YO! The bulge is gone! That ugly, "spare-tire" hump that sullied the rear end of previous Lincoln Continentals is zapped from the 1988 model.

The Ford designers who've argued for years that form follows function have made their point: The bulge's only function was to signal bad taste.

The 1988 Continental, by comparison, is more car than dude-mobile. Its lines are smooth, rounded, purposeful. It's borrowed many styling cues from the Lincoln-Mercury Sable and Ford Taurus. But don't give me any of that "lookalike" stuff, unless you're willing to say the same thing about Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Porsche and Volvo cars that share similar sheet metal.

Anyway, the new front-wheel-drive Continental has a longer wheelbase and body than the Sable. But the differences go beyond size.

By any reasonable measure -- styling, engineering, fit, finish, comfort and handling -- the 1988 Continental is a first-class luxury machine.

The status-conscious would be well advised to shop this nameplate before plopping down money on one of those ridiculously expensive, four-passenger, entry-level European models, say, like the Mercedes-Benz 190 E 2.3, or one of those me-too BMW, 300-series things.

In terms of value, what you get for what you pay, the six-passenger 1988 Continental is an overall better car.

Complaint: The new Continental sedan needs at least a driver-side air bag. A passenger-side bag would be welcome, too. The 1988 Continental was nearly five years in the making, and that effort is reflected in the huge amount of sensible, useful technology found in the test model. But, given the investment in time and money, you'd think that Ford could've added something as necessary as air bags to enhance front-occupant safety in crashes. Mercedes-Benz puts air bags in all of its cars sold in the United States. Maybe next year, Ford?

Praise: The suspension. The boulevard ride of most large luxury cars still resides here. But it's kicked out of the door in sharp turns and high-speed lane changes. Credit the 1988 continental's "adaptive suspension," a fully independent, four-wheel, air-sprung, computer-controlled suspension that "reads" the road.

The computer automatically adjusts the amount of air in each spring, based on a series of factors like vehicle speed, steering-wheel position and turning rate, vehicle body pitch, and braking. The results are a pillow-soft ride when you want it and a hard ride when you need it.

Acceleration: At 140 hp at 3,800 rpm, the 1988 Continental is no racer. Big deal. The car moves when it must, and does so with authority. The new Continental is powered by a very quiet, 3.8-liter, multiport, electronically fuel-injected V-6 that does a better job than the V-8 it replaces.

The engine is mated with a four-speed automatic overdrive transaxle, which would be called a transmission in rear-drive cars.

Head-turning-quotient: Reserved sensuality. Elegant dignity. The fire's there. But you gotta understand class before you can appreciate the passion.

Sound system: Whoa! Six-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette. Electronic. By Ford and JBL. Anyone in need of a better sound system had better enroll in Boogie Lovers Anonymous.

Mileage: About 23 to the gallon (18.6- gallon tank, estimated 420-mile range on usable volume), running mostly highway with three occupants and with air-conditioner on most of the time.

Price: Estimated $26,000 as tested. No base price or dealer-invoice price available at this writing, but according to industry sources, dealers of U.S. luxury cars generally make close to 14 percent profit on the sticker price.

Note: Don't worry. All firm prices of 1988 cars already reviewed in this column will be published as soon as they are available.

Warren Brown covers the auto industry for The Post.