EXPERT REVIEW

Orlando Sentinel's view

The Lincoln Mark VIII is a swoopy and stylish car that has two winning personalities.

I see the Mark VIII as a sort of classy hot rod. It appeals to middle-aged buyers who are looking for a muscle car decked out in wood and leather trim, and who want want both import like luxury and refinement and American-style performance.

Let’s say you don’t care for a loud, fast muscle car. Instead, you would prefer a comfortable coupe that is smooth, quiet and fast. But you also like to have a little fun behind the wheel every now and then – doing things like leaving a little rubber on the pavement or taking a curve at 60 mph.

No problem for the Mark VIII.

Just drive the Lincoln with a tender foot and it will convey you to your destination with Lexus like smoothness and serenity.

But there is an iron fist in the form of a powerful V-8 lurking under the Mark VIII’s velvet glove of a body. This Lincoln delivers a terrific punch when you push hard on the accelerator.

Lincoln’s design team has done a superb job creating a car that so smoothly melds performance and luxury.

PERFORMANCE

Switch off the overdrive, rev the engine and you’ll hear a melodious burst of mechanical music from the sophisticated 4.6-liter, 32-valve double overhead cam V-8 under the Lincoln’s gently curved hood. There is a muted growl and a soft whine that come from the engine. The noise sounds great. To these ears it conveys precision engineering, and it gives the car an almost exotic feel.

Unlike standard issue Mark VIIIs, the LSC comes with a sports-tuned exhaust system that lets the engine breathe easier. Horsepower is rated at 290 – 10 more ponies than regular Marks. Also, the rear axle ratio has been changed to enhance low-speed acceleration.

The result of those minor changes makes the Mark VIII a lively, enthusiastic, athletic performer.

I can’t say enough about this engine. Unlike other multivalve, high-performance V-8s, this one doesn’tseem to have peaks and valleys of performance, and it isn’t a weakling at low speeds. It pulls strongly and consistently all the way up to the red line on the tachometer.

The computer-controlled four-speed automatic – the only gearbox available in the Mark VIII – provides nearly seamless shifts. If you like to drive aggressively, you can press a button on the shifter and disengage overdrive, or fourth gear. Doing so gives the Mark VIII even more midrange muscle.

For some reason, (perhaps because of my lead foot) our test car did not live up to its EPA fuel estimate. I got 15 mpg in city driving and just 22 on the highway.

HANDLING

Ford is the domestic automaker to come closest to matching Toyota’s Lexus division when it comes to tightly built, almost noise-free vehicles.

Even when the Mark VIII is driven over rough roads, not much noise enters the car’s interior. The four-wheel independent electronic suspension system is quiet. Even th e tires don’t make much noise, or if they do, the Mark VIII is so well-padded that none of the commotion reaches the driver.

Not even the worst bumps could elicit a rattle or a squeak from the many trim pieces on the car. That tells me Mark VIII has a rigid body that doesn’t flex much when the road is poor.

When I got behind the wheel, the first thing that stood out was the Mark VIII’s super-responsive rack-and-pinion steering system.

It takes just over 21/2 turns of the steering wheel to turn all the way to the left or to the right. In other words, to make a sharp turn, you don’t have to spin the steering wheel much (the turning radius is a respectable 37.2 feet). A lane change takes less than a flick of the wrist.

One of my favorite curves in which to test a car is the westbound entrance to Interstate 4 in Lake Mary. That long, sharp sweeping curve usually lets me find out what a vehicle can do when it comes to fast cornering. During several high-speed encou nters with that curve, the Mark VIII’s body stayed absolutely flat – a remarkable accomplishment. The tires don’t squeal, and the car remains easy to control.

One of the Mark VIII’s computers automatically adjusts the car’s ride height. For instance, at highway speeds the computer lowers the car about an inch. This makes it a bit more stable. The system works well.

Credit also must be given to the car’s powerful four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes. They grab hard when you need them to, and the car stays level and easy to control in emergency stops.

Our shiny black test car came with Ford’s electronic traction control system, a $215 option. I’m not convinced that it is as good as other systems I’ve tested. When I tried it out several times on wet roads, I was surprised that both rear wheels spun enough to make the car fishtail slightly before the system engaged. General Motors, BMW and Mercedes-Benz have better systems.

FIT AND FINISH

The Mark VIII has a unique and stylish interior.

The dash is a curving, two-tiered affair that blends smoothly into the door sills. Ford likes to use the word cockpit to describe the Mark VIII’s interior, but I doubt there is any airplane interior like it.

There are several cars with interiors that flow more smoothly from one area to another, but I like the Mark VIII’s layout because it is so different. For instance, several oblong, key like buttons in the center of the dash allow the driver to call up information from the car’s computer. Pressing one button will show you how much fuel is left. Pressing another turns on a compass. It’s a unique setup that gives the Mark VIII its own identity.

The seats are fabulous. Not only do they look great with their perforated leather upholstery and embroidered Lincoln logos, but they are supremely comfortable.

You adjust them by reaching down and moving buttons on the side of the bottom seat cushion. One or two of the buttons are notparticularly easy to reach, but the Mark VIII has a memory system, so all you have to do is configure the seat to your liking and enter it into the memory. If anyone else drives the car and changes the seat, pressing one button will return it to your liking.

Also, rear seat passengers don’t have to struggle to get into the rear seat. Flip the top half of either front seat forward, and the rest of the seat automatically slides ahead on its track, exposing an unobstructed path to the rear.

Other nice touches include a garage door opener built into the visor, an ear-piercingly powerful AM/FM cassette stereo with a trunk-mounted 10-disc CD player, and a full menu of power accessories.

Front and side visibility is good, but I don’t care for any of the Mark VIII’s mirrors. The mirrors mounted on the doors seem too small; the rearview mirror doesn’t allow the driver to see completely out of the rear without adjusting his head. A longer mirror inside probably would incre ase rear vision.

Trunk room is adequate for golf bags and groceries, though it is not particularly deep.

When I tested the Mark VIII two years ago, I felt it needed some wood trim on the inside to warm up the interior. Wood has been added to the center section of the console, but I still think wood trim on the upper sections of the door sills would add class to the interior.

As far as exterior styling goes, this car should age well. It has a fresh design that doesn’t rely on copying anything from other cars. If anything, the rear hump on the trunk could be retired, because it is only there for cosmetic purposes. That hump – which has shrunk over the years – pays homage to classic Lincolns. That’s where the spare tire used to be mounted.

Distinctive, classy and fast, the Mark VIII is a high quality performance-oriented luxury sports coupe and one of the brightest stars in Ford’s galaxy of vehicles.

Truett’s tip: The Lincoln Mark VIII is America’spr emier high-performanceluxury/sport coupe. It is more refined than the Cadillac El Dorado and better in every area than the closest Chrysler product, the LHS.

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