In 1995 officials at Chrysler hatched a plan to save the struggling Plymouth division: With Neon, Breeze and Voyager, Plymouth would cater to first-time buyers on a tight budget by offering entry-level vehicles that are lesser equipped and lower priced than similar ones sold by the Dodge division.

The strategy was nothing new. Walter P. Chrysler founded the Plymouth nameplate in 1928 and entered the low-price market to compete with Ford, Chevrolet and several other automakers that are now defunct.

The 1997 Plymouth Breeze I drove nearly 1,000 miles is true to Walter P.'s original vision for the brand.

The Breeze is based on the Dodge Cirrus and Chrysler Stratus, but you'll find no V-6 engines, leather interiors or sports-tuned suspension systems on the Breeze's options list. The compact comes well-equipped but sells for much less than what you would pay for a similar-sized import with the same equipment.

PERFORMANCE, HANDLING

To keep production costs low, Chrysler builds the Plymouth Breeze with a minimum of options and just one drivetrain. The Breeze comes with a 132-horsepower, 2.2-liter single-overhead cam four-cylinder engine. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, while a four-speed automatic adds $1,050 to the price. Our test car came with the stick shift.

Because of Central Florida's traffic-choked roads, many motorists have shifted to automatic transmissions as a way of making their daily commutes less tedious. However, if you are on a very tight budget and can't spring for the automatic transmission, you probably will find that the easy-shifting manual in the Breeze is a delight. The clutch pedal requires light effort, and the shifter moves easily between the gears. But it's the peppy engine that makes living with the stick shift less bothersome than in other cars.

Generally, the engine pulls hard and delivers good performance. There is enough power to make the front wheels chirp a little upon accelerating from a stop. MotorTrend magazine tested a Breeze and clocked a 0-to-60 mph time of 9.9 seconds, which is respectable for an economy car.

Our purple test car delivered outstanding fuel economy. On a drive to Tallahassee and back, it averaged 38 mpg on the highway. City driving yielded about 25 mpg.

Over the highway, the Breeze is an excellent car. It gobbles up miles and miles of pavement smoothly and without fuss. Unlike some smaller cars, it is not bothered by crosswinds generated by kamikaze drivers in tractor-trailers.

One minor demerit, though: On extremely rough patches of pavement, too much noise finds its way inside the Breeze.

The four-wheel independent suspension system is a bit too soft. The Breeze would feel much more sporty with a firmer suspension. You never feel as if you can round a corner quickly. However, the soft suspension does a good job of ironing out the bumps in the road.

Anti-lock brakes, one of the options on o ur test car, added $565 to the price but was well worth it. The front disc, rear drum brakes slow the car quickly. When the anti-lock system engages, the car remains very easy to control.

Power rack-and-pinion steering is standard equipment. Although the wheel is easy to turn and offers crisp response, the 37-foot turning circle is large for this size car.

FIT AND FINISH

Although the Breeze is an economy car, its interior is far from utilitarian or chintzy. It is cleanly designed, attractive and user-friendly.

The Power Package, which costs $760, adds power windows, door locks and mirrors, a driver's seat height adjuster and rear floor mats. It is money well-spent. Combine the Power Package with the standard air conditioning, tilt wheel, AM/FM radio and rear window defroster, and you have a car with just about everything you need at an excellent price.

You will find that the Breeze, with its cab-forward styling, offers ample interior room. Th rear seats fold forward to allow larger items such as bicycles and skis to be carried.

The front bucket seats were comfortable during long drives. They offer plenty of padding, and the jazzy gray cloth upholstery gave the car a youthful, import-oriented ambiance.

In many economy cars, rear-seat passengers are treated as second-class citizens, because there is precious little room. This is not the case in the Breeze, which offers an uncommon amount of head-, leg- and foot room and a very comfortable bench seat.

Our test car ran well and had no flaws that I could detect. The Plymouth Breeze is a terrific car for about $15,000. If Walter P. Chrysler were alive, he would no doubt be proud that today's Plymouth remains true to his original vision.

Specifications:

1997 Plymouth Breeze Base price: $14,825. Safety: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes, side-impact protection, front and rear crumple zones. Price as tested: $16,280. EPA rating: 26 mpg city/37 highway. Incentives: $1,000.

Truett's tip: The Plymouth Breeze is a smooth-riding, peppy mid-size sedan that is a lot of car for your money.