Reviews

1988 Lincoln Continental Signature Series Rides on Air

From the December 1987 issue of Car and Driver.

C’mon, you remember the American luxury sedan. Big as a ship. Thirsty. Slathered with chrome. Rode like a down-filled pillow gliding on an asphalt-colored ribbon of Cottonelle. Had a power control for the gas cap even. Heck, practically didn’t need a driver. Yep, those were the days, all right.

How things change. Oh, sure, a few land yachts are still left—and if those big, anesthetized cruisers are your bag, you might want to stop reading right here. If, on the other hand, you’re captivated by the idea of an American luxury sedan with road sense, you’ll want to know about the 1988 Lincoln Continental. At long last, Detroit is taking a stab at building a big luxury car for drivers.

Stepping forth into this uncharted territory is the first new Continental in six years. Based on the platform of the wildly successful Taurus/Sable, the new Conti is a front-driver—the first such Lincoln ever. And, like its Taurus/Sable siblings, the new Continental is a product of Ford’s aerodynamically attuned drawing boards. Anyone who doubts Ford’s commitment to functional forms should take a look at the new Continental’s rear end: the big Lincoln’s timeworn spare-tire hump has been unceremoniously whacked off, creating a smooth, wind-slick trunk lid. Perhaps more than anything else, the humpectomy proves Ford’s willingness to abandon tradition in order to break new automotive ground.

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

As any true driver’s car should be, the new Continental is lean and purposeful. It’s nearly an inch narrower and more than four inches longer than last year’s model. For a steadier stance, the wheelbase has been stretched by half an inch, to 109.0 inches. Graced with a trim new grille, flush headlamps, curved corners, and smooth window edges, the reshaped Lincoln is one of the most slippery cars in its size class, facing the wind with a drag coefficient of 0.36. The look is decidedly cleaner than before, too, but our styling jury is still out. Several staffers find the new shape appealing, some remarking that it makes the car look like a trim limousine. Others think it looks more like a hearse. Despite our differences, every one of us prefers the new shape to the old.

Like the exterior, the Lincoln’s cabin has been treated to a complete redo. And like the exterior, the cabin earns mixed reviews. The new controls are well laid out and easy to use. Even the digital instruments are largely inoffensive—which, from us, is high praise. The cockpit is cluttered, however, with plastic-chrome trim and synthesized wood. The look is obviously a compromise: much more purposeful than previous Continentals, but crowded with enough perceived-luxury details to make the average American­ luxosedan buyer feel at home. We’ll be happier when the Continental takes an even bolder step toward a serious driver’s environment.

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

On a more positive note, every important interior dimension has been increased, adding enough room for a sixth passenger. The trunk has also been enlarged, now boasting a healthy 19 cubic feet of storage space. Despite its sleek exterior, this car has all the room any traditional Continental buyer could want.

The revised sheetmetal and the new cabin are welcome changes, but Ford has focused most of its attention where it really counts: under the skin. The new Continental carries more worthy mechanicals than any previous domestic luxury liner.

The biggest subskin news is the suspension. The 1988 Continental was designed to be the first big American prestige sedan in years to offer both a velvety-smooth ride and well-damped body motions. To pull off that tough combination, Ford engineers specified plenty of hardware and an electronic brain. At each corner of the fully independent suspension are a dual-­rate, gas-pressurized strut and an air spring. A computer rules over the entire system: it automatically adjusts the air springs to maintain the proper ride height, and it switches instantly between soft and firm shock settings as needed (see Technical Highlights, below). To counter bending stresses on the rear struts (thus reducing internal friction and improving the ride), each rear-suspension assembly is fortified with a pair of hairpin springs mounted between the strut and the rear­most lateral link. Up front, offset attachment points atop the struts serve the same function.

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

Complementing the high-tech suspension is a new electrohydraulic, variable-assist steering system. At low speeds, the steering is boosted considerably for parking maneuvers. As speed increases, a computer slowly feathers out the assist. Above 60 mph the assist remains constant, and steering motions require about twice as much effort as they do at low speeds. Anyone who’s ever cursed the overassisted, drive-with-your-finger-tips feel of the typical American luxoboat will appreciate the Continental’s newfound steering control.

Providing the go for every 1988 Continental is a 3.8-liter V-6. Basically the same engine issued as standard equipment in 1987 Thunderbirds and Cougars, the Continental’s V-6 has been thoroughly uprated for prestige-sedan duty, with port fuel injection, a tuned intake manifold, and, for added smoothness, a balance shaft in the cylinder-block valley. So equipped, it puts out 140 horsepower at 3800 rpm, and 215 pound-feet of torque at 2200. Each and every Continental receives a four-speed automatic transaxle equipped with a lockup torque converter.

To measure just how far the new Lincoln has come in driver’s terms, we wasted no time in taking our pre-production Continental to the test track. With 3486 pounds to lug, the 140-hp six managed respectable but not stirring performance. We clocked a zero-to-60-mph run of 10.5 seconds and a top speed of 110 mph. Perfectly adequate numbers for a luxury sedan, but hardly the stuff that Bimmers and Mercs are made of.

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

The brakes also proved competent but not stellar. With a vented disc at each corner, and equipped with standard anti-lock control, the big Lincoln stopped from 70 mph in 206 feet.

Pushed hard into a corner, the Continental’s luxury-cruiser breeding takes the lead. Fitted with Firestone FR480 Plus 205/70R-15 all-season rubber, our test car ground around the skidpad at a piddling 0.69 g. If grip is your game, you’ll have to look somewhere else.

Out in the real world, though, the Continental proves that it’s not another softly sprung dinosaur. Attack a section of badly rutted pavement and you’ll quickly realize that this is a Continental like none before it. Aim for a good-sized bump and—wonder of wonders!—the chassis remains poised and calm. The suspension feels so soft that you clench your teeth every time a chuckhole appears: you just know this thing is going to slam down hard on its bump stops. But it doesn’t. It just thumps right over, with no dramatics. The ride never feels soft, then hard, then soft again. Thanks to the miracle of electronics, it feels soft and controlled and poised, all at the same time.

The variable-ratio steering is equally effective. Its on-center feel is very reassuring—and when has anyone been able to say that about a Continental before? At speed, the center weighting and the positive effort make highway tracking a breeze. As things slow down, the gradual increase in steering assistance feels completely natural—which is to say, it’s practically unnoticeable.

The Continental still doesn’t have the athletic ability or the finesse to rank with the German big guns, but it’s far and away the best Continental we’ve ever driven. It’s not yet a truly Continental driving machine, but it’s finally a Continental that real drivers will enjoy.

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

The Continental’s primary mission, of course, is luxurious travel—and the faithful will not be disappointed. The new Conti comes in two editions: base and Signature Series. The standard equipment in the base version includes power locks and windows, an eight-way power driver’s seat (operated by a fine, Mercedes-type control layout), a premium AM/FM-stereo/cassette system, electronic climate control, and a trip computer. The Signature Series adds such items as a keyless entry system, an eight-way power passenger seat, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and styled aluminum wheels. For those who require even more luxury, the options list includes a compact-disc player, a 140-watt Ford JBL audio system, an Insta­Clear heated windshield, and a power moonroof.

At this writing, Ford has not yet announced its prices for the new Continental, but the company estimates that the base model will go for about $24,000. Figure on adding about $2500 for the Signature Series. The cars go on sale the day after Christmas, and by the Christmas after that, Ford hopes to have rolled 35,000 new Continentals out the door.

We think Ford can do it. This new Continental is an American luxury sedan worth remembering. Especially when you’re dropping hints for Christmas.


Technical Highlights

When the typical American luxury-car buyer settles behind the wheel of his comfy cruiser, he wants a soft, plush seat cushion under his backside—and a ride to match. Lately, however, the Ford Motor Company has been moving away from marshmallow suspensions and toward designs that provide responsive handling. Now, in an attempt to offer the best of both worlds to its customers, Ford has developed one of the most sophisticated suspensions on the market.

The foundation of the system in the new Continental is the air suspension employed in the previous-generation Continental and the current Mark VII. Rather than conventional coil springs, the air-suspension system has an air bag at each corner. As the suspension moves over the road, the volume of each air bag increases and decreases; the resulting expansion and compression of the trapped air produces forces similar to those produced by a progressive-rate coil spring. The system responds to changes in vehicle loading, too: suspension sensors communicate ride-height information to a computer, which compensates for load changes by commanding a set of valves to add or relieve air from the springs. By managing the air springs in this way, the computer maintains the Continental at a constant ride height and ensures consistent ride characteristics. And since these basic variables are under control, the suspension’s nominal spring rate can be softer than is possible with conventional springs, providing a cushier ride.

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

Ford has upgraded this system in the new Continental with the addition of dual-rate shock absorbers and a new computer to control both them and the air springs. The computer is programmed to keep the shocks soft most of the time, switching them to their stiff setting only when extra control is needed. Variable-rate springs would enhance the flexibility of the system, but since Ford’s air bags can operate at only one basic rate, the engineers relied on the shocks to provide the desired control. As a result, there is a large difference between the two shock settings. In compression, the firm setting is twice as stiff as the soft setting for all four shocks. In rebound, the front shocks are sixteen times as stiff when firm, the rears six times as stiff.

To keep the ride acceptable to traditional Continental customers, the system selects the stiff mode only when absolutely necessary. For example, whenever the computer, acting on signals from the ride-height sensors, detects that too much suspension travel is taking place too quickly, it concludes that a wheel is hitting a large bump; in response, it switches the shocks to the hard setting. The system can detect a bump in as little as 16 milliseconds, and the computer can switch the shocks to the hard mode in only 25 milliseconds, so the tighter shock valving comes into play while the bump is still acting on the suspension. The system is just as quick to respond when the pavement turns smooth again, so the Continental’s velvety ride is maintained.

The system also responds to cornering variables. The computer calculates the Continental’s lateral acceleration by means of sensors that report car speed and steering-wheel angle. If a lateral acceleration of 0.4 g is reached, the computer switches the shocks to the firm mode. And at any speed, the system switches to firm if it detects sharp steering motions, such as might occur during emergency evasive maneuvers.

Finally, the system responds to longitudinal acceleration and deceleration. Below 15 mph, the system switches to firm if sensors that monitor throttle position and engine vacuum advise the computer of hard acceleration. And at any speed, if the hydraulic pressure in the brake system exceeds 250 psi, the computer switches the shocks to firm, limiting brake dive.

In all of these situations, the computer switches between the two shock settings with extraordinary speed, providing extra control when necessary and only when necessary. Judging by how well Ford’s system works with only its shocks being controlled by computer in response to driving conditions, a fully developed active suspension promises to be truly remarkable. —Csaba Csere

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