Want to know how Detroit used to build large cars? Just look at the Lincoln Town Car.
Its body is made of conventional stamped steel. There’s a separate full-length steel frame underneath, rubber-isolated from the body. Under the hood is a big cast-iron V-8 engine that drives the rear wheels. Inside, there’s room for six.
Thirty years ago, that would have described nearly half of the new cars sold in the United States, but today, Ford is the only domestic automaker left that offers a large, body-on-frame, rear-wheel-drive car. (Chrysler and GM switched to unit-construction bodies and front-wheel drive years ago.) With a base price of $38,500, the Lincoln Town Car is the most luxurious and expensive large car Ford offers. (The Navigator costs more, but it’s a truck, after all.) It may represent the way Detroit used to build cars, but the Town Car is not an antique, thanks to significant revisions this car received for 1998.
The most glaring change to the Town Car in recent memory has been its new and quite radical styling. The former squared-off fenders and roofline have been replaced with a much swoopier body, incorporating some Ford design themes we’ve seen before. The arching roofline and curved C-pillar recall the Lincoln Sentinel show car from 1997. In front there are "cat's-eye" headlamps (another favorite Ford theme) and a prominent chrome grille, following the tradition of Lincoln’s Continental and Navigator.
Photos don’t do this car justice. On the street, it’s more enticing, although we still wouldn’t call the Town Car beautiful. "Bold" is more like it. (You’ll recall we said the same of the Navigator when it came out last year.)
A radical change afoot
Slide behind the wheel, and other changes are obvious. The previous Town Car had lifeless, over-boosted steering; a limp suspension; and a live rear axle that had the tendency to step out around bumpy corners, all of which conspired to discourage brisk driving of any kind. With so much room for improvement, it was easy for engineers to address these problems without increasing the Town Car’s costs very much.
1999 Lincoln Town Car
They started by stiffening the frame. They also reduced friction in the recirculating-ball steering, and removed the Town Car’s awful adjustable-feel system. In back, a new "Watt’s linkage" was installed to more precisely locate the rear axle. The end result met Ford’s goals — the new Town Car handles more precisely, with less body roll, dive and squat, while maintaining the previous Town Car’s very good ride. Vertical bobbing over large bumps has been virtually eliminated, too.
Our test car had a Touring Sedan package, with monotube shock absorbers, stiffer front and rear anti-roll bars, stiffer front springs, and larger 235/60R-16 tires. This package does little to shrink the Town Car’s immense feel. It does provide some steering feel, however. The body motions seem better damped, which allows the Town Car to be driven fast around curves without embarrassment. The Michelin Symmetry tires are capable of 0.78g of grip, which feels like plenty in a car of this size.
The Touring Sedan package also includes a 3.55 rear axle ratio (up from 3.08) and dual exhausts for the standard 4.6-liter SOHC V-8. The dual exhausts increase the horsepower of the V-8 from 200 to 220. With this package, our Touring Car could accelerate to 60 mph in just over eight seconds. Keep the throttle planted, and the Town Car reaches its 112-mph speed governor 25 seconds later. The standard four-speed automatic transmission is an improvement on most Ford automatics and is capable of quick downshifts and smooth upshifts. A steering column-mounted shifter and the lack of a tachometer in the instruments quell any thoughts of performance-shifting, though.
Fuel mileage isn’t too bad. The Town Car gets 17 mpg on the EPA city cycle, and 25 mpg on the highway cycle. Those numbers allow the Town Car to barely avoid gas-guzzler taxes.
The Town Car’s brakes consists of four discs, ventilated in front, solid in the rear, with ABS. The brake pedal has good feel, and none of the "mushiness" that infected the brake pedals of American luxury cars of a few years ago. On the other hand, we noticed significant fade after four or five stops from 70 mph.
1999 Lincoln Town Car
Half a Benz?
The Town Car’s standard leather interior is spacious and even tasteful, but once again, not very sporting. The standard power front split-bench seat has an inflatable lumbar support but has no side bolsters, so you slide around a lot in corners on the slippery leather. (A Ford engineer showed us that if you pull out the center ashtray, you can use it to brace your knee during left-hand corners. No kidding.)
The dashboard’s uninterrupted horizontal hood makes this car feel really big inside. There’s no convenient center console because of the center seating position, although the center seatback folds down to make an armrest (with storage inside for CDs and cassettes). The steering wheel has convenient stereo and climate controls, and the instruments — just fuel and temperature gauges and a speedometer — are easily visible. Rear-seat room is ample, as you would expect, and rear-seat access is easy through the Town Car’s wide doors.
If you’re wondering how Lincoln can make a full-sized, leather-lined luxury cruiser for half the price of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, keep in mind that there’s a big difference between a Town Car and some of the world’s best luxury sedans. The Lincoln’s chassis, for example, lacks an independent rear suspension and isn’t capable of the high speeds of the Mercedes. Its automatic transmission has just four gears, too. Safetywise, the Lincoln lacks the Benz’s side airbags, its rear head restraints, and its sophisticated stability-control system.
Still, the Town Car is roomy, it drives competently, and it gives the impression of a lot of luxury car for the money. Cars like this especially appeal to older Americans. Last year’s typical Town Car buyer was 67 years old. Lincoln hopes the new version will reduce the average age to more like 63. And the Town Car’s lack of sophistication is actually to its advantage in some respects. Its tough body-on-frame construction makes it popular for limousine and funeral-hearse conversions, and its low price makes it attractive for rental car fleets.
Like the Buick Park Avenue and the Cadillac DeVille, the Lincoln Town Car is a uniquely American approach to automotive luxury. Spend some time out in the land of wide-open spaces, or on a local golf course, and a luxo-boat like the Town Car is easier to understand.
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