Ford's three full-size, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive sedans -- Ford Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car -- have much in common, yet each has its own personality.This trio shares Ford's silky 4.6-liter, SOHC V8 engine, automatic transmission and full-perimeter frame. The Town Car has a three-inch longer wheelbase and a totally new body. Grand Marquis and Crown Victoria, on the other hand, are fraternal twins that only a designer, or car fanatic, could tell apart. Many manufacturers are abandoning the large, rear-wheel-drive segment, but the Grand Marquis continues to show sales gains in the last two years. One reason it remains popular with older buyers is that it still offers plenty of room, a plush ride and nearly as much comfort as a Town Car for considerably less money. Many of its interior dimensions are the same as the Town Car, too. Prices, including freight, start at $22,495 for the GS and $24,395 for the better-equipped LS, which is $60 less than last year. Major changes consist of redesigned front and rear fascias and improved driving dynamics. The grille is rounder, the front-end smoother. In back, the taillights are larger and the trunk lid extends down to the top of the bumper. It is out on the road, however, that the real improvements come through. It feels more secure, more responsive, thanks to standard 16-inch wheels and a revamped suspension that enables it to handle rough pavement and cross winds with less disruption. A Watts linkage keeps the rear axle's movements in check so the car dives into turns with more precision. On some rough pavement I noted that the back wheels still hop around, but in general the Grand Marquis glides down the road like a limousine, which is exactly what buyers want in a car like this. An optional handling package includes a lower axle ratio, dual exhausts, performance tires and a bigger stabilizer bar for more aggressive handling. The dual exhausts raise the engine's horsepower from 200 to 215. An air suspension with automatic load leveling is also offered. In 200-horse form, the 4.6-liter, overhead-cam engine is extremely smooth and mannerly. It accelerates away from a stop strongly, and it is almost noiseless at highway speeds. Pulling out to pass, or climbing long hills, requires kicking down the throttle or punching the overdrive button on the end of the automatic transmission shift lever. Anti-lock brakes and all-speed traction control tame the Grand Marquis' rear-wheel drive when the pavement is slippery by applying the brakes to one or more rear wheels and/or reducing the flow of fuel. Accelerating around corners in the rain causes the back tires to spin a bit, but the system would kick in to restore traction so subtly that the blinking light on the dash was the only clue it was working. The beauty of an electronic system such as this is that it enhances the drivability of rear-wheel-drive cars in bad weather. This year the Grand Marquis has larger front brake rotors and dual-piston calipers for stronger, truer stops. The cabin of our upscale LS test car was almost as lavish as the Lincoln because it contained the optional six-way power seats, leather upholstery, automatic air conditioning and digital instruments. This instrument package is far from my favorite because the bright-green numerals are large and gaudy. This is a wide car. For drivers under six feet tall, the radio mounted high in the center of the dash is a long reach. The climate controls are lower, which puts them closer. Front seats are wide and flat for easy entry. A third person could even ride in the middle for a short distance. Leg and headroom, both front and back, is plentiful. The trunk has the same volume as the Town Car. The back-seat armrest is wider and longer. As long as buyers want traditional sedans, the Grand Marquis and its Ford cousin will have an audience. They off a lot of room, smooth power and a comfortable ride at a sensible price. Price The base price of our test car was $24,395. It was equipped with anti-lock brakes, traction control, digital instruments, automatic climate control, six-way power seats, leather upholstery and a built-in universal garage door opener. The sticker price was $27,645. Warranty The standard warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles. Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers. Point: The Grand Marquis gets a styling touchup front and rear to give it a younger look. The suspension has been retuned so it responds better. Counterpoint: The radio is far from the driver, the rear axle still fidgets a bit on rough pavement and the digital instruments are a little too gaudy for my taste. SPECIFICATIONS: ENGINE: 4.6-liter, V8 TRANSMISSION: automatic WHEELBASE: 114.4 inches CURB WEIGHT: 3,917 lbs. BASE PRICE: $24,395 PRICE AS DRIVEN: $27,645. MPG RATING: 17 city, 24 hwy.
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