Well, this is a nice surprise: A comparatively mild makeover for the 2003 Lincoln LS has turned it into what is probably the best American-brand sedan. A very good car when it debuted several years ago, the Lincoln LS - at least the Premium Sport model tested here - is now simply excellent.

The LS shares a platform with the Jaguar S-Type, the Ford Thunderbird, and, to a lesser extent, the upcoming 2005 Ford Mustang, which will be loosely based on the chassis.

Engineered during a period when most domestic cars in this size and price range were single-mindedly front-wheel-drive, the LS helped remind consumers how nice a well-balanced rear-wheel-drive car can be. The performance of the LS and the general interior quality was tough to fault, but its anonymous styling has held it back.

For 2003, it gets a too-minor face-lift that helps, but not enough. Under the body is where the important changes were made.

Beneath the hood, the 3.9-liter V-8 gets a 28-horsepower bump to 280. The 3.0-liter V-6 on the less expensive LS models also gets a power increase, from 220 to 232. Both engines use a five-speed automatic transmission. The manual transmission, previously available on the V-6, has been discontinued due to a lack of interest.

With 280 horsepower, the smooth, gutsy V-8 engine accelerates with authority, even if, at times, the transmission is a bit slow shifting. Our actual overall fuel mileage was 22.3 mpg, right between the EPA-rated 18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway. Lincoln recommends 91 octane fuel, mid-range between regular and premium.

The biggest improvement for 2003, though, is in handling and road feel. Our Premium Sport model, which has big 17-inch tires and wheels and a slightly stiffer suspension than the regular LS, felt positively European. It's as though Lincoln engineers copied the steering feel, handling and ride of a BMW. Frankly, many U.S. manufacturers copy the BMW suspension and steering, but this is as close as any domestic manufacturer has come to getting it right.

Inside, the leather-upholstered front bucket seats, which are heated and cooled, aren't up to BMW standards, but they aren't bad. Instruments and controls are fine. Trunk space, at 13.5 cubic feet, is more than adequate.

With almost every option available, including a navigation system, a superb THX-certified stereo and rear-parking assist, plus standard-for-the-model features such as stability control, Xenon headlights and a power moonroof, the Premium Sedan base price of $43,360 swelled to a European-like $47,285. The base LS with the V-6 still has a very impressive list of standard equipment for $34,495, and that qualifies it as an excellent buy.

For those who want the entire European feel but insist on buying American, the Premium Sport is a splendid choice.