2003 Lincoln LS First Drive

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (1)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2003 Lincoln LS Sedan

(3.0L V6 5-speed Automatic)

When Lincoln introduced the LS to an unsuspecting world in 2000, patriotic automotive journalists felt a collective swell in their hearts and a lump in their throats; here, finally was an American-badged car worthy of the "sport sedan" moniker that seemed to be in sole custody of Germans. Initially, we were impressed by the rear-wheel-drive sedan's driving dynamics that far exceeded our expectations of what an American company could achieve in the luxury sport sedan realm. Of course, seeing as how the bar was set by the unappealing Cadillac Catera for the past decade or so, it didn't have too far to jump.

However, our view was all but decayed by the Lincoln's egregiously fake wood and interior materials, the spartan cabin that more resembled an economy sedan than an entry-level luxury sedan, electronic malfunctions that had our long-term LS in the shop all too often and a lethargic transmission that had to be replaced. (Unfortunately other LSs we've driven haven't provided stellar performance either compared to the smooth shifting units of other import vehicles.) These were hallmarks of other LS press vehicles as well, so we chalked them up to out-of-the-box glitches that we expected to be addressed in the near future.

Where did the time go? It's already been three years since our introduction to the LS, and high time for some minor plastic surgery to fix these hobgoblins. For 2003, Lincoln tries to correct past sins with more than 500 new components and systems for both the interior and exterior. In our nine-car 2001 Entry-Level Luxury Sport Sedan Comparison Test, the LS placed sixth. Were the match repeated today with current competition, would the LS place better?

First, let's talk about the engine improvements. Power from the V6 has been boosted by 12 horsepower to 232, while the V8 is rejuvenated with 28 more ponies to a total of 280 horsepower, due largely to variable intake cam timing. We had previously thought that the power from the V8 was rather anemic, especially since its competitors like the Acura TL Type-S and now the Infiniti G35 were able to produce 260 horsepower from a mere six-cylinder power plants. Another new feature for 2003 is drive-by-wire throttle, which gets rid of some of the mechanical components for smoother and faster throttle response.

With the new injection of muscle, the V8-equipped LS did feel fleeter; we'll let you know if instrumented testing substantiates the highly scientific "seat-of-the-pants" feel.

Meting out the power is a carryover five-speed automatic transmission; the V8 still gets an automanual function called SelectShift. This year, drivers will be able to select first gear manually in the SelectShift mode when accelerating from a stop (before now, only a full-throttle launch allowed you to go into first). Beyond that, we're hoping that Lincoln has finally worked out all of this transmission's kinks, including hesitation between shifts and occasional freewheeling, that plagued previous test cars. Our brief test drive revealed crisp, timely shifts, though we'll wait until we've spent a week with another test vehicle before declaring the LS transmissions fully cured.

Unfortunately, the five-speed manual formerly available with the V6 didn't make the cut for the year; Lincoln cited the lack of sales for its demise. But since the V8 model is touted as the one geared toward the driving devotee anyway, wouldn't it make more sense to mate one to that instead? Perhaps a high-performance version (rumored to be in the works) will be able to grant those wishes.

Of course, the proportion of driving enthusiasts to those who drive because they need to drive are skewed toward the latter; to that end, Lincoln has softened up the ride of the LS, in response to complaints that the sport suspension-equipped versions rode too harshly. However, the company maintains that handling levels are just as good, with no increases in body roll due to larger shock absorbers and a stiffer front crossmember. Our drive revealed terrific road manners on the well-paved roads on and around the Blue Ridge Parkway of the Appalachians, with little body roll when tossed into the twisties and a more compliant ride over some of the rough roads.

From its inception, the LS has shared its chassis with the upscale Jaguar S-Type, and currently, the toothsome Ford Thunderbird. All three receive similar changes to their engines and suspensions for '03. Eight-cylinder LS models also boast higher shock-absorber damping rates, larger stabilizer bars and quicker steering ratio. The V8s also ride on 17-inch wheels with Michelin Pilot P235/50VR17 tires, an upgrade from the 16-inch Continental ContiTouringContacts on the nonsport V6s.

Steering feel has already been a forte of the LS, and this year Lincoln goes one better with a ZF Servotronic II rack and pinion steering system. While it emits just as much road feel as the previous LS, turning effort has been lightened up a bit. Only enthusiasts are bound to notice and complain; most others will likely appreciate the decreased resistance.

Braking is enhanced with the addition of BrakeAssist, a system that kicks in the ABS even when the driver doesn't apply enough force. Lincoln's stability control system, dubbed AdvanceTrac, is an option for all models except for the V8 with the Premium package, which has it standard. Also, power-adjustable pedals help you achieve the perfect driving position so as to avoid unseemly situations in the first place.

More readily noticeable to the Lincoln buyer are the improvements made to the interior of this entry-level luxury sedan. We were previously underwhelmed by the cheap quality of the materials, including rough leather, flimsy panels that sounded hollow when thumped upon, flagrantly cheap plastic wood grain trim, the lack of substantial storage space inside the cabin and the dearth of luxury features that other cars of this class offer, such as a navigation system, side curtain airbags and xenon headlamps.

Lincoln addressed all these issues, starting with more cabin stowage with larger door pockets, an overhead console and a center console (which slides fore and aft for armrest duty) that's enlarged thanks to the room afforded by a button-size e-brake instead of the obtrusive traditional hand brake. The driver and passenger windows are one-touch up and down. Dual-zone climate control helps you and your passenger save an argument for another issue. In lieu of the black center stack trim, there's a bright satin nickel trim, which doesn't necessarily feel that much better, but it looks more premium. Alternatively, you can deck your cabin with real wood, black lacquer or aluminum, if you go for the V8 models.

A definite advantage the LS has over its German competition is that it offers the rear-seat space of a midsize luxury sedan, like the 5 Series or the A6, while it's priced more in line with the German marques' compact versions, namely the 3 Series and the A4. It's something to keep in mind if you often need to ferry two or three passengers. The Japanese sedans in this class, the Acura TL and Infiniti G35, have more generous digs as well, but there is no option for a V8. Decisions, decisions…

Lincoln has simplified the options packages for 2003; you can choose a base V6 with all of the above-mentioned features, while the Premium package gets you heated and cooled seats covered in perforated leather, wood trim, a power moonroof, power-folding mirrors and an in-dash six-disc changer. Step up to the V8 Sport, and you're treated to most of the features of the V6 Premium, along with 17-inch wheels, a sport-tuned chassis, the automanual transmission and aluminum interior trim. Go the whole hog with the V8 Premium Sport and receive HID headlamps and AdvanceTrac.

Options that bring the LS into its competitors' vicinity include a DVD-based navigation system operated by a touchscreen. The screen's on the small side at 6.5 inches and, if you opt for it, the stereo controls are integrated into the system — an arrangement we've generally found harder to use. The optional stereo, by the way, is THX-certified, and comes with 10 speakers and an in-dash six-disc CD changer. Very nice, especially if you like that sound effect at the beginning of movies. Rear heated seats and a rear parking sensor round out the options list.

Slight alterations to the front and rear fascias identify a 2003 LS. They include the loss of a chrome strip on the front bumper, round foglamps, modified front and rear lamps and one-piece rocker moldings. In this writer's opinion, the previous LS had more of an aggressive appearance that suited its nature, but we like the new wheel designs.

An atavistic part of us is rooting for the home team; even though lines that separate a domestic car from an import car become increasingly blurred (the Acura TL, for example, is built in Marysville, Ohio), we like the fact that an American brand is able to keep up in a forum dominated by excellent imports. We've found that the Cadillac CTS, while a vast improvement over the Catera, still isn't able to vie for top prize in this hotly contested category that's dominated by the hulking likes of the BMW 3 Series, the Audi A4 and whippersnapper newcomers like the Infiniti G35. While the LS may not be the best sedan in the category, it still offers a compelling enough package to keep Lincoln loyalists happy and the imports on their toes.

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