From its debut at last year’s New York Auto Show until this week, the saga of the 2017 Lincoln Continental has been a roller-coaster ride for this autos writer. Since Cadillac has shown the world that American luxury brands can still compete in segments dominated by the Germans and Japanese, we were thrilled to hear that Ford would be reviving its moribund Lincoln brand with a 21st century Continental. And the concept looked the part with it’s long, low belt line, loud blue interior, and a level of chrome that we didn’t realize could look good on a new car until we saw it. It was the perfect spiritual successor to a nameplate that made its way into the driveways of Elvis, Sinatra, JFK, and Elizabeth Taylor. It looked so good, in fact, that Bentley claimed Ford was ripping it off. That may not have been the reception Ford was going for, but at the very least it meant that the Conti was on the right track.
But perfection is a fine edge, and any change, no matter how small, has the potential to knock something down from “the ideal” to just ‘good’ in no time flat. Perfection would go a long way in restoring Lincoln’s flat-lined reputation, pretty good would mean another false-start at the hands of Ford bean-counters, or worse, the end of the brand altogether. So when updates on the Continental’s development began to trickle out, we either excited or dismayed – depending on whatever news came out of Dearborn that day.
We were shocked when we heard that it was going to be front-wheel drive, not rear drive like its world-class rivals. Then came word it would be available with the Ford Focus RS’ advanced all-wheel drive system, and we breathed a sigh of relief. After that came the debut of the Continental-inspired 2017 MKZ at November’s Los Angeles Auto Show, reinforcing the belief that there was room for a real-deal, upper-echelon, top-dog model in the Lincoln lineup after all. But then, then, the spy photos came out, and it looked like Lincoln had another rental fleet-ready air ball on its hands. The refrigerator-white paint job wasn’t doing it any favors, and while most of the design elements of the concept are there, it all still looked a bit off. The rear overhang looked too small, the taillights were too big, and the air intakes below the bumper are too prominent. Lincoln should’ve been aiming for the Audi A8. It looked like they went after the Cadillac XTS instead.
Now, the Continental is finally here, and after much deliberation, we’ve come to an important conclusion: It looks pretty good, but we’re not sure if that’s good enough.
Brief history lesson: In 1988, Ford replaced a fogey-friendly Granada-based Continental with a crisp, all-new Continental, designed to attract a newer, younger clientele to Lincoln. The car garnered some early successes (it even made an appearance on Car and Driver’s 1989 10Best list), but it was little more than a stretched Ford Taurus, and in the face of competition from BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar, Lexus, and the rest, it only worked to hasten Lincoln’s descent into badge-engineered afterthought. What Ford/Lincoln needs with this car is a return to the forward-thinking ’60s-era flagship, not an ’80’s-style rebadged Ford.
We should also explain that the classic Continentals are some of our favorite cars of all-time, and we even went so far as to elbow our way in front of much more prominent media to get a front-row spot at the unveiling of the original concept in New York last year. For good or ill, we still hold out a stubborn hope for American luxury cars, and (from maybe too sentimental of a standpoint) have a major interest in Lincoln’s latest comeback effort.
Now that all the chips are down, it looks like Lincoln has mostly delivered on what the concept as promised. It may not look like a carbon copy of the original show car, but unless you’re Lexus with the LC500, that was probably never going to happen anyway. Last year, Ford CEO Mark Fields said the Continental would be built around the idea of “quiet luxury,” something that the production Lincoln should easily be able to deliver on. While other full-size luxury cars have developed healthy sporting pretensions (see the Mercedes S63 or Audi S8 Plus), the company is positioning the Lincoln as a luxury car in an old-school sense of the term. It’s not out to dust Mustang GTs at the stoplight, it’s meant to carry its passengers in luxury and style.
That isn’t to say the Continental is a slouch – the car shares its bones with the new MKZ, and will get an exclusive 3.0 liter twin-turbo V6 that Lincoln says will crank out 400 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque. Paired with the Dynamic Torque Vectoring system found in the Focus RS, it should be plenty lively for Lincoln owners.
Carried over from the concept are the car’s “E-Link” door handles. Sitting high on the beltline, they’re heavy, stylish door pulls that operate the doors with the touch of a hidden button. This may sound trivial, but they add a certain elegance to the car that’s been missing from the luxury segment for some time. Inside, there are healthy amounts of wood, leather, and aluminum, plus unique 30-way adjustable seats, an innovation that Ford made much ado about in 2015. Overall, the interior design stays fairly close to the concept’s and has all of the electronic accoutrements you’d expect in a premium luxury car, but in its final state, it still has too much switchgear from the Ford parts bin for our liking. We’re not sure if Mercedes or Audi owners would be fooled either.
In the end, the Continental’s biggest flaw could be that it just isn’t an enthusiast’s car. The original Continental wasn’t either, nor was the original S-Class, 7 Series, A8, or Jaguar XJ. But the Europeans have been adding healthy doses of performance to its flagships for decades while Lincoln has faded into irrelevance. The appeal of “quiet luxury” is likely still out there, but it remains to be seen whether or not Ford/Lincoln can pull it off in a way that won’t earn it the dreaded “Grandpa Car” tag. For better or or worse, athleticism has largely replaced elegance in most sub-Rolls-Royce Phantom luxury cars, and we truly hope that the new Continental can deliver the right amount of both to win over a market that’s long looked to Europe for its luxury fix.
From here, Lincoln’s flagship isn’t the take-no-prisoners star-spangled return to the top we hoped it would be. It isn’t the Coyote V8-powered, rear-wheel drive, poor man’s Bentley we all wished for last spring; it’s been bumped down from perfect to very good. Whether or not the very good Continental will be enough to move the needle for Lincoln – let alone save the brand altogether – remains to be seen.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.