When I went out to the parking terrace to pick up this week's ride, a 2000 Lincoln LS, I thought I must have been on the wrong level. The only new car I could see on level three was a green BMW 328i tucked over in the corner.
But wait, that Bimmer has Michigan license plates . . . and where's the blue-and-white spinning propeller logo? Could it be?
Yep, that was no BMW, it was a Lincoln, but unlike any other Lincoln that has ever carried the 16th president's name.
Forget everything you know about big ol' Town Cars, Continentals, the Mark series and the Navigator. The trim and sleek LS, Motor Trend magazine's "Car of the Year," has nothing in common with them, save the name.
Which, ironically, begs the question of who's going to buy them? People two or three decades younger than the typical Lincoln customer, that's who. Or so hope the folks at Ford's upscale division.
The average age of Continental and Town Car buyers is 65, a demographic about as desirable to marketing gurus as men from Mars. Lincoln wants to attract the 35-to-50 set to the LS, people who have likely never set foot in a Lincoln showroom.
How to do it? The usual. Advertising. Word of mouth. Whatever it takes to woo people who have been buying imports for all of their motoring lives. One plus: the Navigator SUV has given them some help in that direction as buyers of Lincoln's big Navigator sport-ute — a smash hit saleswise — have been averaging age 55, considerably closer to the LS target than its sedans.
Think of the LS as the un-Lincoln. No vinyl top. No opera windows. No "continental kit." Not even whitewalls, for pete's sake. Isn't there a law on the books that says Lincolns can't leave Detroit without whitewalls?
Apparently they repealed it.
It didn't hurt that FoMoCo decided to move its Lincoln Mercury Division to California, the state that serves as ground zero for product testing, particularly motor vehicles. To paraphrase the song extolling the virtues of New York: If a car can make it in California, it can make it anywhere.
And the new Lincoln LS deserves to make it. I can't think of any other American car that so thoroughly emulates the ride and handling characteristics, fit and finish, form-follows-function design and high build quality of the best German and Japanese luxury imports.
I can picture the engineers at Lincoln disassembling a BMW in some top-secret garage in an Irvine business park, scanning all the parts and declaring: "We can do this . . . and cheaper!"
Cheaper, of course, is relative. Much has been made of the new LS being a bargain, and with a starting price of less than $32,000, the LS is both less expensive and has more power than most of its competitors, an indication of just how important it is to the division to make a big dent in the so-called "entry level" luxury market, which is how the under $40K price range is described in the industry.
But there won't be many LS models going out the door for under $32,000. It's nice that Lincoln is offering the car with a manual transmission — the first manual to be found in a Lincoln since the 1951 Cosmopolitan — but I can't imagine one in a hundred Lincoln buyers opting to shift for themselves or even being satisfied with the V6 power plant that accompanies the five-speed.
I believe my tester, equipped with the 3.9-liter, 32-valve V8 and five-speed automatic transmission (that can be shifted manually through all five gears when the mood strikes) represents what most buyers will want (and which is why that's the one they supply to media people like me).
My tester was base priced at $34,690, but an anti-slip option called Advance Trac added $725, an "audiophile" upgrade to the stereo was $565, a six-disc CD changer mounted in the glove box was $595 and a "sport package" consisting of a "Euro Sport" suspension package, a full-size spare tire and aluminum wheels tacked on $1,000. A $535 destination charge put the bottom line at $38,110.
That's still not bad for a car going up against Mercedes and Lexus, but I couldn't help but compare it to the Buick LeSabre of the previous week, which was not that far from the Lincoln in quality, had a larger trunk, more luxury gadgets and was priced $10,000 less.
Choices. So many choices to make in the near-luxury ranks. They're all great cars in this price range, and the law of diminishing returns is in force. Once you hit $30K, you pay a lot to get a little bit more.
Fuel mileage for the V8 LS is rated at 17 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway. About average for this class of car.
It should be noted that the Lincoln LS is a kissing cousin to the tony Jaguar S-Type sedan (Ford is the owner of Britain's legendary marque) with which it shares its rear-drive platform and drivetrain. The retro Ford Thunderbird, due to go into production this year, will also use these underpinnings.