per gallon city cycle, and 43 on the highway. With such a small engine, mileage drops considerably using the automatic, to 29 mpg city/34 mpg highway.

The Aspire's 80.6-cubic-inch (1,322-cubic-centimeter) in-line 4 is a nice little powerplant. It's pretty basic in design, what with its single-cam, aluminum alloy head, cast-iron block, and two valves per cylinder. But it has sports sequential electronic fuel injection and new roller-type hydraulic valve lash adjusters to produce 64 horsepower.

It goes without saying that with 64 horses in hand the Aspire is no barn-burner off the line. Torque steer through the front-driving wheels isn't going to be a problem.

The projected acceleration time for 0-60 miles per hour with a five-speed is 13 seconds flat. In automatic form, it's 16.8 seconds, but Ford states that still is one second better than top competitors in the subcompact class.

As little cars go, the Aspire is little. However, the five-door is a bit larger than the three-door.

Wheelbase on the five-door is 93.7 inches. That's 3.2 inches more than that of the three-door. The added wheelbase length translates into a longer overall length for the five-door, 155.9 inches versus 152.8 for the three-door.

All other dimensions for the two models are identical.

At 2,053 pounds, the larger Aspire has a weight advantage of 49 pounds.

I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It's tough to make a short, small automobile look sleek, and the stylists of the Aspire either did or didn't depending upon whose views are being profferred.

In order to achieve a modern, integrated appearance, the body lines, glass and headlamps are given a rounded look. The rear end is a little chopped off, but then you run out of room rather quickly with but 150-plus inches.

The interior is tastefully done. It features a wrap-around instrument panel that merges into the doors. The full-length center console has provisions for dual cup holders. And the front passenger seat on the three-door model incorporates a seat-back memory feature. The memory automatically returns the seat-back to its original position after it has been folded forward to give access to the rear seat.

If the rear seats on the three-door model are not in use, t hey can be flipped and folded forward for extra cargo space.

This Aspire enhances Ford's subcompact marketing position with a worthy successor to the Festiva. And with it the company reinforces its commitment to small-car buyers.

1994 Ford Aspire Base price: $8,240.Type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, four-passenger, subcompact, three- door sedan.Engine: in-line 4, 1.3 liters, eight valves, fuel injected, 64 horsepower, 74 foot-pounds of torque.Transmission: five-speed manual.Acceleration: 0-60 mph in 13 seconds.Mileage: 36 mpg city/43 mpg highway.Wheelbase: 90.7 inches.Length: 152.8 inches.Width: 65.7 inches.Height: 55.6 inches.Curb weight: 2,004 pounds.Options: air conditioning, premium audio systems, automatic transmission, anti-lock brakes, rear defroster, fog lamps, trunk lamp.