THE NAME sounds like "mistake." But the car isn't. It's rollingproof that the quality gap between American and Japanese automakers isclosed.

The car is the 1995 Mercury Mystique, one of Ford Motor Co.'s newmid-size models. Along with its practically identical sibling, the FordContour, it's going to give competitors heartburn.

There's no mystery to the Mystique's market-busting potential. Forddid good customer research, and designed a car to reflect its findings.To wit:

Mid-size cars constitute 28 percent of U.S. auto sales, the singlelargest segment. That's where the money is. The people who have thatmoney are pretty smart -- and pretty practical. They want quality andreliability first. Styling is important to them, but it's clearly secondin their considerations. They aren't into public displays of affection;they want the sweet stuff behind closed doors and under the hood. So,what to do?

Give them a car of Japanese-generic exterior design, which is to sayappealing, but not exciting. Make the body smooth, round, tight. Put thebest styling cues in the interior, especially the instrument panel.Place big, analog gauges underneath an oval hood. Give the dials andbuttons a soft touch. The seats? Make 'em firm, supportive. On the powerseats, arrange all buttons so that they're easy to reach, easy to use.

Throughout the interior, add thoughtful pieces -- fold-out cupholders within easy reach of the driver and front passenger, cup holdersfor the backseaters, pillar-adjustable seat belts for front passengers,discreet storage bins, soft "night lights" around all door handles andlocks. In sum, make the car feel like a luxury ship, but avoid anyflirtation with ostentation.

Also, remember that the middle class has dreams. Give them an engineand a suspension system that makes them feel as if they could win a roadrace. But make certain that their fantasies aren't disturbed by highfuel bills.

Finally, come up with a name, but don't follow Ford's example.Avoid the mistake of calling it a Mystique.

Background: The Mystique and Contour are front-wheel-drive,five-passenger, mid-size sedans that replace the Mercury Topaz and FordTempo. Other than those basics, the new cars have little in common withtheir predecessors. For one thing, the new cars offer a bona fidechallenge to the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Mazda 626 and NissanAltima. The old models could never compete in that league.

The tested Mercury Mystique LS drew so much unsolicited publicpraise during a week-long run, I had to keep checking its label to makesure it was a Mercury.

Standard equipment in the new car includes dual-front air bags;high-strength boron steel door beams; "anti-submarine" seats to reducethe risk of sliding underneath a seat belt in a frontal collision; afour-wheel-independent suspension system; a five-speed manualtransmission; power front discs/rear drum brakes; and a 2-liter,16-valve, in-line four-cylinder engine.

The base four-cylinder engine is rated 125 horsepower at 6,000 rpm,compared with a relatively wimpy 96 horsepower in the old Mercury Topaz.Maximum torque is set at 125 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm.

The tested Mystique was equipped with Ford's optional Duratec V-6, a2.5-liter, 24-valve job rated 165 horsepower at 6,000 rpm. Maximumtorque in that engine is set at 165 pound-feet at 5,000 rpm.

Other options on the test car included power four-wheel discs withanti-lock backup and an electronically controlled, four-speed automatictransmission. Traction control, designed to reduce wheel slippage on wetroads, also is an option.

Complaints: The goofy name.

Praise: An excellent, well-packaged family sedan. Excellent cargocapacity at 14.1 cubic feet.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Beats or meets any competitorin all three categories. Surprisingly good in the curves. Braking wasexcellent.

Sound system: Four-speaker, electronically-controlled A M/FMstereo radio and cassette by Ford. Very good.

Head-turning quotient: Raves from conservatives. Mild applausefrom liberals.

Mileage: About 24 to the gallon (15-gallon tank, estimated350-mile range on usable volume of recommended 89-octane unleaded),running city/highway with one to two occupants and light cargo.

Price: Base price is $15,230. Dealer's invoice on base model is$13,755. Price as tested is $20,880, including $5,155 in options and a$495 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: A must-see on any mid-size car shoppinglist. Keep in mind that the Ford Contour is the same car with lessgimcrackery and a lower price.