For the longtime auto enthusiast, it is inevitable that the spirited, often rash, passions of one’s youth will eventually resolve into calmer appreciations ofoh, heavens!middle age. At a certain point, sacrificial self-mortifications of the flesh dedicated to the gods of speed begin to look like somebody else’s responsibility. “Big,” “comfy,” and “leisurely” enter the vocabulary where “tight,” “sharp,” and “quick” once reigned unrepentant and unchallenged. Without notice, a tectonic shift in taste has occurred, redrawing the map of one’s automotive preferences. Suddenly, one awakes to the dawning that big, stately cars are not so embarrassing.
'98 Lincoln Continental
A gradual evolution is as unavoidable in a successful car design as it is in one’s personal automotive preferences. For the current model year, the venerable Lincoln Continental features incremental rather than radical changes. The car is still a large, highway-oriented sedan with credible pretensions to status. Exterior changes have resulted in slightly more streamlining and significantly more chrome. By itself, the car is attractive in a decidedly undramatic way; but as a member of a corporate model family that also includes Lincoln’s Town Car and the Ford Crown Victoria/Mercury Grand Marquis twins, the Continental shares so much family resemblance that it fails to look special. Yet a car costing $44,820, as tested, had better find something special to say.
Underhood is a gem of a twin-cam 4.6-liter V8 that produces 260 horsepower to whisk the Continental along. It’s a front-wheel-drive powertrain, of course, but standard, all-speed traction control helps to tame occasional wheelspin during hard acceleration from a standing stop. The four-speed auto is smooth-shifting and unobtrusive; but by far my favorite new feature for ’98 is the optional Driver Select system, which, at $595, allows a custom-tailored handling feel (firm, medium, or soft) to indulge changing personal preferences over various road conditions.
Another special offering in the new Continental is the Personal Security Package (for $750), which includes a SecuriTire run-flat system. Even with a dead flat, a Continental so equipped will travel up to 20 miles at 50 mph. The security package also includes console-mounted programmable remote controllers for garage doors and the like. Add Ford’s RESCU package (for $2,225), and the Continental provides hands-free, one-touch phone service and satellite global positioning for emergency assistance and direction finding.
Despite the apparent layering-on of special features and gadgets, the Continental is attractive most of all for its karma. The plush leather seats look and feel substantial; the ride is unflappable; all the switch gearknobs, handles, buttons, controllersfeels solid, dependable. The Continental has an abundance of poise to make up for its undeniable, perhaps even intentional, lack of excitement. Even for a driver and four passengers with somewhere far away to travel, the Continental makes going there as appealing as getting there.
'99 Chrysler LHS
A likely first reaction to Chrysler’s back-from-hiatus LHS sedan is a thorough head-scratching: “Hmmm,” you may ponder. “Swoopy, eye-catching style; gargantuan interior and trunk capacity; a zesty 253-horsepower V6; a $29,615 bottom line. OK, so what’s the catch?”
There really isn’t oneexcept, perhaps, your fancy. After redesigning its Concorde and the Dodge Intrigue, then issuing the striking 300M sport sedan, Chrysler has reintroduced the LHS full-size sedan as, well, a Continental-killer.
True to current Chrysler character, the car’s swirling, folding, aerodynamic sheet metal is part futuro, part retro, even part cartoon. At its most fundamental, however, the LHS is striking, and all those heads turning in traffic are proof. Although just an inch-and-a-half longer in overall length than the Continental, the LHS’ leggy wheelbase displaces 113 inches compared to the Lincoln’s 109 inches. That accounts for a veritable playhouse of interior space, fittingly tailored in leather and plush velour. By all appearances, the car’s interior is country-club classy, with a capital “C.” A choice touch is the pristine white instrumentationspeedometer, tach, side gauges, and clock; the crisp black numerals and chrome bezels challenge the watchmakers of Baume et Mercier at their own game.
And then appearances turn into reality. The new single-overhead-cam V6, borrowed from the new 300M as well as from the extrovert Plymouth Prowler, is ready, willing, and able to impersonate such V8s as power the Continental or Olds Aurora. The transmission shifts smartlywith a crisp snap into the next-higher gear, but with a gentle slide back down again. Although my tester didn’t offer it, Chrysler’s AutoStick manual-select option is available for the enthusiast determined to shift gears “my way.” Because the LHS is a front-driver with obvious muscle, traction control is, thankfully, standard.
Although there’s no tinkering with suspension settings, the LHS makes a nice compromise between ride comfort and handling precision. It’s comfortable without floating; despite a bit of body tilt in turns, the cornering sensation is generally flat. If anything, for a car this large and so obviously intended for long stretches of highway driving, the LHS may be a little more stiffly sprung than many typical drivers and their passengers would prefer.
One reality, alas, seems difficult for Chrysler to escape. For all its stylistic achievement and cleverness aforethought, the LHS shares with all Chryslers a seeming sense of the “lightweight.” Fabrics are just a tad less plush, plastics are just a bit more “plasticky”; even the sheet metal feels just a fraction of a gauge thinner. Chrysler’s engineers can probably banish these effete critiques to the waste bin with one fell, empirical stroke; and there is no doubt that the LHS’ lighter weight compared to the Continental is a step in the right performance direction. But the car simply doesn’t feel as solid and stately overall. For a price that’s $15,205 less (as tested) than an uncannily comparable Lincoln Continental, I suppose the LHS shouldn’t have to.
Caught in the act
Ace mechanical magician Gus Freudenthal Jr. may have thought no one at Trickett Honda would notice when he just sort of sauntered off to Paradise Island in the Bahamas for a little break recently. Then again, upon his return, maybe he didn’t expect to find himself staring out of a full-page color ad in last week’s Automotive News trade publication. Seems ol’ Gus is one of just 40 master technicians in the nation to receive Honda’s Best of the Best award for ’98and the only one for several hundred miles around. Honda presented the expense-paid trip as a part of the award, but nothing comes free, of course. Gus and some teammates were required to “build full-size working boats out of cardboard, plastic sheets, and tape.” Honda officials would neither confirm nor deny whether this was but a clever cost-cutting measure intended to minimize return-trip airfares.
Join the club
If Groucho Marx didn’t want to join any club that wanted him as a member, maybe he’d have preferred hanging out with the following group. The least stolen cars in America last year, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute, are the ones that presumably nobody wantsnot even crooks. Judge for yourself: Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight; Buick LeSabre; Ford Taurus wagon; Saab 900; the Chevy Astro and Ford Windstar 4WD extended vans; Chevrolet Lumina; Honda Odyssey; Olds Cutlass Supreme; and Mercury Grand Marquis. On the flip side, five of the top 10 most stolen vehicles are SUVs, with the undisputed King Klepto being Toyota’s Land Cruiser.
Crystal ball gazing
Interesting changes to new-car lineups have been announced or hinted in recent weeks. Most anticlimactic is Toyota’s official word that its Supra will retire at the end of ’98. (At the car’s present rate of sales, dealers will be lucky to sell 900 nationwide by year’s end.) The big question remains for sports-coupe freaks, however: If Supra’s gone, can Camaro and Firebird be far behind? GM, perhaps significantly, won’t say a word.
That’s just fine with Ford. The company is selling all the Mustangs it can manufacture, and it plans to bump its Cobra version to 350 horsepower by the turn of the century. Why? According to speculations in AutoWeek, “Ford is targeting Corvette with this car, because by then, there might not be a Camaro or Firebird.” Meantime, GM is considering reviving lackluster sales of its Riviera coupe with a “suicide-style” reverse-opening third door, á la the three-door trucks from Chevy and GMCjust as Ford trumps GM’s all-new trucks by announcing that its F150 pickups will add a fourth door in ’99 a la Dodge Ram.
Dealer news and other views are invited via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com. or by fax at (615) 385-2930.
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