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LEXINGTON, Ohio — You’ve got to give the folks at Lincoln a lot of credit. Despite parent company Ford’s precarious finances, frequent changes in upper echelon management, questions about where the brand fits within Ford’s corporate structure, and unrelenting competition from German and Japanese marques, a core of talented, dedicated product planners and engineers have re-shaped Lincoln’s entire lineup.

“Just five years ago, we were selling some pretty traditional cars,” noted Mike Crowley, Lincoln Group marketing manager, referring to Town Car, Continental and Mark VIII. “But the hot growth segments are where we’re putting our money now,” as in SUVs and mid-size luxury/sports sedans.

Lincoln’s latest expenditures weren’t for an all-new vehicle, but a makeover, specifically the 2003 LS sports sedan. “The LS is a tougher act to follow,” Crowley admitted; “it was well received originally (in 1999 as a 2000 model), but we knew we had to upgrade the driving personality.”

Consider Lincoln’s money well spent, for while you may not notice the ’03 LS’s external changes, you notice the driving dynamics straightaway. “The LS has a well established reputation as a driver’s car,” added Al Kammerer, Lincoln’s product development director, “but competition in the luxury sports sedan market is intense. That’s why we enhanced every major system of the car.” Indeed, by Lincoln’s count, some 500 components and systems were redesigned to help the LS better compete with such formidable competitors as the Audi A6, BMW 5-Series, Cadillac CTS, Lexus GS 300/400, and Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

First-class upgrade

The mechanical upgrades were displayed and experienced during an afternoon on track at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where handling is paramount to properly negotiate its 15 turns over 2.4 miles. Thus it was the perfect venue to spotlight the LS’s improved suspension, all-new steering, additional power from both V-8 and V-6 engines, “drive-by-wire” electronic throttle control, and new brake boosters with emergency brake assist. With the benefit of driving an ’02 LS (not to mention a CTS and BMW 540), back-to-back, you notice the steering first.

“It’s an entirely new, ZF (Servotronic II) system, rack and pinion, speed sensitive and variable assist, with an all-new steering gear and pump for better NVH and fuel economy,” said LS steering expert Chet Dhruna track-side. “It has higher torsional stiffness and 40 percent less operating friction compared to the original steering rack, plus the intermediate steering shaft is twice as stiff.” Put all that together and you have steering precision of the highest order, with almost perfect linear response and outstandingly smooth predictable transitions. And because the system has variable assist and ratio, you get “increasing stiffness with speed but reduced parking effort,” Dhruna noted.

Steering can’t take all the credit. It has to share it with the suspension, or to be precise, suspensions, as in regular and Sport, which now is standard on the V-8-powered LS. Both are exercises in tuning, for there are no geometry changes, according to dynamics manager Mike Liubakka. “The LS was a very capable vehicle already, with all the hard points in place,” he says. “The shocks are a significant hardware change; they’re larger front and rear. We did low-speed tuning of the 35-mm shock bushings for ride comfort.” Like the ’03 Thunderbird (which shares many of the LS improvements), these twin-tube shocks work quicker for better control of body motion, while the rear shocks add internal rebound springs for increased stability.

The V-6 LS retains 16-inch wheels, but tire size and quality improve via 225/55VR Continental ContiTouringContact rubber that Lincoln says are quieter and improve traction in slippery conditions. All V-8 cars have 17-inch wheels wearing 235/50VR Michelin Pilot HX MXM4s, touted for high cornering limits and improved wet traction, especially under heavy braking. The Sport suspension adds higher shock damping rates, a quicker steering gear ratio, higher cornering efforts, and larger front (1.5-mm) and rear (5-mm) stabilizer bars. We drove only the V-8 LS on the track, so we can attest to the suspension’s road-holding prowess. For a street car on street tires under semi-racing conditions, the LS owed apologies to no one.

Power play

The powerplants receive milder changes for the new year. Displacements remain 3.0 liters for the 24-valve V-6 and 3.9 liters for the 32-valve V-8. But the V-6’s power increases to 232 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque, up from 220 and 215. The V-8 jumps from 252 to 280 horses and 267 to 286 lb-ft. Each has a flat torque curve that kicks in at low rpm for excellent acceleration. And even with those added horses, fuel economy improves on both engines.

The power improvements stem primarily from variable intake camshaft timing and electronic throttle control. Without getting at all technical, both are possible thanks to lots of electronics and computer capacity. This Ford-exclusive “drive-by-wire” system, like the LS’s four-wheel vented 11+ inch disc brakes with standard anti-lock, are shared with Thunderbird (the V-6 LS gets cast iron calipers at the rear, not the V-8’s aluminum ones.) Standard on the LS is all-speed traction control and Lincoln expects 60 percent of all buyers will opt for its AdvanceTrac traction and stability enhancement system (standard on V-8 Premium Sport), improved for ’03 to even better manage understeer.

The sole transmission is a five-speed automatic. A SelectShift mode is standard on V-8s, but not available on V-6s, which seems odd to us. But the Lincoln folks say most V-6 buyers are more interested in the LS’s luxury characteristics. Still on a car that starts at $34,495, you’d think a shift-it-yourself automatic would be a given. There’s a far more understandable reason why a five-speed manual no longer will be offered on the V-6. A mere 0.3 percent of all Lincoln LSs from the 2000-2002 model years were ordered with it. “The manual was good from an image perspective,” said Mike Crowley, “because we’d never done one before.” At least not in his lifetime.

One more mechanical tidbit: the LS’s stiff, rigid body structure (24Hz bending and 29 Hz torsion) is even better. “The original LS was already so quiet that there was no ”magic bullet” for improvement,” according to Crowley. “Instead, we made scores of little changes that together have a profound improvement on overall refinement.” This is still a luxury car, remember. Which brings us (finally) to those interior accoutrements. “There are only four LS packages, down from 11,” said Mike Crowley, “two each on V-6 (Standard and Premium) and V-8 (Sport and Premium Sport), to better separate their personalities.”

All cars get leather seating surfaces, the new Lincoln signature satin nickel accents, an electronic parking brake, power adjustable pedals, a larger console with an adjustable armrest, and more ergonomic window and lock controls. Overall cabin stowage increases 250 percent. All V-8s get heated and cooled seats.

The most notable option is the THX Certified Ultra Premium Car Audio system. The LS is the first vehicle to receive this George Lucas-approved and developed super system. By the way, you only get THX in conjunction with a navigation system, a hefty $2995 package. They’re about the only things not standard on the $43,995 Premium Sport model. And while that’s not cheap, it buys you quite a luxurious sport sedan. Only the lack of a manual transmission keeps it from an A-plus in my notebook.

We’ve shortchanged the LS’s luxury aspects a bit in this report. But because this mid-size Lincoln has taken major steps toward becoming a world-class driver’s car, we didn’t think you’d mind. If you do, one trip to your favorite back road or twisty bit should change your mind. This car is that good.

2003 Lincoln LS Sports Sedan
Base prices: $34,495 (V-6 Base); $37,893 (V-6 Premium); $40,695 (V-8 Sport); $43,995 (V-8 Premium Sport)
Engines:3.0-liter DOHC V-6, 232 hp/220 lb-ft torque; 3.9-liter DOHC V-8, 280/286
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 193.9 x 73.2 x 56.1
Wheelbase: 114.5 in
Curb weight: 3674 lb (V-6); 3755 lb (V-8)
EPA City/Hwy:20/26 mpg (V-6); 18/25 (V-8)
Safety equipment: Driver and passenger front airbags; front seat side-impact airbags; optional side curtain airbags (late availability); anti-lock brakes with emergency brake assist; all-speed traction control
Major standard equipment: Passive anti-theft system; automatic climate control; 80-watt AM/FM/CD/cassette, six speaker sound system; power windows, seats, door locks and mirrors; cruise control; power adjustable pedals

Warranty:
Four years/50,000 miles

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