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Nashville Scene LS Is More

Sport-touring Euro-style in the new 2000 LS

By Marc K. Stengel

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  Apparently, I have come of age: I have just spent a lovely week with a Lincoln luxury sedan that has managed in many ways to seduce me outright. But considering that the average age of Lincoln owners is mid-60s, I wonder if maybe the calendar isn't giving this fortysomething the bum's rush.

More likely, I've just stepped into Lincoln's all-too-premeditated trap. The company--Ford's flagship division, remember--is desperate for young bloods to revitalize a senescent reputation. IPO mavericks on the make aren't inclined to boodle about in matronly Continentals or grandfatherly Town Cars. And the smart money that recognizes SUVs as humble work trucks with gaudy trimmings isn't particularly oriented toward the Navigator. The way Lincoln sees it, to be a world-class contender in the luxury car segment requires fielding a world-class car. And that, as we all still have to admit, means a European one. The new-for-2000 LS is Lincoln's especially credible first effort at doing just that.

This is no mere packaging and marketing exercise. The LS is decidedly European, right down to its rear-wheel-drive roots. It is based upon the same DEW98 platform that presently underpins Jaguar's striking new S-type sedans and will soon support Ford's eagerly awaited new T-Bird coupe. Of course, Lincoln isn't the only U.S. division to raid the parts bins of its multinational corporate parent. General Motors' Cadillac, faced with the same challenge of aging demographics, transmogrified a German GM touring sedan, the Opel Omega, into the all-too-American Catera. Piteously bland styling and a zigzagging marketing fiasco, however, have mostly failed to lure any Yankee adherents to Caddy's Europhilic aspirations.

I predict that Lincoln's LS will sidestep Catera's mediocre fate. After all, you can't just name a patty of grilled ground beef after the German city of Hamburg and say it's a fancy Continental dish. The new LS, by contrast, is a genuine embodiment of European automotive cuisine, albeit served on American china.

You cannot fail to notice, for example, the availability of a conspicuously European powertrain in the form of a twin-cam V6 mated to a five-speed manual transmission--in a luxury-caliber car, mind you. Now, these are Euro credentials--only BMW, Audi, and Jaguar come immediately to mind as purveyors of similar stuff in comparable cars. True, the LS is available in a V8 version, but only with an auto transmission little enhanced by its push-button SelectShift option. As the performance numbers show, the V6-and-five-speed combo is empirically a near equal to its V8 sibling, sprinting zero to 60 in 9.5 seconds. And even though that performance is hardly world class, the experience of driving the manual-shift LS is a world apart from that of the typical Yankee sedan. For one thing, the Lincoln's revvy V6 powers rear wheels, the way only real sports and sports-touring cars must.

I found this five-speed LS to be extraordinary in curiously paradoxical ways. For one thing, because its powertrain is responsive if not especially quick, the LS is arguably more fun to drive than any of its American peers. Yet the car's total lack of edginess--of taut, crisp road feel, for example, or snappy steering response--betrays determined loyalty to a presumed American aesthetic that demands cushy smoothness at all costs. In other words, if you're spoiled by BMW's vivid road feel and near-hypersensitive tuning of suspension and steering, the LS is not going to be your cut-rate ticket out of Bavaria.

This new Lincoln, however, just may be the American luxury sedan that lures buyers out of the SUV wilderness and back into sport-touring paradise. It is completely non-threatening in every important way. It is zippy without being blindingly fast. It corners ambitiously without pushing the envelope to the ragged edge. Its interior is simple and straightforward in the presumed European fashion without completely forsaking the overstuffed upholstery and frilly extras that Americans may disparage from time to time but never completely eschew.

Best of all, perhaps, the Lincoln LS is an especially well-equipped sedan--with a legitimate claim on luxury status--without costing what its presumed rivals do. To a nearly $32,000 base price comparable to BMW's 3-Series and Audi's A4 sedans, my tester added some $5,000 worth of sport, convenience, and audio options to make it a convincing substitute for a 5-Series Bimmer, Audi A6, or E-Class Mercedes-Benz--for $10,000 to $15,000 less.

So no wonder Lincoln is acting smug about its prospects. The automaker knows it has a potential big winner here, and it can barely contain itself. It's as if the very exterior styling of the LS says as much: Here is this spare, almost simplistic design in sheetmetal, with nary an extraneous pleat nor bulge to distract the eye. But step to the front, and a toothy, gleaming grille beams a mouthful of overexpectant self-infatuation. It's Lincoln's only conspicuous misstep in what is otherwise a trophy of engineering and styling.

It's hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that Lincoln, too, is coming of age with the debut of its new LS sedans. Although predicated upon the division's unabashed desire to capture its share of the "middle-aged/affluent" demographic group, the LS reveals a Lincoln willing to step outside of its traditional but waning comfort zone filled with big, lumbering cars for old, lumbering drivers. Today, another whole generation of drivers is growing older and refusing to settle for the floaty, boaty retirement barges that American automakers once foisted upon their parents and grandparents. American auto buying tastes have changed. Sophisticated buyers no longer perceive that greater physical bulk is necessarily better. Now, as Lincoln hopes to prove, what these buyers demand is a trim, responsive sedan like the LS that accomplishes more with--and for--less.

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