MIAMI BEACH - It's appropriate that the folks at General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac-GMC Div. chose the trendy, hard-packed sands of south Florida to put a bunch of fashion-deprived journalists in the new 1999 Grand Am.

It's important to look good down here. Look different, outrageous. And we writers need all the help we can get.

So in the matter of minutes it takes to slide into the bold compact and cruise down Oceanview Blvd. past the art deco buildings, drivers may be surprised to suddenly feel the urge to pull up to one of the many vogue clothing outlets and buy some designer duds.

With the '98 SE Sedan $134 less than a comparable '98 and with a $16,395 MSRP for the SE Coupe, driving a '99 Grand Am is like wearing a Versace suit with a department store price tag: Anyone can buy it, but it looks best wrapped around the style-conscious, thirt-somethings the car always has targeted.

It's quite an accomplishment for the Grand Am because, like the aspiring models and beachcombers wandering the oceanside, Pontiac's best-seller needs a definitive personality to stand out from the crowd. Compared with some of its primary competitors - Dodge Stratus and Ford Contour - the Grand Am is a supermodel.

Starting with a slightly refined exterior appearance, the '99 Grand Am is hard to miss. The car seemingly hovers just above the road with spaceship-like illumination. Up front, the cats-eye shaped headlights and round driving lamps return, while new rear auxiliary cornering lamps adorn the rear bumper.

Pontiac addressed the car's lanky appearance by slightly reducing its overall length. A 3.6-in. (9-cm) longer wheelbase and 3.3-in. (8.3-cm) wider front tread continue the ground-hugging theme. Broadside ribbed molding, well-toned curves and dual exhaust give the car an athletic build that would make some of the local beach hardbodies jealous. In short, it looks hot.

While the outer layer tweak is minor, GM engineers focused on reducing the car's interior noise and improving its road handling. Sound deadeners have been thrown in the dash mats, cabin and in the trunk, which has grown from 13.2 cu. ft.(373L) to 14.3 (405L). The new all-aluminum suspension, featuring front MacPherson struts and rear tri-link independent suspension, is a pleasure through the twists and turns of city streets or the lazy bends on the super slab. The full-frame cradle's lateral stiffness can get you through an S-curve at 35 mph (56 km/h) without braking.

The sound system and cruise controls on the molded steering wheel, standard on the top-of-the-line SE2, put the driver in direct command of those important amenities. But the eyebrow-shaped dashboard gauges and vents appear too bold - even for the "notice-me" Grand Am motif.

Standard antilock brakes are upgraded by adding aluminum front brake calipers, and larger front rotors and pads provide a 60-to-0 mph stopping distance of 128 ft. (39 m), Pontiac says.

After spending most of the morning cruise bemoaning the lethargy of the Grand Am's 2.4L, 16-valve twin cam engine mated to a 4-speed automatic, I discovered the first leg of my test drive actually was powered by the new 3.4L, 3400 V-6.

Pontiac likes to brag that the new engine, which isn't available on the SE, has the same fuel economy as its predecessor - the 3.1L V-6 - and brings more horsepower (170 hp) and torque (195 lb.-ft @ 4,000 rpm) to the party. But if that's the case, I'd rather not be invited.

The 3400 V-6 is mated with a new 4-speed automatic transmission, the 4T45-E. There's no excitement here, either. Pontiac opted to introduce a new European-built manual transmission in model year '00. Strange.

For a car with entry-level prices and a fun-to-drive reputation, a manual transmission should come on all models. It would've given a kick to the 3400 V-6 acceleration. But even then, the Grand Am wouldn't quite live up to its life-in-the-fast-lane attitude.

Then again, if that were the case, no one would be able to see you.