Promotional gushing over the 1995 Plymouth/Dodge Neon isn't much ado about a nothing automobile. But it is certainly a lot of hype about something not too extraordinary.

During the Super Bowland Winter Olympics, the breezy new subcompact starred in more television commercials than the Coca-Cola polar bears--although the benign lines and looks of Neon aren't as cuddly.

Automobile magazine fell prey prematurely to the adulation when it named Neon its 1994 Car of the Year. That was several months before the vehicle went on sale--and before Chrysler made a liar out of the magazine by advancing the car's maiden model year to 1995.

With an $8,975 sticker for the starter kit--which includes the bonus of double air bags as standard equipment--Neon has been touted as the biggest bargain since Manhattan. Yet that's without basic add-ons. Just automatic transmission and air conditioning will bump the price of a basic Neon to $11,000.

Our test vehicle was a mid-range Neon Highline--Base is the beginner car and Sport the top of a three-model lineup--with bare necessities, crank windows, a remote trunk lid that didn't work, chintzy cloth seats and a five-speed manual. Its starting sticker: $10,690.

A $1,851 package bought air conditioning, power locks and mirrors, and less consequential goodies. Anti-lock brakes and cruise control added $789 to the bill. Less $599 for something called a Dodge Discount--for a virgin car, that's a sales gimmick clumsier than a Fire Clearance Sale sans fire--and the final cost was $13,333. Or competitive with others in the small-car field.

Last month, 1,300 initial Neons were recalled when condensation threatened the engine management system. That came two weeks after a recall for a faulty seal on cars equipped with anti-lock brakes.

Tiny problems, and neither threatened the safety of vehicle nor occupants. Nobody cried "Pinto." And both recalls were enacted by Chrysler as precautionary moves.

Still, a recall is a recall and a messy business building buyer heartburn and media speculation that maybe Neon isn't the car to replace Saturn as the darling of America's economy-car motorists.

Strangely, where the capable Neon really glows has been only marginally advertised. The engine for all models is a 2.0-liter, 132-horsepower firecracker more powerful than anything from Ford, Toyota, Mazda, Subaru, Mitsubishi and others in the subcompact business.

It will dissolve even the most stubborn belief that subcompacts are underpowered, underbuilt and usually under GM.

And the marriage of Neon's responsive, gutsy four-banger with manual or automatic transmissions, multi-link suspension and stiffer chassis sets a new standard of engineering and assembly.

The cab-forward design--pushing wheels into the corners of a vehicle to increase interior space--that Chrysler has used effectively on its New Yorker and Vision-Concord e-Intrepid series, transforms Neon into a subcompact with compact room.

This also is the most economical economy car since the days when that meant driving something with three wheels. Fuel consumption is between 15% and 20% better than Plymouth Colt, Subaru Impreza and Ford Escort. Even several sips better than Saturn.

Neon gets 29 m.p.g. in town and a genuine 38 m.p.g. on the highway. That drops the petrol bill for the typical Angeleno's average daily commute of 20 miles to about 75 cents.

So in fine focus, hacking through all the hyperbole, see Neon as a spirited, capable car with a large amount of living room on a relatively long wheelbase only two inches shorter than Ford Taurus. It also is thoughtfully designed transportation that offers optimums of comfort, performance, safety and a modicum of stylishness for minimums of price and monthly maintenance.

That makes Neon just about the perfect vehicle for errant offspring, fleet purchasers, fi st-time buyers, two-car families and anyone sweltering beneath three mortgages.

Despite subtleties hallmarking the cab-forward silhouette--a higher, rounded rear passenger compartment and sharply raked windshield--Neon's looks are uninspired. The trunk is squared off, the front end shaved low, and that's uncomfortably close to Hyundai's Elantra, even the Korean-built Kia Sephia that's almost ready for market and slowly slithering into our sights.

For the consumer challenge, for the investment in its new positivism, Chrysler could have tried a little harder with a touch of chrome or a little less body-colored molding. And the choice of wheel covers, all grapefruit bulges with color-contrasting inserts by Fisher-Price toys, is a touch that reduces inexpensive and acceptable to cheap and nasty.

So do the plastic decals front and back for the Dodge, Plymouth and Neon logos. How much would chrome badges cost wholesale? Eight bits apiece?

The Neon Sport--with its visually lightening touches of fog lights, vaned wheels and contrasting molding--is much closer to ideal. But that will require a $14,000 visit to your credit union.

Neon's interior has comfortable, supportive bucket seats and plenty of head, leg, hip and wriggling room front and back. The upholstery, however, is ghastly. Ours was gray with pink and green flecks, like sprinkles on a Christmas cookie.

The back seat cushions are twin inserts folding down and flat for full or partial access to the trunk. They also form a temporary, fuzzy, level surface for whatever needs occur in a back seat. Such as changing baby's diaper or spreading out your FEMA forms.

Instruments are basic--from left: temperature, fuel, speedometer, tachometer--clustered in a single cowl. All controls are visible and reachable. During the day. At night, telling air direction and temperature knobs apart is impossible.

We also tried figuring out why one fan switch turns in opposing directions for hot or cold. We gave up on the seventh day. And fitting the key into the ignition is a constant fumble and wince.

Life and soul of this rascal, however, is performance. The lusty, bantam-weight engine--soon to be puffed into a 150-horsepower version and dropped into the Neon Sport--does everything well: accelerate, run hard with the wind, and do either with a growling rumble that once more spits in the eye of the subcompact genre.

The manual shift was superb with just enough grab for feeling gears, yet smooth enough for swift changes. Steering did exactly as it was told, stayed there, and brought the front-driving wheels back in line the second it was time.

All of this is the true joy and advance of Neon.

Who thought the world would ever attach such attributes and accolades to an economy car, and an American car at that? Let alone a Chrysler.

1995 Plymouth/Dodge Neon Highline

The Good Fun driver with lusty little engine. From here to Phoenix on $15 worth of unleaded. Triumph for Chrysler, challenge to domestic industry. Two air bags.

The Bad Caveat sticker tease. Needs greater attention to styling details.

The Ugly Roger Rabbit wheel covers.

Cost Base: $10,690. As tested, $13,333. (Includes driver and passenger air bags, optional air conditioning, power locks, tilt steering wheel, light package and cruise control, minus $599 Dodge Discount.)

Engine 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine developing 132 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, front-drive, four-seat subcompact sedan.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 9.6 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 120 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA, 29 m.p.g. city, 38 m.p.g. highway.

Curb Weight 2,320 pounds.