Traditional luxury with a twist. by Mike Knepper
Base Price $38,500
As Tested $42,530
Lincoln-Mercury says its Continental is designed to provide "exemplary comfort and ride quality in a highly maneuverable sedan with distinctive styling." Lincoln has accomplished that mission and more, with improved ride quality, enhanced maneuverability, subtle styling changes and a sophisticated new instrument panel. All told, there are more than 400 enhancements for 1998.
Offered in just one model this year, the Continental offers the latest in technology with electronically adjustable suspension and steering systems and futuristic instruments. These whiz-bang electronics are not intrusive, however, as owners can choose to use them to tailor the car to their driving style and environment or they can simply ignore them, relax and enjoy the cruise. Regardless of your level of involvement, the Continental is a satisfying luxury car.
There are face lifts that are so obvious you don't have to look closely to know what was done, and then there are those so subtle you don't know what was done but like the overall effect. The Continental underwent a very subtle face lift for 1998.
The front overhang was reduced. The headlamps and turn signals are covered with a single, thinner lens. Although the grille retains its basic design of vertical bars, it is slightly bigger top to bottom and looks more prominent; it's also more resistant to damage.
Massive Lincoln taillamps sweep around into the rear quarter panels. Front fenders, hood and decklid are made of a sheet molding compound (SMC) that is more resistant to dents and dings. This material will allow Lincoln to revise the styling more often to keep the Continental in step with evolving aesthetic trends. Overall, the Continental looks rounder than before and makes a distinctive design statement.
The trunk lid raises high enough to not be a head-bumper for all but the tallest. The trunk boasts nearly 19 cubic feet of cargo capacity and a low lift-over height makes loading and unloading a lot easier.
Lifting the hood reveals an attractive engine compartment filled by the 4.6-liter V-8. Washer fluid, oil filler and other necessaries are out in the open and the cooling system is maintenance free. The 32-valve double overhead-cam engine produces a healthy 260 horsepower at 5750 rpm and 270 foot-pounds of torque at 3000 rpm. The ignition system has a coil for each plug for reduced maintenance and a cleaner appearance. New knock sensors mean premium fuel is no longer required, though it is still recommended for maximum performance.
The engine drives the front wheels through a four-speed automatic linked electronically and mechanically to the engine. The two talking to each other means shifts are remarkably smooth. Traction control is standard. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are also standard.
The front suspension is independent with MacPherson struts. Ford's short- and long-arm independent rear suspension is designed to maximize control of wheel movements for better ride and handling. The rear shocks have soft, normal and firm settings controlled by the driver. Speed-sensitive power steering offers driver-selectable settings for low, normal and high effort.
Flat tires are less of a concern with optional "run-flat" tires that can go 100 miles without air. The Michelin MX4ZP tires are part of a system called SecuriTire that includes an overhead console lamp that lights when a tire pressure drops below 18 psi; it starts flashing at 10 psi in case the driver didn't notice the light.
A passive anti-theft system uses an encoded radio frequency between the key and the ignition capable of generating 72 quadrillion codes, making it virtually impossible to be beaten by even the most persistent bad guy.
The Inside Story
There is so much to see and do inside a Continental. The luxurious interior covered in leather, wood and premium carpeting features a plethora of electronic doodads and high-tech instrumentation.
Even everyday instruments offer surprises. Switch on the ignition and a blank area where the instruments should be lights up with instruments. But with a difference! The numbers are lighted from behind and the red pointers for the tach, speedometer, fuel and temperature gauges seem to float above the gauge faces. That may sound a bit gimmicky, but it makes the gauges very easy to read and we applaud the technology.
A set of controls are mounted on the dash just to the right. This is the fun center. It's used to set variables for ride quality and power steering assist along with trip information, such as miles to empty, average mpg and instant mpg. Push the check button and the status of various systems is shown.
Owners can program a myriad of functions such as whether to have the doors lock when the car moves forward, or to have the horn chirp when the remote locks the doors, or to have the rear view mirrors dip when the transmission goes into reverse. And all of that can be stored in a pair of memory buttons so that different drivers can have the car tailored to their preferences, eliminating potential trouble spots between spouses. Simply push the driver ID button, select "1" or "2" and all your preferences will be selected.
Our test car came with comfortable bucket seats covered in handsome leather. Both seats offer power adjustments and the driver's seat has a two-position memory. We liked the seating position and visibility was good in all directions. With lots of rear seat leg room, three adults can sit in back with reasonable comfort. The interior can hold six when a front bench is selected. Either way, the leather is standard.
An optional Remote Satellite Cellular Unit, called RESCU, is automatically activated when the airbags are deployed. It combines satellite locating with an active voice to bring assistance. The options package includes the run-flat tires, an upgraded sound system and a garage door opener.
Ride & Drive
The Continental delivers on the promise of comfort, ride quality and good handling. And we can't leave out performance. The 32-valve V-8 has plenty of power to move this 3868-pound sedan with some authority. Merging on to the freeway is easy and there's plenty of power in reserve for passing on two-lane roads. The Cadillac Seville has an edge in the power department, however, with 300 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm.
The Continental is a big car, but it doesn't feel heavy, unwieldy or sloppy on the road. And while it is roomy inside, the design of the instrument panel, the real wood accents, and the leather work together to provide an intimate interior that we found most pleasant.
The semi-active suspension with adjustable ride should appeal to owners who want more control and driving excitement. On the highway we preferred the firm setting for a more controlled feel. In the plush setting, swales in the road, gentle undulations set up a porpoising action, but for low-speeds on rough roads the plush setting absorbed the bumps and thumps nicely. Adjusting the steering effort between high and low effort is most noticeable in tight maneuvering, such as turning into a driveway. On the highway, the speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering automatically increases steering effort for improved road feel.
Overall, the Continental's drive feel is not as taught as a BMW or Mercedes. It's tuned toward traditional American tastes. The adjustable steering and suspension are an attempt to let an owner dial in some European feel.
The Lincoln Continental is a luxury car in every sense of the word, but a luxury car with a difference. The difference is the unusual exterior design and the integrated feel of the interior. There is more than sufficient performance and its over-the-road manners are impeccable. If more luxury car intenders would take a Continental for a test drive, Lincoln would sell more Continentals.
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