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BEHIND THE WHEEL

1992 FORD CROWN VICTORIA : A Better Idea in a Full Size

July 04, 1991|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The wood trim is obviously faux , raps hollow and actually flexes beneath poking fingers. Plastic fittings are far from fidget-proof and a few probably won't be around 5,000 miles from now. That includes the plastic cover on a fuse box mounted deep underneath the dash, just above the foot-operated parking brake--and just above a foot reaching for the brake and kicking the fuse box lid on the way in.

Gauges are analog, a welcome holdover from yesteryear, and dash controls are within easy reach of fingers and eyeballs, a tribute to today's ergonomics. A driver-side air bag is standard, a passenger-side bag is optional.

Ford has made much of its new Luxocruiser's improved handling. So have the enthusiast magazines. But do not look for the firm, flat and faithful handling of some oversized Lotus. The Crown Vic's power steering is pure mush that gives the driver absolutely no information about the stance of the front wheels or their amount of adhesion.

An anti-lock brake system, combined with electronic traction control, is part of an optional handling package. On our test car, although only 1,800-miles young, the anti-lock system twice started rocking 'n' rolling while under only moderate foot pressures.

During standard maneuvering at routine speeds when everything is going right, the car is well mannered. That's certainly an improvement over previous years. Yet the size of the Crown Victoria doesn't allow much daydreaming in freeway lanes and sudden moves can result in a wobbling recovery to straight and level thanks to that insensitive steering.

Yet at speed, especially if taken to slinging the car around a little, the handling is a much more rewarding story. Cross up an older full-size car and options are limited to hanging on and praying that you didn't slow down suddenly against hard objects.

In the Crown Victoria, however, springs have been set heavier, broader and tougher tires are installed for the uncouth of foot, and there are heftier shocks and anti-roll bars for a noticeable improvement in stability. What these strengthened attachments do is soak up lateral forces, pitch and body roll until the vehicle's shifting weight has been damped. Then the car stays planted, and even an eventual breakaway is predictable, almost benign and certainly recoverable.

Aha, you snort. Crown Victoria owners, with a majority into their seniority, aren't about to be jousting against Corvettes and Oakley wearers in chopped and channeled mini-trucks. So why give stock-car characteristics to their sedate sedan?

For the simple reason that given the right combination of surface, speed, handling oversight or impolite intrusion by usually friendly traffic, any car can be forced to its handling limits. At such times, it is enormously reassuring--especially for powerless passengers--to be in a car that continues to resolve the problem.

One almost forgotten asset of the big, soft, and much maligned American car of yore was its passion for gobbling up great lengths of interstate with virtually no wear and tear on the occupants.

The Crown Victoria has never left that category. It is powerful, smooth, cushioned, and fully insulated against road, engine and all noises of the highway.

It might even be a crime to see it go.

1992 Ford Crown Victoria LX

COST: * Base: $19,543 * As tested: $25,092 (including automatic transmission, anti-lock brakes, handling and performance package, cast alloy wheels, leather-faced seats, JBL sound system, cruise control, heavy-duty towing package and other options.)

ENGINE: * 4.6 liters, 16-valves, single overhead camshaft V-8 developing 190 horsepower.

TYPE: * Rear-drive, six-passenger, four-door, full-size sedan.

PERFORMANCE: * 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 9.9 seconds. * Top speed, estimated, 120 m.p.h. * Gas consumption, EPA city-highway, 18-25 m.p.g.

CURB WEIGHT: * 3748 pounds.

THE GOOD: * Vastly improved looks over 1991. * Vastly improved performance over 1991. * Vastly improved handling over 1991.

THE BAD: * Still two long, broad tons of automobile. * Unsupportive seats. * Too much room to rattle.

THE UGLY: * Genuine, imitation, simulated wood trim.

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