THE CAR was electric blue, a loud, shocking blue -- the kind ofblue acceptable at a Mardi Gras party. But there it sat, the 1988Pontiac Sunbird GT Coupe, fresh from the General Motors division that"builds excitement."

I was hysterical, laughing uncontrollably. How could any sane personmake or buy a car this color?

Luckily, the Sunbird's body was nice -- attractive lines front andrear, very sporty stuff. I could live with it for a week.

Hmph. The week passed, and the Pontiac folks asked for their machine.I stalled 'em, even though several other test cars crowded the schedule.

Somewhere between initial scorn and the return deadline, the Sunbirdand I became serious friends. The car had an engaging personality. Iliked that. It was fun, and I liked that, too, a lot.

I guess what it all comes down to is a reworked cliche: You can'tjudge a car by its paint.

Complaints: The test car's awful color leads the list. Heck, evenheavy metal bands have better taste. There's also the matter of productproliferation. There are six models of the Pontiac Sunbird, which,itself, is one of five representatives of GM's J-car line.

The J cars, introduced in 1982, include the Chevrolet Cavalier,Pontiac Sunbird, Oldsmobile Firenza, Buick Skyhawk and Cadillac Cimarron -- all of which share many of the same mechanical components.

Through the magic of computer-assisted design, the J cars lookdifferent from each other. But their numbers and options arebewildering.

Pontiac contends that the myriad versions are necessary to serve manycustomers. For example, the Sunbird GT coupe and convertible are "forthe high performance enthusiast." The more modest Sunbird sedan is for"the budget conscious." And, "for the person who wants aggressivestyling but who is also interested in value," there are the Sunbird SEcoupe and the SE sedan and wagon, Pontiac says.

Baloney! There are just too many choices here. It's time to simplifythings, GM.

Praise: The test model Sunbird GT Coupe, despite its ill-consideredtint, was a masterpiece of craftsmanship. Everything fit properly. Allthe controls were visible and easily accessible. The car -- afour-seat, three-speed automatic -- was easy to operate.

Ride, acceleration, handling: Riding comfort was competitive withthat of more expensive front-wheel-drive compacts -- better than somepricier models, in fact. Handling was a cinch, particularly in urbantraffic.

Acceleration? The snippy Virginia driver of a BMW three-seriesmachine was embarrassed. The lightweight Sunbird GT, with its 165 hp,2-liter, turbocharged, fuel-injected engine, left him communicating inignoble sign language somewhere along Interstate 66. Same to you, fella!

Sound system: AM/FM electronic stereo radio and cassette, byGM/Delco. Excellent, as usual.

Mileage: Easily 30 to the gallon (13.6-gallon tank, estimated400-mile range on usable volume), combined city highway, windows up,heater on, running mostly driver only in Virginia, Maryland and theDistrict of Columbia.

Price: $13,717, including $1,670.09 in options and a $400transportation charge. Base price is $11,646.91, and the dealers'invoice price without options $10,899.