You will never catch us classifying Suzuki as a "player" in the car market.

Outboard motors, trucks, motorcycles, four-stroke engines are another story. Suzuki is well entrenched in those enterprises and many more that have nothing to do with four wheels and cupholders.

Cars?

In a multimillion dollar market, the Japanese automaker ranks near the shallow end of the swimming pool, somewhere to the tune of about 60,000 vehicles a year. Water wings, indeed.

Get ready for the plunge.

Not sure what that new compact was that zipped by with a slopped front, a chopped back and a funky middle? Think Aerio. As in aerodynamic. As in an all-out dive into the compact sedan market by a company not used to automotive leaps. The waters are risky indeed.

Compared with the Japanese giants such as Honda, Nissan and Toyota, Suzuki has never achieved huge success with its cars in America. For 2002, Suzuki finally hopes to make some real noise.

Available in sedan and hatchback versions (actually, more of a tall wagon), the Aerio is all-new. But is it entirely ready? Not so sure.

Its styling is meant to look aerodynamic (hence the name) and distinctive. Its accommodations, despite being shorter in length than most other compact cars, are intended to be roomy. And we'll give it that.

Actually, Suzuki doesn't pretend that the Aerio is anything but a lifestyle choice for its buyers. The phrase "young, active lifestyle" was heard eight times when Suzuki introduced the SX concept at the New York Auto Show. (Now that's active!)

But something happened on the way to the showroom.

In the production version of the Aerio, things get a little less charming. The show-stopping supercharged four-cylinder engine was downgraded and the whole package lost some of its luster.

And in a competitive segment that already includes some major players, it's the little things that were nagging after a one-week test.

The digital gauge speedometer and instrumentation is right out of the 1980s, hard to read and too small. The list of safety features is short: ABS is available as an option, but Suzuki has decided not to offer side air bags. And from the thud! and ping! sounds when closing the doors, to the loud whine under the hood when you rev it up and let all 141 horses loose, there's no disguising that the Aerio is definitely a $14,000 proposition.

But all things considered, all complaints registered, it's a fair ride for a first-timer.

Both the sedan and hatchback are powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 135 pound-feet of torque, one of the most powerful standard engines in the small car class. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, with a four-speed automatic available as an option. An all-wheel-drive version of the Aerio that was available in New York is not yet available in your town - but will make its way to dealerships near you come September.

Handling is a little loo se, more top heavy than well-centered. And overall performance is what you'd expect out of a small concept. City zip: OK. Highway zoom: No way.

Buyers of the Aerio "sports" sedan (As Suzuki labels it) get to choose between two trims. The S offers standard features such as air conditioning, a six-speaker single-play CD audio system, power windows and a tilt steering wheel. The upscale GS trim offers add-ons such as power door locks, cruise control, front-seatback pockets, 15-inch alloy wheels, color-keyed door handles and mirrors, a height-adjustable driver seat, keyless remote entry and a rear spoiler. The Aerio SX comes with the same features as the GS sedan.

No matter what you order, you won't be paying much; the GS and SX have stickers less than $15,000.

For all that you get an interior that is functional, if not flashy. You get two front seats that are firm but not entirely supportive. And you get enough room to leave most of the family happy, should you decide to take the Aerio on a family trip (especially with 14.6 cubic feet in the back - more trunk volume than every car in its class). And if you do travel, you should be all right at the pump. The Aerio's fuel economy is a decent 26 mpg city and 33 mpg highway with a manual.

On the outside, with a high roofline and high front seat position, visibility is supreme, but so is the feeling you are seated on the hood.

On the whole, it's a practical small car that delivers good performance, a good list of standard goodies and a styling bend that demands attention.

Priced at $13,499 in the base mode, it will at least serve as a fair enough trip from Point A to B.

But is a cheap price enough to justify a purchase? The compact car segment is more competitive than ever, and there are a few cars that we would likely pick over the Aerio.

But not bad for a start

2002 SUZUKI AERIO -- SPECS

Rating: 2.5

High Gear: Competitive in the pocket book and a solid performer under the hood, the Aerio gets better mileage than most of its competitors and has good space to boot.

Low Gear: A lack of side air bags, standard ABS, four-wheel drive (at least until fall) and sophistication keep the Aerio grounded. A digital speedometer is perplexing. Overall fit and finish is hardly confidence-inspiring.

Vehicle type: Front-wheel drive, front-engine, four-door, five-passenger compact sedan.

Standard equipment: Four-speed manual; four-wheel independent suspension; 14-inch rims; intermittent wipers;, rear defogger; ventilated front disc/rear drum brakes; daytime running lights; front fog lights; bucket front seats; split-bench rear seat; power windows; power mirrors; three-spoke tilt steering; air conditioning; AM/FM in-dash single CD player stereo with six speakers.

Competition: Honda Civic LX, Ford Focus SE, Nissan Sentra GXE

Engine: 141 horsepower, 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder

Torque: 135 foot-lbs. @ 3,000 rpm

Wheelbase: 97.6 inches

Length: 171.3 inches

MPG rating: 26 mpg city/31 mpg highway

Manufactured: Japan

Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles; powertrain warranty is three years/36,000 miles; rust perforation warranty is three years/unlimited miles.

Base price: $13,499

Price as tested (includes options, destination and delivery charges): $16,547