In the post-modern world, the name Zephyr has zero resonance. The word is a throwback to a time when Classicism was taught in schools and new-fangled home appliances like toasters and belt-driven washers had names like Prometheus and Brobdingnag. These days, most people will probably confuse "Zephyr," a soft, warm breeze, with "Zamphir," the pan flute guy, a "musician" who can ruin with mindless energy everything from Abba to Wagner.
If you're old enough to remember Zamphir, but not so old as to think he was actually pretty cool, then you're probably smack in the middle of the 2006 Lincoln Zephyr demographic. The name probably won't start a single-handed revival of the Classics, but it will probably go a long way toward rejuvenating the Lincoln brand. Picking this ancient moniker is an oddly counterintuitive move. Zephyr is a 70-year-old nameplate that was originally lifted from a streamlined locomotive. Hardly the image you would contemplate to seduce a generation of younger buyers. The only people excited about locomotives these days are the ones who stall their pickups at a grade crossing. The smart money would have said to go with something hip and urban. Or at the very least something that doesn't bring up images of Byron and the Lake Poets. Somehow though, it all sort of fits. The retro name, the classic touches like the analog clock front and center on the dash, and restrained styling all hang together. It's classic in the manner of a Wright Prairie Style house. Strong lines, a commanding presence and the obvious product of someone at the top of his game. Of course, unlike a Wright house, the Zephyr won't leak in the rain.
If You Want a Parade Float, Look Elsewhere
Not so long ago, using "trail braking" and "Lincoln" in the same sentence was either the setup or the punch line of a joke. The Zephyr will force you to look elsewhere for comedy material. Up front there's a short/long arm suspension while the rear features an independent multilink configuration with control arms. There's a stabilizer bar on each end. On paper, it sounds middle-of-the-road conventional. No exotic forged-aluminum arms or DARPA-inspired compliance pivots. But what's there is solidly engineered and fully developed to produce a supple ride and agile handling. And by that we don't mean a supple ride and agile handling "for a Lincoln." We're talking about the real thing.
On back roads, even those that haven't seen a pavement crew in decades, the Zephyr exhibits few vices. Bumps and chattery surfaces on your apex don't seem to induce any toe change. In sweepers that require just breathing the engine to preload the suspension, the Zephyr takes no time at all to settle in for the change of direction. Once you dial in sufficient steering input, the suspension takes a set, digs in and hangs on like a trapeze artist swinging over an acre of punji stakes. It'll take some real effort to induce terminal understeer from the 17-inch P225/50 tires.
The variable-ratio, power-assisted rack and pinion steering requires a special commendation. Considering the beefy tires it commands, steering effort is light and easy in parking, making barely legal K-turns and tooling around town, but tightens up and notches into superb on-center feel at speed. In corners, there's high-quality feedback and a reassuring, linear buildup of weight in the hands.
Beware the Spike Strips and Helicopters
We don't know in what country the development engineers learned their craft, but we'd bet they spent at least some time learning how to say,
"Wo ist die autobahn, bitte?" Like the best of the Deutsche marques, the Zephyr's sense of being planted to the road increases with road speed. Triple-digit speeds are where the integration of a car's subsystems really shines. Or falls apart. Engine, transmission, suspension, aero, sound abatement — you name it. If it does well in the body temperature-plus environment, chances are somebody worked long and hard to make it right.
The problem with the Zephyr is that once you sample the refinement served up at those speeds, you won't want to back off. The 3.0-liter, Duratec V6 is rated at 221 hp and mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. At 80 mph, the engine loafs along at right around 2,400 rpm with plenty of reserve power available all the way to the 6,600-rpm redline. If 221 hp doesn't seem like enough to achieve orbital escape velocity, consider that 10 years ago, the corporation's workhorse 4.0-liter V6 produced a mere 140 hp. The Duratec doesn't just squeeze more power from a smaller displacement, it's also rated ULEV 2 (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle). We can thank refinements like the variable intake cam timing system for the boost in power and improved sanitation of exhaust fumes.
Our test car was equipped with the optional navigation system and 14-speaker THX sound system. We became emotionally attached to both. A product of the film industry (specifically, George Lucas), THX will let you crank up the volume to disturbing-the-peace levels without distortion or loss of clarity.
Of course, we're only touching the surface here. There's a lot more to like about the Zephyr. The seats are wonderful, the interior is spacious, and the fit and finish is exemplary. The best news of all, however, is the aggressive pricing. The base price is $29,995. With everything checked on the six-item options list, the price goes up to $35,575. For the added money, you get leather seating, the nav system, THX sound, HID headlamps, chrome wheels and the power moonroof. Everything else — like power seats, steering wheel controls, front and side airbags, ABS, EBD (Electronic Brakeforce Distribution), dual-zone auto climate control, drive memory seat, and the rest of the luxury items — comes standard.
Odd name notwithstanding, the Zephyr makes a powerfully modern statement for Lincoln. It demonstrates a real understanding of the market and the expectations of people who gravitate toward the "sport" in sport luxury sedans. It's worthy enough that it might even usher in a period of antiquarian names. Can you see yourself driving a Lincoln Zeus or a Mercury Thracian?