If F. Scott Fitzgerald were writing The Great Gatsby today instead of the 1920s, he surely would have put the wealthy, yet tragically flawed main character, Jay Gatsby, in the BMW 540i Sport. At $55,170, it's truly the plaything of the rich and famous - and brainless, says Anita.

He: You know, sometimes you drive me crazy, Miss Daisy. This is truly one of the finest cars we've driven in the past year, and all you do is complain, complain, complain. Virtually everything about the 540i is so exceptional - from its superb twin-cam 4.4-liter V-8 to one of the world's great touring suspensions - about the only thing you can criticize is how relevant or useful this BMW may be on American roads.

She: You mean, to American women. I was reminded of feminist Gloria Steinem as I drove the BMW for miles and miles on the freeways in Michigan, never ever finding the need to shift into the sixth gear. Gloria said, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." I think a woman needs a six-speed like she needs a ... well, you know.

He: This is coming from a woman who still owns the three-speed bicycle that she got in the fifth grade. A bicycle, I might add, that no self-respecting fish would be seen on. How can you fault a car with such incredible road-holding ability, with such sensational performance and with such an impressive array of safety features? The 5 series this year offers BMW's new inflatable Head Protection System, which cushions and protects your head in a side impact. This is in addition to standard side air bags for front passengers and optional side bags in the rear.

She: I wish it came with an optional bag you could cover it with when you parked. The arctic silver test car we drove just looked like it was dripping with status, so much so that I felt funny parking it in most urban settings. I realize that's a cultural problem, not a car problem, but it's something that women think of when they make purchase decisions. It's why those vanilla Toyota Camrys are so popular with us. They allow us to fly beneath the radar of a lot of troublemakers.

He: How do you explain all those women driving vanilla Lincoln Navigators? And while we're on the subject of six-speeds, the extra top gear actually makes sense in the BMW. Use it at freeway speeds, and you'll notice a marked improvement in gas mileage. The EPA rates the 540i at 15 mpg in city driving, which makes it subject to a $1,300 gas-guzzler penalty. However, on the highway, you can expect to get 24-25 mpg because the engine and transmission are so efficient at high speeds.

She: I know the 540i comes with lots of goodies, such as automatic climate control with zones for driver and passenger, and power windows with one-touch up and down on all four windows. But you can get nearly the same features on a Cadillac Seville STS, which costs only $47,000 and you won't pay a guzzler tax. My problem with the 540i is that you are paying a premium for the BMW name.

He: Exactly. What do you think the attraction is to many people? That BMW name typifies world-class performance and quality. Let's face it. This is a benchmark car, with few peers. The new Lexus GS 400 gives it a run for the money, but lacks the BMW cachet. A Jaguar XJ8 may look prettier, but if you do lots of high-speed driving every day - and you really love to drive - I think you're going to prefer the BMW.

She: We drove the Sport version, which includes a firmer suspension, 17-inch wheels and tires, fancy seats and something BMW calls the Shadowline trim package, with matte-black window frames, door sills and bumper strips. I wish we would have had the "Security Car" version of the 540i, which is available as a special order vehicle. BMW refers to this as a "light-armored" vehicle, with Aramid-fiber layers in the doors, roof and rear deck, plus bulletproof glass, run-flat tires and a special communications system. Now that makes more sense to me than ix speeds.

He: So if Fitzgerald were to follow Steinem's advice, would he have put Gatsby in a BMW - or would you prefer Jay walking?

1998 BMW 540i Sport

Type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, five-passenger luxury/sport sedan

Price: Base, $53,300; as tested, $55,170 (including $570 destination charge and $1,300 gas-guzzler tax)

What's new for '98: Head air bags, optional rear-seat side bags

Engine: 4.4-liter V-8; 282 hp at 5,700 rpm; 310 lb-ft torque at 3,900 rpm

Transmission: Six-speed manual

EPA fuel economy: 15 mpg city/24 mpg highway

Standard equipment:

Four-wheel power disc brakes

Speed-sensitive power steering

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan: $1,741.

Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts.

Where built: Dingolfing, Germany