The Lincoln Continental was first introduced in 1941, just prior to America's involvement in World War II. Conceived by Ford Motor's President, Edsel Ford, the car was intended to showcase the latest designs and features from Europe, without the high European price. Completely different than anything else being built in this country, the eponymously named Continental featured such niceties as a rear-mounted outside spare tire carrier and push button exterior door releases. The Continental was initially offered as a coupe and convertible, and brought enthusiastic customers into Lincoln showrooms in droves.
Despite its early popularity, the Continental didn't return to the Lincoln lineup after World War II ended. The car that had been penned to wear the Continental name was thought to be too heavy and ponderous for post-war American tastes. As a result, Lincoln didn't produce another vehicle with the Continental badge until 1959 when Ford absorbed the separate Continental line as a sub-series of Lincoln and released the Continental Mark IV in six different body styles. In 1960, the Continental became the favored car of America's royal family, the Kennedy's. Since then, it has enjoyed a long, uninterrupted life often serving as a showcase for Lincoln's newest technological innovations and highest levels of luxury.
In that regard, the 1998 Lincoln Continental differs little from its early predecessors. The Continental is still Lincoln's entry against sporty European sedans, and it is still Lincoln's platform for introducing technological advances. Dramatically improved this year, the Continental does an admirable job fulfilling both of its tasks.
The 1998 Continental receives a rash of exterior changes that render the new car sleeker and less cluttered in appearance than the 1997 model. A new grille, wraparound headlights, and bulging fenders highlight a swept-back front end that renders the car more modern looking. Additionally, a new hood flows into a windshield that is more steeply raked than last year, thanks to a cowl-forward interior design which pushes the passenger compartment forward, closer to the car's engine. Very cool-looking taillamps sit atop the corners of the Continental's slightly longer trunk, giving the car a sophisticated stance when viewed from the rear.
Interior changes to the 1998 Continental include a larger passenger space that is made possible thanks to the cowl-forward design previously mentioned. Also new is the use of bird's-eye maple wood trim that runs the length of the Continental's redesigned center console. Rear passengers get a new folding center armrest that has two integrated cupholders.
Overall, we are pleased with the Continental's new look. The exterior is a nice example of American solidity and European fluidity. We think that Lincoln could have saved some money on the car by laying off the chrome a bit, but that might make the Continental less of a Lincoln and more of a Ford. The Continental has a great interior that features clear analog gauges, large control buttons, and easy-to-read LCD readouts for the car's vital statistics. We take issue, however, with the Continental's puffy front seats, which provide limited support and not too much comfort on long trips.
A 260-horespower version of Ford's modular 4.6-liter In-Tech engine drives the front-wheels of the Continental. This motor is hooked to a smooth 4-speed automatic transmission that upshifts and downshifts with nary a jolt. Our tester came equipped with Lincoln's optional Driver's Select System. The Driver Select System lends some credibility to the Continental's import-fighter aspirations, by allowing drivers to adjust both the suspension and steering of the car. Enthusiasts can select the firm suspension setting and high-effort steering to give themselves more control. Those drivers looking for that traditional Lincoln ride can select the plush suspension setting and low-effort steering. We found that this combination produced nausea in some passengers on roads with lots of curves and dips. There is also a normal steering, normal suspension mode for drivers who are, um, normal. Our editors felt that the firm suspension setting and normal steering effort gave the best combination of comfort and control.
All of this technology means that the Continental handles reasonably well in most driving conditions. The Continental accelerates impressively, thanks to the powerplant's ability to send 270 pound-feet of torque to the road through the front tires. The Continental is not a hot rod, however, and its forte is better suited to high speed interstate cruising. Prodigious passing power and good on-center steering feel makes this car a natural choice for those who like to point their nose down an interstate and head to their destination with due haste.
The Lincoln Continental is a roomy, competent, attractive sedan. We typically only recommend it, however, to people who are unwilling to spend their cold, hard cash on imports. Why is that? Probably because we think that the Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Acura, and BMW models that the Continental competes with are more satisfying vehicles. This may be because the import models can achieve high levels of ride and handling refinement without resorting to gee-whiz gadgetry like the Driver's Select System. It may also be due to the fact that the imports have superior build quality and are not as likely to be subject to an inconvenient recall as the Continental. (At this writing, Ford has issued a safety recall for 545,000 1994 models, including the Continental.) We don't dislike the Continental, but we do think that those shopping the luxury market should look around before deciding to plunk down $43,000 for a car. For our money, the cars that BMW and Mercedes actually ship from the continent are the more compelling choices.
My dad owned a couple of Lincolns before switching to European sport sedans and, later in life, Cadillacs. We took long road trips in his beige opera-windowed Continental Mark V and dark blue Continental Mark VI with a ridiculous full padded vinyl roof. Not particularly stylish, those cars, but they got us around the country with little problem and in comfort. There was plenty of room for growing boys to spread out during long days traversing the Great Plains, and the trunk swallowed three weeks of gear effortlessly. Then one day, after a long string of reliability problems, the computer system in the Mark VI fried itself. Dad angrily wholesaled the car. A Saab 900 next appeared in the driveway, and it promptly stranded us on a New England vacation with a bad transmission. But that's another story for another day.
Had my brother and I been born two decades later, it might have been a 1998 Lincoln Continental that carried us to far flung locales such as Astoria, Oregon and Bar Harbor, Maine. The Lincoln new car smell has survived intact from the late 70s, and there are still plenty of fiddly gadgets to play with on the dashboard. The trip computer that entertained the family nearly 20 years ago still exists in the latest Lincoln, complete with digital readout. There's lots of room for kids to stretch out during long days on the Interstate, and the trunk is nothing short of huge. Same formula, different era. And that's a problem at $43,000.
Now that I'm older, I can appreciate the Continental for what it is. Just as Dad's old Lincolns were dressed up versions of the Ford Thunderbird (Mark V) and Ford LTD (Mark VI), this most recent Continental is nothing more than a fancy Ford Taurus, and the first-generation platform at that. Driving this Lincoln for a few days reminded me of the time I rented a 1994 Taurus equipped with a 3.8-liter V-6. Same high cowl and low seating position. Same torque steer. Similar smells and materials inside. Same flaccid driver's seat that's fine for one hour but punishing after two. At $43,000, I'm impressed only by Ford's dry sense of humor. Buyers looking for a car like this should wait a year or two, and then buy a used one for the same price as a new Taurus. Christian J. Wardlaw