The Mercury Cougar is a car with multiple personalities - and price tags to match. It is a mid-priced, mid-size coupe in its LS street clothes, and a more costly and athletic "personal luxury car" when it dons its XR7 running suit.

The car I tested, an LS equipped with a lot of extras that are standard on the XR7, proved a pleasant hybrid. It also proved fairly pricey. The assorted dishes offered at this Roman options orgy bloated the LS's plebeian $16,094 base price to a thoroughly patrician $23,053.The current Cougar was all-new for the 1989 model year. The chief development this time around is a new engine option, a 200-horsepower version of the 225-horsepower, 5-liter V-8 found in the Ford Mustang.

This engine is available as an option in the LS and as standard equipment on the XR7, where it replaces the 210-horsepower, supercharged 3.8-liter V-6. (The Thunderbird also offers this engine as an option, but retains the supercharged V-6 in the SC, the Bird counterpart to the XR7.)

The new engine was partly a marketing response to the wistful observation by potential Cougar customers that it would be nice if the car came with a V-8. Also, Mercury product planners found the 8 more compatible with the car's personality than the supercharged V-6.

Basically, the V-8, a $1,284 option on the car I drove, has markedly better acceleration and passing power than the standard 140-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-8 - but markedly less pizazz than the 3.8-liter, supercharged V-6 it replaces.

The Cougar I drove also rode and handled quite nicely. The larger wheels and wider tires found on the XR7 would have helped it on fast corners, but it was still perfectly competent with the standard 15-inch wheels and P205/70R15 rubber.

The test car also afforded adequate braking and a decent amount of road feel and provided the driver with good ergonomics. The interior design, dominated by a handsome, wraparound dash, managed to be stylish, distinctive and dignified. It also had a certain solidity about it that mirrored the way the rest of the car looked, felt and sounded.

Back-seat legroom, while adequate, is not as generous as you might expect in a car almost 200 inches long. Gas mileage, however, is exactly what you might expect from a car that weighs in at 3,800 pounds. The LS, which comes only with a four-speed automatic, has EPA mileage ratings of 18 city and 24 highway. I got 19.2 in primarily city use.

Base vehicle: Includes 3.8-liter engine, four-speed automatic transmission, fully independent suspension, power brakes, power steering, air conditioning, power windows, power mirrors, full analogue instrumentation, stereo.

Test model: Includes major options: 5-liter engine, tilt steering, speed control, rear-window defroster, special wheel covers, power door locks, keyless entry, premium stereo/cassette, leather-wrapped steering wheel, six-way power seats, upgraded interior, power antenna, diagnostic maintenance monitor, sunroof, limited-slip differential, anti-lock brake system, climate control. Base price: $16,094. Test model: $23,053 (includes shipping). EPA city rating: 18 mpg. Test mileage: 19.2 mpg. Warranty: one year/-12,000 miles bumper to bumper, four years/50,000 miles on the powertrain and six years/100,000 miles against rust-out.