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MARVELOUS 1995 MERCURY MYSTIQUE OFFERS PLENTY OF VALUE FOR THE BUCKS

I'm often surprised at the cars that capture my automotive heart - the ones I really hate to give back to the factory people.

Over the years, I've parked some pretty expensive machinery in my driveway for the usual one-week evaluation - the neighbors think I'm either running a chop shop for stolen cars or a home-based Hertz franchise - but I usually return those upscale rides without looking back.Often as not, it's the more plebian cars, the ones that give good value for money, that stick in my mind long after the latest luxomobile has been forgotten. My feeling is that it should be relatively easy to build a good $40,000 car. The real trick is building a good $16,000 car.

That's what Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln-Mercury Division has done with the 1995 Mercury Mystique, a new marque making its debut at the end of this month that should bring some new faces into Lincoln-Mercury showrooms.

I like to be pleasantly surprised as much as the next guy, and that's the story of my week with an emerald green four-door Mystique sedan. I found myself inventing reasons to go out and drive that car. Any excuse would do.

But it didn't begin that way. When I got a call last month from L-M factory rep Lisa Bass offering me a pre-production Mystique, I was lukewarm. Isn't that the replacement for the Mercury Topaz? I asked. You know, the no-personality, no-performance compact sedan that is the meat and potatoes of rental fleets everywhere?

Well, yes, it is the replacement for the Topaz, agreed Bass. But she made it clear she did not agree with those other musings.

Anyway, I told her I'd give Mystique a look. I don't get many L-M products and this is supposed to be a "world car" so, sure, bring it around.

At this point it should be noted that the Mystique does not exist in a vacuum. Its counterpart is the new Ford Contour, replacement for the Ford Tempo, the twin to the Topaz. The Contour/Mystique, built at plants in Mexico and in Kansas City, Mo., are also closely related to the Belgium-built Ford Mondeo that went on sale last year in Europe and was immediately voted "Car of the Year" by the European automotive press.

It is that European link - the real thing, not just a "Euro" badge or decal - that makes the Mystique so special.

Major responsibility for the new "world cars" was given to Ford of Europe, with heavy input from a Ford team based at Dearborn. This was not a casual project. Total cost to create the new cars is said to be around $6 billion. The money went for creation of two cars with separate skins, two new engines, two new transmissions and three factories able to build as many as 800,000 cars per year.

The investment was not wasted. If the Mystique were a new BMW, Audi or Mercedes, I would be telling you what a great car this is and what a joy it is to drive and sure it costs as much as a small house but it's worth every penny.

Instead, I can tell you that if you're bored with driving, the Mercury Mystique is the cure for what ails you, and for around $16,000, it's an incredible bargain.

My test car, a Mystique GS, was a pre-production model and had no price information on the window sticker, but L-M spokesman John Jelinek said base price for the Mystique GS is $13,855. That's a stripped version, of course. Most of the "real world" cars will run about $2,000 more than that.

My test car had the standard four-cylinder, 2.0 liter, 125 horsepower engine, called the Zetec, mated to a silky five-speed manual transmission that is the key to the car's fun quotient. My car also had the usual luxury/power amenities that Jelinek said would put its cost at $15,835.

Also available, at an extra cost of $1,000, is a new 165-horsepower V6, called Duratec, that Lincoln/Mercury says requires nothing but routine maintenance - fluids and filters - for 100,000 miles. A new four-speed automatic transmission is an $815 option with either engine. An optional "all-speed" traction-control system for winter driving is $800 and includes anti-lock brakes. Sold separately, ABS is a $565 option. My advice: buy the package.

Car & Driver magazine tested the V6 in a Ford Countour SE and turned in a 0-60 mph time of 7.4 seconds. This is very fast, especially for a car in that price range, but unless you intend to do a lot of felonious driving, the four-banger is all you need. I found it more than adequate in acceleration, and the low-end torque was impressive.

For the record, Ford has expressed the view that it really doesn't think of the Con-tour/-Mys-tique as replacements for the Tempo/Topaz, noting that they are so much more sophisticated and technically advanced that they stand on their own.

No doubt, but when a company drops its compact cars and replaces them with two new compact cars - the Mystique fills the gap between the less-expensive Tracer and the full-size Sable (Taurus in Fordspeak) - the motoring press and public will think of the new cars as replacements whether the marketing people approve or not.

Also, Ford and Lincon-Mercury dealers are as much competitors as they are corporate siblings, and each will insist that their version of the new car is superior. Again, for the record, they have different sheet metal, but their mechanical underpinnings are the same, and that's good, because these are very fine underpinnings, indeed.

There is nothing about the exterior look of the Mystique to suggest it is so special. It is an attractive enough package, with the now obligatory "cab forward" look and a rounded, seamless shape, but it doesn't announce itself to the casual observer as a world beater. There are just too many compact four-door sedans around, and there is only so much you can do with the basic shape.

Things get a bit more intriguing on the inside. The instrument panel is a pretty dramatic affair, arranged in a pod intended for the driver's eyes only and then swooping out and away to the passenger's side. The dash has a full-size tach, mandatory in a "world" car, and the climate control/sound system controls layout is virtually perfect. You can operate this car intuitively, with no reading of the manual necessary.

It goes without saying, I hope, that the M-car has dual airbags. A seat-belt "grabber" limits slippage of the driver's seat belt in a collision, a more conventional solution than Volkswagen's new "pyrotechnic device."

The front-wheel-drive Mystique is officially a five-passenger car built to compete with such imports as the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry. However, the back seat is a bit tight. Leg room is OK, but my head brushed the headliner.

A fold-down back seat is available. The trunk has 14.1 cubic feet.

The Mystique's suspension is independent, with a MacPherson strut in front and a Quadralink rear suspension. The combination combines firm cornering with freeway comfort and not unreasonable jostling over railway tracks and potholes. The ride and handling would be considered excellent on a car costing twice as much.

Odd note: the inside door handles are deeply recessed into the door panel. At night, when the headlights are turned on, the recesses glow with an eerie green light that looks like a special effect in a sci-fi movie. I like it, but it's a strange touch.

Steering wheel: It's not covered with leather but it's nice and fat, has a good angle and feels just right. The short, bulky turn signal and window wiper stalks look and feel kind of brawny and tough. The car has a lot of these little details that don't sound important but really boost the perception of quality.

Seats: very firm, very supportive, very comfortable. Again, they seem more like the kind of seats you would find on an upscale import.

High five: the Mystique has a clock that is separate from the radio station indicator so you can tell the time and the station you're listening to without fiddling with anything. Thanks, Lincoln-Mercury. You've avoided one of my pet peeves.

Incidentally, the digital clock tells military time, as in 6 p.m. is 1800. This is in case you are confused about whether it's 11 o'clock at night or 11 o'clock in the morning. If it says 1100, it's morning; if it says 2300, it's night.

Although my test car was a pre-production model, it had no discernible flaws, a very good sign for the quality, fit and finish of the production cars that are due in dealer showrooms at the end of next week.