"Wow," said a friend of ours, eying the 1996 Mazda MX-6. "Pretty nice. Is that the 'coupe du jour?'" Fortunately, the U.S.-built, Japanese-engineered sport coupe has staying power that ought to last more than a day. But like a good bowl of soup, the MX-6, with a base price of under $20,000 ($23,695 for the LS edition), can be a satisfying alternative to richer offerings like expensive luxury coupes. She: We had three cars in our driveway this week. That excessive Pontiac Firebird WS6 with the 305-horsepower engine, a $79,000 long-wheelbase Jaguar XJ12 and the rather subdued MX-6 LS. I put in my hours in the Pontiac and the Jag, but when I could pick any car to be in, I invariably chose the Mazda. He: I think it's a sign of advancing age and conservatism on your part, dear. In fact, I'm kind of worried about you. You've even refused to watch TV shows like ER. It's like you're regressing. Didn't you used to be a young Socialist? What gives? She: My life feels like ER. Why should I watch that just before I go to bed and get all jittery? Besides, when you're living in an age when they're going to be able to tell what disease you'll die from by checking your genes when you're born, you long for things that produce the least anxiety. He: I hope you're going to relate all that to a test-drive at some point. She: Let me explain. The Pontiac was just plain wild; and the ritzy Jag just felt like a magnet for troublemakers. I found great comfort in that little Mazda sport coupe. In fact, the only thing that made me nervous was the fact that Mazda doesn't offer roadside assistance on the MX-6. That's a marketing problem and I hope Mazda fixes it fast, especially since it's such a nice car for a woman. He: Some people also may not like the fact that antilock brakes are an extra-cost option on the MX-6. But my main gripe with the car was that it was just too cramped. To you, it was cozy and refined. But you're petite. Imagine me trying to shoehorn my oxlike torso into that little coupe. It's not a pretty picture, believe me. She: You're right. Even my head would brush the roof when I had the seat forward to reach the pedals. I didn't feel claustrophobic, but you might have. He: I have to say this is still a pretty cushy car, especially for females. The suspension settings on the MX-6 are softer than on its sister vehicle, the Ford Probe, and that helps cushion the ride. The Mazda has a long list of convenience features, too and you can dress it up even more with an option package that includes leather seats, heated exterior mirrors and a power driver's seat. In nearly every respect, it's just about the exact opposite of the Pontiac Firebird, which is how Detroit used to do sport coupes. She: You can tick off a list of items about the MX-6, but the comfort had more of an intangible quality. I mean, can you really say why Campbell's chicken noodle soup is not quite as good as your grandma's homemade stuff? It's hard to put your finger on why the Mazda felt so right. It could be that extremely soft tan upholstery that almost felt like a Polar Fleece blanket. Or the fact that the controls are perfectly placed. And there's nothing gimmicky about the inside or the outside of the car that will look outdated in a few years. He: I found it a pain in the butt to get packages and people out of the rear seat. I think the front seat backs could swing forward a bit more to accommodate that better. And don't even try to sit back there if you're more than four feet tall. On the plus side, Mazda does give you two engine choices with the MX-6 - a 118-horsepower four cylinder and a 164-horsepower 2.5-liter V-6. She: For some reason, the Mazda made me think of that old Yiddish proverb: "When you don't know where you're going, every road will take you there." But not every car will. I liked the MX-6 because it was both soothing and sporty. Not 100 percent perfect, but approaching it. He: Kind of like wat ng ER on tranquilizers? Hmm. Now there's an idea. Anita's rating: (above average) Paul's rating: (above average) What we liked: Classic styling; cushy interior; good alternative to pricier luxury sport coupes; nice suspension. What we didn't like: No roadside assistance (Anita); you pay extra for antilock brakes; cabin cramped for six-footers 1996 Mazda MX-6 LS Type: Front engine, four-passenger front-wheel drive sport coupe. Price: Base, $23,695; as tested, $25,570 (inc. $450 destination charge, less $845 package discount). What's new for '96: LS package becomes separate, high-line model. Standard equipment: Power steering, power mirrors, tilt steering column, power windows, AM/FM stereo cassette, keyless entry system, air conditioning, power locks, power sunroof, cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel, tinted glass, fog lamps, alloy wheels. Safety features: Dual air bags, antilock brakes (optional), side-door impact beams, anti-theft alarm. Options on test vehicle: Antilock brakes ($800), rear spoiler ($375), leather package, with heated mirrors and power driver's seat ($1,095). EPA fuel economy: 21 mpg city/26 mpg highway. Engine: 2.5-liter V-6; 160-hp at 5500 rpm; 156 lb-ft torque at 5000 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed manual. Competitors: Ford Probe, Toyota Celica, Honda Prelude, Nissan 240SX, Dodge Avenger, Chrysler Sebring, Pontiac Grand Am, Oldsmobile Achieva, Chevy Monte Carlo. Specifications: Wheelbase, 102.8 inches; overall length, 181.5 inches; curb weight, 2875 pounds; legroom, 44 inches front/27.7 inches rear; headroom, 37.9 inches front/34.7 inches rear; shoulder room, 53.5 inches front/50.9 inches rear. 12-month insurance cost: $1116 Where built: Flat Rock, Mich. AAA Michigan 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.