2003 Lincoln LS

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It's hard for a rookie to get noticed on a team of big-name players. That's certainly been the case for the Lincoln LS, sent out in 1999 to mix it up with Bimmers, Benzes, and Audis, not to mention Lexus and Infiniti. Despite rear-wheel drive and a well-tuned chassis (shared with the Jaguar S-Type), the newbie from an unlikely marque played benchwarmer, hobbled by its forgettable name, any-car styling, mediocre powertrains, and low-rent interior. But like a walk-on tirelessly practicing his foul shot in an empty gym, the LS has addressed its weaknesses, and the improved '03 model scores some surprises. First, both LS engines have put on some muscle, thanks chiefly variable valve timing. The V-8 adds 28 ponies and 25 pound-feet (now totalling 280 and 286, respectively); while the V-6 musters 232 horsepower and 220 pound-feet, a gain of 12 horsepower and 5 pound-feet. Despite a starring role in early LS ads, the stick shift has been dropped due to buyer disinterest—or product-planner stupidity, as it was offered only with the six, not the V-8. We spent some time with the LS V6, and even mated to an uninspired five-speed automatic, the reinvigorated six is flexible across its broadened torque band, and its new electronic throttle is well calibrated. The chassis has been tweaked, and it remains nicely balanced. New, Servotronic steering is somewhat slow, but precise. Stability control is a new option. But it may be the interior that raises the most eyebrows. The design is unchanged, but thoughtful materials upgrades have worked some real magic here. It's not enough to worry Lexus, but it ends the Ford Fairmont flashbacks. Our test car—an LS Premium with heated and cooled front seats, plus a few other goodies—came in under $40,000, and impressed us as good value (particularly compared to its platform mate, whose price has floated off into the ionisphere). The LS still might not intimidate the big-name Germans, but we'll take its quiet competence any time.

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