The Mazda MX-6 is a Japanese car, right?

Not quite.

The two-door MX-6 and its cousin, the 626 sedan, are built at Mazda's Flat Rock, Mich., assembly plant. They are the first American-made autos from a foreign automaker to be considered domestic cars.

I know what you're thinking. Honda builds Accords in Ohio, Toyota builds cars in Kentucky and Nissan builds trucks in Tennessee.

That's true, but none of the vehicles from those factories is considered domestic because most of their parts are manufactured overseas and shipped here to be assembled.

The government considers a vehicle to be domestic if more than 75 percent of its parts are made in the United States.

So if you've decided you want to buy American, don't cross the Mazda MX-6 or 626 off your list.

There's another reason why you might want to consider the MX-6 over a Honda Accord, Chevrolet Lumina Z34 or several other sports coupes: The MX-6 is stylish and it has character.

PERFORMANCE

The base MX-6 comes standard with a 16-valve double overhead cam four-cylinder engine that develops 118-horsepower.

The test car, an LS model, was equipped with Mazda's 24-valve 164-horsepower 2.5-liter V-6 - an absolute jewel of an engine - and a five-speed manual transmission.

Either engine can be ordered with a computer-controlled four-speed automatic.

While the MX-6 doesn't offer tire-spinning performance, it does have ample muscle, and if need be, can offer plenty of hustle. With 164-horses underfoot, there's more than enough power to accelerate briskly once the engine is wound up to about 3,500 or so rpm.

One thing that I like about Mazda's V-6 is that it always started right away.

One mechanical gripe, though: The clutch pedal in the test car had too much free-play in it. There were several inches of travel at the top of the pedal before the clutch engaged.

HANDLING

On this, the second-generation of the MX-6, Mazdastuck with the same type of suspension - four-wheel independent - used in the previous MX-6.

But there is a difference on the new car. Mazda engineers redesigned every piece of the new MX-6's suspension system. Their goal: to achieve ''confidence-inspiring handling with a firm, yet supple ride quality,'' according to Mazda spokesman Fred Aikins.

For the most part, that mission has been accomplished.

The MX-6 can corner with the best cars in its class. It seems to be at ease no matter how you wish to drive. The power-assisted rack and pinion steering is tight. It takes just 3.1 turns of the wheel to go from lock to lock.

Braking is an area where the MX-6 didn't stop me in my tracks. The four-wheel disc brakes didn't come with an anti-lock system. ABS is optional but shouldn't be on a $20,000 car because many other manufacturers make it standard equipment on less expensive cars.

For some reason Mazda plays games with ABS, a popular safety option. On the Miata sports car, you can get ABS only if you order several other options, bumping up the price about $2,000.

Also, even though the MX-6 test car had disc brakes front and rear, they weren't outstanding. They were OK until I drove the car in the rain. On wet roads, a panic stop will cause the front wheels to lock-up.

FIT AND FINISH

The MX-6 gets high marks for a stylish interior that borrows some of its cues from a classic Ford Thunderbird.

Way back in the mid-'60s the Thunderbird convertible came with a fiberglass tonneau cover that extended from the trunk lid and sloped gently up to the rear edges of the bucket seats. It gave the car an aerodynamic look.

Mazda stylists seemed to borrow this treatment for the rear seats of the MX-6. The area behind and between the rear seats is shaped close to that of the old T-Bird. It's a nice touch that shows a good styling idea can be modernized.

The rear seats in the test car are not just comfortable; theyco dle you. Two average-sized passengers are likely to find adequate foot, head and leg room. The power front seats seem to borrow from BMW in style and firmness.

For the most part the one-piece dash is arranged logically. The radio and air-conditioning controls are easily operated. Cruise control, lights and wipers are operated by switches on the steering column.

However, switches for the fog lights and rear window defroster and the main switch for cruise control are buried behind the steering wheel and are not easy to reach.

Another minor oversight is the door-mounted window switches. They are not lighted, so your fingers fumble around in the dark.

The test car was disappointing in the way it was assembled. The door glass rattled when the doors were closed with the windows down. The light in the glove box came on whenever the headlights were turned on. I traced the problem to the misaligned glove box door.

Visibility is excellent in the front and rear. A driver's side air bag is standard. The test car's deep red paint sported a rich luster and looked particularly nice with the car's alloy wheels.

Truett's tip: The MX-6 is a car that you like immediately. It's smooth, quiet, well-built and comfortable.