Chrysler's "America" series is back for 1991, this time on its Dodge Shadow/Plymouth Sundance compacts that start at $7,699 and are billed as the lowest-priced cars built and sold in this country.

This is the third time Chrysler has used the America name, adding it to its Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon subcompacts and its larger Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant sedans before those models were discontinued.The formula is simple: Take an aging car line (the Shadow and Sundance bowed for 1987) and pass on to buyers the savings achieved by limiting the number of models, colors and options to simplify the production process.

The 1991 Sundance and Shadow America twins come with a new twist - they are also the lowest priced cars sold in this country with a driver's-side air bag as standard equipment.

Both a three-door and a five-door hatchback are offered, the latter starting at $7,999, or about $1,000 below the base price for the comparable 1990 models.

All have a fuel-injected 2.2 liter four-cylinder engine that musters 93 horsepower at 4,800 rpm. But the fuel economy is a bit unimpressive for a small car these days - 23 city/30 mph highway if coupled with the 5-speed manual, 23 city/27 mpg highway if the optional 3-speed automatic is ordered for $547 more.

Power steering and power brakes are standard, as is a cloth interior, deep center console with a cupholder, reclining front seats and a folding rear seat to increase cargo space.

A limited number of extras are offered besides the automatic, the major ones being air conditioning ($791), rear defogger ($163), and a variety of stereo systems.

Evaluated was a Dodge Shadow America five-door hatchback, equipped with a 5-speed manual and most of those extras. As tested, it cost -$10,006, including a $465 destination fee.

Drivers face a simple but well-designed instrument panel with a large speedometer and fuel gauge surrounded by smaller pointers for the battery and engine temperature.

The signal stalk operates the wipers, but the headlight switch is the old style pull-knob design. All controls have a high-quality feel except the temperature slide control, which was stiff and notchy on the test car.

The America's front seats are comfortable, roomy and supportive. The rear seat accommodates two tall adults in comfort, despite the car's hatchback design that encroaches on head room just a bit.

The rear seat folds forward in one piece instead of the preferred split-back arrangement that allows a third person to ride along with more cargo.

The Shadow America was found to have a surprisingly smooth ride in normal driving over a wide variety of roads. Handling, braking and wind noise were also well within acceptable limits.

Its engine is somewhat growlish and less smooth than many other fours, but certainly up to the task of moving this 2,652-pound car around. Access to owner-serviceable items like the oil filter, spark plugs and belts is excellent.

This is also about the only small car to have a self-supporting hood, not a prop rod.

There is, however, one BIG complaint that mars an otherwise capable and value-packed car.

While Chrysler is to be congratulated for putting an air bag into the Sundance/Shadow America, models with the 5-speed manual transaxle lack a clutch interlock.

This allows drivers to start the vehicle while in gear and accidentally surge forward or back, posing a real safety danger.

It is inexcusable why such a part, which costs a few bucks at most, would be absent on any vehicle, especially on a Chrysler product given the automaker's commitment to safety with air bags, a much more costly feature.

In fact it is surprising that all cars with manual gearboxes are not required under federal law to have these interlocks. Chrysler says all Americas will get the device in mid-1991, and all its vehicles will have it for 1992.

With that in mind, buyers are advised to wait until the clutch interlock is included unless they opt for the extra-cost automatic, which has a shift interlock as required by law.

Also bothersome was the America's foot-operated parking brake, awkward in a standard shift car. A hand-operated brake is much preferred.

Still, Chrysler's Shadow/Sundance Americacars are just what many buyers want and need - no-frills transportation at a good price.

While nowhere near as technologically advanced as many other small cars, including GM's new Saturn, they are roomier, easy to service and have an air bag to boot.

Chrysler hopes to sell about 56,000 Americas for 1991, or 40 percent of all Shadow/Sundance sales. Each is backed by a seven-year or 70,000-mile powertrain warranty and a one-year or 12,000-mile guarantee on all other parts.