The 1997 Mercury Cougar XR7 is motorized disco. It has some nice moves. But it's out of tune with the times.

The car looks like a rolling relic of the 1970s with its rectangular rear, teeny back window and severely formal roofline.

It's no surprise that Ford Motor Co. is taking this one out of production at the end of the current model year. The market for the Cougar died two decades ago.

Simply put, in the design department, this cat's got no claws. But it can run. Yep! It can boogie down straightaways like a zoot-suited hot rod. And it can cut a corner or two, assuming that you don't get goofy.

Approaching the goofy zone in this one can lead to trouble. The rear end rumbles and swings out. You feel a loss of adhesion, and you swear that if the car's backside ever stabilizes, you'll never do anything stupid again. Which is what I swore after entering a curve too fast on an isolated road in the Shenandoah Valley.

But, despite its dated styling and other deficiencies, the Cougar is an okay car. That's not a sop. Fact is, the Cougar gets you where you gotta go in reasonable comfort and safety at highway competitive speeds. And because nobody's rushing out to buy it, you can get it for a reasonable price. Not bad for an old runner. Not bad at all.

Background: The Cougar was introduced as a 1967 model in an America that no longer exists. It was a time of fat cars and radical politics; and it seemed that the cars got fatter as the politics got wilder.

Maybe it was America's way of holding on to some semblance of certainty. With the country divided over Vietnam and race, we needed a golden calf, and the big car was it.

The big sedan hauled families; and the sporty set got around in big, five-seat coupes, of which the Cougar remains representative.

But we've now entered the Age of Extremes -- big trucks and tiny cars. It works like this: You want something big, get a sport-utility vehicle or minivan. You want something small, something "personal," to use auto industry parlance; then buy or lease a small sports coupe, a BMW Z3 or something equally tidy.

That's the way the market is going, and that's why the Cougar and its mechanical twin, the Ford Thunderbird, are going out of production. And all of that means a potentially good deal on wheels for those of you who don't mind driving discontinued merchandise.

The Cougar XR7, for example, is loaded. It comes with a base 3.8-liter, fuel-injected V-6 rated 145 horsepower at 4,000 rpm, with torque rated 215 pound-feet at 2,750 rpm. More oomph is available in the optional, tested 4.6-liter V-8 rated 205-horsepower at 4,250 rpm, with torque rated 280 pound-feet at 3,000 rpm.

An electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission is standard on this rear-wheel drive car, as are power four-wheel-disc brakes with anti-lock backup.

There is a standard four-wheel-independent suspension system -- but don't let that fool you. This one doesn't ride th e bumps as smoothly as similar suspension systems in rival cars. Go easy over the rough stuff.

Air conditioning, dual front air bags and power windows are also standard. Not a bad package.

Mercury Cougar XR7

Complaints: Rear visibility compromised by fat rear pillars and slit-like back window. Rear-seat entry and exit also problematical, largely because of obstructive positioning of front-seat shoulder harnesses. Cargo volume seems okay at 15.1 cubic feet; but vertical stacking of packages is compromised by shallow trunk and low trunk lid.

Praise: A good highway runner. Overall good construction. Durable. A good transportation value.

Head-turning quotient: Turned absolutely nothing. Fits perfectly in a McDonald's parking lot. Got no looks at all.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Overall excellent ride. Good acceleration, zero to 60 miles per hour in 8.1 seconds. Excellent handling on straightaways. Be careful in curves. That back end can become unruly. Ex ellent braking.

Mileage: About 23 miles per gallon (18-gallon tank, estimated 400-mile range on usable volume of recommended regular unleaded), running mostly highway with three occupants and light cargo.

Sound system: Optional Ford Premium System, AM/FM stereo radio and compact disc. Excellent.

Price: Base price is $17,830. Dealer invoice on base model is $16,729. Price as tested is $22,765, including $4,425 in options (V-8 engine, "30th Anniversary" decorative package, sound system), and a $510 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: The price is completely negotiable on this one and the companion Thunderbird. Ford isn't trying to hold onto these babies as keepsakes. Shop and compare.