Funny how "sure" things sometimes come up short.

When it was first rolled out in 2000, the Lincoln LS was designed not only as a domestic alternative to the upscale sport sedans that come from Europe, it was meant to be a demographic lightning rod.

Suddenly, it was supposed to be hip to be Lincoln again, or so automotive execs at Ford's headquarters hoped. Lincoln saw the average age of its buyer creeping toward retirement; it needed some new blood.

The LS, with its sporty handling, unique styling and powerful engine, was slated to be the solution for every BMW lover who stole Lincoln's sales. The LS was Motor Trend's Car of the Year. It was the car for any thirtysomething.

Or was it?

It took a few years for Lincoln dealerships to finally notice the clientele getting younger. But the LS never seemed to find its fountain of youth or its hip step. It seemed to be forever searching for that right mode - almost a wallflower on the automotive landscape.

The problem: It was a good car surrounded by excellence. BMW to the right. Mercedes to the left. And not much wiggle room in the middle. And the competition is cut-throat, especially with consumers who are some of the most discerning in the market.

What to do? Keep trying again. After a few years of excessive tweaks, tugs and pulls, Lincoln hopes the 2004 LS finally makes a convincing argument. It has had enough surgery. Last year, the LS received a complete redesign. Horsepower was boosted in the 3.9-liter V-8 and the 3-liter V-6 (now 280 and 232, respectively). Interior improvements were meant to give the LS a more upscale ambience - real walnut trim found its way on the option list along with a high-grade sound system and an on-board navigation system.

This year, after numerous tweaks under the hood and inside the cockpit, Lincoln promises the package is getting better. We'll somewhat agree.

For starters, for 2004 Lincoln hopes to increase the "wow" factor of its car again - this time offering a new LSE performance and appearance package, sharpening the ride by reducing noise, vibration and harshness, and simplifying the options. Buyers now have the choice of a V-6 in either Luxury or Premium or a V-8 in Sport or Ultimate models.

The best part of the LS? The entire package, especially for a reasonably priced (low $30,000) domestic trying-so-hard to be foreign. No matter how you slice it, the LS still has a good appearance, smart handling and an aggressive engine. The LS still is a handsome ride, complete with Lincoln's signature grille up front, bold chrome, quad round headlamps and a sporty appearance.

It even adds interesting features, such as the LSE's body-color grille, large air intake, seven-spoke chrome wheels and round fog lights.

It's enough to get anyone motoring.

On the road, the LS is a mover, especially in the 3.9-liter DOHC 32-valve V-8. It bites into cor ners with the willingness of a Lexus and, with improved throttle control this year, power delivery is timed just right. Hard acceleration is not impossible. Steady cruising is always there.

One serious negative: A five-speed automatic is the only transmission offered. No manual - something that is sure to drop it off a few enthusiasts' lists.

But for 2004, there can be no quivering over the greatest improvement: the interior. All models are smartly appointed and, even in V-6 form, come with standard or optional equipment you would expect when you have to compete with the big Europeans - things like a power moonroof, rain-sensing wipers, heated and cooled front seats covered in perforated leather, power-folding mirrors and an in-dash six-disc CD changer.

Inside, the look is classic. The center console is three times larger than previous models and splits the front compartment into driver and passenger. Gauges are accented with satin nickel trim, and there plenty of gadgets - from adjustable pedals to rear park assist - to keep you entertained. Other options on the LS include a DVD-based navigation system and a THX-certified, 10-speaker audio system. THX is the digital sound usually found at your local movie theater.

Step up to the V-8 Sport and you'll get most of the features of the Luxury V-6, but with 17-inch wheels and an automanual transmission that lets you shift without a clutch. The automanual replaces the standard five-speed automatic. Or there's the option of going all-out with the V-8 Ultimate (formerly V-8 Premium Sport). The Ultimate adds HID headlamps and a sport-tuned suspension.

But to really compete with the Germans, you've got to have all the technology, so Lincoln made sure to stock the LS with other essentials - things like traction control, which is standard across the line.

Stability control is also standard on the V-8 Ultimate, and optional on all other trims, while the four-wheel antilock disc brakes are equipped with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and BrakeAssist. Both systems provide one element: control. In emergency situations, the systems engage and help the driver maintain control of the road and the ability to steer clear of a situation.

But the LS is not just about looks or interiors or gadgets. It's about a package that offers something for everyone - with a twist.

Lincoln has always sold itself as a domestic alternative to European sports sedan luxury. With its buyers getting younger and its products getting broader, the LS hopes it has finally lived up to those expectations.

We'll see.

2004 Lincoln LS

Rating: 3.5

High gear: A smooth and comfort able sport sedan, the LS is a domes tic alternative in a tough field of foreign entries. The V8 is powerful and the interior classy.

Low gear: A lack of a manual transmission is a serious turn-off, especially for enthusiasts. It's not quite as nimble or athletic in the corners as some of the Germans.

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

Key competition: BMW 3-Series, Cadillac CTS, Audi A6, Lexus IS 300

Base engine: 232 horsepower, 3.0-liter V6

Transmission: Five-speed automatic

Standard safety equipment: Front airbags; front side-impact airbags; stability control; ABS; brake assist; traction control.

Wheelbase: 114.5 inches

Length: 193.9 inches

MPG rating: 20 city/26 highway (3.0-liter)

Manufactured: USA

Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles.

Base price: $31,860 (V6 Luxury)

Price as tested (including options, destination and delivery): $40,060