Now that Chevrolet has dropped the Caprice, the oldest car left on the face of the planet must be the Ford Crown Victoria.The Crown Vic is a relic from an era when most folks cruised the roadways in rear-wheel-drive vehicles. It's so old that when it arrived on the scene, there were no mini-vans or sport-utility vehicles. Yet Crown Vic is a survivor. Lots of names have come and gone, but Crown Vic keeps coming back year after year. Fashionable styling and breathtaking performance are not the reasons it keeps making curtain calls. The Crown Vic is a car that pops into mind about the time your locks turn silver. In fact, it's the sedan you buy when the discount coupons arrive with your monthly AARP magazine. When someone says "They don't build cars like they used to," it's a safe bet the guy owns a Crown Vic. For years, the big rear-wheel-drive Ford has justifiably earned a reputation as a very spacious sedan that will transport you and three or four other adults from point A to B with minimal jostling. Crown Vic has been a big, roomy, four-door sedan with a huge trunk to hold the belongings annually taken to the Florida or Arizona winter retreat. Ford doesn't boast of any technological breakthroughs because Crown Vic owners don't expect any. Electronics, to them, means a radio in the dash. For the 1998 model year, however, Ford figured it was about time Crown Vic got with the program and delivered more than a smooth, comfy ride that didn't rattle the dentures. The changes to the '98 are subtle. Call them refinements, starting with a minor cosmetic makeover. The car keeps its conservative design, but smoother front- and rear-end treatment wipes away some of the age lines. As with Crown Vic's cousin, the Mercury Grand Marquis (Cartalk, Nov. 23), the reason to celebrate the car's '98 makeover is that the engineers tinkered with the suspension and steering systems to bring them into the modern world. Crown Vic would get you from Chicago to the wintertime lodge in Florida, but the suspension would rock you all the way there. Older drivers wanted as much sheet metal as possible wrapped around them, but they didn't like having to fight the wheel to maintain control of the poundage that floated down the road and changed course at the whim of any crosswind. So for 1998, Crown Vic gets Precision Trac suspension to eliminate the road wander and give the driver the feeling he is in control. The rear suspension was tweaked for more directional stability. There's still some float, but only a hint of it because what owners didn't want to give up was ride softness, which cushioned them from road harshness. But Precision Trac wouldn't provide such a noticeably improved ride without revisions to the steering system to upgrade handling. The engineers eliminated the need to white-knuckle the steering wheel to get the vehicle to respond wh en you choose to move. Crown Vic steering typically hesitated before the '98 revision. Ford's description of how the '98 steering system differs from previous years aptly sums it up: "Turn the wheel in '97 and the rear end sways, turn the wheel in '98 and the rear end stays." You enjoy more precise response to steering-wheel input. There's better steering harmony. For optimum ride and handling, you can choose the optional handling and performance package with heavier stabilizer bars, air springs and 16-inch Goodyear all-season radial tires tuned for improved handling and a bit firmer ride. After a few miles on the highway, you may find yourself asking, why doesn't Taurus grip the road like this? Our test car came with the standard 4.6-liter, 200-horsepower V-8, but with the handling and performance upgrade ($615), you get dual exhausts for better breathing and therefore a boost to 215 h.p.. Good low-end torque to move off the line when the light changes. Fuel economy isn't bad at 17 miles per gallon city/24 highway. And as has become common on Fords, an arrow on the fuel gauge in the dash points to which side the fill nozzle is on to keep you from pulling up on the wrong side at the pump. Nice touch, especially in multiple-car households. A 4-speed automatic is standard, and Ford tinkered with it to come up with smoother shift points. Some noteworthy features include placement of the rear-window defroster button within easy reach on the dash; an easier-to-see digital speedometer and large easier-to-use control knobs for older drivers; fold-down center armrests for driver/passenger to provide comfort on long-distance travel; outside temperature reading; large outside mirrors for good side and rear field of vision; and the power trunk open button conveniently located in the driver's door. There are a few annoyances, however, one being the driver's information center that, among other things, gives you a continuous digital reading of your fuel economy. Since the mileage reading can zoom from 70 m.p.g. when cruising to 10 m.p.g. when accelerating to pass, it is a toy that drives you to distraction if you focus on it for any length of time. The other gripe is a traditional one at Ford Motor Co. While Chicago is the founder of the deep-dish pizza, Ford takes credit (?) for the deep-dish trunk. The trunk is very deep, but deep isn't all that practical when you surround that hole with a wide ledge so the only things that fit in the hole are beach balls and pillows. When golf clubs are shaped like boomerangs, the deep-dish Ford trunk will prove handy. Until then, a flat floor would be welcome. The Crown Vic starts at $23,135. Standard equipment includes dual air bags, childproof rear-door locks, remote keyless entry, speed-sensitive power steering, four-wheel power disc brakes, solar tinted glass, dual power mirrors, air conditioning, power windows and locks, tilt steering, automatic on/off headlamps and 24-hour roadside assistance. The price swells by $2,200 when you convert it to the more lavish LX edition by adding a package that includes ABS and traction control for all-season motoring in a larger rear-wheel-drive sedan along with power seats, automatic climate control and a premium sound system. Leather seats will run you $735. Our test car came with a dark blue leather interior that looked very drab and will show every dirt and dust mark. Those are the reasons we'd stick with cloth. >> 1998 Crown Victoria LX Wheelbase: 114.7 inches Length: 212 inches Engine: 4.6-liter, 215-h.p. V-8 Transmission: 4-speed automatic EPA mileage: 17 m.p.g. city/24 m.p.g. highway Base price: $23,135 Price as tested: $26,740. Includes $2,200 for LX package with ABS wit h traction control, dual six-way power seats, leather-wrapped wheel, automatic climate control, premium AM/FM stereo with cassette, electronic instrumentation and 16-inch cast aluminum wheels; $615 for handling and performance package with 16-inch all-season radials; $55 for front and rear floor mats; and $735 for leather seats. Add $605 for freight. Pluses: Huge interior room. Controls easy to see and use. ABS and traction control for all-season motoring. Fairly friendly suspension. Minuses: Conservative styling. Deep-dish trunk design is fine if golf clubs were round or you haul a hot tub. >>
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