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SPORTY MARK VIII LSC IS TOUGH MARQUE TO BEAT

When offbeat rocker Commander Cody sang about his "Hot Rod Lincoln," you can bet he didn't have a car like the Mark VIII LSC in mind.

Nevertheless, this high-performance version of the Mark VIII luxury coupe is the hottest Lincoln you can buy.It's big, it's powerful, it's sleek and, measured against its narrow range of direct competitors, it's a pretty good value.

That value index may seem a little deceptive, because the Mark VIII LSC has exactly one head-to-head rival and that's the Cadillac Eldorado TC.

But folks who shop in this relatively rarefied realm commonly look at even more expensive rides - the $75,000 BMW 840i, for example, or perhaps the $93,000 Mercedes-Benz S500.

When you come home from a shopping trip like that, the $44,025 bottom line on our test car's window sticker suddenly looks like a bargain.

Redesigned for the 1994 model year, the Mark VIII is the personification of what we used to call a "gentleman's express" - a luxurious 2+2 coupe with lots of power that can, if pressed, behave like a sports car.

When it comes to the sports car part of the formula, the LSC version comes closer than the garden variety Mark VIII.

The suspension tuning is a little stiffer than the basic model, and thanks to a slightly less restrictive exhaust system, its 32-valve dual overhead cam 4.6-liter V-8 engine makes a tad more horsepower - 290, compared with 280 in the standard Mark VIII engine.

That's a subtle distinction, but a slightly lower rear axle ratio complements the additional power to give the LSC noticeably better get up and go, particularly from a standing start.

Now, I admit that nipping a half-second or so off a zero-to-60 mph time in a car that can already get the job done in a faster-than-ordinary hurry may not seem important in the great scheme of things.

But it's important to folks willing to pay a premium for limited-edition cars such as this, and it's particularly important for the Mark VIII LSC in its ongoing rivalry with the Eldorado TC.

Why? Two reasons.

First, the Eldorado TC has an even more potent V-8 under its hood - General Motor's terrific, 300-horse Northstar V-8. Giving the LSC a little more punch levels the playing field in terms of sheer acceleration.

Second, the engines are almost the only point of similarity between these two cars. Beyond that, the two manufacturers' interpretations of the luxury grand touring concept differ considerably.

The LSC is a rear-wheel-drive car, the Eldo is front-wheel-drive.

The LSC's interior reflects the kind of snug, cockpit-style design you might expect to find in, say, a BMW, while the Eldo is more open, with a roomier feel to it.

The LSC's back seats are short on legroom. The Eldorado's are roomy enough for adults.

The LSC is devoid of wood trim inside. The Eldorado has lots of Cadillac's trademark Zebrano wood across the dashboard and door panels.

Who's to say which interpretation is the right one?

Obviously, the person who signs the contract.

As for me, well, I feel strongly both ways.

For a long, unhurried cruise, the Eldorado is a little less confining, with more room to wiggle around. And it's a tad cushier in the ride quality department.

But for unwinding some sinuous stretch of back road - driving just for the fun of driving - I'd give the edge to the LSC.

The firm suspension tuning doesn't do much to take the hard edge off small, sharp irregularities in the road, like broken pavement, potholes and expansion joints. Bigger bumps can produce unpleasant shocks that find their way to the seat of the driver's pants.

Recent BMW models prove that sporty handling and smooth ride quality aren't incompatible, and there's no reason why the LSC couldn't do a better job in this regard.

On the other hand, the combination of firm suspension and a very good rear-drive chassis yield a level of handling that's very gratifying to pilot on good roads. The LSC's responses are quick and direct, with no wasted up-and-down motion and very limited body roll.

It inspires confidence in fast corners, and its high-speed stability is first rate.

Our test car was also equipped with an optional, $1,810 Touring Package that included an electronic traction control system, along with a trunk-mounted CD changer, an auto-dimming rear view mirror and a premium JBL sound system.

Traction control is helpful on any car when the going gets slushy, but it's particularly useful on a powerful rear-drive car such as this one.

Beyond the hot rod Lincoln elements, the Mark VIII is pretty much on target in terms of comfort and quality.

The fighter cockpit cabin may seem a bit confining to some, but the leather-clad seats are excellent, with a nice range of adjustability, and the base price includes the kind of luxury amenities you'd expect of a car in this price range.

The instrument and control layout is straightforward and well-located, and for me, at least, the absence of woodgrain is a stylistic plus.

About the only quibbles concerning the interior are the height of the center console, which feels a little intrusive, and the size of the outside mirrors. Driver vision into the car's blind spots would benefit considerably if the mirrors were, say, about 25 percent larger.

As for noise, the LSC rates about average. It's not in the Lexus league on autodom's bell-shaped decibel curve, and the exhaust note isn't as pleasant as the Eldorado's throaty rumble.

But wind noise is well-controlled, and cabin conversation requires no more than normal voice levels at most speeds.

Besides its muscle and agility, the LSC's strongest appeal is its slick styling and monochrome paint treatment.

Our test car was equipped with chromed alloy wheels, a $2,100 extra that strikes me as out of synch with the car's otherwise purposeful cosmetics.

But the basic shape is a sleek, handsome piece of work, with proportions that mask the car's substantial size.

The Eldorado, in contrast, looks a little dated, and that large rear roof pillar creates significant blind spots in the driver's vision into the rear quarters - just where other cars like to lurk.

The appeal of cars like this is their combination of power, luxury, agility, good looks and - very important - exclusivity.

You pay a premium for these traits, and in the LSC you get what you pay for.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Vital statistics for vibrant Mark VIII LSC

1996 LINCOLN Mark VIII LSC

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-drive full-size luxury sport coupe.

Key competitors: Buick Riviera, Cadillac Eldorado TC, Lexus SC 300/400

Base price: $40,290

Price as tested: $44,055

Standard equipment: Dual air bags, ABS, alarm system, 4-speed automatic transmission, automatic climate control, AM/FM/cassette sound system, keyless remote entry, power windows, power mirrors, trip computer, power leather seats, tilt steering, dual illuminated vanity mirrors

Engine: 290 hp 4.6-liter V-8

EPA fuel econ.: 18 m.p.g. city/26 hwy.

Curb weight: 3,767 pounds

Wheelbase: 113.0 inches

Length: 207.3 inches

Width: 74.8 inches

Height: 53.6 inches

Where assembled: Wixom, Mich.