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1997 Lincoln Continental Mark VIII

There was a time in this land that a Cadillac Eldorado was

every teenager's dream car.

That's no longer the case. Still, bigbuck luxury coupes

remain a highimage (and highprofit margin) segment, not only

for Cadillac and Ford's Lincoln division, but increasingly for

luxury import brands as well.

Lincoln's Mark VIII grabbed the spotlight in its late 1992

debut, with striking aerodynamic styling and such

hightechnology bits as full air suspension and a multivalve,

multicam V8 engine.

But the stark, Teutonic interior was not universally loved,

nor were the instrument dials, which were staggered in the

foreaft plane as the dashboard curved around into the doors. (I

liked them, but what do I know?)

For 1997, the Mark VIII gets its first major upgrade.

"Facelift" is the appropriate term, because many of the

changes are up front.

A new "raised power dome" hood is partly for styling, and

partly to provide clearance for a new engine air intake system.

A new, deeper grille is chromed on the base car and bodycolor

on the sporty LSC variant. The same chrome versus body color

distinction between base and LSC applies to other exterior trim;

the LSC also gets unique wheels and badging.

The headlamp housings are taller than before, reversing a

recent slimming trend. Each one-piece lens cover now conceals a

high-intensity discharge low-beam headlight, similar to those

used on several German luxury cars. The high beam stays with a

conventional halogen bulb.

The back end retains the fake Continental spare tire hump, but

it's more subtle than before. There's new lighting technology

back there too. A neon tube runs the full width of the trunk

lid, behind the lens, hidden by a moulding. When illuminated,

light projects downward, off a reflective surface, and through

the lens, creating an eerie, three-dimensional glow. Cool.

Ford says the neon tube lights up 0.198 second faster than an

incandescent bulb. At 100 km/h, a following driver gets 5.5

metres extra warning time — that's almost exactly a full Mark

VIII car length. So it's more than cool; it provides a useful

safety margin.

Even the flanks of the Mark VIII get some lighting trickery.

Lamps located in the base of the sideview mirrors switch on

when you activate the remote keyless entry system or open the

doors. Now you can actually see those puddles before you stuff

your Gucci loafers into them.

A string of LEDs in the base of the mirror housings flash in

concert with the turn signals. Ford says these give additional

warning to other drivers, but without distraction. Must be true.

I didn't notice them at all (and yes, I do so use my turn

signals).

The interior has been warmed up a whole bunch, and I'm not

talking about the automatic air conditioning system. Soft

leather abounds a handsome and rich looking tan color in my

emerald green test car and is set off by matte-finished burl

walnut trim.

The new instrument panel is more conventional than before —

nothing beats good old round white-on-black dials. The air/con

is an all-push button affair, save the knurled wheel for fan

speed. Ditto the radio, save the radio volume knob. But at least

the buttons are large enough that you have half a chance of

using them without driving into the ditch.

The Mark VIII looks, feels (and is) a big car. But it took

some time to find a good driving position. The wide transmission

tunnel, thick steering column shroud not very well finished on

my test car and an imposing panel at knee level, below the

dash, make the cockpit initially feel confining. The steering

wheel protrudes from the dash at an unusual angle; the tradeoff

between steering wheel angle and reach (both power-operated) is

not easily achieved.

Ditto for seat comfort. This is a car with so many choices,

again all power-operated, that you need to spend time with the

owner's manual until you get it right.

The rear seat is accommodating, given this is a coupe. I'm of

average height, and my head just brushed the roof. The enormous

doors ease rear seat access, but be careful opening them in

tight parking spots.

The Mark VIII has way more than its share of toys. Through the

driver information centre, you can turn various functions on or

off, such as: whether the driver's seat glides back and the

steering wheel tilts upward when the ignition key is removed

(the assumption being that the driver is leaving the car);

whether the horn chirps when you lock the car remotely; whether

the locks automatically activate when road speed exceeds 5 km/h.

I've never been overwhelmed by Ford's so-called modular

overhead cam V8, but it works pretty well in the '97 Mark. That

new air intake system smooths out the intake pulses, and

improves engine sound. The 290 horsepower in my LSC test car (10

more than the base model) raises no complaints, although the

peak torque of 290 poundfeet (five more than the base) doesn't

occur until an un-V8-like 4500 r.p.m. But the car's performance

is more than adequate for its assigned task.

The traction control (TC) system (standard in Canada, optional

in the U.S.) utilizes both power reduction and brake application

strategies. It has perhaps the lowest activation threshold of

any TC-equipped car I've driven: it seemingly comes on when it

even suspects a slippery bit of road. And the warning light,

indicating it's still operating, stays on well after the

slippery part of the road is history. A pox on traction control

systems, say I.

The early arrival of darkness these days also gave me a chance

to try those trick headlights. A bit of a disappointment,

actually. They seemed bright enough, but didn't illuminate all

that much road.

The ride on the LSC belies, in a way, the presence of

computer-controlled air springs at all four corners. To my

taste, it's very comfortable, but it's also quite firm — not

what you might think of as pillowy or airlike. (The base car is

softer.) The LSC also has thicker stabilizer bars front and

rear, for flatter cornering, although the speed-sensitive

variable assist rack and pinion steering is lighter than you'd

want to make this car your first choice for apexstrafing and

canyonrunning.

The Lincoln Mark VIII is an interesting car. With the LSC

listing at $55,295, and a sunroof and CD changer kicking it over

58 large, it's hardly cheap. But it has enough style, technology

and roadability to at least bear comparison to imported coupes

costing tens of thousands more.

As for the Cadillac Eldorado? Its lovely Northstar powertrain

notwithstanding, the Eldo may finally have met its domestic

match.

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