THE CAR came without gold chains and an open-collar shirt, or a black leather jacket or dark glasses. It also came without the classic male, middle-age paunch. But everything about it said crisis-time, gotta-shake-these-near-50-still-owe-tuition- can't-afford-a-Porsche blues.

The 1996 Buick Regal Gran Sport sedan. That's "Gran" without the "d" -- a spelling engineered to give the car more panache. Note the difference between the sound of "Grand" and "Gran." The d-less "Grand" sounds more sensuous, don't you think?

Anyway, the test model was black on black with a blacked-out grille and highly polished chrome wheels beneath silver rocker panels -- the paneling below the doors of an automobile. It obviously came from the Oakland Raiders School of Design, which was cool, considering the Regal Gran Sport's intended market.

To put it kindly, that market is the plateau of American manhood -- that psycho-economic flat spot that finds many men not quite failures, not quite successes, but still struggling to add zoom to an extraordinarily ordinary life.

And the Regal Gran Sport does just that. The thing can kick butt, which is also cool, as long as that butt isn't wearing a state trooper's uniform and sitting inside a big Chevrolet Caprice with flashing lights.

Background: The Gran Sport sedan is a Buick Regal on testosterone -- a deliberately male-oriented machine designed to change from family hauler to hot-rod as soon as it clears the driveway sans spouse, kids and family pets. Buick's marketers say as much, and the Gran Sport lives up to that billing.

That's the problem. As a symbol, the Gran Sport is dreadfully transparent. It allows people to see right through you. Example: A woman in a Northern Virginia shopping mall saw me getting out of the Gran Sport and said: "I guess that's your toy, huh?" She then smiled and shook her head as if to say: "Don't worry, honey. You'll get over it." I was devastated.

What the heck? The Gran Sport is equipped with an extensively revised version of General Motors Corp.'s trusty 3.8-liter V-6 called the 3800 Series II V-6. The new engine is rated 205 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, 35 horsepower more than the previous model. Max torque is set at 230 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm.

The Gran Sport's suspension has been tweaked to give it a more sporty feel than lesser Regals. But it also shares much with its softer siblings, including front-wheel-drive, standard dual-front air bags, air conditioning, power four-wheel-disc brakes with anti-lock backup and an electronically controlled, four-speed automatic transmission.

The other Regals include the Custom, the most affordable version; and the Limited, the luxury model. All Regals are available as sedans or coupes.

Complaints: The feel of it, which was something like being trapped in an eternal run of "Saturday Night Fever" with John Travolta.

Praise: Mechanically, the Regal Gran Sport sedan is aces. It has substantially more oomph than say, your everyday "Japanese Chevrolet" -- otherwise known as the Toyota Camry.

Head-turning quotient: A motorized leisure suit -- superbly stitched, but decidedly out of date.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent ride and handling -- in fact, unbelievably good for a car that began life in 1973 as a run-of-the-mill family mobile. Excellent acceleration in terms of highway lane-change competence. Excellent braking.

Mileage: About 25 miles per gallon (estimated 409-mile range on usable volume of recommended regular unleaded gasoline), running mostly highway and driver only.

Sound system: AM/FM stereo radio and cassette with console-mounted, single-CD disc changer, Concert Sound II speakers, by GM/Delco. Excellent off-the-shelf factory sound. You want better? Spend more money or just go to the danged concert.

Price: Base Regal price is $21,800. Estimated dealer invoice on base Regal is $18, 80. Add $2,382 for "Gran Sport options package," including the 3800 Series II V-6. Tack on another $540 for destination charge. Price as tested is $24,722.

Purse-strings note: The Gran Sport has one of the best engines of any car in the mid-size category. It's far more fun than driving a Camry, Honda Accord, Chrysler Concorde or, for that matter, Ford's 1996 Taurus. If only Buick could do something about the Gran Sport's styling.