At some point in our motoring lives, a good many of us begin putting cushy comfort above everything else.

Forget about stuff like quick responses in emergency maneuvers, communicative steering and the other things that make a car fun to drive.

The traditional driving concept in the mature market is isolation from anything unpleasant, and if achieving that end entails sensory deprivation for the driver, well, who cares?

Measured against this standard, the 1998 Lincoln Continental is nothing if not traditional. It's quiet, plush, reasonably powerful, and no one will ever accuse you of trying to retrieve your youth. This just ain't one of those midlife crisis hot rods.

In fact, the Continental makes me wonder if there might be some sort of clandestine personnel exchange going on between Buick and Lincoln -- specifically, some of the troops involved in the development of the new Buick Century, the LeSabre and the non-Gran Sport editions of the Park Avenue.

We're talking ride quality with enough sponge to soak up foxholes and prairie dog mounds, and the kind of handling you'd associate with a water buffalo -- deliberate.

Very deliberate.

I suppose that with absolute comfort as the absolute priority, this is OK. After all, it's a formula that's worked in American luxury cars for generations.

The problem, at least in my view, is that there are plenty of cars today that manage to deliver on the comfort side of the equation without the old wallow-and-float handling.

The Lexus LS 400 is an excellent example of luxury comfort and competence, although it's in a considerably higher price bracket than the Continental.

Closer to home, price-wise, there's the big Buick Park Avenue, provided it's equipped with the Gran Touring suspension package.

And even Cadillac's big DeVille can negotiate twisty bits with a fair degree of zeal, provided it's the firmer Concours edition.

To be fair, my first impressions of the new Continental, modestly updated for 1998, are based on a preproduction version of the standard model.

The standard car does not include Lincoln's Driver Select System, an electronically controlled menu of shock absorber settings that allows the owner to put a little more starch in the suspension if desired.

Instead, the standard Continental sports good old MacPherson struts with steel springs and gas-pressured shocks up front -- straightforward, and undoubtedly far less expensive to produce.

There's certainly nothing wrong with this setup in concept. But the tuning, with softer spring rates for that all-important cushiony ride, leaves something to be desired when the driver wants quick transitions.

Similarly, the power steering doesn't really tell the driver much about what the front wheels are doing when the driver makes changes at the helm.

There are three electronically-controlled presets for steering effort, allowing the driver to vary the level of power assistance from low to high, but numb regardless.

Lin coln press materials refer to the Continental as a "highly maneuverable sedan" with "a confident, controlled driving experience."

Well, maybe so. But compared to what?

Value-oriented

Aside from its indifferent dynamics, the face-lifted Continental stacks up pretty well in terms of value -- lots of room, lots of luxury features included in the base price.

The instrument panel has been revised, an update that includes tasteful bird's-eye maple trim -- the real stuff, as distinct from plastic woodgrain.

The various control switches are easy to identify by touch, something Ford is very good at, and there's a new illuminated repeater for the automatic transmission set into the instrument panel, so you don't have to look down to figure out what gear you've selected.

Leather is standard for the seats, which are roomy and power adjustable, though the y lack much lateral support.

Then again, heavy side bolsters would be out of place in a sedate c onveyance such as this. Big thigh and torso bolsters are designed to keep the driver and front passenger centered during spirited cornering, and in this car that kind of spirit is almost entirely absent.

Standard safety

On the safety side of the ledger, the Continental rates an average.

Antilock braking and traction control -- with the welcome driver option of an on-off switch -- are standard equipment, but the Continental's stability-enhancing equipment falls well short of Cadillac's sophisticated StabiliTrak system.

And even though Ford is hard at work on side air bag systems for extra protection in T-bone crashes, you won't find them here.

Ford has yielded to daytime running lights in the 1998 Continental, if you're partial to this notion -- I'm not -- and the optional SecuriTire System provides 100 miles of run-flat capability with Michelin's MXV4ZP radials.

The system also includes a low-pressure warning light that comes on when one or more tires deflate to 18 pounds per square inch and flashes when pressure sinks to 10 p.s.i.

The most visible portions of the '98 update are up front and going away -- particularly going away, where a pair of big taillights replaces the sweep of red plastic that stretched across the stern of the '97 edition.

Revisions to the front end -- a bigger grille, flanked by headlights and turn signals nicely integrated under a clear plastic cover -- are a bit more difficult to see at a glance, but your insurance agent will probably be happy to hear about the new materials employed.

The new front fenders, hood and rear decklid are plastic, a la Saturn, which should reduce random dents and dings, as well as the wintertime ravages of salt and sand.

As for the overall appearance, it's still conservative, but quietly elegant with a shade more presence than the current car.

For all that, though, the element that saves this car from serious anonymity is power.

The instrument panel has been revised, making the control switches easy to identify by touch.

Drive with punch

Although it's not quite in the same class as Cadillac's Northstar V8, at 260 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque, Ford's 4.6-liter Intech V8 has more than enough punch to keep pace with the morning drive desperados and minimize your time in the oncoming lane when you're passing another car on a two-lane highway.

It's also quiet and mannerly at all speeds -- quieter than its Cadillac rivals -- and the shift quality of the electronically controlled four-speed automatic is on par with GM units, which is to say with the best.

Beyond that, it's devoid of torque steer -- a tendency in powerful front-drive cars for the front wheels to pull the car to one side or the other at full throttle.

Cadillac still has yet to fully banish this trait from its Northstar-powered cars.

Along with power appropriate to the luxury class, the element that keeps the Continental aliv e in the showrooms is its price tag -- about the same as the basic Deville and $7,000 less than the current Seville. (We'll soon see a redesigned Seville, due for its worldwide introduction next month at the Frankfurt Auto Show.)

What you get for your money is quiet good looks, plenty of standard equipment, better-than-average power and plenty of comfort.

What you don't get is even a hint of driving pleasure -- unless your idea of driving pleasure runs along the lines of a moderately posh drawing room that happens to be capable of forward motion.

It's not mine.

Specs

RATING: No rating, preproduction

VEHICLE TYPE: Front-engine, front-drive full-size luxury sedan

KEY COMPETITORS: Buick Park Avenue, Cadillac DeVille, Cadillac Sevil le, Chrysler LHS, Oldsmobile Aurora

BASE PRICE: $38,500

PRICE AS TESTED: $38,500

STANDARD EQUIPMENT: ABS, traction control, dual front air bags, air conditio ner, AM/FM/cassette, power leather seats, power windows, power mirrors, power locks, keyless remote entry, cruise control, overhead console with map lights, aluminum alloy wheels

SPECIFICATIONS:

(manufacturer's data)

Engine 260-hp 4.6-liter V8

EPA fuel econ. 17 m.p.g. city/25 hwy.

Curb weight 3,868 pounds

Wheelbase 109 inches

Length 207 inches

Width 73.6 inches

Height 56 inches

Where assembled Wixom