Entry level. It can be a job in the mail room, well whiskey or a polyester dinner jacket. On the other hand, there are small condominiums in East Beverly Hills, diamond chip earrings and a Rolls-Royce for a frugal $140,000 that clearly qualify as starter sets.

Place BMW's new 318is in the latter category.

It is a quality primer to the big buck adventure and a product made affordable by gentle defrilling more than drastic stripping.

It is inexpensive, not cheap.

And this beginner Beamer also represents an entry level of design, engineering, material and performance that actually is superior to the middle drawer of many other marques.

Less luxury for a reduced sticker shock, of course, is the mode of today's five-star motoring.

There is a little Lexus and a mini Infiniti. Jaguar has introduced an XJ6 with a sticker of $39,700. Mercedes, Range Rover and even Bentley are making moderate models to catch young buyers, who, the marketing logic goes, will evolve into a senior and more expansive clientele.

"We know that the market (for cars) between $20,000 and $25,000 is very important," said Christoph Huss, products manager for BMW of North AmericaInc. of Woodcliff Lake, N.J.

But thanks to a dwindling dollar and rising costs, he explained, BMW's base car, the 325i introduced five years ago, had become a $24,650 proposition. "And that price. . . is too high for the first-time BMW customer."

Yet the six-cylinder 325 couldn't be made for less. The obvious answer was to build a more attainable BMW that wasn't quite so much of a good thing.

"The new 318is comes with aluminum wheels, an anti-lock braking system, air bag, a 16-valve engine, sport seats . . . and this is not a stripped car by any means," Huss continued.

Indeed, no. It also arrives with power steering, power windows, electric mirrors and central locking as standard equipment.

"But we've lowered the cost by going to a four-cylinder engine, less expensive tires, less equipment in the stereo system, no automatic and less noise reduction," he added.

Leather upholstery, electric sun roof, heated seats, a CD player, a telephone and a ski sack are not available as options. "So one dollar by one dollar, the cost comes down."

And down it has come until a paid-up membership in the tasteful, somewhat exclusive BMW club has been reduced to $21,500--with a four-door and less sporty 318i down to only $19,900. That's far less than Acura Legend, Audi Quattro, Mercedes 190, Taurus SHO and other purposeful coupes.

BMW's only task now is to persuade buyers that this 318i is a considerable improvement on that 318i that came and went in the early '80s. The 1983 version was very much to BMW what the 912 and 924 were to Porsche--underpowered pretenders that offended purists and achieved little beyond thinning the bloodline.

Burying this past, however, shouldn't be too difficult.

BMW is off to a fast start with promotional literature that virtually ignores the old blot while billing the new 318i as "a lineal descendant of the car that first put BMW on the map for American enthusiasts: the unforgettable 2002 of 1968."

Seeing and driving the new car will scatter remaining doubts. This is indeed a better Beamer. And although the 318is doesn't offer quite the pep and mischief (to say nothing of the gentle warmth of remembering first loves) of the 2002, it certainly has earned the right to wear BMW's blue-and-white roundel.

Apart from the numbers on the rear deck, the exterior of the 318is is virtually indistinguishable from the more powerful and more expensive 325is. Even to dealers' eyes.

All the classicism is there in the car's cross-spoke alloy wheels, body-color mirrors and a matte black belt line accenting the pleasantly softened boxiness that is as much a BMW trademark as the double kidney grille. It is tradi ional styling that barely changes between generations. But when it does, the movement is perfect.

The only discord with the 318is (as indeed with the 325is) is in the front air dam. It drops beneath the lower line of the car, and, in profile, seems to hang down and flap like King Tut's beard.

BMW's heftiest economy, of course, was earned in the engine bay where the 325's 2.5 liter, 168 horsepower, six-cylinder engine was replaced by a 1.8 liter four-banger.

It is smaller and thriftier. Yet it also is a multivalve engine with a bore identical to BMW's bigger engines--and producing 134 horsepower.

That will earn the car no medals for on-ramp drag racing. From dead stop, a Buick Reatta and a Honda Accord are quicker to 60 m.p.h. At the top end, a Toyota Cressida and even the Cadillac Allante are a little faster. Mid-range acceleration of the 318s is well up to the response and pace expected of contemporary performance sedans--but only exhilarating when hitting just the right gear at the most productive point of the power curve.

It is the BMW's handling, however, that has always separated the mundane from the Bavarian.

It is neither stiff nor sloppy. The car doesn't exactly roll or flatten down in an interesting corner either. Yet whether turning in or steering out, coasting along or thundering through a corner, the machine is just so darned reliable, consistent and agreeable. Like an old friend.

The nickel betting window is now open.

The only gear shift smoother than that on a 318is is one that isn't connected to a gear box t all. Spacing of the gears is about as perfect as a hand-stitched buttonhole. The car's disc brakes--evaluated through pedal effort, control, and introduction of the anti-lock system--feel as though all their components were supplied by the highest bidder.

Wanna bet?

The interior of the car is a high combination of purpose, comfort and style typical of theTeutons. Ready to serve. Safe coloring. Everything where it should be. More visibility than a wide-angle lens.

Also, a pair of sport seats with gentle kidney cuddlers, perfect adjustment permutations and even a bar for reducing the lower thigh tensions of long-distance touring.

If such seats could be adapted into chairs for residential use, 75 million Americans would have more peaceful sacroiliacs.

This is a pleasant, very agreeable car. It is far from dramatic and there are faster, more comfortable, higher value and better-equipped BMWs.

Ergo, the 318is is no ultimate driving machine.

Except among entry levelers and the level-headed.

1991 BMW 318is

The Good Low price with no quality loss. Upmarket options as standard equipment. Thoroughbred handling. Gearbox a world champion smoothie.

The Bad Slow from rest. Performance only when squeezed.

The Ugly Air dam lower than Dick Tracy 's chin.

Cost Base, as tested $21,500 (includes alloy wheels, air bag, anti-lock braking system, electric mirrors and central locking, power steering and air conditioning.

Engine 1.8 liter, four-cylinder, 16-valve engine developing 134 horsepower.

Type Five-passenger, two-door coupe, front engine and rear-wheel drive.

Performance 0-60 (as tested) 10.1 seconds. Estimated top speed, 122 m.p.h. Fuel economy, EPA city/highway, 22 to 27 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 2,602 pounds.