The key to freedom and progress is keeping what's yours--and using that as a base to go after more. Saturn Corp., a subsidiary of General Motors Corp., understands this. The proof is in the 2000 LS2, Saturn's first mid-size family sedan.

The new car is good enough to maintain Saturn's 40 percent repeat-buyer rate. It's also competitive enough to take sales away from the Toyota Camry, the Honda Accord and the revised-for-2000 Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable.

Saturn attributes this goodness to "German engineering," because the LS2 is based on GM's German-built Opel Vectra. But the truth is bigger than that.

Saturn buyers historically have gone for practical, reliable cars of modest eye appeal. Those who left Saturn seldom did so because they were disappointed with the quality of the original, small S-series Saturn models, or because they were upset with the company's sales and service. Owners simply grew out of small cars, and Saturn, at the time, had nothing else to offer.

The larger LS2 and its L-series siblings, built in Wilmington, Del., end that deficiency. The new car has similar exterior and interior dimensions with the Toyota Camry and Avalon. The tested V-6 version easily matches and sometimes exceeds--in terms of smoothness--the highway performance of its rivals.

The overall body structure of the L-series Saturns, notably the supporting space frame (think of steel bones beneath plastic skin), has been strengthened. Side-impact crash barriers in the doors have been toughened. Road and engine noises have been dampened. The feel is solid, tight.

Interior space allows ample seating room for five adults. This is no guess. Any time my 5-foot-11 Army nephew, Donald, can sit in a back seat without complaining, the rear space must be okay.

Saturn was not trying to produce an "Oh, wow!" car with the LS2. One look at its slightly-richer-than-vanilla styling shows that much. The company was going for more of an "uhmmm," or, perhaps, an "ahhh," some expression conveying pleasure without gimcrackery or other excess.

What we have in the LS2 is an exceptionally decent, reasonably affordable family sedan--one loaded with a bevy of standard equipment, including an electronically controlled system that automatically determines oil-change schedules based on individual driving habits.

I enjoyed driving this car, putting it on the highways of Virginia and Maryland and running around the District of Columbia, which highlights another of its virtues. "German engineering" often means a hard-feel ride, desirable on superbly smooth highways such as Germany's autobahn, where stiffer suspensions are an asset.

But a hard-feel ride is the last thing you'd want on the District's punishing, always-under-construction streets, where a more compliant suspension is welcome. That's the case with most U.S. roads. Happily, Saturn understands that, too, which is why it's equally understandable that I can stick my neck out and make this prediction: This baby's gonna sell!

Nuts & Bolts

2000 Saturn LS2

Complaint: Some defect might show up in the future. It happens. But there wasn't much to gripe about during 1,000 miles of driving over one week.

Praise: A highly competitive mid-size family car offered at a perfectly reasonable price and sold in an environment that usually respects buyers' dignity, time and common sense.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Triple aces, assuming that the buyer understands the LS2's design intent. This is a family hauler, not a sports car or a luxury limo. It is supposed to offer basic transportation. Yet it goes beyond that, providing a very pleasing ride, highly competent highway acceleration, and handling that will meet or beat anything in the affordable-mid-size category.

Model lineup: The new L-series includes the LS, LS1 and LS2 sedans, with the LS2 being the best-equipped of the group, and the LW1 base wagon and LW2 upscale wagon.

Engines: Two available. More modest L cars get a 2.2-liter, double-overhead-cam inline four-cylinder engine that produces 137 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 147 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. The LS2 gets a British-made 3-liter, double-overhead-cam V-6 that produces 182 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 190 pound-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm.

Transmissions: The lower L's get a standard five-speed manual; a four-speed automatic is optional. An electronically controlled four-speed automatic is standard on the LS2.

Brakes: Power front discs and rear drums on the lower L's; power four-wheel discs on the LS2; anti-locks optional.

Capacities: Seats five. Cargo capacity is 17.5 cubic feet.

Mileage: In the LS2, about 23 miles per gallon city/highway. Estimated 293-mile range on tank of 13.1 gallons of regular unleaded.

Price: Base price on the LS2 is $20,135. Estimated dealer invoice on the base model is $19,107, but under Saturn's no-haggle price policy, the customer pays the retail price. Price as tested is $22,215, including $1,640 in options and a $440 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: Compare with Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable, Mitsubishi Galant, Oldsmobile Alero or any other affordable mid-size car.