Kissing up to younger buyers has become an obsession in the auto industry. What's happening at Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln-Mercury division is a case in point.

Were it not for sport-utility vehicles such as the Mercury Mountaineer and the Lincoln Navigator, the Lincoln-Mercury group would be in the dumps. The division's car sales are dragging, often being pulled along by incentives, such as the $1,000 giveback attached to this week's test car, the Mercury Grand Marquis.

Ford believes the problem is Lincoln-Mercury's relative lack of attractiveness to the young and the restless. The company, as a result, recently moved the division from Michigan to another world, California, where the worship of youth is religion.

The relocation is supposed to help Lincoln-Mercury's designers think young, create young, and snare more of those 20- and 30-somethings who are feeder wallets for future profits.

But here's hoping that Ford doesn't go too far in its quest for bucks, and that it can avoid drastic measures, such as scrapping the full-size Grand Marquis sedan.

This is a wonderful car, and the most sedan for the money. It can outcarry, outrun and outcruise most comparable cars in the $25,000-to-$30,000 category, and that includes the Toyota Avalon.

Only problem is, the Grand Marquis is viewed as a grannymobile. Even Fortune magazine, not exactly a hip journal, called it a "bulky, blue-haired" car.

My hair is gray and black, but I know a good car when I drive one, and the tested 1999 Grand Marquis LS is indisputably good.

I drove the thing for about 600 miles on highways and city streets. Bulky? Ha! The Grand Marquis didn't feel the least bit bulky with its 200-horsepower V-8 engine working full hum. It had no trouble keeping up with--and passing--more streamlined and supposedly faster cars. It's no wonder that highway cops, including young ones, like this car and its Ford-badged cousin, the Crown Victoria.

To me, a truly good car is one that doesn't brutalize you on long trips. I like flash and sexiness. I'm a sucker for style. But my back and other parts of my anatomy are the ultimate arbiters of truth on long drives. If they hurt at the end of a run, pain supplants the romance and excitement of being behind the wheel of something exotic. There was no pain--zilch, none, nada--in the Grand Marquis.

A lady friend of mine once told me that she would not date any man under 40 years old because, she said, few men under 40 have lived long enough to suffer, and people who haven't suffered have a skewed view of joy. "They don't appreciate happiness because they have nothing with which to compare it," she said.

I don't know how true that is, but I get the point. Happiness is cruising down the road in a big ol' sedan knowing that if you were still stuck in the mode of choosing cars by flash appeal, you would've selected something smaller, prettier, younger--and you'd be hurting, instead of feeling as coddled and comfortable as you are right now.

Nuts & Bolts

1999 Mercury Grand Marquis LS

Complaints: Ford could simplify things by dumping the Grand Marquis GS and selling one model, the better-equipped LS. It could then offer anti-lock brakes and traction control as standard equipment instead of continuing the ill-thought practice of selling these necessary safety items as options on the sedan.

Praise: Excellent overall build quality. Comfortable and easy to drive. The perfect car for a long-distance run.

Head-turning quotient: Effective. Effective? Yeah. It looks like a police car. People pay attention. They don't tailgate, and they don't try to cut you off in traffic. Effective.

Safety: The Grand Marquis gets top marks, five stars, in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's frontal crash tests. That means properly belted front-seat occupants in this should be able to survive a frontal hit of about 30 mph.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Super-smooth ride. Excellent acceleration. Good handling, which means it can turn corners at reasonable speeds without its back end sliding out or its body wallowing from side to side. Good brakes--power dual-hydraulic four-wheel discs standard. Anti-locks are optional, which is silly, considering that GM offers them standard on nearly all of its other cars.

Capacities: Seats six adults. Huge trunk, 20.6 cubic feet. Fuel tank holds 19 gallons of regular unleaded.

Engines: The test car had a 4.6-liter, electronically fuel-injected V-8 designed to produce 200 horsepower at 4,250 rpm and 275 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. There is also a 215-horsepower version.

Mileage: Thirsty. About 23 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving. Estimated 421-mile range.

Price: Base price on the test car is $24,220. Dealer invoice price on that model is $22,566. Price as tested is $28,225, including $3,400 in options and a $605 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: One of the best buys among full-size sedans. Compare with Toyota Avalon, Buick LeSabre Custom and Pontiac Bonneville SE.