Not every Mercury fan is a septuagenarian looking to buy a boat-like Grand Marquis, but it's probably safe to say not many current customers prefer moshing to golfing - at least not yet.

In what may be a first in automotive marketing, Lincoln Mercury officials are flagrantly courting the young nose-ring and tattoo crowd for the '99 Mercury Cougar, and they aren't afraid to admit it. Forget about wholesome-faced "Generation Xers" who look like they're on their way to a convention for young Republicans, Mercury Cougar advertisements will feature female models with big tattoos and pierced body parts. Snowboarding accessories will be offered at dealerships. Some dealers and Mercury officials even leapt into the mosh pit at an alternative rock concert recently to just get into the mood.

It may be a tough transition for some - just like relocating from Detroit to Lincoln Mercury's new headquarters in Irvine, CA - but it may be worth it. "When was the last time somebody with a tattoo and a nose ring looked at a Mercury and said: 'Hey, that car is phat!'" says one Mercury official, describing a recent outing in the new car.

That's not to say Mercury never had cars that appealed to folks who weren't retired. The original 1967 Cougar was a big hit with younger buyers. Unfortunately it did not age well, growing old and fat even faster than its buyers.

In the '70s and '80s, two small imported coupes named Capri also lured a young clientele. More recently, the Mercury Villager and Mountaineer sport/utility vehicle have attracted young, affluent families.

But the new Cougar is the first vehicle that Mercury has used to take a crack at young singles in some time. As the first product offered in North America featuring Ford's New Edge design, Lincoln-Mercury officials hope its dramatic styling, taut chassis and roomy trunk will give it a longer shelf life than most sporty coupes, which typically become stale and die after a couple of model years.

Cougar's based on Ford's Europe-developed Contour/Mondeo platform and shares 70% of its components. Like Contour, Cougar has a solid, European-style ride, but steering and suspension have been tweaked to provide sportier handling. Wider, lower-profile Firestone tires specially designed for the Cougar complete the package.

Overall the Cougar feels like a supple, more refined version of Ford's performance-oriented SVT Contour.

Test drives on expressways and surface roads around Atlanta and hot laps at the Road Atlanta race track find the Cougar comfortable on the road, and a good performer on the track, especially for a car with a base price under $17,000 for the 2L 4-cyl. version and under $19,000 for the 2.5L 6-cyl.

On the road, its relatively long 106.5-in. (270.5-cm) wheelbase provides a smooth quiet ride that irons out most minor bumps. On the track it is controlled and predictable during hard cornering and well composed and quiet at triple-digit speeds on the straightaway.

While rear seats are predictably tight, trunk room is outstanding for a coupe this size. In addition to a roomy 12.4-cu.-ft. (340 L) of storage space, rear seats fold down to offer additional space.

The No. 2 automaker hopes to sell 40,000 to 50,000 of the new coupes annually in the U.S., plus an additional 15,000 to 20,000 in Europe. About 70% of U.S. sales are forecast to be less expensive 4-cyl. models, with the other 30% ordered with Ford's 170-hp. 2.5L V-6. Both have standard 5-speed manual transmissions; an automatic transmission is an $815 option.

The new coupe will be built exclusively at AutoAlliance International Inc. in Flat Rock, MI, where it will be assembled on the same line as the Mazda 626 sedan. Even so, it shares no components with the Mazda except for a few fasteners.

Cougar is claimed to be the first vehicle in its class to offer side air bags (a $375 option). Ford says the new coupe also features load-limiting front safety belt retractors, reducing the speed at which a person's head and chest move forward in a frontal crash.