Taking the revived pulse of the Lincoln Continental, I’m feeling sensitive toward fresher faces in the audience, as I would when taking a feather duster to words like “Victrola” or “Westinghouse.” And for good reason.
The Continental began as a one-off prototype in 1938, personally designed for Edsel Ford, president of his namesake company. Lincoln’s on-again, off-again flagship has been “off” since 2002. For baby boomers, the Continental is probably best known as the suicide-door convertible in which President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. I’m not big on conspiracy theories, but it’s possible that Ford itself was the Man on the Grassy Knoll, considering it’s been trying to blast holes in Lincoln ever since.
But as Ford might say, enough ancient history. The 2017 Continental, despite a few sore points, is a far better sedan than I had predicted or imagined. The Continental largely disguises its dishwater roots in front-drive Fords, including the Fusion sedan. Lincoln may be casting eyes to China for the brunt of Continental sales. But this is still the traditional, proudly American sedan that I’ve been begging Lincoln to build since 2002; when a then-mullet-haired Gerry McGovern unveiled his own suicide-door Continental Concept before departing to his current estimable career as Land Rover’s design chief.
This Continental's smartly tailored sheetmetal is more Bentley by way of Motown, but starting from an attainable $45,485. And if that put former Bentley designer Luc Donckerwolke in a huff, we’d remind him to be flattered by any Imitation Game.
The Continental will mainly tussle with two other class underdogs; the Genesis G90 from Hyundai’s new luxury division, and the Cadillac CT6. The Lincoln already has one big thing going for it: You just call it “Continental,” without consulting your Lincoln Enigma codebook for entries such as MKZ, MKX and MKS – the latter, unloved sedan replaced by this thoroughly improved four-door.
To carve out its 109 cubic feet of interior volume, the Lincoln's 117.9-inch wheelbase is lengthened about five inches beyond the Fusion's. The car stretches 201.4 inches overall, about three to five inches shorter than rivals like the G90, CT6 and Mercedes S-Class. Sharp eyes may still spot the proportions of a front-drive, transverse-engine car, but the Conti still looks damn good, a broad-shouldered banker type with a stately bearing. If Lincoln took a page from Henry Ford and decided to paint every model black like my tester, I wouldn't complain; it’s the ideal color for this limo-like sedan.
On multiple occasions, from a goombah-flavored Italian restaurant in New Jersey to the streets of Manhattan, I returned to my Lincoln to find people snapping photos, complementing the design or asking if it was on sale. I’ll take that as a good sign, along with many thumbs-up from New York’s army of Town Car livery drivers. Those passersby consistently remarked on the Lincoln’s high-mounted door handles, four elegantly chromed, coach-like bows that open at the press of a button. Tesla aside, when’s the last time anyone noticed door handles? Higher-end editions add electronic closers that discreetly cinch the doors shut. Optional LED headlamps feature multiple sculpted elements that look like something from Superman’s ice chest. A crimson strip of LED’s spans the full rear end, a sophisticated take on the muy macho light bar of a Dodge Challenger.
Inside, for the first time in years, this Lincoln didn’t give me a bad déjà vu trip to Ford country. In higher-end trims, the operative word is "swanky." These Continentals unleash enough old-school chrome and glossy, rich-grained wood to outfit Manhattan's 21 Club. That’s especially true for Black Label editions, including my test model that started from $65,790 and rang up $78,510 with options. Lovely etched “sunburst” speaker grilles recall Mercedes’ Burmester units, though the 19-speaker, Harman Kardon-designed Revel system (part of a $5,000 luxury package that includes LED headlamps) seemed decidedly average by auto-audiophile standards.
Be cautioned that the Continental lineup spans a vast $35,000 spectrum with three powertrains, four trim levels and a $2,000 add for AWD – starting at $46,485 for a base-model Premier and brushing 80 grand for a fully loaded Black Label 3.0 GTDI AWD. On richer editions, the cushy leather that tops the instrument panel, doors and center console goes a long way to promote the Disney-carriage fantasy. Step down a few grades, and you get the pumpkin instead, a budget-y skin of dimpled black plastic. Go all in, and Black Label models offer Genesis-style niceties, including concierge pick ups and drop offs for service and an extended maintenance plan.
The Continental’s optional, much-vaunted 30-way Perfect Position seats end up being a bit gimmicky, including such superfluous movements as separate cushion extenders for left and right thighs. They’re commendable for overall comfort and support, but still shy of kingly thrones from Mercedes, Audi or Volvo. The massager’s magic fingers are robust, including notably strong, er, gluteal action, but the seat motors drone so incessantly that I had to turn up the music to drown them out. I did appreciate the separate, articulating upper backrest that can tilt your shoulders closer to the wheel, as in a BMW 7-Series.
The driver’s black-screen digital instrument cluster is one letdown, from its modest size to generic displays that offer surprisingly little reconfiguring, including no map displays. Lincoln's version of Ford's Sync3 system restores some luster with its easy-peasy touchscreen controls. Rear seats are less grandly sculpted than the fronts, though a $4,300 package (get the picture here?) adds power recline, heating, cooling and lumbar; an enormous twin-panel sunroof; Ford’s nifty inflatable seat belts and a rear armrest with controls for climate and to reposition the front passenger seat. Knee room is enormous, headroom less so for people much over six feet tall.
Old-timey Lincoln yachters, familiar with landau roofs and languid acceleration, would be agog at the swiftness of this newfangled Continental, at least with its top-end engine. Exclusive to the Lincoln brand, the 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V-6 offers a whomping 400 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque. My informal test suggests 0-60 mph acceleration in the low five-second range. Wallet-watchers can start with a 3.7-liter, naturally aspirated V-6 with 305-horsepower. My hunch is that mid-grade Continentals, with 335-horsepower from a 2.7-liter twin-turbo V-6, will be the smartest combination of value, forcefulness and features. We're talking the Ford Ecoboost that sends a mighty F-150 pickup to 60 mph in barely six seconds, so it should be plenty strong in this lighter Lincoln. Yet the Continental does plop beef on the scales, weighing between 4,224 and nearly 4,600 pounds.
I actually enjoy Lincoln’s pushbutton transmission, with its instrument panel controls for Drive, Reverse and so on. It’s too bad those buttons connect to a six-speed automatic—it's two speeds too few by class standards. The transmission isn’t the smoothest or fastest, occasionally dithering or lurching at lower speeds when surprised by a sudden throttle application. At just 70 mph in top gear, this Lincoln’s turbo V-6 spins at a relatively high 2,200 rpm. Mediocre fuel economy of 16/24 in city and highway (for the 3.0-liter AWD version) compares poorly to 18/26 mpg for Caddy’s 400-hp CT6 with AWD.
The Lincoln’s other Achilles’ Heel is a relatively flinty ride, surely exacerbated by my tester’s large optional 20-inch alloy wheels. (18- and 19-inchers should help cushion the blow). Lincoln decided to go with adaptive, mechanical shock absorbers rather than Mercedes-style air springs or the magnetic shocks of the Caddy CT6. Milder bumps are dispatched with aplomb. But the Lincoln tended to run out of suspension travel and clomp over nasty New York bumps and potholes, sending booms into the otherwise funeral-quiet cabin, its hush enhanced with active noise control and a laminated windshield.
Yet that relatively taut tuning helps deliver the Lincoln’s most pleasant surprise: Serene, confident handling in every situation. Most owners won’t be pushing it, but this Lincoln will keep up with the fancy-pants Germans when asked. From freeway cloverleafs to country roads, I was impressed. This Lincoln eagerly stuck its big nose into corners, and dove deeper still with another tug on the wheel, keeping its body composed throughout. The variable-assist steering is flat-out excellent for this class of car, smartly poised between ease and action—more connected than the creamier Genesis, and not far off the standard of cars like the CT6 or BMW 7-Series, though those models remain more athletic overall. Handling gets another boost from the GKN-engineered AWD system, including the bona fide, rear-wheel torque vectoring that’s earned Red Bull toasts in the Focus RS hatchback. But no Drift Mode, for obvious reasons.
The masses may be migrating to SUVs, big-ass or otherwise. But talk to long-suffering Lincoln fans, especially older buyers, and you’ll know there’s some pent-up demand for a sedan like this, with traditional looks, a classy vibe yet modern performance and appointments.
Lincoln faces the same Sisyphean slog that Cadillac took up a good decade ago: Convincing Euro car snobs or reflexive Lexus buyers that these American cars are worth a look. This Continental is all dressed up for that first date. And for the first time in memory, I wouldn't beg you to stand it up.
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home.