Women may not be completely at ease with the name of Ford's hot new sporty hybrid, but looking at it and driving it apparently has brought a better reaction.

The front-wheel-drive Probe, a spacey-shaped compact with mechanicals from Mazda, is VERY hot. You may have to wait a while for the trim and color of your choice.But then when you're on a roll, as Ford has been for several years now, that's what happens: You can even throw a name on it that, according to at least one survey, women aren't comfortable with - and have a runaway winner.

Even before the Probe had been released, dealers had secured enough orders to fill Ford's production schedules for six months.

When the Mustang continued to sell well and Ford got a flood of protest letters and calls, it decided that the two cars could live side by side.

And why not? They're two completely different approaches. The Mustang is the best of the past - the world of smoking burnouts and 15-second quarter miles ... and fuel economy of about the same number. But for traction and braking, look elsewhere.

The Probe is the future - or 1989 at the earliest. Besides the front-drive mania that's been sweeping the industry for more than 10 years, there's world-class braking and handling (especially in the GT version) and an excellent interior.

Beneath the outer design by Ford lies a Mazda MX-6, a rice rocket that's built in Flint, Mich. The MX-6 looks more like an Audi, in contrast to the curves of the Probe two-door coupe. Ford owns 25 percent of Mazda.

The first Probe I tried was a $11,443 LX, the midlevel between the $10,459 base GL and the $13,593 performance GT. Just remember those are base prices. Don't expect that to be the bottom line, or to pay sticker or less.

For instance, the LX came with the almost mandatory $515 lockup automatic transmission and $788 air, as well as the $344 upgraded sound system, $166 power doorlocks and $176 speed control. With delivery, taxes and in most cases some "dealer prep" package (which probably consists of putting a gallon of gas and washing the car), your eleven thou LX is going to be pushing 15, easily.

But sales show that you're willing to pay - and wait, if necessary, mostly for the spacey looks. Ford found that more than two-thirds of Probe buyers were sold on the looks, with only 25 percent going for its price and the rest for unimportant things like handling, power and pickup. Hey, how long were we sold on chrome and tail fins, anyway?

Also standard is quick (17.1:1) power rack-and-pinion steering that - with the now-industry-standard all-independent suspension of struts fore and aft, coil springs, tube shocks and sway bars and low-profile Goodyear Eagles - provides handling of a type that's alien to Mustang loyalists.

Inside, the Probe shines. Mostly, anyway. The dash and vents are pure Mazda, meaning they were designed with the driver in mind, and not by some corporate cog trying to win a bonus for Vidiot Gimmickry of the Year. Tilt the steering wheel and the gauge cluster tilts with it, remaining at the same angle so you can still see the six gauges.

The switches, including lights and wipers on opposite sides of the gauge panel, are all easy to reach, and the bucket seats have good support and adjustment to accommodate even the tallest of drivers.

The only down spot is the rear seat. It's best for putting cases of Haagen-Dazs, tennis rackets, camcorders, that kind of Y-word stuff. But not people. This is a two-seater. Inwardly and outwardly.

Outwardly, the Probe looks overall a bit like a Toyota Celica GT, especially with the one-piece, curved rear window. The front half, however, is not unlike Mazda's own RX-7 and the side panels need only a series of air intake vents to resemble the fabled Ferrari Testarossa (and the supercharged Toyota MR2).

And that's what the Probe is all about. It's mechanically solid and very late-'80s, but this car is mostly a looker.

And a seller.