Curbside Classic: 2003 Lincoln LS V8 – (Momentarily) Reach Higher

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Most people, when they hear the word Lincoln, immediately think one of two things: Abraham Lincoln or the Lincoln Town Car. Now because we’re talking strictly cars, I’m going to exclude the former from consideration. After the Town Car, vehicles like the Continental, Mark Series, Navigator, and more recently, MKZ come to mind. But what if I say “sporty Lincoln”, what comes to mind now? Abraham Lincoln in a running singlet? Although many, even the Lincoln Motor Company, seem to forget it, there was in fact, a sporty Lincoln.

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When it arrived in mid-1999 as a 2000 model, the LS was like nothing I had ever seen before from Lincoln. During my childhood, Lincoln as I knew it was a car for old people, like my neighbors Eugene and Eleanor Przybyszewski (pronounced Pre-beh-jsaw-ski). Married 50-something odd years, they were proud owners of a gray ’88 Lincoln Town Car, which they drove (very slowly, I might add) up and down Hawthorn Road. But the LS was a very different kind of Lincoln – one that the Przybyszewskis never would’ve driven.

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For the first time in eight decades of history, Lincoln was catering a car exclusively for the driving enthusiast. Built on the all-new Ford DEW platform, which also underpinned the 2000 Jaguar S-Type and the 2002 Ford Thunderbird, the Lincoln LS was a rear-wheel drive sports sedan with cars like the BMW E39 5-Series on its radar. Available in V6 and V8 flavors, the LS was the first Lincoln since 1951 with an available manual transmission (its standard automatic was also the first-ever in a Lincoln with a five gears).

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Visually, the LS looked like no other Lincoln. It was athletically styled, with short overhangs, flared fenders, and a sharp character line running the entire length of the vehicle. Complementing its aggressive stance were large lower air intakes, dual exhausts, and 5-spoke alloy wheels (16s were standard, 17s as part of the optional sport package – yes, I said “sport package” and “Lincoln” in the same sentence). Its chiseled front end gave way to a steeply raked windshield and fast roofline. The overall look was very European – reminiscent of the BMW E39, yet clearly distinctive with its own traits.

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Available only with bucket seats and a full console with shifter, the LS’s interior would’ve been pure blasphemy to Mr. and Mrs. Przybyszewski. Its driver-focused layout included an asymmetric vertical center stack, placing its abundance of buttons in easy reach of the driver. Leather seats were standard, as was fake, but still rather rich-looking woodgrain trim. Compared to the exterior, the interior design was far more restrained. Leather and plastic grades weren’t quite up to 5-Series or A6 levels, with door and instrument panels looking like they belonged in a far cheaper Ford. It’s a shame Lincoln didn’t try to emulate the dramatic interior of the recently discontinued Mark VIII.

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The LS’s debut was met with success. Reviewers praised its handling and ride quality. Initial sales were strong, Motor Trend awarded it Car of the Year, and it received perfect crash test scores earning a double-five-star frontal safety rating. But even very good cars need updates every few years to remain competitive.

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The LS received a mid-cycle update in 2003 – one that theoretically should have refreshed the car’s looks, while boosting quality and strengthening its competitive edge. Touting over 500 new components, Lincoln’s update of the four-year old LS sounded promising. Power for both its 3.0L V6 and 3.9L V8 was up – nothing wrong with that (cue the Tim Allen grunt). Discontinued, was the five-speed manual, which accounted for less than 1% of total LS sales. Overhauling the remaining five-speed automatic resulted in smoother, more timely shifts.

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While that’s all and well, the rest of the 2003 LS was less exciting. New wheel choices and revised exterior trim seemed to actually tone down its appearance a bit. Likewise, the interior, which was now shared with the Ford Thunderbird, was beginning to look a bit blasé. That chintzy-looking satin nickel trim could be found in nearly every FordMoCo vehicle from Navigator to Sable to Focus.

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Adding to the LS’s distress was the fact that its styling was becoming increasingly stale. It was a breath of fresh air when introduced, but in just a few short years, most of its competitors had received full redesigns. Additionally, new entrants, such as the Infiniti G35 and Cadillac CTS, had joined the segment, making the LS even more also-ran. Next to these newer designs, the LS’s styling was looking pretty bland, and frankly, a bit more Town Car-ish.

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After 2003, the LS was basically ignored for its final three years of life. Sales dropped off considerably, and the LS V6 was discontinued for its final season. Lincoln finally gave it the ax in 2006, replacing it with the less sporty, more traditional-minded Zephyr. With the LS’s discontinuation, Lincoln exited the sports-luxury segment, reverting to cars that would’ve appealed more to the Przybyszewski-type consumer.

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The LS should have been the car to launch Lincoln’s renaissance. Although it may not have been as well-balanced as the BMW 5-Series it benchmarked, the LS was a viable competitor, and a solid foundation for establishing a reputation. More importantly, at the time, it was the most serious effort made by any American car company to build a luxury-sports sedan capable of going head-to-head against the best from Germany.

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Heart-wrenching may be a strong description, but it’s truly unfortunate that Lincoln seemed to pass up on this incredible opportunity it had sitting in its lap. At the time of its introduction, the LS was easily one of the best cars built by the entire Ford Motor Company. Instead of building upon the LS’s merits, with consistent improvements and dedicated investment in a successor, Lincoln just patted themselves on the back and moved onto other things, killing any chance the brand had of becoming a world-class competitor.

 

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