Lincoln Zephyr makes its case with younger audience

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

When Lincoln introduced its entry-level luxury Zephyr sedan at the 2005 North American International Auto Show, officials said they were aiming it at customers as young as 35, about half the age of the typical Town Car buyer.

Listen up, Lincoln executives, because we have some news for you; astounding news in fact: First there was the girl in the McDonald’s drive-through, perhaps 19 years old. “What is that you’re driving,” she asked as she cranked herself out the window.

“The Lincoln Zephyr.”

“I’ve never heard of it, but I sure do like it,” she said.

Egad, what was that all about? Surely it’s an aberration.

Two days later at our workplace a young woman employee, who probably has not reached her 30th birthday, said she was buying a Zephyr and she stopped to ask about the test car parked outside.

A half hour later she brought a friend of hers to our desk who also probably has not reached her 30th year. She said she had already purchased a Zephyr and wanted to look inside our test car to see how it differed from her car.

Another person the next day told us about a customer of hers, also under 35 and female, who had purchased a Zephyr.

We’ve been driving new vehicles for a lot of years and we can with some accuracy gauge the public’s interest in a particular vehicle based on just a few encounters. And four young women — two who are new Zephyr owners and another who is soon to be one — proclaiming fascination with the entry-level luxury sedan is phenomenal.

It signals to us that Lincoln may have a hit among people — females in particular — under 40 years of age.

The Zephyr seems to have some kind of sex appeal. But what makes one car sexy and the next mundane and uninspiring? Perhaps BMW has the answer to that question, but surely most other automakers would like to have the formula so that they could brew up a new Zephyr every time out.

It could be the overall shape with its Lincolnesque grille and high-backed rear-end.

It could be the size — the most popular of all sizes — about the same dimensions as the best-selling mid-sized Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. The Zephyr is one of three cars riding on a new platform that also carries the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan, both of which has achieved some modicum of success after their introductions.

It could be the price. The Lincoln starts at $29,660, about $5,000 less than perhaps its main competitor, the Lexus ES330. A fully load Zephyr that includes a navigation system and the THX II Audiophile sound system — one of the best we’ve heard — will top out around 35 grand.

We think it has something to do with the interior with its high-quality materials, tight fit and finish, and in particular with the dashboard layout. The Zephyr carries the upright Lincoln instrument panel theme, and in this rendition — called “symmetrical” by a Lincoln official — it’s one of the most striking designs we’ve seen.

Our test car was adorned in high-quality looking leather and with a honey-colored wood that went surprisingly well with the large areas of satin aluminum-look trim on the center console.

Perhaps the car’s attraction is simply its overall look and feel, a sleek Lincoln sedan in the most popular size on the planet.

More anecdotal evidence, our friend who we use to gauge what the public might think about a car — its performance, ride, build quality and handling traits — was won over by the Zephyr in just a few miles, even though he is hopelessly past the age of the buyer that Lincoln has aimed this car at.

We tried to package and sell this keen information to the Lincoln execs at this year’s Detroit show, but they said they would just wait to read it in the paper. Oh well.

The Zephyr is not a sports sedan in the mold of the BMW 330i or the Infiniti G35. It more mimics the easy riding traits of the Lexus ES330, the Cadillac CTS, the Nissan Maxima and the Volkswagen Passat.

And it is not a performance-oriented sedan such as the G35 and Acura TL, although it derives more performance from 221 horses than just about anything we can think of. Perhaps the 3.0-liter V-6 feels energetic because of the standard 6-speed automatic transmission which allows the engine to reach peak torque quicker in various driving situations.

Having said that, we wish Lincoln would have upped the ante about 25 horses for the upscale Lincoln. For the time being the same 221 ponies that propel the Zephyr’s stablemates, the Ford Fusion and the Mercury Milan, is the only available engine. If you are smitten by the car, but can wait perhaps until fall or so before making a purchase, you will be rewarded with a horsepower upgrade and a name change as Zephyr will become the MK Z (MK standing for “Mark.”). For now the Zephyr performance is really pretty good, just not special enough to be a Lincoln.

The sedan drives smartly. It feels stable and well planted and the steering is responsive with excellent on-center feel, all contributing to excellent driving characteristics.

Interior space is first-rate for the segment and the young woman who has just taken delivery of her new Zephyr will have no trouble keeping three of her best friends comfortable when she shows off the car on a lunch trip to her favorite watering hole.

The trunk’s 16 cubic feet of space is accommodating for a vacation or a day-long shopping spree or a golf outing. Child safety seats can be easily hooked up to the rear seat.

And that brings up another point, if young people are buying the Zephyr, there will be children on board. Safety is always an issue, but perhaps it is more of an issue when children are involved. The new Lincoln is prepared to offer parents peace of mind with standard antilock brakes and traction control, front-seat and side-impact airbags and side-curtain airbags for all outboard occupants.

The Zephyr comes in just one trim level with a load of standard equipment including 17-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, leather seating, wood trim, six-speaker audio system, neat-looking analog clock, 10-way power front seats, cruise control, keyless entry and a full range of power accessories.

Our test car included the navigation system, the upscale audio system and heated and cooled front seats for $33,145.

The 14-speaker 600-watt THX II audio system came bundled with the DVD navigation system in our test car. But it can be purchased as a $995 stand-alone option, and if you love your music as much as we do, it is worth the price. We were impressed with the sound.

Lincoln, it seems, has a hit on its hands.

Note: We also drove a Mercury Milan for a week. The Milan slots between the Ford Fusion and the Zephyr in the three-sedan lineup. While the Milan seems redundant to us — an entry-level Ford and the high-end Lincoln are excellent bookends — it gives Mercury stores something to sell. Its amenities and price fairly mimic the Fusion.

The differences come in the front-and rear-end treatments and some interior trim pieces. While we like the bolder exterior look of the Fusion, many will like the softer look of the Milan.

A top-of-the-line Fusion SEL with a few options such as we tested recently listed for $25,650. The Milan Premier with basically the same equipment came to us with a price of $25,495. Comparing apples to apples, the Milan will run nearly $1,000 more for comparable equipment.