Road Test - 2000 Lincoln LS
And Now for Something Completely Different ...
No, it's not a Monty Python sketch; it's a Lincoln so completely different that it seems like they've jacked up a couple of Lincoln emblems and shoved another manufacturer's car under them. It's the Lincoln LS.
In May 2000, I had a week-long, 800-mile experience driving the LS. During that time, I developed strong opinions about this car - both positive and negative. I wanted this report to reflect the opinions of others, so I had ten other people check out this car. Some drove it; some rode in it. This article summarizes all of our opinions.
Our LS test car was the V-8 model with the Sport Package - a $1000 option which includes stiffer suspension, big 17" alloy wheels with low-profile P235/50 tires, an automatic transmission with select-shift 'boy-racer' stick-shift mode (try as I might, I could never get it to start in first gear), a tilt and telescoping, leather-covered steering wheel and monochromatic front and rear bumpers without the usual chrome inserts. It also had a 6-CD changer mounted in the glove box which took up just about the entire compartment, making it useless for storing anything larger than a pair of ladies gloves. Traction control, leather seats, automatic headlamps, electronic message center (which insisted that we were averaging between 0.8 and 1.6 miles per gallon - not true; we averaged 22 mpg on premium) and big 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS are standard. So are driver and passenger front air bags as well as side airbags. The LS had the usual luxury items - remote keyless entry, alarm system, power seats with two-position memory on driver's side, three-button universal garage door opener, and a rear seatback which folds down for extra storage. LS list prices range from $31,215 for the V-6 with manual transmission to about $37,000 for a fully-optioned V-8 model. Our test car would probably cost about $35,000.
The stated purpose of the LS is to get 40-somethings to become Lincoln buyers. Lincoln wants to lure them away from the siren song of those sporty, status-building imports like Lexus, Mercedes, Audi and BMW. The strategy is apparently to offer a car with external dimensions and interior seating comparable to BMW 5-series and Mercedes E-class cars at prices similar to BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-class prices. This younger buyer strategy is important for Lincoln's long-term survival as a brand. In 1999, the average age of the Lincoln buyer was 63 years old, compared with 52 for Mercedes and Lexus and 44 for BMW. In 1999, Lincoln sold about 176,000 cars but was outsold by Mercedes, Lexus and Cadillac. In the early 1950s, marketing a luxury car was easy - the entire Lincoln line competed with three or four other brands for the customer's dollar. Today, a single Lincoln model - the LS sedan - has 15 direct competitors in the "near-luxury" segment. And, because the competition is plentiful, tough and focused, the LS needs to be world-class-with-no-excuses if it wants a significant share of this market.
The Lincoln LS has gotten some very good reviews in the automotive press. It won the Motor Trend 'Car of the Year' award. Consumer Reports called it "the best American car we've ever driven." Despite the favorable reviews, there's very little buzz about this car on the street. Many of the people I talked with didn't know much, if anything, about this Lincoln model - particularly those in their 30s and 40s. This is not good news for Lincoln - they need to do more to get the word out about this car to their target market.
When the Jaguar S-Type was introduced (the S-Type is on the same basic platform as the LS but costs $10,000 more), our local Jaguar dealer had an evening cocktail party complete with swing band to introduce the S-type to the community. We received two invitations - one because we own a 1996 Jaguar and one because we were a member of the local Jaguar club. Several business acquaintances, who fit the target owner profile, also received direct mail pieces inviting them to the party. Everybody had a great time and a Jag salesman later told me that quite a few orders for S-Types were taken in the days following the party. Great buzz!
A few months later, the LS appeared. We own a 1996 Continental but, if there was a party, we weren't invited. Nor was any Lincoln Club member, that I know of. Nor were my thirty and forty-something business friends who fit the target customer profile for this car. So, the LS remains a well-kept secret - many prospective buyers are unaware of its existence. No buzz.
1. It handles! This car is the best-handling sedan I've ever driven. It corners like it's on rails. There's a reverse S-curve not far from home which has a 20 mile-per-hour speed limit. We blew through it at 50 - no power-slide, no four-wheel drift, no flop-sweaty Omigod-I'm-gonna-hit-that-tree moment - the car just rumbled through that 'S' like a freight train on steroids! One of my friends pushed it through some hilly twisties near his home and said that it out-handled his daughter's BMW 3-series. I've owned two sports cars and, while the LS is no sports car, it's pretty darned close. Everybody who drove it loved the handling and cornering capabilities of this car.
2. It's responsive! When you tap the accelerator pedal, this car jumps. It's no drag racer, but crack the throttle 1/4 way and you're haulin', mister. I made several timed 0 to 60 runs and it averaged 7.8 seconds - not bad (and very competitive in its class) but, frankly, it feels even faster than it really is. By the way, the use of the manual shift option didn't improve acceleration times for me. Everyone who drove it liked the responsiveness of the LS. It stops well, too. The four discs with giant 12-inch rotors halt it quickly and decisively.
3. It's more comfortable than it looks! The front bucket seats look very European - spare and flat-looking. But they're surprisingly comfortable, even on long trips. The infinitely adjustable seats combined with the tilt and telescopic wheel means you'll surely find a setting which is right for you. The back seat is short on legroom and headroom by big Lincoln standards but is generous compared to most cars in its price class. The LS is also narrower than a big Lincoln and, while the rear bench seat is alleged to accommodate three, that's only true for Callista Flockhart and her two body doubles. The ride in our test car was firm and jiggly, especially if the road was less than glass-smooth. I suspect that LS models without the Sport Package would ride much better.
1. It's bland-looking. Up close, the LS has some wonderful design cues which make it look muscular and purposeful. Step back and they fade and become invisible, making it look boring and anonymous - resembling a Mitsubishi Diamante or a Mazda Millennia. A friend and I parked the LS next to a BMW 3-series and began backing away - the Lincoln lost its identity at 25 feet; the 3-series still looked like a Bimmer half-a-block away. And the LS's rear-end looks like every other Mercedes-wanna-be knock-off. The LS needs to make a strong visual statement as it comes at you on a two-lane road. Or as it passes you on a freeway. It doesn't do either.
2. It has some cheesy detailing. If Ford paid Mattel Toys (or Firestone!) more than 23¢ to injection mold that hideous plastic grille, they were robbed. The door pockets scream 'low quality' - I've bought nicer ones from J.C. Whitney for $2.19 each. The wood trim on the LS is real burled walnut but half the people who looked thought it was cheap plastic. The tailpipes were tiny - they looked like NOS '61 Falcon leftovers - and had no fat, ominous-looking chrome tips like their competition. And there's no V-8 burble, either. Just a whine - like a Japanese V-6. World-class cars are world-class down to the last detail. This one isn't.
3. Where's the space? You would think that a car riding on a wheelbase 7 inches longer than a Continental would feel spacious. It doesn't. The low windshield, slope of the side windows and thick pillars (a 15-inch blind spot from the front windshield base to the side window) induce claustrophobia. The targeted potential customer typically uses his/her car as an office - and needs lots of storage. This car has almost none - the center console won't even hold a cell phone. The cupholders are for demitasse only. These and other interior design details are stupid and maddening.
4. It's a Lincoln. It's my sad duty to report that several people remarked that they wouldn't consider this car "because it's a Lincoln." Those who had never owned a Lincoln said that a BMW or Lexus conferred more status. Four people who own or owned Lincolns were weary of quality/service problems and poor treatment from dealers. In May, Jac Nasser announced that 50% of executive bonuses would be tied to customer satisfaction; this, at least, indicates that Ford is aware of the problem. Let's hope they fix it and restore Lincoln's good name.
The LS is currently selling briskly - over 4400 units were sold in April, 2000 (compared with 7,100 Town Cars and 1,800 Continentals). But new Lincoln models always sell well in the first year. I talked with Lincoln salespeople at two dealerships. Their consensus was that two kinds of people were buying LSs. The first were older people in their 60s who were trading their big Lincolns for something small and easy to park. The second group were younger buyers, mostly male, who either were moving up from a Mercury Sable or who traded an older BMW or Lexus (after being sticker-shocked by the new ones). Almost everybody orders the V-8 version.
This is a very promising car - the more I drove it; the more I liked it. But to improve market penetration and sustain sales over the longer term, the LS needs to be world-class-with-no-excuses - and it's not. The car needs $15-$25 per unit added to the materials budget to be less cheesy. The interior needs to look more spacious. Storage space should be increased. Design details need to be refined. The exterior styling must be more distinctive. Those dealers who can't or won't provide world-class customer service need to be repaired or replaced. And Lincoln needs to create a positive brand-buzz - if Lexus, Starbucks, Range Rover and Nordstrom can do it, so can Lincoln.
I hope they do.
This road test was originally published in LCOC Western Region's Continental Confab newsletter.
Thanks to Confab Editor Jim Farrell who arranged for the test car from Lincoln.
Copyright 2000 Joseph M. Sherlock. All Rights Reserved.
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