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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.
The Zephyr is the smallest of all Lincolns, fitting in the midsize category along with the slightly larger, rear-wheel-drive Lincoln LS. The Zephyr is based on the same platform as the Mazda6, Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan, but has many Lincoln styling cues to maintain a distinct visual identity.
In front, the Zephyr features a broad waterfall grille flanked by quad headlamps. Fog lamps are standard. The hood cuts down low across the headlamps and grille, creating a stern, determined appearance without resorting to the angry look found on so many other cars in this segment. Particularly interesting are the scalloped parking lamps, which cradle the lower part of the headlamps, looking very cool when illuminated on their own.
As a front-wheel-drive vehicle, the nose is long, but not unattractively so. The bodysides are clean and clear of frivolous ornamentation. All Zephyrs ride on 17-inch wheels; eight-spoke silver painted wheels are standard; chrome wheels are optional.
The Zephyr's rear end is dominated by large, high-mounted taillamps that incorporate fast-illuminating LED brake lights on the outer portion and conventional bulbs in the middle with prism-like reflectors. The trunk is tall, with some sculpting in the decklid to house the Lincoln badge. The bumper has subtle cutouts to accommodate twin chrome exhaust tips.
To sit inside the Zephyr, you would be hard-pressed to find evidence of parts sharing with any less-expensive sedans in the Ford family. Front seats offer comfort for people of most body types, thanks to standard 10-way power adjustments for both the driver and front passenger, including lumbar support. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes. There is no shortage of elbow and legroom for front seat occupants.
The center console features generously sized, chrome-ringed cupholders and an armrest that slides forward to accommodate drivers that may have moved his or her seat forward on its tracks. Outward vision through the windshield is good in spite of the tall dashboard. Vision out the sides is decent, aided by big, heated outside mirrors. The rear shelf, however, is so high that it blocks a fair amount of rearward vision through the mirror and increases the size of the blind spots.
Ergonomics are quite good, even if the Zephyr's highly stylized, formal dashboard treatment is a bit imposing. The deep-set, electroluminescent speedometer and tachometer are on the small side, but are clearly legible nonetheless. A trip computer/vehicle information display is nestled between the two primary gauges, as are warning lights and the coolant temperature and fuel level indicators.
All gauges and controls feature cool white nighttime illumination that conveys an appreciable sense of class. However, driving at dusk, we noticed that the white back-lit script blended into the silver dashboard and steering wheel trim, making the buttons somewhat difficult to read. That said, all controls, buttons and knobs have a genuine upscale feel in their operation. An elegant analog clock located high in the center of the dash further contributes to the Zephyr's air of sophistication.
Leather upholstery is standard, and while it does not feel as buttery smooth as that in, say, the Cadillac CTS or Lexus ES 330, it feels better than that of the BMW 3 Series or Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Front seat heaters are standard, while seat coolers are available. Both offer three settings. Ordering the cooled seats brings with it perforated leather upholstery in place of the non-perforated leather on all other Zephyrs.
Interior trim is remarkably nice, with padded materials covering the dash top and door panels. The silvery metallic plastic trim looks attractive, offset as it is by generous swaths of genuine wood trim and chrome accents. We wonder, however, about the long-term durability of that silver stuff; we've seen similar material on other cars get scratched easily and often over time.
Zephyr's steering wheel is a particularly good-looking part of the interior. The four-spoke wheel is rimmed most in leather. Two lovely wood pieces, at 8 o'clock and 4 o'clock where one's hands belong, match the wood trim elsewhere in the vehicle.
Controls for the standard, six-speaker stereo, as well as those for the optional thundering THX Audiophile II system, are straightforward and clear. The optional, easy-to-use touch-screen navigation system unfortunately gobbles up the dashboard real estate usually reserved for the radio, thus most audio functions have been incorporated into the touch screen. At least a conventional volume knob has been retained even with the navigation system option, which includes the THX sound system.
The navigation system itself is about par in terms of ease of operation and reliability, capable of speaking English, French and Spanish, and it even vocalizes the names of the certain streets when giving directions. Not that it can boast perfect pronunciation, though; during a test drive through Beverly Hills, California, the navigation system's friendly female voice directed us to turn left on Rodeo Drive, pronouncing as a cowboy would when describing a cow-roping event.
The dual-zone automatic climate controls are of the button variety, rather than the preferable knobs. That said, they are quickly
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.
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