I understand clearly why Chrysler is having a hard time selling some of its cars these days.

There was not one single thing wrong with the LeBaron sedan I drove for a week, yet, there was one major item missing, an important characteristic that every new car must have nowadays to succeed: refinement.

If this were 1980, the LeBaron sedan probably would get rave reviews for its performance and high level of standard equipment. But in the past 10 years, foreign automakers continually have set and raised the quality standards that American cars must meet or beat to compete.

While Ford and GM have moved forward in an effort to compete with foreign automakers, Chrysler has been left behind.

The LeBaron sedan falls short in some areas, and the fully optioned test car's sticker price made more than a few eyebrows raise - but not for the right reasons.

Here's where I think the LeBaron sedan fails to measure up to the Ford Taurus and Honda Accord, the two hottest-selling family sedans: the engine and the fit and finish.

The 141-horsepower, 3.0-liter, V-6 engine easily will outperform the Taurus and the Accord while delivering excellent fuel economy. The EPA rates the six-passenger LeBaron at 19 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway. My actual mileage was 23.9 in city driving with the air conditioning running at full blast.

However, the V-6 moans and groans and sounds like an asthmatic coffee pot. You like to hear the engine take such deep breaths in vehicles like the Dodge Daytona or one of Chrysler's sporty pickup trucks. But not in the LeBaron. It's completely out of character here.

On the inside, several things were not engineered or assembled with precision in mind. The plastic cruise control buttons on the bottom of the steering wheel were loose. They rattled when driving over rough roads and they buzzed under heavy acceleration.

Most of the time, the key could not be removed from the ignition unless I used my left hand to pull the column-mounted shifter all the way up.

There was also a symphony of unwholesome noises I couldn't identify.

And yet, though these shortcomings were bothersome and distracting, the LeBaron's multitude of strong points were easy to discern.

Chrysler always has had a flair for designing and styling nice-looking, comfortable interiors. The LeBaron's interior can be described in one word: sumptuous. The pleated leather seats and door panels in the test car were some of the most luxurious and attractive I've ever seen in a car costing less than $20,000.

The front-wheel-drive layout of the LeBaron affords generous leg room for front and rear passengers. Head room, even for 6-footers, is ample, and the trunk is cavernous.

The LeBaron is a better handling car than its looks would have you believe. The steering is light and crisp, and if you should throw the car into a curve on short notice, the LeBaron will see you through with ease. The suspension is soft enough to absorb nearly every flaw in the road without telegraphing the turbulence into the interior, and it is firm enough to thwart undue amounts of body roll. Its ride is excellent.

There's been some noise about Chrysler's new four-speed electronic transmission not being up to the job. The one in the test car shifted so smoothly that the changing of gears was nearly imperceptible. Many powerful front-wheel-drive cars suffer from torque steer. The LeBaron doesn't.

The test car sported a $2,082 luxury option package that included leather interior, power door locks, dual remote heated mirror, power driver's seat, power windows, AM/FM/cassette with equalizer and four speakers, wire wheel covers and leather-wrapped steering wheel.

The car is reasonably priced and well-equipped at $15,995 without the option package, which pushes the price to $18,492. The base car comes with power steering and brakes, air conditioning, tilt steering whee , rear window defroster and cruise control, just to name a few items. Depending on how well you can bargain with the salesman, it might be better to pass on the option package.

With the model year winding down, dealers are anxious to move 1990 models. There still is a fair selection remaining on Central Florida lots. On the LeBaron sedan, Chrysler is offering a $750 rebate or a choice of several cut-rate financing plans. The major difference between the 1990 and the 1991 models is the price: the '91s are more expensive.

In any case, the LeBaron sedan is for the most part a decent car. But for now Chrysler's midsize sedan just doesn't offer as much refinement as others in its price range and class.

Though it doesn't miss the mark by much, carmakers today can't miss the mark at all if they want their vehicles on the best-seller lists.