Bridging the gap: Lincoln Zephyr offers high style at a bargain price

Friday, October 21, 2005

I've always had a reverent respect for Lincolns. Even as a youngster, before anyone told me they were expensive, I knew they were special, different and better than an "ordinary" car. Growing up in a dusty Texas border town, in another era when our soldiers (including my dad) occupied Japan, life was a stark time of haves and have-nots. We did a lot of walking back then. Lots of families didn't own even one car. So when a big, chromed Lincoln rolled through town it wasn't unusual for a kid like me to stop and gawk. "Don't stare!" mom would plead, urging me along the broken sidewalk.

Whether that Lincoln was a Continental or a Phaeton or a Sunshine Special or a Cosmopolitan, I don't know. Lincoln made so many models (in 1932 there were no less than 23 body types!) that I can't keep them straight. It could have been a Zephyr, introduced in 1936 as a lower-priced Lincoln intended to bridge the gap between the basic Ford V-8s and the higher priced Lincoln V-12 K series. Back then you couldn't identify a Lincoln by the grill -- you had to walk around to the back to read the chrome marquee. Today's kids have it so much easier -- all Lincolns are endowed with the same trademark "waterfall" grille and similar styling cues in the headlamps, taillamps and sheetmetal.

And that's a good thing, because until Lincoln adopted a coherent image, Cadillac was trouncing it in the market place. In fact, I owned two Cadillacs (no, I'm not rich, just car crazy) before I bought a Lincoln (a Continental that I still own). So when I picked up my shiny new 2006 Zephyr for a test drive I was like a kid holding a quarter in a 50s-era candy store. Talk about exciting!

There are three Lincoln cars now: the huge rear-drive Town Car; the more manageable rear-drive LS; and the front-drive, new-comer Zephyr -- a little bigger than a Honda Accord. Price-wise, Lincoln is very proud of its Town Cars and LSs. But it is repeating history with the Zephyr -- it is downright affordable! We're talking the high $20,000s with heated leather seats and other gadgets that you expect to find on a Lincoln. Sure, you can spend more -- my vehicle MSRPed at $31,545, but that included nearly $2,000 of special wheels, HID headlamps and cooled front seats.

Is Zephyr a "real" luxury car? From its remarkably quiet ride and impressive performance to its plethora of gizmos and power buttons, I'd say so. Fit and finish are exceptional. The powertrain, although it doesn't have the kick of a BMW 3 sedan, still falls into the superlative category. And the suspension, departing from the traditional "pillow on a soft mattress" ride that Detroit cherished for so many years, will please all you sophisticated owners of Lexus, Volvo and Mercedes brands. Town Car lovers will be in for a shock, though.

Consider the stuff under the hood. Here resides a modern powertrain featuring not four gears, or even five, but SIX silky ratios of forward motivation. With this transmission there's always a gear that's "just right" for the task at hand, whether cruising down the interstate or shoving down on the accelerator to get around a hay wagon. The engine is a V-6 capable of "only" 221 horsepower, but that transmission can wrangle every last pony out of it, making it seem much more powerful.

The engine is sophisticated, too, endowed with IVCT (Intake Variable Cam Timing) that provides substantial torque improvement (205 lb.-ft.) while at the same time cutting emissions. Roller-finger valve lifters reduce friction, vibration and noise. A clean-running engine, this 3-liter is rated for ULEV II tailpipe emissions in California.

The new Zephyr is a lot safer than the original one. While front, seat and side-curtain airbags are standard, they now employ roll-fold technology that allows the side-curtain airbag to position itself between the glass and outboard occupants better. Engineers have used high tensile-strength steel in certain structural body areas and lower strength steel in other areas to help absorb and manage the force of impacts. The typical electronic safety features are in place, also.

In the comfort area the Zephyr doesn't disappoint. Standard 10-way, power driver and front-passenger seats welcomed me, and the premium leather trim was soft yet supportive. They can be heated or cooled at the touch of a button. Wood grips in the leather cushioned steering wheel are an elegant touch, and control buttons for the climate, cruise and audio are just a finger-flick away. The automatic climate control is dual-zone, of course.

Passenger room is more than adequate for two front seaters, but tight for three in the rear. Two in the rear are quite comfortable and they can enjoy the fold-down center armrest and the folding 60/40 split seat that opens to the enormous 16 cu. ft. trunk. The Zephyr's generous 107.4 wheelbase and other dimensions are virtually identical to the Ford Fusion, which is an enlarged and modified derivative of the highly acclaimed Mazda 6. Zephyr is about 200 pounds heavier than Fusion.

Lincoln has been named No. 1 in customer satisfaction with dealer service by J. D. Power for the second year in a row, and the brand has become one of the most reliable in the world. In Greek mythology, Zephyr swept clouds from the sky. Today's Zephyr has the potential to give those clouds a silver lining.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at sjr1@robertsonsphotography.com.

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