2017 Lincoln Continental Review: Luxury From an Alternate Future

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2017 Lincoln Continental

2017 Lincoln Continental | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Five billion dollars. That’s how much Ford has committed to transforming its moribund Lincoln division into The Lincoln Motor Company. Now, I’ve never run a car company, but I’ve got a feeling that if you’re going to sink $5 billion into something, there isn’t much of a chance that you’re going to half-ass it. So the rebranding came first: the McConaughey ads, the lifestyle branding, and the gradual phasing out of the geezer-friendly models. There were the pretty concepts that pointed the way for the future. Next was the impressively restyled MKZ. And now, nearly two years after its surprise debut as a show car, Lincoln has a suitable flagship in the all-new, back-from-the-dead Continental.

I’ve always been a big American classics kind of guy, so I — and by extension, Autos Cheat Sheet — have been following Lincoln’s big comeback very closely. I stood front-row at the concept’s unveiling at the New York Auto Show in 2015, as one of my earliest assignments for this site. I outlined the Conti’s Rat Pack/Camelot-era history in one of our earliest Throwback Thursday columns. And I dissected the production model as soon as Lincoln released specs on it. Almost exactly a year ago, I predicted what I thought the new car’s existential challenge (that’s the problem with heritage models: There’s always an existential challenge) would be, and I stand by it.

Brief history lesson: In 1988, Ford replaced a fogy-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 [new] car is a return to the forward-thinking ’60s-era flagship, not an ’80’s-style rebadged Ford.

I recently spent a week with a Continental, and this dilemma weighed heavily on my mind, because there’s a lot riding on this thing. The good news: The Continental feels worthy of the investment; it feels like its own animal. It has Ford DNA in it, sure, but this is a concerted effort at a special, world-class luxury car. To that end, Lincoln largely succeeds.

2017 Lincoln Continental

But it isn’t quite as simple as that. While it doesn’t feel dated, Lincoln’s brand of luxury feels jarringly old school. It would be easy if I could compare the Conti one-to-one with a Cadillac CT6, Lexus GS, Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, Jaguar XF, or any of the rest, but it’s difficult to. Somewhere in the 1980s, the Germans hijacked the luxury market, and since then they’ve been running the show. For at least 30 years now, Stuttgart, Ingolstadt, and Munich have been calling the shots, and the rest of the world has just been following.

Edict from Germany: Every car needs to feel sporty. Every car needs to have a dialed-in suspension, heavily bolstered seats, a top speed of at least 155 miles per hour, and a focus on its zero to 60 time. Doesn’t matter if it’s a full-size sedan, seven-seat SUV, or family-friendly crossover. That’s. Just. How. It. Is. And for the most part, cars across the board have benefited from this. But Ford has taken a risk and gone another way: the old way. The way things were done before Europe was calling the shots, and before quality control started its nosedive sometime during the Johnson Era. The way it was when the Continental was king, and when “The Best in the World” meant Lincoln, Cadillac, and not much else.

So the Continental doesn’t pretend that it’s a sports car, because it isn’t. It’s a full-size luxury sedan, and a good one at that. Lincoln clearly doesn’t give a damn about silly things like Nürburgring times. It wants to build a no-compromise, total luxury car. In my opinion, the Continental is better off for it.

Picture a dim room full of people speaking German. That’s today’s luxury sedan segment. Now picture someone bursting in speaking English in an American accent. That’s the Continental.

Exterior

2017 Lincoln Continental

2017 Lincoln Continental | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

When Lincoln debuted the Continental concept in April 2015, it started a social media beef the likes of which the automotive world doesn’t normally see. After the concept’s reveal at the New York International Auto Show, Luc Donckerwolke, a designer at Bentley (now at Hyundai), blasted the car, saying “I would have called it Flying Spur concept and kept the four round lights.” He even went so far as posting on the Facebook page of a Lincoln designer, asking “Do you want us to send the product tooling?” 

Yes, the Continental does look like a Flying Spur, especially in rear 3/4 view. But that isn’t a bad thing, because it doesn’t look like anything else in its class. Where competitors have gone flowing and expressive, busy, razor-sharp, or over-the-top (or worse, a combination of all of them), the Continental is restrained, elegant, and imposing. As soon as you lay eyes on it, you know it’s a luxury car. Like the Bentley, its big size (201.4 inches long) and elegant proportions turn heads. But in spite fo the British/German influence, the Continental looks and feels distinctively American.
Fun facts: The 1963 Buick Riviera was designed to ape Rolls-Royce styling cues (Rolls was then parent company of Bentley). A few years later, Lincoln kicked off the Personal Luxury Coupe segment by “slap[ping] a Rolls grille on a loaded Thunderbird” — Lee Iaccoca’s alleged directive — and launching the Mark III coupe. Today, those cars are held as icons of Detroit’s golden age. Maybe the Brits just bring out the best in us Yanks. Besides, the Continental name was Lincoln’s first

 

Exterior pros and cons

2017 Lincoln Continental

2017 Lincoln Continental | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Lincoln wisely avoided contemporary cliches for its 21st century flagship and opted for the restraint found in the classic ’61-’69 Continentals.

+ While the redesigned MKZ bears a resemblance from the A pillars forward, the Conti doesn’t look like anything else on the road — or at least unlike anything under $200K.

+ For a company that hasn’t had a true flagship in a long time, the Continental sure fits the bill in the looks department.

– In all fairness, we can’t unsee the Bentley Flying Spur resemblance, even if the issue was blown out of proportion.

Powertrain

2017 Lincoln Continental

2017 Lincoln Continental | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

There’s a trio of engines available in the Continental: a 305 horsepower 3.7 liter naturally-aspirated V6, a twin-turbo 335-horse six, and a twin-turbo 3.0 liter six with 400 horses and an equal amount of torque, which my car had. While I would love to see a V8 powered Conti again, the 3.0 has more power than you’d have found 50 years ago in any of the 460-plus cubic inch eight cylinders. More importantly, it offers more power than the Mercedes E300 (241 horses), Lexus GS350 (311 horses), BMW 540i (335 horses), and Jaguar XF (380 horses).

Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with sport mode, the powertrain works together harmoniously and delivers power like a luxury car should. Under normal acceleration, the sound of the six is distant and muted in the cabin, politely refraining from disturbing its occupants, and never feeling overtaxed or tired. In sport mode, the revised shift points make it feel a bit jumpy under acceleration, so I largely kept it in D. The range-topping 3.0 felt perfectly matched to the car, handling the Continental’s roughly 4,300 pound curb weight with ease.

Powertrain pros and cons

2017 Lincoln Continental

2017 Lincoln Continental | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ A wide range of engines shows that Lincoln is serious about having the Conti appeal to as many luxury buyers as possible.

+ The available torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system is based on the cutting-edge tech found in the Focus RS hot hatch. Unfortunately, Drift Mode isn’t offered here.

+ The twin-turbo 3.0 feels perfectly matched to the big car.

– Sport mode feels a little too coarse in such an otherwise refined car.

– Six-speed automatic feels out of place in a segment where eight or more forward gears are the norm. I can’t help but wonder if the extra gears would smooth out Sport mode’s rough edges.

Interior

2017 Lincoln Continental

2017 Lincoln Continental | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Continentals have been famous for a plush ride and a world-class interior since before World War II, and the new car doesn’t disappoint. Many of the styling cues found on the 2015 show car are here in the production model: the wide, dominant center console; three spoke wheel; and a liberal helping of chrome. While those look great (and are augmented by good-looking semi-gloss wood accents), the star of the show here is the 30-way power front seats, which Ford has been testing and working on for nearly as long as the Continental itself. Controlled by Mercedes-like door buttons, there are six ways to adjust the bottom cushion, two ways to adjust the seat back, telescoping headrest, four lumbar controls, adjustable bolsters, individual side bottom cushion controls, and extending thigh support. Oh, and they’re heated, ventilated, and they massage, too.

Got all that? Don’t worry, I didn’t at first either. The seats take a few minutes to dial in, but it’s well worth the trouble. Once they were set, they were some of the most comfortable thrones I’ve had the pleasure of driving in.

In back, there’s plenty of legroom, and with the Rear-Seat package (a $4,300 option) they’re reclining, heated, ventilated, and massage also. My test Conti had $9,300 worth of luxury options alone ($5K Luxury package, and the aforementioned rear seat upgrade). While that’s plenty pricey — it was the biggest factor in transforming our car from the $55,915 AWD Reserve model into the stately $75,950 embodiment of Lincoln’s Quiet Luxury ethos.

Interior pros and cons

2017 Lincoln Continental

2017 Lincoln Continental | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Interior doesn’t look too far off from the gee-whiz concept. It doesn’t disappoint either.

+ You never think you’ll need 30-way power adjustable heated, ventilated, massaging seats until you have them. Then you can’t live without them.

+ Door-mounted seat controls and drilled aluminum speaker grilles give a strong Mercedes vibe, but that’s never a bad thing.

– Finding the right combination in those seats will take some time and patience. Don’t get discouraged; it’s worth it.

– Rear seat occupants have little to complain about — except their reclining thrones can’t compete with the 30-ways up front.

Tech and safety

2017 Lincoln Continental

2017 Lincoln Continental | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The Continental looks like a flagship, drives like a flagship, rides like a flagship, and thankfully, has the tech to back it up, too. The adjustable digital instrument display is tastefully done, and its sweeping arc speedometer and gold accents remind me of the graceful units in the late-’50s Contis. The Sync3 infotainment system should be familiar to anyone who’s driven a Ford lately, and while it’s already quick and responsive, Lincoln has gussied it up with a beautiful and unique startup and home screen that suit the character of the car.

With the luxury packages, there are three separate climate control systems, a twin-panel moonroof, 19 speaker Revel Ultima stereo, and rear sunshades, making the Continental a great place to spend time. Safety features in my test car included lane departure warning, auto-dimming mirrors, park assist, 360 degree camera, adaptive cruise control, and pre-collision assist. It hasn’t been given a safety rating from the NHTSA yet, but since every American model that uses Ford’s CD4 platform has a five-star rating, we wouldn’t expect anything less from Lincoln’s flagship.

Tech and safety pros and cons

2017 Lincoln Continental

2017 Lincoln Continental | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ The blend of old-school luxury materials and modern tech features go together very nicely here.

+ Digital instruments and infotainment screen suit the car nicely.

+ 19 speaker Revel Ultima stereo is a great way to make that quiet ride less quiet.

– Like everything else here, tech options cost a pretty penny.

– We’d love to see some piano black controls on the doors, center console, and steering wheel. Matte black buttons almost detract from the car’s upscale feeling.

The drive

2017 Lincoln Continental | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

2017 Lincoln Continental | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Since the unveiling of the Continental concept, Lincoln has been building its brand on the idea of Quiet Luxury. What is Quiet Luxury? Essentially, it’s the opposite of a BMW commercial. You won’t see a well-heeled looking driver with a glimmer in his eye stomp on the gas as the tach jumps and your TV home entertainment system blasts enhanced engine revs. With this Continental, Lincoln set out to do what it did with virtually all its previous flagships: build a car that gets its passengers to where they’re going in absolute comfort, and leave its driver wanting for nothing. And overall, it succeeded.

The cabin is remarkably quiet, whether on the highway or navigating pothole-ridden city streets. And while those 30 way seats seem daunting at first, once they’re dialed in and set, they’re hard to leave, even after a few hours of driving. Power is direct and discreet, just like you’d expect from a luxury sedan, though I thought Sport mode could have used a little more fine-tuning. And for such a big car, the 20 mile per gallon average fuel economy I saw seemed to be appropriate.

Wrap up and review

2017 Lincoln Continental

2017 Lincoln Continental | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The Continental almost feels like it’s from an alternate timeline. Like its ancestors from 1939, 1956, 1961, or 1968, this car is a synthesis of European and American styling that turns heads everywhere it goes. This isn’t German, British, or even German-British luxury (sorry, Bentley); it’s a return to old-school American luxury. I hadn’t realized how much I missed it until I spent time with it.

If only Detroit never began to skimp on quality control way back when, or  stopped building cars that handled like couches on wheels anytime before 2005, or never got so arrogant that it started filling its luxury cars with parts from lesser models. If the Big Three had never lost sight of building “the best” to beat the competition instead of undercutting the other guy on production costs in hopes of increasing profit margins. If it hadn’t just ignored the Germans when they offered something better, then stayed the course while driving their luxury brands into the ground. It doesn’t matter now, because either way, I think we would still have this Continental. If Lincoln never spent all those years in the weeds, it still probably would’ve gotten here. I, for one, am just glad Ford gave its luxury brand the chance.

2017 Lincoln Continental

2017 Lincoln Continental | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

But in this reality, Lincoln no longer has the clout it used to have with buyers, so now it’s firmly in the outsider part of the segment along with Kia, Genesis, and to a degree, Volvo and Cadillac. That’s OK; it has something to prove, and with a flagship like the Continental, it shows that it’s willing to do what it takes to get on the right track. Of course, there’s room for improvement, but if the Continental is this fully formed out of the gate, then The Lincoln Motor Company looks to be headed in the right direction.

So, is this car the forward-thinking flagship that’s special enough to wear the Continental nameplate? Yes. Yes, it is.

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