What I'm Driving At: Zoot Scoot

I've been attracted to Lincoln's Roman-numbered touring coupes for years. I don't think my fascination has much to do with our monikers in common, although it is an interesting coincidence that the first publicly available Lincoln Mark (the Continental Coupe, Mark II) was born the same year I was, 1956. Now here we are in 1997, and Marc XLI is taking Mark VIII for a spin. I'm thinking: If I, too, could get away with stuffing five years into every birthday, I'd be the only third-grader I know with a driver's license and a mortgage payment. Behind the wheel of a Mark VIII, I would also be something of an anachronism, because, try as it might, this car simply doesn't attract as many young buyers as it once did. This fact makes Lincoln in general and the Mark VIII in particular a pair of bellwethers for the tapering influence of our parents' generation. Mark VIII sales were down 9 percent from '95 to '96, and Lincoln's have fallen 20 percent over the last decade. Meanwhile, the average age of Lincoln buyers overall approaches the 60s. As affluent baby boomers motor their way down the gullet of the generational python, apparently they prefer to do so while driving something more reflective of their youthful self-image. Thus they opt for novelties like luxury-loaded sport/utility vehicles -- what their plain-speaking parents once called trucks. In response to this trend, Ford Motor Company's Lincoln Division is trying to win back the hearts and minds of fortysomething buyers of fortysomething-thousand-dollar vehicles. On the one hand, its own sport/utility vehicle, the Navigator, will inject a certain trendy-outdoorsy image into Lincoln showrooms later this year. On the other hand, the company is fighting back -- counterintuitively, it seems -- with a Mark VIII that showcases substance over style. For 1997, the Mark VIII is a substantially better car than any Mark before it. In all probability, however, not enough of the people who matter are likely to notice.What an irony. This car is worldly, smart, and powerful like no other in its class or price range. But it's a fleshy, voluptuous Jayne Mansfield of a car for our gauzy, skinny, Michelle Pfeiffer times. The confidence of its Midwestern poise is lost upon buyers who think that refinement speaks with a European or Asian accent.In the universal language of horsepower, the Mark has few equals. Wearing its fanciest sport-touring duds, the Mark VIII LSC features a twin-cam V8 capable of transmitting 290 ultra-smooth horsepower to the rear wheels. (The base model rates 280 HP.) The purist prefers rear-wheel drive because the front-to-back weight transfer under acceleration loads the rear wheels and enhances traction when you need it most -- for example, when leaving from a stop or charging hard out of a corner. With its combination of monster power and traditional rear-drive layout, the Mark VIII's spirited performance belies its 3,800-pound curb weight. To strike the necessary balance between ride comfort and handling precision that befits a car of this echelon, the Mark VIII sports tuned suspension components and unique self-leveling controls. At sustained highway speeds, for example, the front air springs and rear independent suspension automatically hunker down to a more efficient, wind-slipping, road-hugging ride height. For twisty back roads, the automatic suspension controller favors additional wheel travel to maintain cornering traction while minimizing side-to-side body roll. The car is no out-and-out sporter, of course, but it will scoot up the mountainside with a surprising agility and aplomb that most drivers will credit to their own savoir faire.Inside, George Jetson would look and feel at home. It's an avionics-style motif with wraparound "pods" for driver and front passenger alike. Rear seating for three is only for small or temporary companions. Push buttons and digital readouts enhance the cockpit effect. In fact, a computer-like interface allows the driver to customize a range of comfort and performance options by means of a keypad and mini-monitor in the center of the dash. It's a smart, intuitive system; but realistically speaking it's probably too complex for Lincoln's traditional buyers. For the newer audience that Mark VIII is courting, it presents too many do-it-yourself choices for the prevailing do-it-for-me mind-set. Fitting, if unintentional, symbols of the Mark VIII's awkward generational straddle are the car's headlights. Hardly ranking as typical high-performance components, the high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps that fill the cat's-eye slits do indeed represent sophisticated and still rare lighting technology. HID generates nearly three times the candlepower compared to standard tungsten-filament headlamps. Their telltale blue color gives them away, while their extra efficiency renders them an especial boon to, well, older drivers whose night vision isn't what it used to be. Blue lights for blue hairs? Without a doubt it wasn't supposed to be that way, but there it is just the same. Personally, I'm seduced by the Mark VIII's sultry, slightly sinister sculpture. To a longtime fan of the entire Lincoln coupe series, this latest iteration not only provides a logical extension for a 40-year-old tradition but also gives that tradition a unique, contemporary interpretation. No other car on the road looks like the Mark VIII. It's a muscular, sinewy embodiment of the Land o' Plenty, which is the only place in the world where such a car could be born and thrive. It's as distinctive as the WPA art of the 1930s, whose Progressivist heroes threshed the fields and built the dams and conquered the Depression. It's as American as a zoot suit in a big band. Its future, I'm afraid, is just as secure.

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