2006 Lincoln Zephyr

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GM, though still struggling overall, has managed to successfully rehab its once-ailing Cadillac division with a lineup of visually provocative, high-powered/high-impact cars and trucks which are almost the polar opposite of the vinyl-roofed, wire-wheeled geezermobiles it was selling in the ’80s and ’90s.

Lincoln, America’s other luxury line, is also trying to change its image — and get back into the game. But it is approaching the task with more nuance. Instead of going me-too Euro-sporty and BMW-like (as it gamely attempted, without much success, with its recent LS-series sedan) Ford’s luxo division is staking out a middle-of-the-road position between the flash and the bling with its brand-new Zephyr entry-luxury sedan.

The Zephyr is the first of what will be an entirely new lineup of Lincoln passenger cars — and from it, we can glean the direction Lincoln’s headed.

Whether it’s a step in the right direction, only time will tell.

Unlike the rear-drive, firmer-riding (and manual transmission available) LS, the Zephyr sedan is front-wheel-drive –and tuned more for quiet, comfortable cruising than diving into apexes, tail out and pedal to the metal.

There won’t be a manual transmission option — or a V-8 engine. No “manual” function for the standard six-speed automatic, either — an open defiance of current practice among luxury cars.

This is quite a change in course for Lincoln — and a major departure from both the design layout of the outgoing LS and the general trend toward rear-wheel-drive sportiness in the luxury segment, generally.

But Lincoln may be on to something here.

The Zephyr is an attractive, modern-looking car — but not a polarizing, “in-your-face-mobile,” like the current generation of Cadillacs. Its formal, upright lines and gentle character pleats are subtle and tasteful. Affluent — not garish. Think smooth jazz — not Led Zeppelin.

This theme of subdued good taste carries through to the interior, which is comfortable and even cushy (note the available heated and ventilated seats) but is happily free of the Battlestar Galactica-esque digital clutter and surfeit of buttons and controls one finds in more and more luxury sedans these days. No harsh angles or overt aggressiveness.

In a nutshell, the Zephyr is a modern-day cruiser of the sort American manufacturers used to excel at producing — tuned for the boulevard and dressed for an evening out.

Such cars were once very popular –and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be again.

The Zephyr comes in just one trim level — with standard 17-inch wheels, handsome leather and wood trim, auto climate control AC, traction control and side/curtain air bags. All Zephyrs are powered by a DOHC 3-liter V-6 rated at 221-hp, working through a six-speed automatic transmission.

Base price is $28,995 — which undercuts many rivals in the entry-luxury sedan market. Equipped with the optionally available heated and cooled driver and front passenger seats ($495), High Intensity Discharge headlights ($495), 600-watt, 14-speaker THX-II premium audio system ($995) and DVD-based GPS navigation system ($2,495), a Zephyr will run to just under $33,000 — which is still very price-competitive with such models as the Lexus ES330 (base price $32,300 without navigation, premium audio or heated seats), the BMW 325i ($36,925 when equipped similarly to the Zephyr) and other entry-luxury Euro-sporty sedans.

But its main draw could well be its simple elegance and softer, more relaxed demeanor. This type of “luxury” has become uncommon in a market segment dominated by hard looks and commando-style reflexes. But not everyone wants or needs that sort of car. And for those folks, the Zephyr should be very appealing.

The only potential problem for the latest Lincoln is its close kinship to the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan. All three cars share the same basic chassis, have the same 3-liter V-6 engine and are differentiated from one another mostly in terms of styling tweaks and their level of standard and optionally available equipment.

Inside the car business, this practice of re-selling essentially the same car through different brands at varying price points has often been criticized as “badge engineering” — and it was a real problem for GM, which until quite recently was selling multiple versions of the same basic cars through its Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac divisions. In effect, it was competing for customers with itself before it even began trying to compete with the outside world.

Lincoln may encounter similar problems with the Zephyr — which buyers might bypass when they realize they could acquire the same basic car under the Mercury or Ford label for significantly less money. For example, the Mercury Milan V-6 Premium (which has the same powertrain and many of the same features as the Zephyr) carries an MSRP of just $22,845 — $6,150 less than the base price of the Zephyr. And you can get the Fusion V-6 SEL for even less — $21,710. It’s true, of course, that the Zephyr comes standard with some things that are either optional or not even available in the lesser branded cars — such as the heated and ventilated seats, HID lights, GPS navigation system and the high-end THX-II audio. And there is the higher prestige (and presumably, better dealer service ) that comes with the Lincoln nameplate.

Nonetheless, there’s the potential problem of having to convince buyers to pay Lincoln money for a Ford (or Mercury) with some uplevel trim. Luxury car buyers expect a level of exclusivity these days; they don’t want to come back to their “Lincoln” in a parking lot — and find a virtually identical Ford parked right next to it.

GM made a smart move by giving Cadillac mostly unique cars with Cadillac-specific platforms and engines not generally shared with other GM cars. (Or if things are shared, it’s less obvious; for example, while the Caddy XLR roadster and Corvette have a commonly derived chassis, each car has its own brand-specific engine.) The only Lexus passenger car that has its chassis/major parts in common with a lesser-prestige Toyota is the ES330 (which is basically a tricked-out Camry).

It may not matter to potential buyers that their Lincoln has the same engine as a Ford that costs eight grand less.

Then again, it might matter very much.

Throw it in the Woods?

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