2003 Lincoln Town Car First Drive

2003 Lincoln Town Car First Drive

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2003 Lincoln Town Car Sedan

(4.6L V8 4-speed Automatic)

Lincoln knows its Town Car market. Room, comfort and a relaxing driving experience are what this older demographic seeks. And with the Town Car being Lincoln's bread-and-butter vehicle (in addition to having a nearly 60 percent repeat buyer rate, Lincoln owns 75 percent of the limousine and livery business), the company was careful with the evolutionary changes it made to the 2003 Town Car. You could say that it didn't want to...ummm, rock the boat.

Immediately noticeable, however, is the new facade. Gone is the sucked-on-a-lemon grille, replaced by a wider chrome unit similar in design to the Lincoln LS's. Headlamps are now separated from the grille, contributing to the new nose's more upscale appearance. In profile, not much has changed apart from the wheels, which now measure 17 inches versus the former 16s, and for a cleaner look, the wheel balance weights are now located on the inner side of the rim. The Town Car's rump is also revised with new taillights and rear fascia, though at first glance it's hard to see any difference between the new car and the old.

Most of these updates are not merely cosmetic changes; there are some real benefits to these alterations. The new headlights are 60 percent brighter than last year's lamps; the trunk's sill opening is nearly 8 inches wider, and the spare tire no longer hogs the trunk's upper shelf — it is now stored vertically, out of the way on the right-hand side. All Town Cars have a power pull-down trunk lid, but on the top-of-the-line Cartier models, the trunk is fully opened and closed by power (no doubt something that will be appreciated by chauffeurs who specialize in airport runs).

As with the exterior, the cabin sees minor but worthwhile changes. Dual-zone climate control debuts, as do a number of new bins and pockets that provide 44 percent more interior stowage for all those golf tees, scorecards and pencils. The front center armrest now flips open on either side, making access easy for both driver and passenger. The longer-wheelbase "L" models (6 inches greater than the standard Town Car) have an astounding 47 inches of rear legroom, making their rear compartments roomier than that of any other car currently available.

The really big news, however, is under the skin. A redesigned frame incorporates hydroform technology for the front rails. As the name suggests, hydroforming uses water under high pressure to form the molten metal into seamless rails that are devoid of weak areas inherent in a more conventional welded design. The chief benefit of this construction is a reduction in flex, translating into more composed handling and ride characteristics.

Major revisions to the suspension systems were made, as well. The use of more lightweight components, new bushings and mono-tube shocks (that are more consistent in their performance than less costly twin-tube dampers), along with revisions in geometry, are geared toward sharpening up the Town Car's handling dynamics without losing the comfy ride it's long been known for. To that end, last year's recirculating-ball steering system has been replaced by a more precise variable-ratio rack-and-pinion setup. The power assist is also variable, making for light, easy steering during parking lot maneuvers and a reassuring wheel heft at higher speeds.

More power is always a good thing, and all Town Cars now boast 239 horsepower, versus the 220 horses and 235 horses of last year's Signature/Executive and Cartier series, respectively. The 4.6-liter overhead-cam V8 achieves fuel economy ratings of 17 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway; the highway figure goes up 2 mpg due to a more slippery body and decreased rolling resistance. As before, power is transferred to the rear wheels via a four-speed automatic transmission, recalibrated this year for quicker downshift response time.

Braking is upgraded, as well, and a trio of systems assures the most effective braking possible. In addition to the expected ABS are Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (that apportions braking power front-to-rear to maximize braking efficiency) and a new "panic assist" feature that automatically provides full power braking if the driver suddenly hits the pedal.

Once again the Town Car is available in three trim levels: base Executive, mid-line Signature and loaded-to-the-gills Cartier. The Executive comes with power-adjustable pedals, a trip computer and steering wheel-mounted audio and climate controls in addition to the expected luxuries such as power everything, cruise control and leather seating. The Signature ups the ante with a 145-watt Alpine audio system with a subwoofer (for those times when Sinatra must be cranked up), a wood and leather steering wheel, heated front seats, a memory system (for the seat, mirrors and pedals) and rear parking assist. Go full-bore with the Cartier and chrome wheels, high-intensity discharge headlights and the full power trunk are added to the mix. If you require more features, "Premium" versions of the Signature and Cartier are available, as well. But only the Cartier can be had in that longer-wheelbase "L" model mentioned earlier.

For safety, Lincoln has included traction control, dual-stage front airbags (that adjust the deployment force of the front bags according to the severity of the impact), seatbelt pre-tensioners (that snug up the belts at the time of impact) and side airbags for front passengers.

At the Town Car's press introduction, we had a picturesque 120-mile drive mapped out for us that took us from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, Calif. But before we embarked on our brief journey, we had the opportunity to take a quick spin in a 2002 Town Car for comparison. After that brief jaunt, we jumped in an '03 and headed up Pacific Coast Highway.

The engineers' efforts did not go unnoticed. The TC's steering now has some feel to it; there's no dead spot at center, and the response at the wheel is much sharper and linear. Body roll is also kept in check thanks to the revised suspension. Maybe it's not going to have enthusiasts trading in their 5 Series Bimmers, but for a big luxury car, the TC handles itself admirably in the turns while still providing that magic carpet ride.

We didn't really notice the extra horsepower — not a big surprise given that the car has gained about 200 pounds this year. The thrust is certainly adequate for the target market, and freeway cruising at 80 mph is hushed. At one point, while driving on a scenic two-laner in farm country, we came upon a trundling stake-bed truck. Once we approached a passing section, we dipped into the throttle and the Lincoln's tranny kicked down quickly and seamlessly, allowing our Cartier edition to whisk past the rolling obstacle with ease. No complaints with the passing power. Later on, we used an abandoned road to give the brakes the panic test. When the pedal was spiked, the big Lincoln hauled itself down in seemingly short order, with minimal nosedive and ABS histrionics. And for the record, we averaged around 20 mpg, not bad for lead-footed journalists.

Lincoln is the only domestic automaker offering big rear-drive luxury cars. Despite being the only game in town, the company has done well with its new Town Car. Whether you've got a 500-mile day ahead of you or it's your turn to take the foursome to the course for 18 holes, a classy Town Car isn't too tough to take. Look for '03 models to be arriving at Lincoln dealerships in the summer of 2002.
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