There is no mystique about the appearance of the 1998 Mercury Mystique.

The dramatically restyled new Mystique features the European Mondial's widely flared headlights that blend into a dynamic grille theme that stamps the sports-oriented sedan as a Mercury.

The front end's large combination lamps, which integrate high/low beams with parking lights and turns signals under one sweeping lens, fits tightly against the grille and fender contours. The sparkling lenses and chrome grille finish give the Mystique GS and LS a contemporary look.

The overall body contours show the obvious influence of the wind tunnel, as designers seek minimum resistance to air flow. The four-door's coefficient of drag is a quite respectable 0.31, so like the daring young man on the flying trapeze the Mystique flies through the air with the greatest of ease.

As an automobile positioned mid-range between the entry-level Mercury Tracer and the top-of-the-line Grand Marquis, the Mystique is offering more comfort and convenience features, a smoother ride and an upgraded suspension for 1998.

And the car's standard and optional equipment has been repackaged, too.

In making the sedan more user friendly, power windows now are standard, and there is a one-touch-down mode on the driver's side. A low-fuel warning lamp has been added to the instrument cluster. Dash vent registers are a new easier-to-aim design that enhance interior air flow control.

A new low-profile console between the front seats takes up less space. And the front bucket seats recline with a release lever instead of a hand wheel.

In keeping with the sporting theme, the Mystique offers a five-speed manual transmission in addition to a four-speed automatic. So in accommodating drivers who really want to go with this thing, designers have incorporated some features that provide quieter operation and reduced engine noise and vibration.

Two motors power the '98 Mystique, both of which embrace four valves-per-cylinder technology. One is the 2.0-liter Zetec four-cylinder engine found in the GS. The other is the 2.5-liter Duratec V-6 featured in the LS.

Four-cylinder engines are prone to vibrate due to the firing order that sets up a harmonic couple (vibration) across the crankshaft. Ford engineers have reduced this problem by making internal reciprocating components lighter and bolstering the stiffness of the cylinder block with a "ladder-frame" lower reinforcement.

Perceived engine noise is only half as loud as in the 1997 model. Engineers also improved the Zetec's efficiency with a new timing system that reduces idle roughness and increases city gas mileage.

The four-cylinder's fuel rating with a five-speed is 24 mpg city/35 mpg highway. With the four-speed automatic on board the highway mileage drops of 3 mpg.

For anyone who really is serious about moving with the Mystique, the 24-valve Duratec V-6 is the only way to go. There is a quantum leap in horsepower and torque with the V-6 over the inli ne 4.

While there is only a one-half liter difference in piston displacement, there is a differential of 45 horsepower between the six-cylinder and the four - and that's a bunch. The V-6 produced a robust 170 horsepower to the inline 4's 125 horses.

Torque differential is not quite as dramatic but still impressive, being 165 foot-pounds of torque for the Duratec motor to 130 foot-pounds for the Zetec.

The V-6 is available with a five-speed gearbox shift linkage that uses smooth acting cables to replace rods between the shifter mechanism and the front-drive transaxle. This eliminates a major path for engine noise and vibration to enter the passenger compartment. In addition the Mystique clutch pedal is significantly reduced for '98.

Another feature about the V-6 is the engine now incorporates the SecuriLock anti-theft system. An ignition key programmed with one of 72 million billion possible codes must communicate with a matching receiver before the motor will start.

Once it does, however, chassis engineers have honed the Mystique's ride and handling balance by reducing friction in both the steering and suspension. The ride feels notably smoother without sacrificing handling stability.

With a base price of a couple a hundred bucks over $16,000, the Mystique offers the Mercury image that denotes a step up from comparable Ford models. The Lincoln-Mercury Division regards it as an automobile beyond the ordinary.