We first tested the Mercury Cougar when it arrived in Lincoln Mercury dealerships more than a year ago. Our harshest criticism of the car - a rather cheap-looking interior - has yet to be addressed on the 2000 model. But our overall impression of the Cougar has been tempered somewhat, if not downright improved, after comparing it with Toyota's all-new Celica, a head-to-head competitor that we wrote about last week.

He: Normally, we don't review a relatively new car in its second year. But the 2000 Cougar is such a better car than the new Celica in so many ways, we felt compelled to give it some ink. The one place where Toyota still wins is assembly quality. Our Cougar had some trim out of place and some bunched-up seat fabric. But it was still a much more pleasant vehicle to live in - despite a cabin that's pretty cramped in the rear - and more of a pleasure to drive, thanks to the optional V-6 engine. What really amazed me was the sticker, which was $4,000 cheaper than the Celica!

She: Well, you were almost on your own for this test drive. I couldn't figure out how to get the $235 power driver's seat closer to the pedals. It's my fault. I sat in our driveway for 20 minutes, fretting about missing a plane flight. The owner's manual didn't help me. And I just couldn't figure it out. Talk about embarrassing. I had to unload all my luggage and get into my Beetle. It was the first time since second grade that I couldn't reach the pedals.

He: Actually, it was the first time in about two days that you couldn't figure out something mechanical. I couldn't believe it when you asked me how to use the jar wrench the other day. Duh!

She: I thought you were going to defend me against the evil engineers.

He: OK, honey. Let me set the record straight. Instead of putting the seat switch on the side, Ford put it on the front. Wow. That was tough. Next question.

She: OK, I have another question. Why doesn't the Cougar come with adjustable pedals like the Taurus? Then it wouldn't matter how dumb I am. Certainly I could figure that out.

He: Why don't women come with adjustable legs and save us the trouble?

She: Are you talking about Barbie? She drives a Corvette. Or is it a Jeep Grand Cherokee now? Speaking of women, when I was coming out of St. Joan of Arc Church this week, a woman came running up to me in the parking lot, anxious to talk about the Cougar. She said, "How do you like it? I can't believe I'm asking you that, but it's one of the few cars I've actually noticed recently." You know, that is saying something in an age of cookie-cutter cars. Personally, I like the Cougar because it's less gender-specific than cars like the Celica, which just screams "GUY!"

He: So far, you're batting about one for three. Sorry, but you're dead wrong on the Cougar. Total chick car. Don't you pay attention to who's driving these vehicles in the real world? I have yet to see a member of the male sex in a Cougar. But you are right about the Celica.

She: Wait. Let's go back to the seat switch. I knew where the darn thing was. I just couldn't get it to move forward. I could go up and down, but I couldn't go forward.

He: I'll bet you were a terror on your little rocking horse, dear.

She: Never had one. But I do give the Cougar a very solid three-star recommendation. It'll get you noticed, and it won't break the bank. If you so desire, you can add safety options like antilock brakes for $500, side air bags for $390 and traction control for $235, all of which were on our test car. And all of which I found quite valuable - once I figured out how to work the power seat. Hey, I'm not afraid to look like an idiot. Do you agree?

He: I agree. You shouldn't be afraid.

2000 Mercury Cougar

Anita's rating: above average

Paul's rating: above average

Likes: Styling is near-perfect. All this, and a V-6 too, for only $20,000. More civilized than the w Celica. Side air bags available. Decent gas mileage for a six-cylinder sports car.

Dislikes: Seats are uncomfortable and side mirrors stylish but too small (Anita). Sloppy trim in places. Power-seat switch confusing. ABS is an extra-cost option.

Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, four-passenger hatchback

Price: Base, $16,945; as tested, $20,585 (inc. $400 destination charge)

Engine: 2.5-liter V-6; 170-hp; 165 lb-ft torque

EPA fuel economy: 19 mpg city/28 mpg highway

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $1,026 (* Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.)

Where built: Flat Rock