LINCOLN LS 1999

By TONY WHITNEY

Thunderhill Park is billed as ''California's newest motorsport facility'' and I'm enjoying every yard and every lap of it. Located not far from Interstate Five north of Sacramento, it's a beautifully-paved, fast, three-mile road circuit with 14 challenging turns. Built at the initiative of local SCCA people, it's a track BC motorsport fans would die for.

Turn nine, which features a 250-foot elevation gain, is especially challenging, but my car is well up to the task. You can see nothing of the turn's exit because the brow of the hill makes it completely blind. Once over the top, there's a sharp right-hander for which I've prepared with a quick snick into second gear. A controlled bounce over the curb at the apex, back into third and I'm well set up for a faster stretch of track. The steed I'm testing came through ''nine'' with flying colours - as it did all the way round Thunderhill at speeds which would have shown up a lesser road car for what it was.

Did I mention I was driving a Lincoln?

Not your Grandpa's Town Car, for sure, but something very special that promises to change that ''polyester leisure suit/Las Vegas strip cruiser'' image of Lincoln once and for all. Lincoln clearly kept its Town Car guys well away from the new LS, which shares its platform with the wonderful new Jaguar S-Type. Instead, Ford's Lincoln Division recruited a bunch of ex-Benetton Formula One Team people fresh from helping Michael Schumacher win his World Championships. The Benetton boys (who were hanging out with us at the track) were involved with developing the LS right from the start and it shows in every element of the car - and its undoubted status as a genuine non-holds-barred sports sedan.

Lincoln is deadly serious about this car and plans to work ceaselessly to win it the recognition it deserves. When I tell you that you can get one with a five-speed manual transmission and add that all models come with a proper handbrake, you'll get the idea. Lincoln drove the point home to us by turning up at Thunderhill with an LS tricked out like a touring car racer with lowered suspension, a huge rear spoiler, a full roll cage and all the other bells and whistles. It was no cosmetic job either. More a well-used test mule, it was fettled together, according to one of the ex-Benetton guys, to explore the outer limits of the car.

Discussing marketing with a Lincoln executive, I asked whether the LS would win any buyers among existing Lincoln sedan owners. ''Absolutely not,'' was his response. The task is to create a whole new market among younger buyers who believe right now that the automotive world begins and ends with products like the BMW 5-Series, Lexus ES300, Mercedes C-Class and Audi A6. Lincoln says it wants to shed its ''old guy'' image and with the LS, it's off to a great start. Lincoln has already achieved something of a beachhead with the Navigator SUV, which is attracting younger buyers who would probably never have considered a Town car, Continental or Mark VIII.

Stylistically, the rear wheel drive LS isn't as dramatic as its Jaguar relative. It's more in the tradition of German mid-size near-luxury and sports sedans - a no-nonsense look that's ''all business and no flash.'' More than likely, that's the way potential buyers in this class will want it. During Lincoln presentations I attended in San Francisco, there was almost no mention of styling, so you can make what you will of that factor. Interestingly, aluminum is used for the hood, rear deck lid and front fenders, contributing to a respectably light curb weight of between 3,600 and 3,700 lbs depending on engine choice.

From a technical standpoint, there are all kinds of interesting features and more than a goodly helping of the luxury common to this class of automobile. Two engines are available - a 3.0-litre DOHC V-6 and a 3.9-litre DOHC V-8. The V-8 comes only with a 5-speed automatic (which is optional with the V-6), but you can order your V-6 LS with, glory of glories, a manual 5-speed built by Getrag of Germany. Horsepower ratings are 210 with the V-6 and 252 with the V-8. The V-6 is related to Ford's excellent Duratec powerplant and the V-8 is vaguely connected to the Jaguar S-Type motor. Both provide lots of snap, but my choice (no surprise here) would be the V-6 with 5-speed manual. Incidentally, the last Lincoln to offer a manual transmission was the 1951 Cosmopolitan.

Fully independent suspension is featured all round and this contributes towards excellent roadholding and general agility. 50/50 weight distribution helps here too. Any decent driver should be able to match the performance of rival Mercs and BMWs with this new Lincoln. Traction control is standard with the V-8 and optional with the V-6. Other aids to great handling include Lincoln's AdvanceTrac stability enhancement system. A development of Ford's Formula One involvement (those Benetton folk again!), the system monitors driver inputs (steering, throttle and brakes) and vehicle response (yaw, lateral acceleration and wheel speed) to control brake force distribution and vehicle stability. Although F1 legislators gave the heave-ho to systems like this, the benefits are very real for everyday driving.

The LS interior is very opulent with lots of woody panels and plenty of leather trim. Putting all these cosmetics aside, the cockpit is actually very good indeed with well-placed steering wheel, supportive seats and a decent set of round instruments. I felt very much at home in it and was reminded, once again, of European and Japanese rivals. Like other Lincoln products, the LS boasts excellent quality and first rate fit and finish.

Canadian prices had not been announced at presstime, but in the US, the LS starts at $31,450 (MSRP). Best option for the performance minded is the ''sport'' package which includes 17-inch aluminum rims, stiffer suspension, SelectShift transmission with the auto option, body colour bumpers, an oil cooler and a leather-wrapped wheel and shift knob. This package will cost something like $1,500 here - quite a bargain.

Make no mistake about it, the LS is a very fine motor car indeed, but the challenge Lincoln faces is to communicate this fact to non-traditional Lincoln buyers - people moving up from the hordes of Camrys, Accords, Maximas et al. The company is making no secret of this and admits that the task is daunting for sure. My experience with the car on road and track has convinced me that this is probably the best domestic performance sedan we've ever seen. If this undoubted fact reaches the attention of fickle buyers who have so many products to choose from, Lincoln might make a happy return to the halcyon times decades ago when no luxury car buyer would make a final decision without at least taking a look at one.

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