Dodge's new Avenger may have the look of a sporty coupe, but behind the slightly naughty, let's-play appearance is a practical interior so large many sedans would envy it.

And it has a price that would delight all but the stingiest.The Avenger replaces the Daytona in Dodge's lineup. But Chrysler officials stress that the Avenger is aimed at a much broader audience than the crude and defunct Daytona.

The Avenger is available in two models, the base and the ES. The model Chrysler had available was the base, which has a starting price of $13,341 plus $430 in shipping charges.

Major standard equipment includes dual air bags, an AM/FM stereo, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, electric rear-window defroster, tilt steering and windshield wipers with two-speed, variable intermittent settings.

The only option on the test vehicle was a $1,750 package that includes air conditioning, an AM/FM/cassette, cruise control and power door locks and windows. That brought the total to $15,521.

The more expensive ES model adds a 2.5-liter V-6, a four-speed automatic transmission, anti-lock brakes (optional on the base car), a "handling suspension" and 16-inch cast aluminum wheels. It is priced at $17,621.

The Avenger is built at Diamond-Star Motors in Normal, Ill. Chrysler was responsible for the Avenger's styling. But the mechanical underpinnings are really based on two other cars built there, the Mitsubishi Eclipse and a close relative, the Galant.

With a 103.7-inch wheelbase and an overall length of 187.2 inches, the front-wheel-drive Avenger is a fairly large coupe, but in overall length that makes it almost 13 inches shorter than the Ford Thun-derbird.

Slip inside, and one is struck by the enormous amount of room. There is enough head and leg room up front for two 6-foot adults. No big deal. The surprise is the back seat, which on most coupes is a pitiful, stunted thing.

Push down on a pedal near the base of the front seat, and the seat

lifts and slides forward. It is not like climbing in the back of a sedan, but if you still bend in all the right places and have at least the absolute minimum of coordination, you should be able to reach the back seat without undue contortions, much less injury.

Once there, the amount of room is so significant, it is almost funny. It has almost as much head and leg room as the Thunderbird. The Avenger's trunk is rated at 13.1 cubic feet, 2 cubic feet less than the Thunderbird's.

The instrument panel and dash have a crisp, logical sweep for which Chrysler is becoming known.

The dual air bags are great, and the front seat belts have adjustable anchoring points.

While the Dodge Daytona had a strong bias toward the sporty, the Avenger takes more of a comfortable-but-still-fun approach. The suspension uses double wishbones. The ES model also gets front and rear stabilizer bars to help reduce how much the body leans during cornering.

Like many cars in this price range, the Avenger dislikes tar strips. Thack. Bump. Despite the modest price, there is a gentle but serious control of the body motions that makes it an extremely livable package.

The five-speed manual transmission is standard with the base Avenger, although a four-speed automatic is optional. The five-speed has an overly light, almost cheap feel that ultimately works OK, but encourages gentle, slightly slow shifts.

The engine is a 2.0-liter, 16-valve, double overhead camshaft, four-cylinder built by Chrysler. It is rated at 140 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and 130 foot-pounds of torque at 4,800 rpm.

While slightly noisy, it is a remarkable engine, due chiefly to its flexibility. Let the engine speed drop down to 1,500 rpm, and the little 2.0-liter will pull with few recriminations and with increasing seriousness after only 2,000 rpm.

The fuel economy is pleasing, too. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated it will get 22 miles per gallon in the city and 32 mpg highway dining on lowly, 87-octane fuel.

With a curb weight of 2,822 pounds, the 2.0-liter engine is not exactly the source of wild acceleration thrills. But it does a surprisingly good job. Unless the car is laden with four adults, a driver with average common sense should never have trouble merging onto an interstate or passing on a two-lane road.

Conclusion: The base Avenger does a good job of combining practicality and near-sporty driving at an extremely competitive price.

Reliability: It is too soon for any information on the Avenger.

Crash safety: The federal government has yet to test the Avenger in its optional 35-mph New Car Assessment Program. But the Avenger is certified as meeting all regular safety standards.

Safety issues: Good marks for dual air bags. But the base Avenger does not have anti-lock brakes as standard equipment. Nor does it meet the federal government's 1997 standards for side-impact protection.