Ford just keeps pumping out some of the slickest designs in America: the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable siblings, the Ford Probe and the Lincoln Continental.

Now you can add the Mercury Cougar and Ford Thunderbird fraternal twins to the list.They are totally new from the ground up, with new platforms, powertrains and bodies.

These two-door coupes are arguably the best-looking cars yet to come from Ford. Lithe and lean, they mimic European simplicity, yet have distinctly American personalities. The front ends are narrow, the grilles are tiny and the windshields are steeply raked. Nothing looks extraneous on the form.

Both are full four-seat coupes and share the same 113-inch wheelbase, 3.8-liter V-6 engines, fully independent suspensions and many body panels.

Both have rear-wheel drive and engines in the front because that gives performance models better handling. At a time when a lot of companies have switched to front-wheel drive, Ford has remained committed to the traditional configuration for these two.

Because the Cougar and Thunderbird appeal to different kinds of buyers, each gets a distinct look. The formal, luxury Cougar gets a notchback roof line and traditional grille, and the sporty Thunderbird has a sloping rear window and more aerodynamic front.

As seen by their wheelbases, which are 9 inches longer than last year, these are not small cars. But they are 1 inch lower, 1 inch wider and 2 inches shorter overall.

Interior room is increased, especially in the back, where rear-seat hip room is more than 7 inches greater. That makes them comfortable four-seaters.

The Cougar I drove was so quiet that the outstanding JBL stereo could be played at low volume even at highway speeds. Wind noise was nil.

The new platform results in a body that is solid, with no perceptible flexing, and that contributes to a one-piece feeling.

That same chassis stiffness also yields crisp handling, enhanced by the independent rear suspension and four-wheel disc brakes. Body lean was minimal and the ride fairly cushy, yet the car never felt flabby or spongy.

The dark blue pleated cloth of the seats reflects the luxury tone of the silver blue test car. The seats were fairly flat and electrically adjustable and lacked adjustable lumbar support. The steering wheel tilted, sometimes by itself as my knee almost always hit the lever when settling into place.

The dashboard had digital instruments, a hard-to-read tachometer and a trip computer. The total design was quite good except for the heater controls, which looked out of place with the rest of the car's interior design.

The car's real weak point was the 3.8-liter engine, whose 140 horsepower felt too anemic for a car that weighs more than 3,500 pounds. Sequential electronic fuel injection and roller tappets make it quiet and smooth. Coupled to the automatic transmission, which shifted into overdrive too soon, it seemed underpowered unless you gave it full throttle every time you needed acceleration.

For those who want more power there are high-performance, supercharged versions called the Cougar XR7 and Thunderbird Super Coupe - the latter recently named "Car of the Year" by Motor Trend magazine. They have 210 horsepower, adjustable suspensions and anti-lock brakes. They are available in very limited numbers.

The Cougar LS test car was equipped with power steering, anti-lock brakes, power windows, power locks, cruise control, a trip computer, a JBL stereo AM/FM radio and cassette tape player, a rear-window defogger and a tilt steering wheel. The sticker price was $19,354.