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The all-new Lincoln Zephyr is a near-luxury sedan that makes Lincoln-grade luxury and styling affordable to more people than ever. It's a welcome addition to the Lincoln lineup, as Lincoln's sustained focus on large luxury cars and SUVs has left the brand conspicuously absent from the highly competitive near-luxury segment.
With its youthful appearance and tidy packaging, the Zephyr provides some balance to the other vehicles in the Lincoln showroom. This newcomer also adds an offering with a distinctly American character to the near-luxury segment, which has been dominated by sporty imports for decades.
With a base price of less than $30,000, the Zephyr enters 2006 as the brand's entry-level model. Based on the proven front-wheel-drive mechanicals of the Mazda6, Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan, the Zephyr offers a smooth ride, a spacious interior and bold new styling that is certain to be echoed on future Lincoln products. Furthermore, the price undercuts that of most of its near-luxury competitors.
Zephyr's appeal lies in its combination of style, interior comfort and price. While it costs several thousand dollars more than the aforementioned sedans with which it shares much of its underpinnings, the Zephyr adds value by way of premium materials, a quiet, smooth ride, high feature content and impressive refinement.
Inside and out, it feels very much as a Lincoln should, and thus should appeal to folks who are attracted to Lincoln but, until now, haven't been able to afford one.
On the road, the Lincoln Zephyr behaves very much as a Lincoln should. A fully independent suspension accentuates ride quality over handling, resulting in road imperfections being seen but not felt. Interior noise levels are no louder than a whisper even at highway speeds. The velvety ride quality is on par with that of the Lexus ES 330.
Power from the standard 220-hp 3.0-liter V6 should be good enough for most drivers, although it remains between 35 to 50 horsepower shy of the Acura TL, Infiniti G35 and Cadillac CTS 3.6. The 3.0-liter engine, which Ford calls the Duratec V6, could be smoother and quieter under strong acceleration. Zephyr is only available with front-wheel-drive, and as such is the only Lincoln that does not have rear- or all-wheel drive.
The standard six-speed automatic delivers smooth, unnoticeable shifts. However, the transmission does not offer a manual shift mode, as do most of the other offerings in the near-luxury segment, not to mention the Mazda6 on which it's based.
The powertrain delivers decent fuel efficiency, however, thanks in no small part to the six-speed automatic's tall top gear. The Zephyr's claimed 20 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway compares favorably within its competitive set, especially to its more powerful competition.
Handling, however, suffers as a result of Zephyr's emphasis on ironing out all the bumps. In terms of sportiness, the front-wheel-drive Zephyr simply cannot compete with the rear-wheel-drive Cadillac CTS or the rear-wheel-drive BMW 3 Series or the all-wheel-drive Audi A4. The Zephyr's ride and handling mix is more comparable to that of the Buick LaCrosse, Toyota Avalon, and Lexus ES 330. Specifically, the springs are quite soft, allowing for considerable body roll (lean) in turns. The engine-speed-sensitive, variable-assist power steering tends to be a bit overboosted at most speeds. The turning circle is unimpressive at 40.0 feet, making parking lot maneuvers particularly cumbersome.
The Zephyr comes with four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and electronic brake-force distribution. During our test, they proved to be decent, if not world class. The pedal was relatively uncommunicative and stops were accompanied by considerable brake dive.
Traction control is offered, but stability control is not. This is surprising, since most everything in this class (as well as many that cost far less) come with this safety feature. Also notably absent from the options list is a reverse sensing system.
The 2006 Lincoln Zephyr is a classy, midsize luxury sedan that combines front-wheel-drive dynamics with contemporary styling, a terrific interior and good fuel economy. It is safe and easy to drive, if not super sporty. The attractive price makes it a compelling choice for buyers looking at the Buick Lucerne, Lexus ES 330, Acura TL, or Cadillac CTS.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Steve Siler filed this report from Hollywood, California.