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1998 Lincoln Town Car

BROOKLYN, Mich. — I'm at the Michigan International Speedway,

one of the fastest racetracks in the world. So what am I doing

in a 1998 Lincoln Town Car?

Ford has chosen this unusual venue to show off its new luxury

car to emphasize that the rear-drive Lincoln handles better than

its front-drive competitor, the Cadillac de Ville. Three de

Villes are here for comparison on the infield "road circuit" and

about one-third of the high-banked oval used in CART racing.

But there are two teeny problems with this strategy.

First, even if the Townie handles better than the Caddy — and

it does — do its potential buyers care? How well does an airport

limo have to handle?

Second, Cadillac's 4.6-litre four-cam four-valve-per-cylinder

Northstar V8 produces 75 to 100 horsepower (depending on the

model) more than Ford's single overhead cam eight of equal

displacement.

This power discrepancy is hard to understand and harder still

for Ford to justify, although not a big surprise. Even in its

four-cam four-valve versions, Ford's modular V8 is a slug in

every car and truck it's used in.

Even with a lower entrance speed onto the high-banked oval,

the Cadillac ends up some 16 km/h faster at the braking point

for the pit lane entrance than the Town Car.

Does that make the Townie a bad car? Not in itself. 200

horsepower (in Executive and Signature series, 220 in Cartier

and Signature Touring versions, thanks to dual exhausts) is

certainly sufficient to get you to the airport, or anywhere else

a Town Car owner will go.

Just understand that the de Ville will get there first.

The Town Car driver will likely attract more attention,

however, as the styling has taken a distinctive turn for the

radical.

To me it looks like an over-inflated Chrysler LHS, especially

from the rear. Over a period of two days, it has, however, begun

to grow on me.

Mike Richards, brand manager for the Town Car, says research

showed Townie owners to be among the most loyal in the industry,

with over half of them having owned one before.

But the traditional luxury car segment (Town Car and de Ville)

is shrinking, while the entry-level slice is booming. Lincoln

needs something to keep current owners happy, but also attract

younger shoppers ready to move up from BMW and Lexus.

Frankly, that'll be a stretch.

Richards says those owners do recognize Lincoln as a premium

brand, but perceive the current Town Car as too big. To that

end, the new one is smaller some 100 mm shorter overall. With

both front and rear ends pinched inwards in plan view, it looks

smaller still.

The interior is also smaller, but only fractionally. Massive

space for people and luggage is one of Town Car's biggest

plusses.

The 40/20/40 front bench seat will seat three if the two

outboard occupants agree on where to position their individually

moveable chairs so the person on the fixed middle section

doesn't get sliced in three.

The back of the fixed centre section pivots down to create a

large armrest with storage for CDs, tapes or a cell phone. It

also houses heating ducts to the rear seat.

All three rear riders get threepoint seat belts. If there's

no one in the middle, the seatback can fold down to form an

armrest with dual cupholders.

A new instrument cluster uses analogue gauges with larger

numbers — hey, we're all getting older and can use all the help

we can get.

Cartier editions feature a coollooking analogue clock. Lesser

models make do with a digital readout in the radio display.

Needless to say, the Town Car has every mod con known to

humankind.

One nice feature is the SecuriLock anti-theft system, in which

an electronically-coded key is necessary to start the car. The

power door locks won't work if the key is in the ignition, which

should reduce the chances of locking the keys in the car.

The full-perimeter frame has been reengineered with increased

stiffness for improved ride and handling and new bidirectional

body mounts stiff longitudinally for body roll control, soft

laterally for a plusher ride.

A Watts linkage for the airsprung rear axle, developed in

conjunction with Ford of Australia, employs a bell crank on the

axle housing attached with links to the body. This is said to

improve directional stability and reduce squat and lift during

heavy acceleration or braking.

These handling benefits allow for relatively soft springs

essential to the traditional Lincoln ride. Lincoln also enlisted

Jaguar, another Ford resource, to help out on ride quality. Who

is better qualified?

A revised steering gear and front suspension bushings improve

steering feel. Thicker, larger-diameter front discs have 25 per

cent greater swept area for stouter deceleration and improved

fade resistance.

To accommodate the bigger binders, 16-inch wheels are now

standard.

An optional Touring suspension on Signature series Town Cars

offers firmer monotube shocks and springs, thicker anti-roll

bars and fatter Michelin tires for superior handling with

minimal penalty in ride quality.

The lumpish engine gets some assistance from a revised

four-speed automatic whose shifts are at once faster and smoother

than before.

Can all of these engineering advances be detected on a race

track?

Unlikely as it may seem, yes.

The big Townie is huge fun to toss around in the twisties, not

that anyone but the most lunatic limo driver ever would (hmmm,

there might be a bigger market there than you think).

The real point is that the car is much more nimble on the road

too.

You don't often drive a car this big very hard. But a more

stable ride, flatter cornering on freeway ramps and better dive

control under braking will be appreciated by driver and

passengers.

If there's any downside to the ride, it was impossible to

detect, either on the track or on our public-road tour through

central Michigan. The Town Car is even quieter than before,

helped by work on noise and vibration and thicker side-window

glass.

And once the memory of the Caddy's engine has faded a little,

the Townie's doesn't feel too terribly bad.

The Signature Touring variant gains a shorter final-drive

ratio, for better off-the-line grunt. The transmission, a bit

slow before, especially on the three-to-four shift, is now more

responsive.

The new Town Car is an interesting proposition. It clearly is

a better car than before in many ways. The question remains: is

it better than Cadillac de Ville in ways which the customers

will recognize and value?

It's weird to look at, at least initially. And since many

customers don't give cars very long to make an impression, that

may work against it.

The new Town Car certainly has a handling advantage over the

Caddy, possibly a ride advantage too. But it's easier for

customers to compare 0 -100 km/h times than ride and handling,

and the Cadillac de Ville is just faster, everywhere, all the

time.

Even if Ford stuffed the four-cam four-valve 4.6 litre V8

version from the Mark VIII coupe into the Town Car, it'd still

be out-gunned by the Cadillac. GM's Northstar system is, quite

simply, unparalleled by any in the world.

About a quarter of Town Car sales have been fleet units

those limos, rentals and stretches. It's difficult to imagine

the new car's more deeply crowned roofline being cut and shut,

but Lincoln says the chopshops have been consulted from early

on, and it won't be a problem.

Maybe that's why Lincoln's marketing experts are so upbeat

about the new Townie — they know a big chunk of the segment is

theirs no matter what, because nobody else makes the full-frame

luxury cars the fleet customer loves.

Whether the car will play in Fort Lauderdale, or with current

foreign entry-luxury car owners, is a question only time will

answer.

The 1998 Lincon Town Car officially goes on sale November

26th. Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie, among a group of auto

writers invited to Michigan, 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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