I've been wrong these last few years. Until very recently, I thought the old bench-seat-and-column-shifter routine was outdated and useless. My argument: The senior drivers who buy the few remaining cars with this old-fashioned interior don't need bench seats anymore because their offspring have long since bolted, and any passengers would likely ride in the back. Turns out there's another use for bench seats, one that I had forgotten about. On a recent Saturday night, I took my girlfriend and her daughter to dinner. On the way back, my girl-friend asked if there was a seatbelt in the center of the Grand Marquis' bench seat. There was. And within moments, she slid over and buckled up. Instinctively, my right arm went around her, and at that instant, I knew why some people refuse to give up their bench seats and column shifters. Your significant other can't put her head on your shoulder very easily in a Camaro, BMW or some other model with bucket seats. Hey guys, let me tell you something: Having your lady sit next to you is a darn nice way to get from point A to Point B. Long live the bench seat and column shifter. PERFORMANCE, HANDLING Mercury outfits the Grand Marquis with a powerful 4.6-liter, overhead-cam V-8 engine and a four-speed automatic transmission. The standard engine is rated at 200 horsepower. If you order the special handling package, which our dark blue test car had, horsepower is bumped to 215. Lexus is the first thing that comes to mind when you start the engine. The Mercury engine runs almost as smoothly and quietly as the renowned Lexus V-8. It provides strong, but not overpowering, acceleration and refined performance at all speeds. The four-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly. A button at the end of the column shifter lets you disengage overdrive, so, if you're towing a boat, you can keep the transmission from shifting into fourth gear. Although it's no sports sedan, the Grand Marquis does offer a very stable and solid ride. You might expect a big, rear-wheel drive sedan like this one to wallow around corners. It doesn't. The body doesn't lean or roll much as you round a corner. The handling package adds stiffer springs, better wheels and tires and air suspension in the rear that keeps the car level when loaded. The power-assisted steering is designed for ease of use. It doesn't take much effort to turn the wheel; in fact, you can do it with one finger. The power-assisted, four-wheel, anti-lock brakes work well. Traction control is standard. FIT AND FINISH Our test car had one of the nastiest flaws I've seen in any new car in years. A plastic trim panel on the outside of the passenger-side front door rubbed against the fender whenever the door was opened. Obviously, all Grand Marquis don't have this problem. But it was disappointing that a panel installed so badly could have slipped through the quality control inspectors at the factory and then been missed at the dealership, where the car is supposed to be cleaned, inspected and prepared for sale. I imagine a customer would be livid after spending nearly $30,000 for a car and then finding such a defect, no matter how easily fixed. Were it not for that one flaw, I'd give the Grand Marquis very high marks for quality. Mercury has done a fine job sealing out noise from the suspension system, tires, road and wind. Adding to the ambience of the quiet ride are those front bench seats, which in the LS model come with leather and are electrically adjustable. The seats are excellent. You don't sink into them. They're firm without being uncomfortable. Inflatable lumbar supports help keep you free of fatigue for long periods behind the wheel. Three people can sit up front comfortably. The rear seats also are comfortable. There is ample head, leg and foot room in the rear for three passengers. Mercury furnishes the Grand Marquis with plenty of equipment, including a six -disc CD changer mounted in the trunk, a full array of power accessories and a computerized air conditioning system. Buttons on the steering wheel operate the cruise control. The digital gauges in the instrument cluster are bright green. The speedometer shows the speed in large numbers, so there's little excuse for speeding. A bar-graph fuel gauge show how much fuel is left in the usual way and also shows how many gallons. All in all, the Grand Marquis is a pleasing car to drive. 1998 Mercury Grand Marquis Base price: $23,790. Safety: Dual air bags, traction control and anti-lock brakes. Price as tested: $28,415. EPA rating: 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway. Incentives: None. Truett's tip: The Grand Marquis is a big, comfortable American car with a high-tech, overhead-cam V-8 engine and plenty of creature comforts.
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