IT WAS ANOTHER Japanese car with European styling, which wasn't particularly bothersome. I mean, I didn't expect the thing to perform like a miniature Mercedes-Benz, even though its designers tried hard to make it look like one.

It was the new Suzuki Esteem, a front-wheel-drive subcompact whose manufacturer says it has the stuff to run with the Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra and GM's Saturn. Though the Esteem is a bit outclassed by those cars, I gotta say it caught my attention and began to lay some claim to my affection during its week with me.

The Esteem's virtue is its friendliness, the way a favorite sweat shirt is friendly. You just put on the sweat shirt and chill, like it's just a Saturday and you've got Saturday stuff to do.

Similarly, you just jump into the Esteem for a run to the market, office or mall. It's a good short-mission car.

But the Esteem's pretentious exterior beckons you to do more. Here's suggesting that you ignore that and take the car for what it is -- a good economy vehicle that does its best work close to home.

Background: You don't normally think of cars when you think of Suzuki, even though the company makes another decent little commuter, the Suzuki Swift, which is also sold as Chevrolet's Geo Metro.

Suzuki usually brings to mind trucks, specifically sport-utility models such as the Suzuki Samurai and Sidekick. But the company wants to be known for more. Thus the 1995 Suzuki Esteem, Suzuki's largest passenger car to date and its first entry into the cutthroat arena of subcompact car sales.

Here's betting that the Esteem will make a go of it, even though it doesn't have the wherewithal to muscle out Toyota's Corolla, Nissan's Sentra or GM's Saturn. Instead, the Esteem will cause agony for Hyundai's Elantra, and it might even steal some sales from Chevrolet's Cavalier and Ford's Escort.

The Esteem has much to work with, including a strong list of standard equipment: dual front air bags, 1997-standard side-impact protection, five-speed manual transmission, power steering, fold-down rear seats, remote trunk release and fuel-filler-door releases, and dual outside mirrors. Optional equipment includes a four-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel anti-lock brakes.

The Esteem is sold three ways: base GL, upgraded "fully equipped" GLX and luxury "premium equipped" GLX. Please note that the idea of "luxury" in the econocar class is, for the consumer, an expensive illusion. The added gimcrackery is not worth the extra bucks.

Anyway, all Esteems are four-door sedans and have the same engine -- a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder, single-overhead cam, 16-valve job rated 98 horsepower at 6,000 rpm. Torque is set at 96 pound-feet at 3,000 rpm.

Complaints: Dreadful engine performance when the optional air conditioner is working in models equipped with automatic transmissions. Acceleration, with that equipment in operation, is a misnome r. Bump and drag is closer to the truth.

Praise: Vehicle construction and presentation. The Esteem is a solid little car, excellent for commuting, but its tiny engine performs better with five-speed manual transmission.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Very good small-car ride, even for rear-seat passengers. Excellent econocar acceleration (0 to 60 mph in about 9.3 seconds) when equipped with five-speed manual transmission and when the air conditioner is shut off. Lousy acceleration, 0 to 60 in eternity, with automatic transmission and the air conditioner working.

Head-turning quotient: I'm a Mercedes-Benz, you're a Mercedes-Benz, we're all a Mercedes-Benz.

Mileage: In the tested "premium package" Esteem GLX with automatic everything, including the transmission, about 30 miles per gallon (13.5-gallon tank, estimated 400-mile range on usable volume of regular unleaded), running with one to four occupants and light cargo.

Sound system: Four-speake AM/FM stereo radio and cassette, installed by Suzuki. Good sound reproduction and signal reception.

Price: Esteem prices begin at $11,399 for the GL and rise to $15,399 for the tested "premium package" GLX. Estimated dealer invoice on the tested GLX is $14,000. Price as tested is $15,789, including a $390 destination charge. Prices on the recently introduced Esteem (May 1995) are preliminary and subject to change.

Purse-string note: Compare with Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, Saturn SL1 and SL2 sedans, Ford Escort, Mazda Protege, Subaru Impreza, Chevrolet Cavalier and Geo Prizm. And, hey, you can save 1,000 bucks on any Esteem by taking the standard five-speed manual transmission.