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Lincoln’s LS introduces a new American interpretation of performance and elegance

Lincoln’s LS introduces a new American interpretation of performance and elegance

Talk about pressure! Lincoln has sub stantially revamped its LS sedan for 2003 for the sole purpose of resuscitating the division’s fortunes as a viable luxury car maker. At a posh intro on the grounds of the sprawling Homestead Resort in Virginia’s Alleghenies, Lincoln’s agenda couldn’t have been more clear: The LS is the company’s latest (or is that “last”?) chance to wrest new, young, affluent customers from the clutches of European and Japanese rivals who have all but stolen the luxury car market from the Americans.

The challenge is daunting, as the following anecdote attests: When a recent caller asked radio-mavens Click and Clack, The Car Guys, what new sedan might best replace his aging Lincoln Town Car, they suggested the sporty LS. “But the girls in my office tell me that’s a paw-paw car,” the caller replied with his honeyed Mississippi accent. “A pah-pah cah?” Click retorted in classic Bostonese. “Yeah, you know,” said the caller, “something only your granddaddy would drive.”

I mentioned this radio repartee to Tim Doyle, the LS program chief, at the car’s Virginia debut. “Ungh,” he groaned. “See, that’s what we’re up against—the perception that Lincoln is the Official Ride of the Over-the-Hill Gang.”

It doesn’t hurt that Lincoln sets out to battle the Euro sedans with its own Euro sedan in disguise. Ten years ago, it was right to say that Ford saved Jaguar’s chili by giving the fabled but enfeebled U.K. car company a reason to live. In the spirit of British fair play, I suppose, Jag is poised to save Lincoln’s chili in return by sharing with the LS a basic sedan platform that originally saw light of day as the Jaguar S-type sport touring “saloon.”

It’s a pedigree that does honor to both families. Whereas the S-Type (last reviewed here October 17) retains a distinctly British, sporting and often uncompromising driving character, the LS takes equivalent engineering credentials and adapts them to North America’s more self-indulgent sensibilities.

Take, for example, the nature of the LS ride: It is indeed athletic and poised, but not exactly razor sharp in the manner of BMW. Sport tuning—i.e. crisp shock damping, responsive spring rates and special bushings—gives the LS’s four-wheel-independent suspension a jaunty swagger, but almost 3,800 lbs. of curb weight is a lot of physics to manage. Once a jock always a jock, however, even with a hint of beer belly showing.

Lincoln is touting some 500 engineering changes in the LS for 2003. At the top of the heap are two essentially new engine choices that make more power, burn cleaner, and behave less feulishly than their predecessors. A 3.0-liter twin-cam V6 delivers 232 horsepower and 220 ft.-lbs. of torque through a new five-speed automatic transmission. Base and Premium V6 models cost $33,860 and $37,260, respectively. In LS Sport and Sport Premium models there’s a 3.9-liter twin-cam V8, whose variable intake cam timing helps produce 280 hp and 286 ft.-lbs. With the V8s comes the same five-speed auto, but this time with a SelectShift “auto-manual” gear change feature. Starting prices are $40,060 and $43,360, respectively.

As I laced back and forth across the Virginia and West Virginia border in an LS Sport Premium model, I was particularly charmed with the way the LS V8 responded promptly and accurately to throttle inputs. Power, in other words, develops smoothly at the first touch of the all-new electronic, or “drive-by-wire,” throttle. There are voices in the purist camp who rue the departure of a manual transmission in the LS V6, but I can hardly see why Lincoln would bother with a model that accounted for only 0.3 percent of LS sales. Instead, I was impressed by the V8’s SelectShift feature, which mimics quite naturally the gear-change character of a manual when dicing through twisties in the mountains. Rack-and-pinion steering, antilock disc brakes and AdvanceTrac stability control all contribute important supporting performances in Lincoln’s technological flagship that is, literally, taking on the world.

By far, however, the most mature and accomplished aspect of the new LS is its “people skills”—in other words, its ability to make front and rear occupants actually look forward to driving long and winding distances in this car. There’s no chance of mistaking the ambience of the LS interior with the Old World elegance of its European rivals. And there’s no Zen-like, pristine feel of the models from Lexus and Infiniti. Call it haute Americaine perhaps: The LS interior is roomy, assertive, attractive in a brushed-metal-and-leather sort of way and, of course, filled with New World gadgets. Optional GPS navigation is available; the 10-speaker, 4-channel, two-subwoofer THX audio system with 6-CD in-dash player is fantastic; the perforated heatable/coolable front seats are nothing short of sybaritic.

Even at top dollar, the LS represents a fistful of car for $45,000. No other luxury V8 with sport touring pretensions comes anywhere close. This is the style of car Lincoln should have started building years ago; and it certainly deserves to be on every yuppie’s shopping list in the under-$50,000 category. Lincoln will no doubt buff its image with the LS, but it’s also a sure bet that status-seekers won’t reflexively come flocking to the car. Stodgy exterior styling and that merciless, Daddy Warbucks grin of a grille look a bit coarse and naive next to more supercilious German and Japanese sophisticates. The odd thing is, the Lincoln LS is a faithful embodiment of those great American attributes: earnestness and perseverance. Isn’t it interesting how we’ve reached the point in our tastes—in our culture—where these traits now embarrass us in certain circumstances?

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