CALISTOGA, Calif. - We must remember to breathe as we tear through gears and trim apexes of the many hairpin curves on California 29, which wiggles around Sugarloaf Mountain in the Coastal Range en route to the Sacramento Valley, where we're heading to a test track at Willows.
Through occasional gaps in sideline tall stands of redwoods, you may spy the checkered patchwork of vineyards in Napa Valley far below. But who has the time to look, when you're ripping up to speed around an endless series of bends and dips on a tricky mountain road?
Naturally, we're pushing the test car - the new midsize sport luxury LS sedan from Lincoln - to the limit of all laws of physics in order to sample its promised sporty personality and agile nature. And, quite frankly, we're flying through the course.
This unusual Lincoln invites the kind of participation unaccustomed to any other of Ford's upscale products. Feed it more throttle, carve out tighter turns, fling it quicker through the dips, race faster up the steep grades. It doesn't break a sweat.
By the time we wind out into flats of the Sacramento Valley at Williams, we're out of breath, out of energy and out of twisty roads, but full of respect for the new direction evident for Lincoln from this LS. It's a new day for the stodgy old brand, and the 2000-model-year tag for the LS couldn't presage it better.
A change in thinking
To appreciate the new sedan, you must first dismiss customary images associated with more recent Lincolns - like big, bulky, floaty land yachts. Instead, for the LS insert new traits like agile, athletic and sporty.
2000 Lincoln LS 2
In the 80-year history of Lincoln, big boats were not always the rule. Soon after the company's inception in 1920, the Loche Sport roadster emerged, and in 1936 Lincoln devised the sleek V-12 Zepher, which was one of the first streamlined cars in America, featuring a refined quality but half the price tag of previous Lincoln sedans. And in 1940, Lincoln introduced the Continental, which grew out of a lowered '39 Zepher with extended hood and short tail plus an exposed rear tire which would become a hallmark for the brand.
The LS is bent on rekindling that kind of innovation, while challenging the brand's more recent images. With its sleek yet subtle form, and a spacious cabin with four doors and room for five inside, the midsize LS is already there from the first look. But it's what's beneath its sleek skin that promises the brightest future.
Economy of design through sharing
The design for LS revolves around a new rear-drive platform developed by Lincoln's parent, Ford Motor Company - a platform shared jointly between Lincoln and Jaguar. The fraternal cars, Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type, also share some key mechanical components, including a new V-6 engine.
Despite these shared elements, the exterior styling for the LS, the treatment of the cabin, and the car's active personality remain exclusive and unique to Lincoln.
The spark behind the LS begins beneath the hood. The LS offers either six or eight cylinders: the 3.9-liter aluminum V-8 is derived from a Jaguar engine but modified and assembled at a Ford factory in Ohio. It features dual overhead cams with variable camshaft timing, produces 252 hp and is capable of propelling the LS from zero to 60 mph in less than eight seconds.
The new 3.0-liter, 60-degree V-6, constructed at Ford's engine plant in Cleveland, Ohio, also has twin cams and four valves per cylinder, with a chain camshaft drive and electronic sequential port injection system. Its output reaches 210 hp. Either engine links to a new 5-speed electronic automatic transmission, with optional H-gate SelectShift clutch-less controls.
In addition, the V-6 mixes in a Getrag five-speed manual stick shifter in a package for sporty performance. That marks a sporty milestone, because it's the first manual transmission offered by the brand since the 1951 Lincoln Cosmopolitan.
Speed-sensing variable-assist rack and pinion steering and four-wheel disc brakes with computerized anti-lock controls and electronic brake distribution enhance maneuvers of the LS. Further, Lincoln's AdvanceTrac dynamic stability control system, which applies brake and throttle automatically to correct potentially dangerous yaw behavior, is available.
The inside view
The car's chief designer, Helmut Schrader, describes the exterior styling as an elegant understatement of classic proportions with brief overhangs, exaggerated wheelbase and wide track. Taut body forms, accented by wide wheel openings and a graceful arch over the cabin, forge an athletic shape.
2000 Lincoln LS interior
The LS's interior is highlighted by soft leathers and wood trim.
Inside, the tailored cabin has an international flavor in a leather-lined layout with twin front bucket seats followed by a rear bench with twin sculptured spaces. Bolstered buckets feel firm like fine German seats and adjust infinitely with power controls and optional memory settings. Glossy wood trim lines dash and doors and console, while classic analog instruments - including a tachometer - mark the instrument panel.
We logged more than 400 miles of seat time in various executions of the new sedan, including versions rigged with V-6 or V-8 engine plus a manual stick for the V-6 as well as an automatic five-speed automatic transmission with a "SelectShift" clutch-less shifter. This collective experience produced a surprising general impression of the LS: an athletic, even aggressive image tinged by the flavor of firm and responsive European sports sedans.
On the closed-loop test track at Willows, which contained a series of high-speed straightaways and tricky off-camber chicanes draped over rolling hills, that athletic image for the LS was measured against performances of a number of midsize German and Japanese competitors. Through these comparative trails, the LS revealed it has all of the right ingredients to edge ahead of the others in terms of agility, stability, inherent power, plus rider comfort.
Pricing for the new Lincoln starts at $32,450 for the base
LS with V-6 engine, automatic transmission, 16-inch wheels and tires, and
leather trappings. The sport package at $31,250 brings the manual stick, 17-inch
wheels and European suspension tuning. A V-8 automatic LS tallies to $35,225,
with options for convenience and sport packages, a moonroof, AdvanceTrac
controls, hands-free cellular telephone and an in-dash six-disc CD changer.