The Mitsubishi Mirage, once a work of suspect quality, is now a truly enjoyable little car.

That's the plain truth, the substance of my week in a Mirage LS Coupe.

The Mirage, introduced in 1985, was completely reworked for the 1997-model year. But I snubbed that version, passed it over for review -- based on memories of previous Mirages, most of which were noisy puttmobiles. Kathy Dahlstrom, who oversees much of my test-vehicle schedule, made me reconsider. "Give it a chance. This car isn't what you think it is," she said. She shipped a 1998 Mirage LS Coupe. She was right.

The 1998 car, practically identical to the 1997 model, was a pleasant surprise. It ran smoothly, quietly, quickly. Its five-speed, manual gear lever shifted precisely. It felt solid. I found myself actually wanting to get behind its wheel.

I've never felt that way about any other Mirage. But it just goes to show you: A closed mind is best unlocked. It helps to have a friend and colleague who holds the key.

Background: Mitsubishi Motors Corp. had an inauspicious beginning in the United States, where it originally sold most of its vehicles through Chrysler Corp. dealerships. There were, for example, the Mitsubishi-made Plymouth/Dodge Colts, subcompact cars designed for parsimonious utilitarians. The Colts, the structural predecessors of the Mirage, gave "cheap" a bad name. Their tiny, inline, four-cylinder engines whined and wheezed horribly at highway speeds. Their interior colors faded after a few summer seasons. Their exterior paint faded, too, albeit more slowly.

And the bodies on those earlier Colts/Mirages were less than rigid, especially when it came to protection in side-impact crashes. A bigger car hitting one of those little buggies could do major damage.

But the darned Colts were reliable -- they started right up in hot or cold weather and never spent much serious time in auto repair bays. But their buzzy engines, coupled with the road and wind noise that invaded their cabins, just drove you wacky.

By that measure, the Mirage has come a long way. How long? Several times, I double-cranked the engine in the test model, meaning that I keyed the ignition when the engine already was running. Why? Because the 1998 Mirage LS Coupe's engine is so quiet, I forgot that it was idling.

The test car was equipped with a 1.8-liter, 16-valve, single-overhead cam, inline four-cylinder engine rated 113 horsepower at 5,500 rpm. Torque was rated 116 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm.

Lesser Mirages get a 1.5-liter, 12-valve, inline four-cylinder engine rated 92 horsepower at5, 500 rpm, with torque rated 93 pound-feet at 3,000 rpm.

The new Mirage, which has a tad more interior space than previous models, also has a more rigid body structure -- substantially better side-impact barrier protection, for example. And it has more sound insulation, too.

A four-wheel independent suspension system -- MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link design in back -- is standard in the front-wheel-drive Mirage LS Coupe. Standard brakes include power front discs and rear drums. Antilocks are optional.

A five-speed manual transmission is standard. An electronically controlled four-speed automatic is optional. Dual front air bags are standard, and so are lap belts and shoulder harnesses.

There are four iterations of the latest Mirage -- the base DE and upscale LS coupes, and the base DE and upscale LS sedans.

Mitsubishi Mirage LS

Complaints: The rear seats of this four-seater are still too cramped -- adequate only for two small adults in desperate need of a free ride. Also, folding down the rear seat creates marginally more cargo space, because of the small opening in the wall separating the trunk from the rear cabin.

Praise: Excellent overall construction. Zippy personality. Definitely fun to drive.

Head-turning quotient: Aggressive vanilla. Nothing stunning outside, but a very pleasant interior design, accented by a well-sculpted, ergonomic ally correct instrument panel.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Unbelievably good small-car ride and handling. Excellent acceleration and braking. An all-around good driver.

Mileage: Estimated 27 miles per gallon (13.2-gallon tank, estimated 355-mile range on usable volume of recommended 89-octane unleaded), running mostly highway with one to two occupants and light cargo.

Price: Base price on tested Mirage LS Coupe with manual transmission is $13,350. Dealer's invoice price on that model is $11,857. Price as tested is $15,393, including $1,623 in option and a $420 destination charge. Please note that these are late-1997 prices and are subject to change.

Purse-strings note: Definitely worth a look. Compare with Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla/Chevrolet Prizm, Ford Escort/Mazda Protege, Hyundai Tiburon/Accent, Saturn coupes and sedans.