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Right now, there are only two big rear-wheel-drive sedans left on the market, the Lincoln Town Car and the Cadillac Fleetwood. And when the 1996 model year ends, the Town Car will be a class of one.

General Motors is pulling the plug on its large, rear-wheel-drive sedans - the Fleetwood, the Buick Roadmaster and the Chevrolet Caprice - to make way for products with broader sales appeal: pickup trucks.There is rich irony in this. Automobiles like the Town Car take heat for being out of touch with the times - too thirsty, too big and ponderous.

But if you think about those indictments for a second, you'll realize they also apply to pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles. Particularly the thirsty part.

Check the data. The Town Car offers better fuel economy than most sport-utilities, and it's pretty good at towing stuff, too. With the optional heavy-duty trailering package, this big sedan can tow up to 5,000 pounds, which is, again, better than a number of sport-utility vehicles.

So the real objection to cars such as this has little to do with weight and dimensions.

It has to do with style. The Town Car is stylistically incorrect, at least in the context of its times.

Although there are several front-drive luxury cars that are more or less in the same weight class as the Town Car, this automobile, as well as the Cadillac Fleetwood, is a direct descendant of another age in American luxury motoring.

Two fundamental notions summed up the philosophy that lay behind the designs of this glorious, if misguided, era. Notion 1: Bigger is better. There was a direct correlation between sheer mass and prestige. Notion 2: Road-hugging weight was good. The more iron you squashed onto the tires, the more likely it became that the tires would stay glued to the road.

Well, I admit that cars like this don't appeal to me. I prefer automobiles that have the responses of a running back and brick-wall braking, dynamic traits that are pretty well shrouded in the Town Car.

On the other hand, it's clear that Ford isn't after the sport sedan market with this vehicle. The Town Car is a favorite with limousine services because it delivers old-fashioned virtues that make it seem geriatric - a soft ride, lots of interior space and luxurious living room comfort.

Thanks to the tall, formal roofline, large doors, wide door openings and absence of side bolsters on seat cushions, getting in or out is supremely easy, front or rear. And this is one of the rare six-passenger cars that really does have room for six.

The Town Car's seats are new for '95, with improved structure and deeper padding. Settling in behind the wheel is like sliding into a favorite easy chair - a leather-covered easy chair, in the case of our Signature Series test car.

Ford has made several small but useful interior improvements for 1995. Controls for the upgraded audio system are bigger, making them significantly easier to operate, and the antenna system is embedded in the windshield and the rear window so there's no external antenna to break or malfunction.

There's a new auxiliary power outlet set below the new instrument panel, and the new two-spoke steering wheel returns the horn control to the center of the wheel hub, just like in the good old days.

The digital instrument display now includes a compass readout, the power window switches are backlit front and rear, for easier use after dark, and the new memory heated-seat option provides a choice between heating just the seat cushion or the cushion and the seat back together. Five different heat settings, too.

Still another addition to the Town Car's new instrument panel is a three-position switch for steering effort - the amount of resistance the wheel offers to turning. More on this in a minute.

Leaving the digital instruments aside - you either like 'em or you don't - there are only a couple elements inside the Town Car that could use some work.

For one, the coin holders are built into the center console. You have to raise the lid of the armrest to get at them, which isn't very handy when you're traveling tollways regularly.

Second, the new wood-grain trim looks a little cheap compared to the rest of the interior appointments, particularly the rich saddle-tan leather of our test car.

Driving the Town Car does conjure up memories of the golden age of American behemoths, but not quite as accurately as you may suspect.

Yes, the spring rates and shock absorber damping were selected to produce a butter-smooth ride, with handling a distant second. Yes, there's lots of body roll in hard cornering. Yes, it's easy to get this car to wallow in quick lane maneuvers.

Nevertheless, this car could run circles around its predecessors from the golden age of glitz.

Although the ride quality definitely reminds me of the days when American sedans handled like lifeboats, there's a much higher degree of control now, versus then.

There's also decent, though by no means class-leading, engine power. Ford's 4.6-liter modular V8 drives the Town Car's rear wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission, and it does so smoothly and quietly.

While this is basically a very good engine-transmission package for this job, at 210 horsepower it takes a back seat to the Fleetwood's 5.7-liter V8, an engine with a big edge in both torque (335 pounds-feet) and horsepower (260).

It's also worth noting here that Cadillac's de Ville and de Ville Concours, front-drive sedans in the traditional American mode, will be offered with the 300-horsepower, 4.6-liter Northstar V8 in 1996.

Power disparities aside, though, the only element of the Town Car's running gear that really needs attention, in my opinion, is its steering.

Yes, there's the new steering effort adjustment switch. But there's a difference between steering effort and steering feel, and the Town Car still delivers very little of the latter.

You're never precisely sure of where the front wheels are pointed until the car actually starts to turn.

On the other hand, braking performance is impressive for a car this size, and it takes repeated maximum effort stops to produce any fade. An antilock system is standard.

Ford has freshened the Town Car's styling a bit for '95 with a new grille, larger color-keyed mirrors and new head and tail lamps, but the basic shape is familiar.

And why not? This is a successful car with a very good track record.

But if I were shopping for a car such as this, I'd certainly make plans to visit a Cadillac store, too.



FORD TOWN CAR: (manufacturer's data)

Price as tested: $41,410

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-drive full-size luxury sedan

Key competitors: Cadillac de Ville, Cadillac Fleetwood

Standard equipment: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes, four-speed automatic transmission, automatic climate control, power seats, anti-theft alarm, heated power mirrors, tilt steering, adjustable effort power steering, cruise control, auto-on headlights

Engine: 210 h.p. 4.6-liter V8

EPA fuel econ.: 17 mpg city/25 hwy.

Curb weight: 4,031 pounds

Wheelbase: 117.4 inches

Length: 218.9 inches

Width: 76.7 inches

Height: 56.9 inches

Where assembled: Wixom, Mich.