The Sacramento Bee's view

When I was growing up in the Midwest, Lincoln was a car brand beyond the grasp of the family budget.

Like Cadillac, it was a car to aspire to; getting a Lincoln implied success – a tangible object that signified your arrival in the realm of the financially secure.

That perception has stuck with me for decades, through a series of Lincoln motor vehicles priced at $40,000, $50,000 and more.

And so, I was somewhat astonished to see the starting price on the sticker of the tested, new-for-2006 Lincoln Zephyr: $28,995.

Alas, the builders of this particular car must have felt obligated to live up to the Zephyr’s billing as a midsize luxury sedan. Optional features, including heated/cooled front seats, 17-inch chrome wheels, high intensity headlamps and a nearly $3,000 navigation system, swelled the tester’s bottom line to $34,040.

OK, the add-ons were nice, but I quickly decided to mentally discard the extras and see how this new Lincoln stacked up as a player with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of below $30,000.

Pretty good, it turns out.

Clean and aerodynamic-looking on the outside, this Lincoln has a touch of class with its bold, look-at-me, waterfall-style chrome grille. The back end looked a little chopped, but underneath the decklid, the trunk space digs deep toward the rear seats, creating a generous cargo-carrying capacity of nearly 16 cubic feet.

Inside, there were more nice touches. I particularly liked the round, chromed air vents that could be shut flush with the dash or easily adjusted for vertical and horizontal air flow. The vents are similar to those found on cars with six-figure stickers.

The cockpit was a pleasant mix of wood, leather and nickel/chrome touches. Everything was easy to understand and operate – even that pricey navigation system.

The Zephyr’s rear seats had room for three normal-size adults and featured 60/40-split backs that fold flat, providing access to the trunk and offering yet more cargo space.

With a 3-liter, 221-horsepower V-6 under the hood, I assumed the Zephyr would be a spirited performer. Yet it fell short of expectations, particularly from a standing start.

Nailing the gas at the change of a stoplight produced a lot of noise, but not much oomph. I’d occasionally ask the car why it was not producing more acceleration in direct proportion to the engine noise, but no replies came forward.

Once the revs are up, however, the Zephyr scoots and slaloms well enough. There was a bit of body lean in corners taken at 45 mph or more – at least, more lean than I expected.

Steering was a snap. It’s a very easy car to drive and park.

The basic list of standard equipment was admirable, given the $28,995 starting price. It included 10-way power front seats with lumbar supports, dual zone climate control, twin/chromed exhaust tips, traction assist and side air bags.

With the Zephyr, the question appears to be: Can Lincoln sell this vehicle to an audience it has carefully studied and is now aggressively targeting? That audience, in the company’s own words, would be “younger buyers (who want) a luxury automobile with the comfort and refinement befitting a Lincoln.”

Well, the Zephyr is certainly in that ballpark.

Sans a wallet-crushing price and equipped with enough luxury appointments to appeal to not-quite-middle-age or slightly older buyers, it’s certainly tempting enough.

What I wonder is whether Lincoln fell short in the performance department.

The 221-horsepower V-6 is the only power plant, and it is left to compete against other automakers’ offerings that have 250 horsepower or more.

I guess it boils down to what that niche of luxury and near-luxury car buyers want. Those who desire a Lincoln-badged sedan and an ample sprinkling of luxury features in a pleasant-looking package will probably go for it.

Those who want more pop with their luxury probably will find this Lincoln lacking.

It’s a fine line, to be sure, but kudos to Lincoln and its Ford Motor Co. bosses for producing a car that a wider range of consumers will find affordable.

Dropping $30,000 on a family sedan these days is commonplace, and certainly no indication that you’ve achieved captain-of-industry stature.

But with a Zephyr parked in the driveway, it might be enough to make you feel like one.

LINCOLN ZEPHYR AT A GLANCE Make/model: 2006 Lincoln Zephyr. Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door, midsize luxury sedan. Base price: $28,995 (as tested, $34,040). Engine: 3-liter V-6 with 221 horsepower at 6,250 revolutions per minute and 205 foot-pounds of torque starting at 4,800 rpm. EPA fuel economy: 20 miles per gallon city; 28 mpg highway. Transmission: Six-speed automatic with overdrive. Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion. Brakes: Power-assisted, four-wheel discs with anti-lock and electronic brake distribution. Suspension: Independent, short/long arm on front; independent, multi-link on rear (stabilizer bars front and rear). Fuel tank: 17.5 gallons. Cargo volume: 15.8 cubic feet. Passenger volume: 100 cubic feet. Curb weight: 3,410 pounds. Track: 61.6 inches on front; 61.3 inches on rear. Height: 57.2 inches. Length: 190.5 inches. Wheelbase: 107.4 inches. Width: 72.2 inches. Tires: P225/50VR17 all-season radials. Final assembly point: Hermosillo, Mexico.

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