When it comes to popular American cars, they don't get any more popular than the Ford Taurus.

Through August, Ford produced 227,704 Taurus cars. That's more than the entire lines of BMW, Chrysler, Daewoo, Dodge, Mercedes-Benz, Lincoln, Jaguar, Mercury, Volvo, Cadillac, Saturn, Acura, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Porsche, Mitsubishi, Audi and Suzuki in the same period, according to Automotive News, an industry trade publication.

What makes this car so popular?

Start with the specs. This is a mid-size, four-door sedan, which is the heart of the mid-size car market. The styling, while not as radical as in the past, is distinctive enough not to get lost in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

But, here's the bigger secret. Look at the base price of the test vehicle: $21,960. That will buy you the SES Sport trim level, which is designed to attract younger buyers who might otherwise look at a VW Passat, but can't afford the VW's stiffer price. The SES Sport is just below the top-rung SEL, but above the LX and SE versions.

The SES Sport is a good value, with a lot of standard features, including four-wheel anti-lock brakes, air-conditioning, rear defroster, power rack-and-pinion steering with variable assist, remote trunk release, keyless entry, power windows, mirrors and door locks, cruise control, aluminum wheels, front bucket seats with console, power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support, AM/FM/CD player, split-folding rear seats, power lumbar support, floor mats, rear spoiler and the ever-important illuminated visor mirrors.

All cars come with a V-6 and a four-speed automatic transmission. The SES came with the double-overhead-cam 3-liter Duratec V-6, which is good for 200 horsepower and 200 foot-pounds of torque. It's superior to the 3-liter overhead-valve Vulcan V-6, which furnishes less power and is found in lesser versions of the Taurus.

The test car, labeled ''Sport Edition'' added special aluminum wheels, power moonroof, an upgraded audio system with a cassette player and a six CD changer, power adjustable pedals, side air-bags, traction control, perimeter lighting and auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass. The bottom line was still a respectable $24,300. That's a lot of features for the money, especially considering the hefty incentives Ford offers on the Taurus, including $2,500 on 2002s and $1,000 on 2003s.

That seems to be the big secret: this is an affordable, nice-sized car that is perfect for handling the drudgery of everyday life.

Power is good from the Duratec V-6, but like most overhead-cam engines, there's not a lot of power off the line. At speed, there's strong passing power once the automatic transmission downshifts. Fuel economy is about average for the size and power the car offers, about 18 mpg in city driving.

Handling is a bit disappointing, considering that Ford has plastered the word ''Sport'' on this car. While the car fee ls sharp at highway speeds, thanks to the variable assist power steering, there's a lot of body lean in corners. This might be typical of your average family sedan, but not typical of a sports sedan.

Braking, courtesy of front disc/rear drum brakes, is average. Stopping was accompanied by some nosedive. Panic braking brought out some twitchiness in the tail, but it was controllable.

Some of the handling issues could be resolved by using better tires. The Continental tires on the test vehicle lost grip easily in foul weather and abrupt takeoffs. They squealed around corners, even at low speeds.

The interior was nicely designed, with a modern, functional dash that's easy to understand and operate. Simple rotary controls operate the efficient climate controls. Touches such as a tilt steering wheel, variable speed intermittent wipers and open cupholders in the front console were thoughtful. The coin holder is a bit of a reach, buried behind the transmissio shifter. The CD-changer ate up most of the space in the center console's storage bin.

The cloth-covered seats were comfortable, although a lack of thigh support is noticeable on long drives. Rear seating was accommodating, with head and foot room, but the curved rear door design makes it too easy for passengers to hit their head.

Overall assembly quality seemed quite good. The interior ambience was nicer than that of the larger Crown Victoria, but it still had a somewhat stark feel.

The trunk is huge, perfect for family hauling duties. A cargo net is provided.

The Ford Taurus is a capable, competent family car that succeeds in pleasing the average American family.

Still, it seems less refined than its chief rivals, the Honda Accord, which was redesigned for 2003, and the Toyota Camry, redesigned for 2002. The Taurus, redesigned in 1996, won't be redesigned until 2005.

If Ford could take $500 or $1,000 from the rebate and apply it to better brakes, suspension and a finer grade of interior plastic, this car would be even more popular.