When it comes to siblings, it seems the middle child always seems to get less attention.

And so it goes with the new Lincoln Aviator SUV.

Just as the Navigator is an upscale interpretation of the Ford Expedition, the Aviator is an upscale interpretation of the Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer.

The Navigator's base price ranges from $49,050 to $62,910. The Aviator starts at $39,995 and runs to $54,635.

But a slightly less luxurious Mercury Mountaineer ranges in base price from $29,950 to $40,125.

The Aviator hit dealer showrooms in November 2002, but it hasn't taken flight. Lincoln has sold 6,789 Aviators through the end of March, according to the industry trade publication Automotive News.

Ford executives are concerned with the same report indicating that buyers are either opting for the similar, yet $10,000 cheaper, Mercury Mountaineer or a more-expensive Lincoln Navigator over the new Aviator.

So the question remains: are buyers being saavy or are they overlooking a good thing?

While it's true that there is much of the Lincoln Aviator in the Mercury Mountaineer, Lincoln has ensured that you're getting more for the difference in price.

While the Mountaineer can be had with either a six or eight-cylinder engine, the Aviator has one engine: a 302-horsepower double-overhead-cam 4.6-liter V-8. The Mountaineer's 4.6-liter V-8 is a single overhead cam and churns out a respectable 240 horsepower.

Like the Mercury, the Aviator is available with rear-wheel or all-wheel-drive.

Unlike some of its car-based competition (such as Lexus RX 300 or Acura MDX), the Aviator uses body-on-frame construction, giving the truck a solid, tough foundation. Unlike most truck-based SUVs, the Aviator (like the Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer) employs a fully independent suspension. Lincoln has taken advantage of this by giving the Aviator road manners similar to that of the Lincoln LS sports sedan. It feels planted, allowing for confident maneuvering.

Body lean is minimal and very well controlled. There's little of the ride softness one feels in the Navigator. However, the Aviator does an admirable job of soaking up bumps.

Power is quick off the line and quite substantial. The accelerator seems touchy upon initial acceleration, so that smooth starts are hard to accomplish. But, the transmission shifts quickly and unobtrusively.

The test vehicle came with all-wheel-drive, although rear-wheel-drive is available. Under normal conditions, 35 percent of the power goes to the front wheels, while 65 percent goes to the rear. Up to 90 percent of the available power can be transferred to the front or rear.

While all of this is noteworthy, most of it can applies to the Aviator's lesser siblings, the Mountaineer and Explorer.

But the Aviator is blessed with one of the finest interior designs of any American vehicl e.

The dashboard looks as if it came straight from a mid-'60s Lincoln Continental. Its real walnut trim contrasts beautifully with the eggshell-colored vinyl and leather seats.

As you'd expect of a Lincoln, there are many convenience features.

The front seats are heated and air-conditioned. The power adjustments help front seat occupants find a comfortable position. Strangely, the backrest angle is adjusted manually, which seems shortsighted in a truck that starts at $39,995.

The second row seats are short and shallow, while the third row is strictly for kids. Both second and third rows fold. The third row isn't power activated, as on the Navigator.

Other available niceties include power-adjustable brake and accelerator pedals, a keyless-entry keypad on the driver's side, running boards, an AM/FM/audio system with in-dash six-CD changer, power moonroof, dual-zone electronic automatic climate control, DVD rear-seat entertainment system, and a Reverse Sensing System that detects obstacles to the rear while the vehicle is backing up. Of course, all of this is available on the Mercury Mountaineer as well.

A unique feature allows the second row split-folding, rear bench seat to be replaced with two bucket seats and a console. This adds to passenger comfort and appears to be a worthwhile option, especially as it would separate warring siblings.

Ford did an admirable job of ensuring occupant safety. Features include dual-stage front air bags, a side curtain air-bag system (which provides enhanced occupant protection in side impacts and rollovers) as well as systems designed to aid drivers in the event of a skid.

Many buyers would find the price premium hard to swallow, but the siren song of the Lincoln's styling and incredible power do much to make the higher tariff more bearable.

Sadly, the test vehicle didn't live up to the quality standard that one expects of Lincoln. The rear tailgate was balky to open; a trim piece had fallen off. Neither is a big indictment and can happen on any car or truck. But the power passenger seat failed to work, something that shouldn't fail with as little as 10,000 miles on the odometer.

Fuel economy was typical for an all-wheel-drive, V-8-powered SUV. Mixed city/highway driving returned 13.6 mpg. The Aviator uses premium fuel.

You can get an Aviator in two trim levels. The base version is called Luxury, while the upscale version is dubbed Premium. A rear-drive Luxury starts at $39,995. Adding all-wheel-drive raises that to $42,915. A rear-wheel-drive Premium Aviator starts at $42,945, while the test vehicle starts at $45,865. All prices include the destination charge.

While the Aviator may not strike a value-conscious buyer as the best buy in the Mountaineer/Aviator/Navigator trio, it is more powerful and stylish than a Mountaineer and easier to handle than the giant Navigator.