After the seventh dead armadillo, I quit counting. Besides, down here in bayou country, it's more fun to look for live alligators. Especially if you're negotiating the twisty two-lane back roads of St. James Parish in a 2002 Mitsubishi Lancer. For some reason, local residents in big Ford pickups love to hug the center line as they head into blind curves, leaving opposing drivers little room to maneuver. Good thing the new Lancer is nimble. It's also a tad bigger than the Mirage, Mitsubishi's traditional entry-level model in the United States.

Introduced a year ago in Japan, the Lancer sedan arrives at American dealerships in August, priced from around $14,000. It enters one of the toughest segments in the industry - populated by such popular compacts as the Honda Civic, the Toyota Corolla, the Ford Focus and the Volkswagen Jetta. Is the Lancer better than the competition? Not really. But it's a darn sight better than its predecessor. Mitsubishi says the Mirage coupe will stick around for another year, then vanish. In the meantime, it expects great things of the Lancer, including about 60,000-plus sales in 2002.

Whether you're a college student in search of cheap wheels, a young family on a budget or even a professional armadillo hunter, the Lancer definitely deserves a place on your shopping list. We tested a base Lancer ES and a high-end O-Z Rally Edition, with lots of goodies. But the basic ES is surprisingly well-equipped, with such standard gear as air conditioning, power windows, power locks, power mirrors and a 100-watt AM-FM stereo with CD player. Not exactly "entry level." There's even a strip of woodgrain trim across the front of the instrument panel, just in case you think you've stumbled into some garden-variety economy car.

We tested that audio system with Charlie Parker and Muddy Waters CDs, and decided it's one of the better units we've encountered in the under-$20,000 class. Move up to the LS, and you get an additional two speakers (for a total of six), plus little niceties like variable intermittent wipers, cruise control and remote keyless entry. The O-Z Rally is mainly a cosmetic package of add-ons, including side sill extensions, front and rear air dams, white-face gauges, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, plus some pretty snazzy five-spoke alloy wheels from O-Z Racing.

Lancer's single-overhead-cam 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is no barn-burner. It makes a modest 120 horsepower and 130 pounds-feet of torque - just about adequate with the standard five-speed manual gearbox, but definitely on the sluggish side with the optional four-speed automatic (standard on the LS). While the engine is more powerful than the base engines in either the Civic or the Focus, it's the only powerplant available in the Lancer. Both Honda and Ford offer optional step-up engines that boast more horses.

Although official EPA fuel-economy numbers aren't yet available, an unofficial check s uggested the Lancer was returning better than 30 miles per gallon during our 220-mile Mississippi River plantation tour.

Lancer's 102.4-inch wheelbase is four inches longer than that of the Mirage, and it has a wider track, so the ride feels considerably less choppy. The chassis is nicely controlled, thanks in no small measure to the all-independent suspension, which employs struts in front and a multi-link rear layout.

Mitsubishi brags about the legroom in the Lancer and, in fact, the longer wheelbase enables a generous amount of rear legroom. But the interior volume in the new model isn't that much better than in the old one. Indeed, while there was plenty of room for my long legs and triple-E sneakers, my head was brushing the ceiling in the rear of the Lancer. Speaking of space, the trunk looks roomy, it holds a sub-par 11.3 cubic feet of cargo - just about enough room for a medium-size gator and a set of golf clubs.

You get larger, 15-inch wheels and ti when you step up to the mid-level Lancer LS or the O-Z Rally, but the standard 185/65R14 tires feel pretty comfortable. I was disappointed to see that neither side air bags nor antilock brakes come standard; they're an extra-cost option on the LS, and Mitsubishi hasn't even decided yet whether to offer them on the starter model.

Fit and finish on our production-spec test vehicles was generally high quality, although the nubby brocade-cloth upholstery may not appeal to some. Those with more subdued tastes may also prefer the simply gray brushed-metal trim on the O-Z to the woodgrain stuff on the lesser models, as nice and real as it looks. There's not a lot more you can add to the O-Z outside of a rear spoiler and a few other odds and ends. Mitsubishi figures a fully loaded model will go for $18,000 to $20,000, out the door.

Despite the fact that it sports absolutely no engine modifications and very little in the way of chassis upgrades, the O-Z Rally remains the top version of the Lancer in the States - that is, until Mitsubishi finally elects to bring in the fire-breathing Lancer Evolution VII, a thinly veiled race car that's street legal and oh-so-quick. Now THERE'S an armadillo-killer.