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A makeover of a thousand tweaks -- well, 500

With sales down and rival Cadillac CTS on the chase, the Lincoln LS gets more power and other adjustments.

June 11, 2003|Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

Time for a change.

Or, in the case of the Lincoln LS, time for 500 changes -- whatever it takes to get sales of the entry-level luxury sedan back to where they were in 2000, its inaugural year, when 51,000 rolled out the door.

Sales slipped to 39,787 in '01 and 39,775 in '02. The forecast for '03 is for 35,000 to 40,000, depending on how the economy goes.

The fact that the Cadillac CTS, chief rival to the LS, is expected to sell about 38,000 units this year had nothing to do with the decision to come up with 500 changes to the LS to give it a mid-cycle freshening for '03, Lincoln insists.

"We wanted to continue attracting younger buyers. The average age of a Lincoln buyer is 65; the average age of an LS buyer is 51. Also, 70% of LS buyers are new to Lincoln, and 60% of those are new to Ford," said Kevin Klossner, LS marketing manager, referring to the brand's parent, Ford Motor Co.

What buyers didn't ask for, Klossner said, was a dramatic change in styling. Lincoln responded with changes so subtle that perhaps only LS aficionados will recognize them.

"We refined the front end with a more prominent grille with a thick chrome surround like on the Navigator and Aviator," he said, referring to Lincoln's full-size and mid-size sport utility vehicles.

Then there are myriad little touches, Klossner noted, "like moving the windshield washer spray jets off the hood to under the wipers, moving the rear brake light from the bottom to the top of the rear window, adding puddle lamps to the outside mirrors to illuminate the ground when you park and adding a key-less entry pad on the door."

That last feature was added at the behest of golfers so they wouldn't have to carry keys on the course.

Other additions include power adjustable brake and gas pedals and front seats that can be heated or cooled when activated by red or blue buttons in the dash. When the LS is next refined, however, it would be nice if the button for adjusting the pedals is moved from behind the steering wheel, where it is difficult to use.

Other touches include more insulation under the hood; door pockets for more stowage; a sliding armrest over the center console; and fuel filler door and trunk lid releases as well as lock buttons in the dash.

New options include heated rear seats ($400), side-curtain air bags ($395) and a DVD navigation system and THX sound system (a $2,995 package) with voice activation in response to owner demands for a better audio system. To get the side-curtain air bags, however, you also must buy rear parking assist for $295.

Carry-over systems include a power tilting and telescoping steering wheel; rear seat back fold and release levers in the trunk; rain-sensing wipers; rear parking assist that lets out with a beep when an object is in your path when backing up or when you get too close to another vehicle when parallel parking; four-wheel anti-lock brakes with traction control; and AdvanceTrac, which uses sensors to help correct understeer or oversteer by applying the ABS, regulating fuel flow to the engine or both.

One of the best changes, which we hope all automakers eventually adopt, is adding an electronic parking brake lever that sits flush in the center console. That little lever does away with the cumbersome brake handle that rested atop the console and whose real function, apparently, was to catch sleeves and purses and not let go.

Now, just lift or lower the small lever that looks like an ashtray cover and the parking brake is applied or released.

A few gripes are that the outside mirrors are small, the trunk is large but not all that deep, and the rear-wheel-drive LS doesn't come in all-wheel-drive.

Although the functional frills are most appreciated for the update, the main focus was on resolving the top complaint among current owners -- the need for more power.

Luxury car owners seldom challenge those idling alongside in Corvettes, but just like those who demand full-size spare tires, they want to have power in case they need it.

So the 3.9-liter V-8 was retuned and now delivers 280 horsepower and 286 pound-feet of torque, up from 252 horsepower and 261 pound-feet. Ditto the 3.0-liter V-6, which is now rated at 232 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque, up from 220 horsepower and 210 pound-feet.

And you feel the torque at a lower range for quicker movement from the light.

Lincoln executives say it was pure coincidence that the V-6 and V-8 were beefed up just as the CTS will beef up its V-6 and add a high-performance V-Series V-8 model for '04.

We tested the V-6 and V-8 but spent the most time in the top-of-the-line LS Premium Sport with V-8 because the bigger engine is the choice of nearly 70% of LS buyers. Both are teamed with a five-speed automatic with SelectShift that allows tapping the lever to shift manually.

The V-6 was more alert than it had been, the V-8 much more lively.

Lincoln wasn't content with adding just some extra power, so it also added exhaust rumble sound effects.

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