by Jim McCraw

The last bastion of traditional American luxury car values.

Base Price $40,150
As Tested $40,850

Completely redesigned and re-engineered last year, the Lincoln Town Car is softer and quieter than any of the European luxury cars. Lincoln Mercury has one of the highest loyalty and repurchase rates in the industry. Now the division wants to lure buyers away from Cadillac and Lexus.

Lincoln Mercury moved its headquarters to Irvine, California, last year to get out of Ford's shadow and establish its own identity. Even before that happened, this newest generation Town Car was being designed at Ford's California facility. And it shows with a trimmer look and rounded lines that replace the square, formal lines of the previous generation.

For 1999, side air bags have been added to the Town Car. A new Alpine stereo comes standard, and Executive models come with new door trim and a new rear center armrest with cupholders. Five new paint colors are available.

Cadillac's DeVille is the direct competition for the Town Car. But there are a number of smaller European and Japanese cars in the $40,000 luxury sedan bracket: Acura 3.5 RL, BMW 528i, Lexus GS 400, and Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

Walkaround

There are several versions of Town Car to choose from, including the $40,995 Signature Series and the $43,495 Cartier series. (There's a $38,995 Executive series that's sold primarily as a fleet car.)

This is an American luxury car with the time-honored formula: rear-wheel drive, V8 engine, smooth, quiet ride, seating for six, a huge trunk, and lots of luxury amenities.

From its complex-reflector headlamps and pursed-lips grille back to its chrome license plate surround and big corner-mounted taillamps, the Town Car has been redesigned for the 21st century. It's 3.7 inches shorter than the previous generation, and more than two inches of that is taken from the front overhang.

The most exciting news is the Touring Sedan Package, available on both Signature and Cartier models in 1999. The package comes with the more powerful 220-horsepower V8 engine with dual exhaust, larger 235/60R16 tires on unique 16-inch alloy wheels, a special torque converter, a 3.55:1 rear-axle ratio, and revised springs, shock absorbers and stabilizer bars. Those suspension bits are designed to provide improved handling and a sporty ride; the higher numerical rear-axle ratio boosts acceleration performance. With more than 20 special parts designed to improve performance, the Touring package is worth every cent of its nominal cost. It added just $700 to the cost of our Signature Touring Sedan and is distinguished by seven unique colors, perforated leather seating surfaces and a special black birdseye woodgrain finish on the instrument panel and doors.

The Inside Story

Everything in the interior is new and improved, from the door panels to the instrument panel to the radio face, switches and controls. The smaller analog instrument cluster features a centered speedometer flanked by fuel and temperature gauges.

Two small display screens on either side of the speedometer serve as the message center and compass. The system includes a redundant speedometer display, but no tachometer. The radio face has been replaced with larger and easier to use buttons and controls. Below the radio is the control center for the climate control system. Nothing is difficult to reach or understand, and there is so much available width that the controls are not crowded.

The Town Car's front and rear passenger compartments are very spacious. A new rear pillar design makes the rear seat cozier than the one in the old car. The big, thick seats are comfortable and the power front bucket seats offer lumbar support and two-position memory. The steering wheel contains buttons for cruise control and the sound system.

Interior noise has been reduced significantly over the previous model. The windshield has been moved forward four inches for improved aerodynamics. Rearview mirrors have been designed to generate much less wind noise. Thicker glass, triple seals on the doors, and redesigned pillars all help to further reduce noise.

Ride & Drive

Town Car owners will notice greatly improved steering and handling response. Ford has redesigned the steering system with more expensive components that yield improved steering precision and feel. The air suspension system boasts new twin-tube shock absorbers. Another more expensive solution is the rear suspension that uses a Watts linkage between the axle housing and the frame designed to improve both handling and ride quality. Trailing arms have been redesigned to be parallel to the frame.

All this adds up to a much more pleasant ride. The 1999 Town Car feels glued to the road in a way that the previous-generation could not match on its best day. Handling is much more predictable in lane-change maneuvers, without the momentary indecisiveness that characterized the old car. The Touring Package comes with shocks that are 50 percent larger for a firmer, more controlled ride.

Even with the Touring package, 3.55:1 rear-axle ratio and 220 horsepower on tap, the Town Car lacks the acceleration performance of its fastest competitors. Equipped with a 282 cubic-inch engine, it just doesn't accelerate like a $40,000 car should. Its chief competition has 275 horsepower, a palpable difference.

Transmission feel and function are greatly improved over the old automatic, with quicker, more positive shifts. The fourth gear overdrive can be turned off for climbing and descending long grades. The full-time all-speed traction control system can be switched off for climbing out of snow banks or other special situations.

The Town Car's brakes have been upgraded with bigger, thicker front discs and twin-piston calipers. With 25 percent more swept area, the brakes are much less likely to fade away when hot. ABS is standard.

Final Word

The Lincoln Town Car is an attractive, appealing car, with its huge cabin and trunk. Though it lacks the power of some of its Japanese competitors, the powertrain is smooth and refined. The styling is more sensual and modern than any previous Town Car. The Touring Package improves handling response.

In a world of front-drive cars, the Lincoln Town Car is a traditional rear-wheel-drive American luxury car that looks like no other luxury car on the road today. It comes loaded with amenities and extras that luxury buyers demand and appreciate.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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