Motoring: Step aside for the guzzlers

Strange news, following the Chancellor's imposition of an extra 4p a litre on fuel: those huge, highway devouring beasts that Americans love so much are to hit the roads of Europe.
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The Independent Online
A Lincoln Town Car in Britain would look about as incongruous as the USS Nimitz sailing up the Thames at low tide. Big Yank cars, such as Lincolns, are overspecced, overladen and thankfully - for the time being, anyway - just over there. But things are changing. Next year, a new Lincoln model will go on sale in Europe.

It's not the Town Car, or the vast 4x4 Navigator (which looks like a Range Rover on steroids), or the "little" Continental, or the vast MkV111 coupe that's got only two doors but occupies as much road space as the average English semi-detached. Rather, it's the LS, which makes its world debut next month at the New York Auto Show and should be reaching UK and Continental showrooms in early 1999. British-spec cars will be right- hand drive. It will be the second big, prestige American name to launch into the UK. Cadillac is about to begin selling its Seville, through various Vauxhall dealers.

Whereas nobody really expects Cadillac to sell in big numbers, Lincoln is given more chance. The new LS6 and LS8 models promise much, not least because they share the same chassis platform as the upcoming new Jaguar X200. The LS8 also uses the excellent Jaguar 4.0-litre V8 engine, as currently used in the Jaguar XJ8 and XK8 models. (It will also be found on top-line versions of the new Jaguar X200.) This common platform philosophy has helped Jaguar to get a new model to market much sooner, and less expensively, than anticipated. It has also helped Lincoln to get a quality suspension system and engine which should make it well suited to Europe.

Although the Lincoln move into Europe is still officially secret, the new car - also officially secret - will take over from the Scorpio as Ford's prestige vehicle. Ford has just announced that Scorpio production stops this July, owing to poor sales. Lincoln will be Ford's prestige badge, in the same way that Toyota uses Lexus, and should prove a useful stepping-stone to Jaguar, which is also part of the Ford empire.

Ford's move is a reflection of the huge swing, in the executive car market, towards prestige badges and away from the mass makers. Last year, Mercedes made 260,000 E-class cars. Yet Ford made only 21,000 of its Scorpio, which competes (or, at least, is supposed to compete) with the Mercedes. Vauxhall, Renault, Peugeot and Rover had similar tales of marketing woe. The message is clear: when Europeans buy pricey cars, they want prestige badges on them.

Ford is hoping that the Lincoln name will help, just as GM - owner of Vauxhall/ Opel - is turning to Cadillac. It also realises that it has a helluva job to build up the Lincoln brand, still largely unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Those who've heard of the Lincoln at all, probably remember it as being the make of car in which John F Kennedy took his last-ever ride, in Dallas.

None of the current Lincoln models will follow the LS model to Europe. None the less, on a recent trip to the States I thought I'd catch up on Lincoln's two newest models now on sale, to get a flavour of what's in store. In America, there is little prestige attached to Lincoln, or to its top-line model, the Town Car. Americans are far more pragmatic than badge-conscious Europeans, and will typically buy for value and practicality rather than for labels and looks.

The Town Car has a huge 4.6-litre V8 engine which moves the beast - still built with a separate, truck-like chassis - with the same sort of insouciant ease as a weightlifter carrying a baby. The vast front seat is long enough to play football on, and contains three seat belts. Three adults can also sit in the rear, with enough room to flail elbows.

There are acres of tacky-looking "wood" (it comes from a tube, not a tree) and a big, cliff-like dash. The bonnet is so vast that the grille must get home about 10 minutes before the driver. The seats, as with everything else on the car, are automatically adjusted every which way. The minimum expenditure of effort, in every possible way, is this car's creed.

Of course, it feels big and cumbersome, and chews through gasoline just as assuredly as it swallows the interstate distances. But I liked it. You don't so much actively drive this car as languidly guide it. It's like taking the executive lift while the staff use the stairs.

I didn't like the Lincoln Navigator 4x4 as much. Although shorter than the Town Car - a mere 204.8 inches from bow to stern - it is heavier and higher (6ft 5in). You can see over the top of most cars when you stand alongside. Instead, the Navigator looks down on you. I have never stood next to a car this vast.

It's part of a daft trend, in the US, to big 4x4s, machines that make Range Rovers and Ford Explorers and Jeep Grand Cherokees look like baby Fiats - part of the Great American Driver's assertion of his basic right to drive what the hell he wants, and damn the size and the fuel economy.

It is, to quote Bill Bryson, part of the "f*** you" school of American architecture, a vast, intimidating thing that is supposed to confer strength and power on its user but, of course, does nothing of the sort.

The upcoming European-bound Lincoln LS - although still big and imposing - will be different. For the sake of all European road users, and for future Lincoln sales prospects here, this is just as well.