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Behind the Wheel

A Little Bit of Old Detroit

January 16, 1998|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The moment will arrive when the high fun of driving a Miata becomes something of an unnecessary muddle. About the same time, speed limits no longer will be challenged eagerly, and all parking lots will start to slope uphill. Car doors will get heavier, instruments will grow smaller and numbers fuzzier. Dismounting a sport-utility will stir memories of jump school and the 101st Airborne.

Go with me on this.

Somewhere between death and taxes, there is the identical certainty of aging. And that's when a full-size chunk of Old Detroit, such as the 1998 Lincoln Town Car, suddenly makes more sense than Metamucil.

Stay with me.

There will be no ageism, no references to land yachts and no Fat Albert jokes attached to this column. Just a gentle appreciation of those at an age of knowing to the penny how much is in their 401(k)--and who sometimes are scorned by the young and feckless for praising companies that build cars like they used to. Like original Ammurrican automobiles: Lincolns and Cadillacs and Chryslers that are big, safe, comfortable, don't make rude noises, and are only really upsetting when driven slowly in the fast lane.

We bless Lincoln-Mercury for only wanting to lower the target Town Car buyer's median age from 67 to 63. Which means those who have played their last in-line hockey season still are able to buy cars that are as close as one gets to mindless motoring without planting the family sedan on a rope and having it towed to San Francisco.

Lincoln's subtle, unspoken signs of effortless driving for those of mature and experienced life spans include: Town Car instrumentation with billboard-sized numbers telling how many miles to go before pulling in for gas. And letters large enough for primary readers giving compass headings, should you not see the sign saying Interstate 10 West on the entrance ramp.

Transmission is automatic, of course. So is the heating and cooling system. Traction controls prevent wheel spin; anti-lock brakes curb skids. There's security from intruders: doors that lock once the shifter is in drive and unlock when it's returned to park. At 5.5 inches, the floor is only a whisper higher than a sport sedan's, and the front doors are a smidge wider than most, which means entrances and exits are easier than getting up from a light lunch.

There are reclining power seats with lumbar support, and heated, of course. You don't have to remember a favorite seating position because a computer memory does it for you.

No need to get your shirtcuffs wet and mucky cleaning dew off the side mirrors--they are heated for quick demisting.

No point in reaching across the cabin to change radio, air-conditioning or cruise control settings--they're adjusted by buttons in the steering wheel.

The ride is soft, with an undulating, limousine pitch and roll that is Magic Fingers in a velvet glove. In a car that has dual air bags, front and rear crumple zones and side-impact beams--and represents well over 2 tons of moving heavy metal--one's safety concerns should be for the other guy.

Granted, there's nothing blindingly new here. But there's enormous value in packaging all conveniences and then slanting the whole toward seniors concerned more with creature comforts than with creating havoc on our streets.

All Town Cars come with bench seats because that's what the Lincoln Brigade has always wanted after graduating from Radio Flyers. True, these great reaches become 6-foot slides slinging small passengers and large bags of baked goods from one side of the car to the other when rollicking around turns. But two-lane mountain frolics have never been high on the pleasure scale of the typical Town Car owner.

The Signature Series is a mid-level model, a 200-horsepower, V-8 luxosedan sandwiched between the bread-and-butter Town Car and a more powerful Touring Sedan with extra trinkets, twin pipes, tighter handling and 10% more horsepower. Base price of the Signature is $39,480, inching to about $40,100 for the Touring Sedan. For Fortune 500 readers, there's a Cartier limited edition priced at $46,000 fully optioned, including sunroof, CD sound system and the usual etched crystal trim, with extra anchovies.

All the styling squares and crisp angles of last year's Town Car have left town and have been replaced by buxom corners, a bulbous mid-section and great splashes of chrome with side mirrors the size of basketballs. This spirit of excess-before-elegance is a blatant borrowing from the Lincoln Navigator and a Toontown approach that the public seems to be taking quite seriously.

Despite its V-8 power, there remains all that tonnage to move, so the Town Car doesn't come out of the blocks with any great zeal. Top speed is limited by electronic governor to adequate. Steering is fingertip, effortless, way overpowered and something engineers should be addressing. Because when driver attention wanders, steering usually follows suit, and the last thing needed on our highways are herds of aimless Lincolns.

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