If that sound you hear in the distance is the death bell for Mercury, don't look the Sable's way.

Like its distant cousin, Plymouth, the once-eclectic automotive brand, might be whittled down to just five nameplates and the public's interest may be waning, but the Sable is still solid.

Unassuming, yes. But solid.

No eyebrow raising or head spins here. No gawkers or dreamers. No chance at getting blown away by white-hot first impressions. Second impressions? You're getting warmer.

The 2001 Sable is what it is, the very definition of utility wrap-ped in sheet metal. Convenience. Practicality. Brand X with anti-lock braking, horsepower and substance over style. And, yes, Mercury all the way. But certainly not dead yet.

A few years ago? That was a different story.

More than a decade back, in a move that seemed stunning for the stiff-lipped Sable, the designers at Mercury turned radical. Out went the straight lines, in went the smooth curves. Out went the front grille, in went a light bar that belonged in a Star Wars sequel. Out went the Sable into the marketplace, out walked the consumer.

Sales slumped and so did the hopes for a Mercury brand that was banking on a bestseller. The problem was, Ford didn't know what Mercury really wanted to sell. Was it a luxurious Ford, a cut-down Lincoln or its very own thing?

Decisions. Decisions.

In the meantime, Mercury's Sable is redesigned and safer than ever. Even with Mercury on the cusp of an outright downsizing, the Sable shines bright. Why? It's back to the basics: Safety, a powerful V6 and lots of cargo room. It's a also a good bang for the buck in a domestic midsize marketplace as competitive as any other.

In an age devoted to hot throwbacks and crossover cars, the Sable, in its purest form, is a pleasant if not exciting car. It means value, it promises not to offend.

A near twin of the Ford Taurus (except for headlights and taillights), the Sable was reshaped last year and is virtually unchanged for 01. What that means is a safer ride than the Sable's ever known and, Mercury hopes, more sales.

Simply put, the Sable is built on safety, most of it ingenious in nature.

Its dual-stage air bags deploy differently, based on impact severity, seat position and whether or not occupants are wearing seat belts. There's traction control and other safety goodies like a standard emergency trunk release, optional side air bags for head and chest protection and power foot pedals that adjust up or down up to three inches to keep short drivers far enough away from the steering wheel and the air bags.

Under those pedals the mildmannered Sable comes to life.

It is sprightly and a bit surprising, especially for a family sedan better equipped for family values.

The base engine is the adequate pushrod V6. A better bet came in the 24-valve V6, a 200- horsepower, sneaky-fast version of the sedan that's standard on the LS Premium model, our tester . Both engines are a little sluggish off the line (about eight seconds in 0-to-60 mph), but find their stride as the four-speed automatic breathes deeper. The engine has a wide power band with a boat load of low-end torque.

It's actually . . . sporty. Can we say that about a family sedan?

With independent front- and rearsuspension, the Sable also finds its groove in tight corners, avoiding the rocking and rolling of most larger family cars. The ride is solid, if not a little bumpy on uneven surfaces but there's good feedback through the wheel and handling is responsive. Geared to the larger V6, there's room to growl (which it also does).

Room to grow also isn't a problem.

As always, the Sable comes ready to haul. The trunk is long and deep, topped only by Saturn for trunk space in its class. Front and rear comfort and seat room is enough for a family of five. And, in both areas, the Sable outweighs the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, its top two challengers. As anot layer of icing, the Sable comes available as either a sedan or a wagon, something the competition can't touch.

So, is this the savior for Mercury? Is this a Camry or an Accord? Maybe and no.

The Sable comes loaded with value but the competition is stiff. Where the opponents are generally considered faster and more dependable, there are the small issues with this Mercury. The Sable's interior is redesigned for 2000, but still a bit stale - large buttons plunked in a pod-like, conventional square grid. And the Sable sedan comes with disc front brakes and drum rears, not the four-wheel discs that are on the wagon and are possible on the Accord and Camry.

Mileage is par for the class, about 19 mpg in our test.

In its base GS form, the Sable starts at just under $20,000, or a little more than a Camry or Accord, but less than a Dodge Intrepid or Acura Integra. Add the LS package or the LS Premium (more standard features), the sticker gets into the Infiniti G20 range (about $22,000).

Overall, it means utility, a Sable hallmark in a market of midsize competitors.

2001 MERCURY SABLE LS

Rating: 2.5

High gear: More conservative styling yields more trunk room and, as always, a ton of safety. With the 24-valve V-6 engine, horsepower is a pleasant surprise.

Low gear: More conservative styling yields . . . conservative styling. The Sable's exterior won't offend, but the lack of low-gear acceleration might. Rough roads are tough to handle as well.

Vehicle type: Front-wheel-drive, front engine, four-door, five-passenger midsize sedan.

Standard equipment: Four-speed automatic transmission; dual front air bags; four-wheel disc brakes; emergency inside trunk release; power, tilt steering; cruise control; heated power mirrors, power windows and door locks; remote keyless entry; AM/FM/cassette stereo; theft-deterrent system; power driver's seat; power-adjustable pedals; automatic climate control; fog lights.

Competition: Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Pontiac Grand Prix

Engine: 200 horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6

Torque: 200 foot-lbs. at 4,000 rpm

Wheelbase: 108.5 inches

Length: 199.8 inches

MPG rating: 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway

Manufactured: Illinois

Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles; the drivetrain is three years/36,000 miles; body corrosion is five years/unlimited miles.

Base price (GS): $19,785

Price as tested (LS - including options, destination and delivery): $23,850