Virtually all new small cars these days are equipped with a four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive. Our test cars were no exception.

The Escort has an 88-horsepower, 1.9-liter four-cylinder engin e with two valves per cylinder. The Tercel's 1.5-liter engine has four valves per cylinder and generates 93 horsepower. The Accent also has a 1.5-liter four-cylinder; horsepower is rated at 92.

The Accent's engine is noteworthy for two reasons: It is the first engine Hyundai has ever developed in-house (previous Hyundais used Mitsubishi engines), and it has three valves per cylinder. It's an uncommon setup.

Generally, a multivalve engine - one with more than two valves per cylinder - runs smoother, but with less power at low speeds, as is true with the Accent. The performance comes when the engine is revved up.

Of the three test cars, the Tercel's engine was far and away the most refined. It ran with a whisper-smooth demeanor, offered good overall performance and delivered excellent fuel economy. But it was connected to an outmoded four-speed manual transmission. The Tercel may be the only car left on the market you can buy with a four-speed manual; virtually all other automakers offer a five-speed gearbox.

In city driving, the lack o f a fifth gear isn't going to be noticed in the Tercel. But when you take it on the highway where cruising speeds are often 65 mph or more, the Tercel needs a fifth gear so that its engine can work less hard and be more frugal.

The Tercel's transmission shows why it's important to look closely at what you can get for your money. The Ford Escort - which sells for less than the Tercel comes with a five-speed manual. And the Hyundai, which is priced at even less than the Escort, is outfitted with a four-speed automatic.

In any case, the Tercel is easy to drive. The clutch pedal does not require much pressure to push down, and the shifter, though not particularly smooth, is fast-acting.

The Ford Escort, which also came with a standard transmission, requires a bit more effort to drive. The clutch pedal seems a bit on the stiff side, and it is sometimes difficult to find the right gear when shifting. On several occasions I jabbed and poked in vain trying to engage reverse.

The Escort's performance, however, is very pleasing. It pulls strongly from a stop and delivers good midrange power. Its engine is not as smooth as the Tercel's, but it is still a very civilized and balanced power plant.

On long highway trips, the Escort was the best of the three cars. Its engine settles into a nice groove at 65 mph in fifth gear, which also helps the car to be more frugal at the gas pump.

The new Hyundai Accent surprised me. This car is proof that Hyundai is serious about building affordable, higher-quality cars.

Its engine is smoother and quieter than the four-cylinder in a new Nissan Sentra I tested recently. Still, it ranked last among the power plants among today's test-drive trio.

When I took the Accent on a grueling four-hour stop-and-go drive in 90 degree heat on back roads from Orlando to Lakeland, the car performed admirably. But in quick acceleration, as from a stoplight, engine noise became a bit intrusive.

The Accent's automatic transmission was a bit unrefined. In some instances, such as shifts from first gear to second, the transmission wasn't as smooth as the automatics in many other subcompacts. A button near the shifter lets the driver switch from Power to Economy modes, a nice touch for an inexpensive automobile.

If you don't want to drive a stick shift and want to spend only about $12,000, you'll find your choices limited. Aside from the Hyundai Accent, I can think of maybe one or two cars in that price range that offer a four-speed automatic.

Our dark purple Accent delivered 26 mpg in city driving and 34 mpg on the highway. The grey Tercel checked in with 32 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway. The teal Escort returned 25 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. All three vehicles used the least expensive grade of unleaded.

Overall, I would rank the Tercel as the best-engineered subc ompact of our trio, followed by the Escort and the Accent.

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