The BMW 525i that I tested was black to the fifth power. Black body, black tires, black door panels, black dashboard and black leather upholstery. When you couple this ebony monotony with BMW's considerable and congenital design restraint, you have something that sounds awfully funereal.

But it wasn't. Rather, it was the automotive equivalent of women who wear simple, black knit dresses, little jewelry and even less makeup.You can argue, of course, that the 525i's $34,500 starting price makes it the cheapest of the midsize 5-series cars. I would argue in its defense that $34,500 still buys a bit more than a Quarter Pounder and fries.

This is, in fact, a delightful automobile that satisfies its driver on virtually every level. For openers, it is handsome in a clean, distinctive way. It doesn't look like 27 other sedans on your block. It looks like a BMW 525i.

Also, the fit and finish are superb. The paint on most of the cars I test has some "orange peel" (a textured, almost pimply look) on their vertical surfaces, especially if they are painted black, that most unforgiving of colors. Not so on the BMW black cat I drove. Its fur was flawless.

The body and interior fits were also excellent. I was particularly taken by the glove fit between the upholstered sunroof shade and the surrounding headliner. To me, that little touch symbolized the kind of care and precision that had gone into the designing and building of this car.

The 525i's interior design is as clean and uncluttered as its body, and simply exquisite from an ergonomic standpoint. Everything, from the black-and-white analog instruments to the headlight switch, is just where it ought to be for easy use. The bucket seats are comfortable and supportive, and visibility is good.

You slip into this car, adjust the telescoping steering wheel, fasten the seat harness that augments the air bag, plant your left foot on the "dead pedal" adjacent to the brake, and you feel like part of the machine.

That sense of the car as an extension of your own anatomy is greatly amplified when you move it away from the curb. The 525i's handling is more athletic than you would expect from a sedan that rides this well and weighs this much (3,561 pounds when equipped with an automatic transmission). In fast turns, this traditional rear-drive European road car displays beautiful balance and a very supple, composed, fully independent suspension.

Engine performance is improved this year, thanks to the use of an all-new, 24-valve six that develops 189 horsepower. Except for its displacement and layout, this new "M-50" engine bears no kinship to its predecessor. It sports a number of techy performance touches, some of them familiar, such as dual overhead camshafts, and some not so familiar, such as the pioneering use of thermoplastic in the intake manifold to cut weight and smooth interior surfaces.

Although the new 189-horse engine makes for better acceleration than the old, 168-horse job, we are not talking super-quick here. The new 525i gets from zero to 60 mph in a hair under 10 seconds when equipped, as the test car was, with the optional four-speed automatic gearbox. That's brisk, but hardly blinding. But then this car wasn't intended for stoplight aerobics. It was built to cruise the Autobahn effortlessly at high speeds - as its 128 mph top speed suggests.

Cruising enjoyment is enhanced by the 525i's quietude. The latter derives from a satiny engine, good aerodynamics and a structural integrity that eliminates rattles, even on the bumpiest roads.

The 525i also has some clever, affable little touches, such as a compact flashlight that plugs into a glovebox-mounted battery recharger and exterior door locks that allow you to close the car's windows and sunroof by holding the key in the lock.

This car was so good that I was almost relieved to find a couple of flaws. One, the failure to illuminate adequately the automatic transmission's gear selector, was rather minor. The other, the stunning lack of rear-seat legroom, was not. There is just no excuse for building a midsize luxury sedan with this kind of back-seat knee room.