The 1991 Tracer is Lincoln-Mercury's latest attempt to lure small-car, Japanese import buyers back into its showrooms.

"We looked at what people are paying for their vehicles, equipped," said Ian McAllister, general marketing manager at Lincoln-Mercury. "We find people buying Japanese products for about $1,200 to $2,000 more than what they could be paying for a Tracer - that's comparing median prices."Surveys show that car buyers know about the company's bigger models - the Sable, Grand Marquis and Cougar - and "they give us credit for cars that are well-made," McAllister said.

But Lincoln-Mercury isn't so readily on consumers' lists when they shop for small, well-built cars.

The 1991 Tracer is designed to change that. Built on the same platform as the 1991 Ford Escort, the Tracer line includes a station wagon version to appeal to young families who increasingly are deciding against hatchbacks. The previous Tracer design, introduced in 1986, was a hatchback.

The 1991 Tracer LTS test car also had standard sport handling suspension offering good road feel without a punishing ride. Exceptionally long wheel travel in the strut suspension helped ease road imperfections, a feature normally found on larger, heavier vehicles.

The car featured a standard rear decklid spoiler and cast aluminum wheels that, when added to the minimum of chrome on the Tracer, made for a modern, sporty look.

Standard equipment included a four-way adjustable driver seat, rear window defroster, tilt steering and four-wheel disc brakes. Base price for the LTS was $11,219, though the least expensive model, the Tracer sedan, begins at $8,969 plus destination charge.

The test car came with a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine and four-speed overdrive transmission. The dual-overhead cam, 16-valve powerplant is also used in the Escort GT and produces up to 127 horsepower.

Power was adequate in city driving but less so on the highway. There were occasional jerks in my demanding, pedal-to-the-metal drives as the transmission shifted, especially when the air conditioner was on.

Still, I averaged about 28 miles per gallon - commendable considering all the unkind maneuvers I put the car through. The EPA rating is 23 mpg in the city and 30 on the highway.

The Tracer LTS is fairly roomy for a compact. Front and rear seats were well-cushioned, though rather flat. Legroom in back was admirable. Even with the front seats all the way back, I could tuck my feet under them and not hit my knees on the front seatbacks. Three children might manage OK in the rear seat, but three adults might find it to be a tight squeeze.

The Tracer is imported from Ford Motor Co.'s factory in Hermosillo, Mexico, but the company says 75 percent of the car's components are U.S.-made.

Lincoln-Mercury expects the new design to attract slightly younger buyers and more families with children.

Consumer Reports magazine ranked the 1988 version average in owner reports of trouble.