(first posted 8/30/2015) Lincoln had somewhat of a surprise hit with the 1988 Continental. Thoroughly modern, with front-wheel-drive and air suspension, the Continental offered the six-passenger comfort and smooth ride Lincoln buyers desired but with modern, aerodynamic yet restrained styling. It was seemingly designed to offend no one, and sold consistently well with few updates for seven years.
Cadillac had been reeling from excessive downsizing and sales of its Seville had slumped during this time, but they roared back with a vengeance by introducing the 1992 Seville. Here was a luxury sedan with class-leading performance and a chiselled exterior, which gave little away in interior presentation and dynamics and was ambitiously targeting the best from Europe and Japan. Suddenly, Seville sales shot up and the Continental was left looking dull and dated. Lincoln needed to act, but they ended up leaving Cadillac with a three-year headstart. The 1995 Continental was more ambitious, but perhaps it wasn’t ambitious enough.
The truth is, the 1995 Continental wasn’t as internationally aspirational as its crosstown rival. It wasn’t built to take on the best from Europe, as Lincoln-Mercury executives at its launch declared it was built to be the best front-wheel-drive luxury sedan on the market. Forget Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz: the Conty was aiming for Caddy.
Things got off to a rough start. Firstly, the Continental arrived three long years after its rival. Secondly, focus groups had found the Lincoln wanting against the Seville and LS400, triggering engineers to hurriedly make changes to the Continental’s final drive ratio to aid performance. Race car driver and paid consultant for Ford, Jackie Stewart, was also critical of the new FWD sedan.
Perhaps the biggest blow that hit the Continental right out of the gate was its much higher MSRP. It now listed for $5k more than its predecessor, at $40,000. MSRPs were on the rise in the Ford fleet: the new Taurus/Sable and Contour/Mystique were also priced a few thousand higher than their predecessors.
However, a closer inspection would reveal the ’95 Continental offered a lot more over its predecessor. Riding a revised version of the D186 platform shared with the Taurus/Sable, the new Continental had 62% more power than the old model. The Essex V6 used in the Continental had always been singled out for criticism, considering the car’s nearly 4000 lb curb weight, and by 1994 was only offering a dismal 160 horsepower. The ’95 model packed Ford’s new 4.6 InTech V8 shared with the Mark VIII coupe, albeit now transversely-mounted and detuned some. It pumped out 260 hp and 265 ft-lbs and was mated to the AX4N automatic transmission employed in the Taurus. The InTech managed to outgun the Essex V6 – 0-60 was 7.7 seconds – with only a negligible difference in fuel economy: 17/25 mpg, only a 1 mpg drop in the city. This was especially admirable considering the Continental had gained an extra 300 pounds in curb weight, to 3969 lbs. Where the Continental was little changed was in overall dimensions: the same 109-inch wheelbase remained, and length was only up by around an inch.
In the technology stakes, the Continental impressed. The centerpiece of the car’s feature list was the Driver Select System. This feature, controlled through a driver information center, allowed you to choose between low, normal or high steering effort and a soft, normal or firm ride from the electronic, self-leveling air suspension. These selections could even be made while driving. In addition, a memory profile system could save two drivers’ preferred seat and mirror position and radio stations. There was so much tech that the Lincoln actually came with an instructional video tape that ran for 20 minutes.
Photo courtesy of Used Cars Group
Standard features also included heated mirrors, cornering lamps and power driver’s seat, while you could option traction control, heated seats, CD player and even a voice-activated cellular phone. The interior presentation was sedate but neat, although let down by one of Lincoln’s clunky, large steering wheels, and the cabin was quite spacious. Six-passenger seating was a no-cost option. A later option was RESCU, a GPS-based emergency location system.
The air suspension offered a plush, luxurious ride. Road noise was hushed, and the interior was serene. For all its adaptivity, the Continental was still no sport sedan, though. Body roll and understeer were worse than the Seville STS. And although Ford offered a sportier Taurus and Cadillac had the Seville STS, Lincoln offered no such performance model. The Continental had never been a sports sedan, however the availability of a performance model could have lent the Continental more panache. Cadillac had also found that the STS often accounted for a solid half of total Seville volume.
Continental’s exterior styling was a mixed bag. The heavily sculpted sides echoed the ’96 Taurus and Mark VIII and the grille resembled that of the latter, but aspects like the headlights, full-width taillights and wheel designs were quite conservative.
It may have still used the same basic platform, but the new Continental was one of the most ambitious Lincolns ever and heavily touted its technology as a unique selling point. It also undercut the Seville on price. So you can imagine Ford executives’ disappointment when Continental volume dropped for its debut year and slumped even further for its sophomore year, from 44,854 units down to 29,455. Sales picked up a little bit for 1997 thanks to a 10% price cut achieved through changing the standard suspension set-up to air at the rear only, but clearly something more drastic needed to be done.
Lincoln decided to extensively overhaul the Continental’s exterior for 1998. There was a lot more chrome, which designers likened to “jewellery”. The rear overhang was lengthened by two inches but the front overhang was clipped by 2 inches at the center and 4 inches at the sides. There was now a much stronger familial resemblance with the Town Car.
The Driver Select System was shifted to the options list. Indeed, commercials no longer heavily emphasized the technological aspects of the Continental. The interior was revised, with genuine bird’s eye maple trim, neater switchgear and a suede dashtop, but antiseptic color schemes and tacky black plastic surrounding the switchgear were decidedly inelegant.
The conservative refresh worked, at least initially. The following year, though, sales were down to their lowest levels in a decade. By 2000, with the launch of the rear-wheel-drive Lincoln LS, the Continental’s position in the Lincoln lineup was even more confused.
To try and make it sell, they had made the Continental look and drive more like the Town Car and even priced it the same! So, who was buying the Continental? According to Road Report 2000, the Continental was appealing to much the same buying demographic as the Town Car: the average age of buyers for Lincoln’s big sedans were 66 and 68, although Continental buyers were slightly more affluent. However, the Seville had an average buyer age 10 years younger and an income twice as high.
The LS effectively signed the Continental’s death warrant. While the average buyer was surely quite different from a Continental shopper, it offered people wandering into a Lincoln showroom an option that cost $8k less ($4k less if you wanted a V8). Although quite conservative, the LS was a much better proportioned design with shorter overhangs and a 5.5 inch longer wheelbase; the Continental’s wheelbase was the same length as a Buick Century’s.
The LS put pressure on the Continental from one side while the Town Car pushed from the other. The Continental’s death warrant was signed, but it lingered on until 2002. For all its perceived danger to the Continental, the Seville’s sales dwindled alongside the Continental’s as both entered the new millennium, although the Caddy always retained a modest lead.
Perhaps Lincoln shouldn’t have targeted the Seville. Ford executives could perhaps have learned from the 1988-94 model’s success. Why did it sell so well? How could they have improved that formula? Instead, they set out to make the “world’s best front-wheel-drive luxury car”. It was good, but it wasn’t the best.