When I was growing up in the '40s and '50s, "Cadillac" was the superlative everyone used when they wanted to declare something to be the best of its kind: "The Schwinn Black Phantom is the Cadillac of bicycles."

It's been a long time since I've heard anyone use "Cadillac" as a metaphor for greatness; other marques have pried that status symbol away from General Motors' flagship brand. Caddy's old slogan, "The Standard of the World" has had about as much reality as calling baseball games played by teams from Miami and Cleveland a "World Series."No longer. It will probably strike the folks at Cadillac as a backhanded compliment, but I hereby declare the 1998 Cadillac Seville STS to be "the BMW of American luxury cars." That's no small kudos considering that last March I dubbed the BMW 740iL the best car I've ever driven.

Cadillac had been wandering in the wilderness for decades, ever since the Germans and later the Japanese taught us that luxury should not be defined by the size of an automobile's fins, the cushiness of its suspension or the novelty of its convenience doodads.

Nope, true luxury is defined by engineers, not stylists; by performance and handling, not size and glitz.

Welcome back, Cadillac. You've got a lot of psychological ground to make up - reputations are not lost in a day; nor are they gained back overnight - but the new Seville has all the right stuff to join the top-line Beemers, Benzes and Lexi as the world's best luxury cars.

The battle has been joined, and not just on the home front; Cadillac is serious about making Seville a world-beater. The car will actually fit on narrow Asian and European roads and, Gasp!, Caddy is making a right-hand-drive version for those nations where motorists inexplicably drive on the left side of the road.

Cadillac wants to export 20 percent of production over the next five or six years and that doesn't seem as unrealistic as it would have a decade ago.

The Seville has been around since 1992 and I've driven past versions and found them good. So did others. The major auto magazines gave it their top awards.

But the '98 version is special. Not only should it satisfy traditional Cadillac customers - a demographic that is older than Cadillac would like - but it could also make some "conquest" sales of some younger BMW and Mercedes-Benz buyers who might see the new Seville as something of a bargain if they can just see their way past the "image" barrier.

I use the term "bargain" in a relative sense, of course. Not many of us will ever have to dither over whether we should trade in our three-year-old Mercedes E320 for a Seville, but as Americans we can take pride in the fact that it is now an option for the well-heeled few whose annual incomes run to six or seven figures.

Base price of the Seville STS (Seville Touring Sedan) is $46,995. My test car had $4,962 worth of options that included $1,550 for a sunroof; $1,202 for a package that included seats fit for an astronaut, an on-board garage-door opener and electronic mirror with compass; $795 for chrome wheels; $500 for a CD changer located in the center armrest and wood trim for the steering wheel and shift knob; and upgraded tires.

Along with delivery charges, the bottom line was $52,622. The Seville also comes in a less sporting version called the SLS (Seville Luxury Sedan) which is base-priced a bit lower than the STS at $42,495

Fuel mileage for the STS is rated at 17 mpg in city driving and 26 on the highway, which is not terrible for a car of this class. I averaged just under 20 mpg in combined city/highway driving.

Powering the STS is GM's Northstar V8 engine carried over from the previous generation, and a gem of a powerplant it is. The 4.6-liter, 32-valve engine has 300 horsepower, propelling the Seville from 0-60 mph in a brief 6.8 seconds, leaving all but hot rods and exotics in its wake when the light turns green.

If one is beset by temporary insanity and one can find a long stretch of pavement that is not encumbered by construction, it is said that one may come upon 155 mph at the top end. This one didn't try it.

Handling is nothing short of superb in the STS, giving the car an overall feel of sheer muscle tempered by a patina of pure elegance.

It goes without saying, I hope, that the Seville has about every convenience gadget known to autodom and a few that are unique to Cadillac. This is a very complicated car that requires the new owner to program its various computers to his or her tastes. Along with an owner's manual, it comes with a videotape to explain its many marvels.

On the outside the Seville is tastefully subdued, a basic wedge shape free of excess ornamentation that would offend the sensibilities of BMW/Benz owners.

On the inside it's more of the same. It appears that GM has kept hands off, because there is nothing about the interior of the Seville that suggests it shares a parts bin with other GM cars. The instrument panel reminded me of Lexus, which is about as good as it gets.

A must mention is the zebrano (a tree found in Africa) genuine wood trim. It's drop-dead gorgeous, best I've ever seen in any luxury car.

The Bose sound system. One word: awesome. It's a match for the Infiniti Q45, which has long been my personal benchmark for car stereos. In addition to the CD changer there is also a slot for a single CD on the dash.

Also, you can have a digital speedometer readout or analog gauges that seem to float in the air or both. There are a lot of redundancies like that in the Seville. It wants to be all things to all people and it succeeds beautifully. Cadillac ad folks might want to steal that Burger King slogan, "Have it your way." (On second thought, never mind.)

Finally, I must mention the gated shifter, which I guess Cadillac uses because Jaguar and Mercedes have it and if they have it then all luxury cars must have it. I've complained about Mercedes' shifter in the past, calling it balky, unrefined and difficult to use. Here's a case where the engineers at Mercedes should check out Cadillac instead of the other way around. The gated shifter in the Cadillac works great.