IT WAS a rolling epiphany, one that came 200 miles into the trip.Absent music and the chatter of companions, there was nothing to do butdrive and think. The car became a retreat. The retreat fosteredrevelation: General Motors, despite its many stumbles, makes a bunch ofnice automobiles.

This was one of them, the 1996 Pontiac Bonneville SSEi sedan -- nota particularly new car in terms of "all new for 1996." Cars and trucksare built on "platforms" -- the frames that determine the shape andfunction of a vehicle. The current, front-wheel-drive Bonnevilleplatform has been around since 1992.

But in terms of "new and improved," the test Bonnie was a hummer.The exterior had been cleaned up -- made neater with reworked front andrear fascias, new tail lamps, headlamps and body side-molding thatlooked less adolescent than previous gimcrackery.

Interior work had been altered, but only slightly: The instrumentpanel, with its multitudinous lights and buttons, still resembled anaircraft cockpit.

But the real improvements -- the harrumph stuff -- was in thegrowl, howl, get-up-and-go of the Bonnie SSEi's reworked 3.8 liter,supercharged V-6. Gazoom! That thing could run. It ran so well, in fact,I added another 25 miles to my overall 300-mile excursion just to enjoythe feel of the engine doing its thing.

Background: The Bonnie SSEi is another GM crossover car, whichmeans it's supposed to do double duty as a family hauler and libidobooster. I didn't carry many family members in it, but I certainly gavemy libido a workout while driving around Virginia.

That exercise was made easier by the Bonnie SSEi's improved 3800Series II V-6, which is rated 280 horsepower at 5,200 rpm with torqueset at 280 pound-feet at 3,200 rpm. That's 15 more horsepower and fivemore pound-feet of torque over the previous model.

Stiffer suspension work complements the increased horsepower. Theresult is a faster, tighter car with less body-roll in curves. Darnedthing feels every bit as good as some Japanese and German competitors inthe sports sedan market.

Other new items on the 1996 Bonnie SSEi include a reengineeredsteering system (Magnasteer) designed to increase maneuverability at lowspeeds and stiffen steering for better handling at higher speeds; animproved emissions control system; and daytime running lights.

Standard equipment includes dual front air bags, power door locks,four-speed automatic transmission, front-power discs/rear drum brakeswith anti-lock backup, and a Pass-Key II, an electronically controlledignition key.

The five-passenger Bonneville is available in four styles: the baseSE, upscale SSE, and the specially equipped sports SLE and SSEi models.

Complaints: Too many danged buttons, including a bunch of 'em thatdon't make much sense, such as the nine -- nine! -- center consolebuttons that control the power seats. An optional, more user-friendlycontrol package is available for those seats. Check w ith your dealer.

Also, it's ludicrous that the high-tech SSEi still hides the veryimportant hazard light button beneath the steering wheel column, whereit's difficult to reach.

Praise: Excellent craftsmanship and quality. A very comfortableperformance sedan that can carry 18 cubic feet of shopping mall stuff.

Head-turning quotient: A muscle-flexing dudemobile that can run forFather of the Year.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Triple aces! No complaints here.Braking was excellent.

Mileage: About 23 miles per gallon (18-gallon tank, estimated401-mile range on usable volume of 92-octane gasoline, required for useby the high compression V-6 engine), running mostly highway and driveronly.

Price: Base price is $26,559. Estimated dealer invoice on basemodel is $23,600. Price as tested is $32,051, including $4,902 inoptions and a $590 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: Compare with Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision,Chrysler Concorde, Nissan Maxima, Ford aurus SHO, Mazda Millenia, LexusES300, BMW 325i, Mitsubishi Diamante and Acura Legend.