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1998 Ford Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis

MIAMI, Fla. — Overhead-camshaft V8 engine. All-speed traction

control. Four-wheel disc brakes with four-channel ABS. 16-inch

alloy wheels. Air. Leather.

BMW? Mercedes-Benz? Lexus?

Sure. But for 35 grand? Built in Canada? Not likely with any of

those foreign nameplates.

We're talking the 1998 Ford Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand

Marquis here. Lot of car for the money? Looks like it from here.

Crown Vicky and Grand Marquis share the re-engineered

full-frame rear-drive Panther platform, in 76 mm shorter form,

with big brother Lincoln Town Car.

Ditto the 4.6-litre single overhead cam V8, now with 200

horsepower at 4,250 r.p.m. in base form (up from 190 last year)

or 215 horses at 4,500 r.p.m. with the dual exhaust system that

comes with the optional handling package. Torque peaks at 265

poundsfeet at 3,000 r.p.m. in the base motor, 275 poundsfeet

with the extra exhaust outlet.

An electric fan replaces the engine-driven fan. In the event

of complete coolant loss, the engine management system cuts

spark to individual cylinders in sequence, turning each

temporarily into an air pump to keep the engine cool. Range

under that worst-case scenario depends on ambient temperature,

but it has been tested to 80 km in desert heat.

The four-speed automatic gains a fluid cooler, which allowed

the engineers to reprogram it for quicker shifts. Average shift

time has been halved from a lethargic 1.6 seconds to 0.8. Shifts

are smoother too, something this tranny hasn't always been noted

for.

Crown Vicky and Grand Marquis also share Townie's revised

solid-axle rear suspension with a Watt's linkage, a pair of

lateral arms connecting the differential to either side of the

frame through a pivoting link.

Ed Nalodka, head of vehicle engineering for the Panther

platform, says the objective was to improve the car's steering

and directional stability.

"The Watt's linkage locates the rear axle laterally," says

Nalodka, "which keeps the car tracking straight and reduces

sidewind sensitivity. We can also specify suspension bushings

that are soft in the fore-and-aft direction, for low impact

harshness. It kept both my ride engineer and my handling

engineer happy."

Not his cost accountant, perhaps, but Nalodka says it was

worth the investment. "It also illustrates a benefit of platform

sharing," he notes. "We amortize the development costs across

three model lines, and it becomes affordable for all of them."

Some of Ford's Australian reardrive cars use this design,

Aussie roads typically being so rough they need to tie the rear

axle down as tightly as possible. The original Mazda RX7 used a

Watt's linkage too, and who ever complained about that car's

handling?

The better-located rear axle enabled changes to the front

suspension for improved steering response, especially on centre.

In addition to the extra horses, the handling package includes

a shorter final drive ratio (3.27:1 versus 2.73) for better

off-the-line grunt, and rear air springs adopted from the Town

Car (handling package? Town Car? Wow).

These also bring automatic load levelling, so the car rides

and handles consistently no matter how many people or golf bags

you're hauling.

Alloy wheels with performance Goodyear tires replacing the

standard Firestones and fatter anti-sway bars complete the

handling package.

All Crown Vickies and Grand Marquis benefit from substantially

larger front disc rotors, now with dualpiston calipers.

"We didn't use the bigger brakes primarily for greater

stopping power, but for improved pedal feel," says Nalodka. "The

pedal is right there for you, and the response is more linear.

The pads last longer, and a new pad material reduces brake

dust."

Gosh, I'm halfway through a Crown Victoria/Grand Marquis

review and all I've talked about is engineering.

This is a classic facelift, with new grille, hood, bumper and

fenders. Taillift too, I guess, with larger wraparound

taillights.

In profile, a more formal roofline looks to me an awful lot

like last year's Town Car. New aerodynamic sideview mirrors

reduce wind noise.

That all you can say about the interior is new instrument

panel illumination, a two-spoke steering wheel and a wider,

longer centre rear armrest in uplevel models suggests that the

big innards tearup of a few years ago is standing the test of

time.

Ironic that we had to fly to the home of the

new-but-never-again World Series champion Florida Marlins for the official

launch of these cars, when they're built just down the road from

home, in St. Thomas, Ontario. The occasion was the Miami Auto

Show — not exactly Frankfurt or Tokyo, but the first of the

major North American events.

The press was asked to hold off on "driving impressions" on

these cars until next week. But Miami doesn't offer much of the

way of interesting roads anyway. Cruising South Beach, checking

out the News Cafe and the fabulous homes of Star Island and

Coral Gables is fun, but it doesn't tell you much about the car.

We'll wait until we get a chance to drive one on home turf to

tell you more about it.

Meanwhile, assume that Nalodka and his team had objectives,

and that they know what they are doing.

While the official launch date of the cars isn't until

December 26, they are already shipping cars to dealerships.

Nalodka says the St. Thomas plant has had a good, fast launch,

aided in no small part by the fact that this isn't an entirely

new car. "We've done a lot of changing to the pieces, but the

process — the way they're bolted together — hasn't changed that

much. We've got good quality, quickly."

Prices start at $30,795 for the base Crown Vic, $33,295 for

LX.

Mercs begin at $32,695 for the GS, rising to $34,195 for the

LS. (To steal a line from Jean Lindamood Jennings of Automobile

magazine, there is still, sadly, no de Sade package on Grand

Marquis.) These prices are up to $17,800 cheaper than the

mechanically similar Town Car, suggesting they represent quite

the bargain.

Crown Vicky and Grand Marquis are, with Townie, the sole

remaining domestic reardrive V8 sedans. They traditionally have

appealed largely to retirees, police and taxi drivers. 65 per

cent of Crown Vic business is to fleets, including 55,000 police

interceptor models annually.

But older car buyers are the most experienced car buyers, and

police and taxi fleets among the most demanding.

Could the rest of the market learn something from them?

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie, among a group of auto writers

invited to Miami, prepared this report based on sessions

arranged and paid for by Ford. You can catch Kenzie each

Saturday on Talk 640 Radio at noon.

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